Rise From The Wreckage
In 2003, Jay Williams had a bright future ahead of him on the hardwood. As the second overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls, the prolific point guard aimed to follow up his record-breaking college career at Duke University with a long tenure in the pros. After a successful rookie campaign, he looked to be on his way—until he flew off his motorcycle one summer night. For National Men’s Health Week 2014, Williams—now a college basketball analyst for ESPN—shares the details behind his career-ending crash, and how it ultimately gave him a second chance at life.
I was 21 and on my bike, just cruising along in Chicago. I revved it three times while it was in neutral, and on the third rev the bike slipped into second gear. The next thing you know, I go from 35 miles per hour to 65, and I pop a wheelie. I saw I was going toward this utility pole. I tried to turn my bike around it, but I ended up clipping the whole left side of my body. I remember spinning in the air, and then lying on the ground screaming at myself, “You threw it all away!”
I remember it felt like water was running down my body. I was transported in an ambulance, and I know I called my mom and told her to come to Chicago because I had been in a really bad accident. I remember waking up later with a tube down my throat and three metal pins down my leg. I’d totally dislocated my knee—tore every ligament and tendon. I’d split my pubic symphysis, which is what happens to women during birth. Split it 5 or 6 inches. I also tore an artery in my left leg, and my doctors told me I’d almost bled to death.
I had a series of operations and surgeries. There were three splints in my leg to relieve the pressure. I had a graft where they took a vein from another part of my body and used it as an artery in my left leg. I was very close to having my whole leg amputated. It was a life-altering event. It took years of rehab. Years. But the hardest part was that every day I had to face that I did that to myself. For a long stint, that was unbearable. I’d had my dream, and I’d lost it.
So there are two different stories here. One: How do you get past something like this mentally? And two: How do you get past those humps physically?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that a lot of my identity was formed around basketball, and after the accident I had a lot of animosity toward myself because I’d lost the one thing I wanted to do for my entire life. I tried broadcasting for about a year after my accident. I was 23 then, and it was too difficult. There were too many players around that I had played against, and that was too painful. I was still focusing on making a comeback, because I really wanted to play. And I still can play, but not day in and day out like I’d have to in the NBA. I was lucky that 5 years later I was given a second chance at broadcasting, and then I was ready for it. I was ready to chase that new dream.
Even now, I still can’t pick my foot up all the way. I still have to ice down my knee, and I’m in a lot of pain after pickup games. I can’t cut certain ways. I have to hike my leg up more when I walk. Physically I’ll never be able to do everything I could. But the mental hurdle of not caring what other people think? That took a lot longer to recover from. Being cool with owning the fact that I have crazy scars on my leg from more than 100 staples—and that I did that to myself—is the biggest hurdle I’ve ever had to get over in my life.
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Five years before my accident in 2003, you saw Kobe and Shaq pull up to games on bikes. Michael Jordan owned a racing team. So it wasn’t that weird that I was on a motorcycle, even though it was against team rules. You’ve got to live your life, you know? But yeah, I made a dumb choice. I was 21, and I’d accomplished this dream of mine, and I felt like I had to live my life the way I wanted to live it. Does it stink that that choice led to my accident? Yes. But I didn’t die. I was able to reinvent myself and have this new career and this new profound outlook on life. And I wouldn’t have had that, or a sense of appreciation for my life or for my body, if that accident hadn’t happened.
So if I’m playing Monday Morning QB, now that I’m 32 and looking back, do I wish I could do it all over again? Actually, no. I love what I’m doing now, and the direction my life is going in. I love journalism and broadcasting. So I’m happy about my life and I wouldn’t change a thing. But are there times when I get frustrated? Yes. Especially when I watch playoff games. I want to be out there competing.
In my upcoming book, Life Is Not an Accident, I talk about the power to reinvent yourself. It’s one of the most underrated things. For me, it was reinventing myself after basketball, but this is relatable for everyone. You’re on Wall Street and you lose your job. Or you’re a mother going through a divorce. How do you pick up the pieces and use the people around you that love you to help you find that new person in yourself? I have some down days, but there’s this new zest for life. I almost passed away at 21. I could have been an amputee. Life changes like that. Enjoy the moment. Keep fighting. That’s part of my DNA now.
-As told to Markham Heid
For more National Men's Health Week information, click here for the 10 Facts You Must Know About Accidents.