Home / Brian's ELC / Everybody Loves A Comeback (7): Jay Williams’ Shattered Dreams
Everybody Loves A Comeback (7): Jay Williams’ Shattered Dreams

Everybody Loves A Comeback (7): Jay Williams’ Shattered Dreams

Jay Williams is the epitome of the phrase “What could have been.” He had everything. He was on top of the world. But, unfortunately for Williams, things came to a crashing halt.

As with the previous Everybody Loves A Comeback’s, let start in Williams’ childhood.

Born in 1981 in Plainfield, New Jersey, Williams showed his first real interest in basketball on his trips to take his grandmother to dialysis. He would shoot quarters into the toll booths, and evidently (given his future success with basketball) got pretty skilled at it.

He would go on to play basketball at St. Joseph High School, and it was here that he would first put his name on the national scene. After a highly impressive career that saw him gain many accolades, such as being a named Mr. Basketball for the state of New Jersey, and a McDonald’s All-American. He shined in the McDonald’s All-American game, scoring 20 points while playing with standout players like Jason Richardson, Carlos Boozer, and top high school recruit Jonathan Bender. He was also a star in the classroom, finishing high school with a 3.6 GPA.

But back to the McDonald’s All-American game. It was quite an impressive scoring outburst, and it surely garnered him even more attention than he previously had, but he never for a second wavered from his commitment to Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils. This commitment would come to pay off.

Williams made a big splash immediately; starting for a Blue Devils team that was a number one seed the year prior, and had reached the NCAA Championship game. Coach K’s decision to start him would not be one that he would ever regret, as he was named Freshman of the Year after averaging 14.5 points per game and 6.5 assists per game. Duke was once again a number one seed, but was knocked out in the Sweet Sixteen after being upset by a Florida team lead by sharpshooter Mike Miller.

Williams did let the early defeat stop him, as he worked hard in the offseason leading up to his sophomore year, spending hours in the gym working on his jump shot and other offensive moves. As you would expect, this hard work paid off for him, as he bumped his field goal percentage up by 6 points (on more attempts than the previous year, and reached the 20 points per game plateau that is often difficult for college players to reach. During this season of high scoring for Williams, he broke long-standing team records, one of which included the record for points in a season that was untouched since 1951.

Jay was not the only one doing well, as Duke was yet again. They were once again a #1 seed heading into March Madness, and they steamrolled their way to the NCAA Title game, winning by an average of 17 points in their 5 victories leading up to the championship game. They would not win this title easily, as they were going up legendary coach Lute Olsen and the University of Arizona. Williams would be matched up with future NBA All-Star Gilbert Arenas. Williams dominated this battle, scoring 16 points, and holding Arenas to  10 points on a horrendous 4-17 shooting.

Williams’ ability to hold the volatile guard in check paid off, and Duke won the National Championship by 10 points, 82-72. This game really put him on the map, if he wasn’t already, and even though he just won the biggest prize that college basketball had to offer, he did not stay complacent, and put even more time in at the gym.

Though he had a bit of a down year compared to the previous year, the 2001-2002 season was still a spectacular one for Williams. He scored 20 points per game again, and led the Dukies to another #1 seed. Although the defending champs would end up falling to an Indiana team that was lead by sophomore Jared Jeffries, Williams saw all of the national recognition roll in. He won the triple crown of Player of the Year awards (John R. Wooden Award, Oscar Robertson Trophy, and the Naismith Player of the Year Award).

With his kind of college accolades, scouts were drooling over Williams’ potential at the next level. Ultimately, though, everyone knew where he would be going right when the lottery was over.

Yao Ming was the obvious number 1 pick, as the Houston Rockets needed someone to build their franchise around, as well as someone that could bring money to them as far as marketing. That left Williams to the Chicago Bulls, who would end up selecting him with the number 2 overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft.

Experts loved this pick and said things like, “With Williams in charge, the Bulls look like a potential {championship} finalist in 2004-05″ and “Like Michael Jordan nearly two decades before him, Jay Williams could prove to be the savior the struggling Chicago Bulls so desperately need to turn around the franchise’s fortunes.”

