adidas gazelle og white a Life Renewed for Jay Williams
Jay Williams had a dream.
On the night before his first college basketball game before he started for Duke at Madison Square Garden, before he became a national champion and the occupant of Michael Jordan’s old locker in Chicago Williams fell asleep in a hotel room. He saw himself spinning in the air, around and around, over and over, until a red fire hydrant came into view.
Williams forgot about the dream until nearly four years later, until June 2003, on a side street on the North Side of Chicago. He sat atop a red and black Yamaha R6, a sport bike that weighed about 400 pounds and boasted a 600 cubic centimeter engine. He revved the engine once and heard it purr, the gear, he believed, in neutral.
He loved that sound, but he especially loved the way he felt those times when his bike shot forward. “Like how I felt in transition,” Williams said, “like if I caught the ball with a full head of steam and knew I was going to score.” Sometimes, he pushed the bike past 120 miles per hour, faster, faster, faster, until the landscape blurred.
On that afternoon in June, Williams again revved the engine, only this time, the motorcycle surged forward unexpectedly, shot like a bullet from a gun. The front wheel lifted off the ground for an accidental wheelie. Williams was not wearing a helmet, did not have a proper license, was in violation of his contract with the Chicago Bulls. He gripped the handlebars, which only seemed to make the bike go faster, which only made him lose control.
Williams clipped the pole with the left side of his body, which sent him spinning, around and around, over and over. He could not feel his left side, or anything from the waist down. He did not think about death, amputation or depression. He thought only about his career.
He lay there, numb, in shock, terrified but so full of adrenaline that his body blocked out most of the pain. It felt as if someone were pouring water on him. He passed out and woke up in an ambulance, passed out again and woke up in a hospital. Even the doctors looked scared. They needed to contact his parents, needed to operate immediately. They worried about amputation, about death.
Williams remembered little but clung to an image from the scene, his first glance sideways as he spun.
There it was: a red fire hydrant.
He screamed: “You threw it all away! You threw it all away!”
An Inescapable Memory
Imagine the worst day of your life.
Then imagine confronting that day every single day thereafter.
Imagine lying in intensive care, watching on television as your team drafts your replacement. Imagine lying on your back, for months at a time, unsure if you will walk again, your leg held together by 100 staples and various metal contraptions.
Imagine the taunts, the ridicule, the built in comeback “Go buy another motorcycle, Williams.” Imagine walking through an airport “Way to screw your life up, Williams.” Imagine working for ESPN, analyzing games “Should have stuck to motorcycles, Williams.”
Imagine life as the Guy Who Threw It All Away.
“I’ve thought back to that moment a lot because people won’t let me forget,” Williams said. “And this might sound crazy, but it was the worst decision I made and the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He added, “This isn’t a pity story.”
Williams, 31, can say that now, more than nine years removed from the accident that nearly ended his life and irrevocably altered it. It took him that long to come to terms with the entirety of his story high school all American, national player of the year and national champion at Duke, No. draft selection, and all that before the accident, before the hospital, before the injury that ended his professional career after one season and made him a retiree at 21.
In a series of interviews over the last three months, Williams, for the first time, detailed all that he went through.
For years, Williams struggled with depression. He refused to wear shorts or show anyone his left leg. He asked the inevitable: why me? He took too much pain medication, too much OxyContin in particular, for too long. He blew out the candles for his 22nd birthday in bed. He spent years in rehabilitation. He cried himself to sleep. He went to therapy. He moved to New York City and tried to become an agent and drank alcohol frequently.
In those dark years, he would run into people who expected the image Jay Williams once projected to the world: that of the clean cut Duke point guard who posed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in khakis and a letterman’s jacket, flashing a thumbs up, the photograph that best seemed to embody the stereotype of Duke, so prim and pristine. In strangers’ eyes, where he once saw awe or jealousy, he now saw pity, and from people, normal people, who could never understand the gifts he held that vanished on that street.
At his lowest point, Williams did more than consider suicide. “I remember lying in my bed,” he said. “And I’m just tired of being here. I didn’t want to be here anymore. I was so afraid to face people. And I didn’t really know who I was. And I didn’t really want anybody to see me. And I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to talk about it.”
Williams glanced at his mother, Althea Williams, as he recounted the story. He continued: “I mean, to the point where I sat there, and I had this pair of scissors in my hand. I just kept going on my wrist. I wasn’t trying to go sideways. I was going vertical. I didn’t want to be here. At all.”
His mother added: “I came in. I saw it. I slept in the room every day after that.”
“That was the lowest point in my life,” Williams said. “And if I had more time, if the scissors weren’t dull, I think I would have followed through with it. I can’t say for sure. But I was leaning toward that.”
Mementos and Scars
Williams now lives in Durham, near the site of his greatest triumphs, surrounded by magazine covers and mementos from the glory days. A framed letter from Mike Krzyzewski reads, in part, “I loved coaching you.” Pictures show Williams with Duke assistants, Duke teammates; on defense, clad in a Duke jersey. There is little from his lone season with the Bulls.