With up and coming players like Jamal Crawford and Eddy Curry already in place, the Bulls seemed ready to improve on a lackluster effort the previous season and coming off an offseason spent playing for USA in the FIBA World Championship, Williams was prepared to help.

The team would end up winning 9 more games than the previous year, but that still only added up to 30 for the season. Williams did show flashes of his great potential throughout the year, however, as he started 54 games and averaged nearly 10 points and 5 assists in under 25 minutes per game. The high praise for Williams continued, as he was thought to have one of the best seasons of all the rookies in his class.

It was a night in the offseason going into his 2nd year, on June 19, 2003, that changed his life forever. He was riding his motorcycle through the streets of Chicago, when he suddenly lost control of his bike at 60 miles per hour and headed straight towards a utility pole. He couldn’t regain control, and hit the pole, which sent him flying in the air. He landed face down, but his pelvis and left leg were still facing towards the sky.

He was rushed to the hospital, and it was revealed that he fractured his pelvis, severed a main nerve in his leg, and tore 3 ligaments in his left knee. The doctor compared the looks of his knee to a soldier that comes back injured from war. It would be over a month before Williams could even get out of his hospital bed, and it would take even longer than that for him to regain use of his left leg.

To add to this, the Bulls had selected point guard Kirk Hinrich of Kansas in the first round of the draft as a replacement to the injured Williams. The Bulls ended up waiving him, but still helped him out with his medical expenses, and paid for part of the second year of his contract.

It was around this time that Williams began dealing with depression. He saw players that he played with or played against becoming superstars, and he felt that that should have been him. He regretted that fateful day in June every day of his life.

But he perserved, and after two years of intensive physical therapy, the man who was forced to retire at age 21 was running again. He had spent some time doing broadcasting, but he decided that he needed to make another run at the NBA. Luckily for him, the Nets were kind enough to offer him a tryout, but unfortunately, it was clear that the explosiveness that he once had had left him. He was sent down to the D-League to play with the Austin Toros.

This was not all that bad, though, as the head coach of the Toros was legendary Boston Celtics point guard Dennis Johnson. In the D-League, he still looked like a player who hadn’t played in years. He was incredibly inefficient, and wasn’t what he once was, but it was still amazing that he was playing.

Then came another setback. Williams tore his hamstring. While he was in the hospital, his coach, and mentor, Dennis Johnson died of a heart attack. If that wasn’t enough, his dog died, along with his grandmother. What more could happen to someone who had been through so much?

That still wasn’t the end of it. His mother needed a kidney transplant, and Williams was fully ready to give one to her, but eventually someone else did. He still helped her every step of the way, even with everything he was going through, but it took it’s toll.

His depression returned, even worse than before. He turned to drinking, and even contemplated suicide.

Fortunately, he worked through it. He spent his time doing more broadcasting, and landed a job with ESPN as a college basketball analyst. It was there that he met his current girlfriend, SportsNation’s Charissa Thompson (lucky guy, eh?).

Things have turned around completely for Williams, as he has two young children, and a long future as a basketball analyst. While I’m sure that this was not the road that Williams saw himself taking, I think his kind of toughness against adversity is one of the more inspiring stories you’ll ever hear.

As a 21-year old that was on top of the world, Williams had it all taken away. His strength to make something of himself with all the hardships that he faced should inspire all of us to overcome any problems we have in our lives, as with the knowledge of Williams’ story, we know that anything is possible.

Let me hear your thoughts on the seventh edition of “Everybody Loves A Comeback” in the comments section below, and feel free to offer any suggestions for future players that should be featured in the series.

Thanks for reading.

About Brian Rzeppa


  1. Asmir Pekmic

    To be honest, I’ve only heard this guy’s name lol, never really read about him before.

    But damn, this story is great! It’s my favorite one (took Birdman’s place!) from the ELC. I was quite shocked while reading it, he just went through maaaaaany problems and yeah, I bet it was very hard not to go insane when you are dealing with all those problems.

    However, he didn’t give up and now he has a nice life, which he deserves. It sucks that he had that accident, because it was be joy to watch him playing in the NBA.

    This story is really inspiring, I simply love it! Good job writing it!

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