The subject matter of Jay Williams’ new book “Life Is Not An Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention” is obvious; Williams’ rise from deep depression, addiction and two failed suicide attempts after a 2003 motorcycle crash effectively ended his promising NBA career.
The prompting of said book is a bit peculiar: On a couch. In the middle of the woods. In Utah.
“I was at a conference where you hear all of these different speeches about life and how to balance business and family and all this stuff,” said Williams, a former National Player of the Year who led Duke to the 2001 national title and was picked No. 2 overall by the Chicago Bulls a year later. “I sat out there and, for the first time, really just thought about everything and sat still. That played into the title; it inspired me.”
I caught up with Williams, now an ESPN analyst, to talk everything from the book to social media’s impact on young athletes to the importance of owning past mistakes.
Jason Jordan: First, congrats on the book’s success. What was the motivation behind writing it in the first place?
Jay Williams: Thanks Jay! I had a chance to go to this conference in Utah and it was literally in the middle of nowhere. It was on this six-acre campus and you have to walk from one speaker to another. When we first got there we had a tour guide and we’re walking through the woods and my business partner and I are talking and really not paying attention to what’s around us. Well, the tour guide stops and gives us some background about where we’re at and to my left is this really nice leather chair just randomly in the middle of the woods. I was so dumbfounded by it, but I just kept walking and about 50 yards up ahead there’s a desk and a sofa in the middle of the woods. Now I’m like, “What in the world?” I’m tapping my boy and asking him what’s up then another 50 yards there’s another desk and another sofa in the woods. Now I just have to know so I stop and ask the tour guide why there are random chairs and desks in the woods. He literally turned around and said, “Instead of asking why all these things are there why don’t you just go sit down in one later today and chill out.” I was like, “Oh, OK.” So after I heard the speech I went and did that and it was the first time, Jason, in so long that I was actually still and quiet. I know this will sound cheesy, but I heard the way the wind was brushing up against the leaves and other sounds and it just made me know that I was supposed to be right there in that moment. So if I was supposed to be there then these series of events were supposed to happen because they all led me to this point. That all played into the title and it inspired me.
JJ: Do you feel like you had the opportunity for a different destiny, but your choices led you to the outcome you’re in now?
JW: Well, I’m sure that we all have different destinies that could be the outcome, but, unfortunately each decision leads to a chain reaction. For me, the decision to take my bike out that day led to that chain reaction. I don’t know what other chain reaction would’ve happened if I’d decided not to take my bike out that day; maybe I never get hurt, make a lot of money and maybe I become a bad person. Or maybe it’s a good person; I have no idea but I have to believe in the process and trust in the struggle. You really have to keep an optimistic perspective because if not you will forever be changed by your past. You can’t play the “what if” game. That decision has already been made. It’s important to focus on your present and progression.
JJ: You said that at the time you had your accident you had a sense of entitlement, expand on that?
JW: Well, I didn’t mean that like I was walking around being mean to people; I was still very nice, but I felt, in a way, that coming up I didn’t have control of my life because my parents were always guiding me but I didn’t look at it as guidance. I felt like it was controlling. Even when I was at Duke, I was a little bit rebellious, but for the most part I followed the rules. My life was very much prioritized; school then basketball, school then basketball. Then I get drafted and I felt like there was a power flip with my family. Now my parents are working for me. If you tell me I can’t I say, “I’m a grown man!” I can’t tell you how many times that came out of my mouth when I’m 19, 20, 21 years old and not truly knowing anything at all about being a grown man. That’s more what I meant about the entitlement.
JJ: These days, for all intents and purposes, high school players are celebrities really early with the evolution of social media. What would be your advice to a younger star on how to handle that?
JW: Yeah the ego is formed at a lot younger of an age now than ever before. I have a difficult time praising the top eighth grader in the country or the top freshman in the country and there are all of these different websites and services that promote it. I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like if I had all of that stuff when I was playing. The one thing that always drove me was that I was the one that wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t on some of those top lists until my latter years of high school. When Andrew Wiggins came into college he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he ever made a basket in college. That’s mind-boggling to me. Because that ego starts earlier it makes the parents’ job much more important. They have to keep those kids humbled and they have to monitor them more because when you’re 16 years old with 40,000 followers you are a celebrity on some level. Who am I to blame you if you become reclusive or standoffish. To some degree you’re sonically inept because you don’t know who to trust. So parents have to be present and involved.
JJ: What would you go back and tell your high-school aged self today?
JW: That’s a great question; I know this is crazy, but I wouldn’t tell him a thing. It would be painful to be around him and watch him go through the pain of what was coming, but I also understand what’s on the backend. There’s such an appreciation for what’s in front of me and I don’t know if I would’ve ever had it if I would’ve told myself not to ride a motorcycle. I know what it is to go through the fire and I can handle it better because there’s perspective now.
JJ: The irony is that you’re making more of an impact as a guy who’s not the No. 2 overall NBA draft pick.
JW: I do think about that irony; I’d be going on my 15th year in the league and maybe I’d have a lot of money, but maybe I would’ve been aloof. Now I have a chance to help others with whatever they’re dealing with in their lives. I never want to be one of those people who continues to hold on to things. I used to watch Bulls games and see Derrick Rose and get so damn sad. I wanted that. I had so much animosity and sorrow and frustration and sadness all together and it left me in a really bad state. What I’m doing now is showing people that there is a process to pick yourself up and get yourself out of that.
JJ: Do you fight being that guy filled with animosity, sadness, sorrow and frustration now or are you completely renewed?
JW: It doesn’t even register to me today. Now when I watch a Bulls game I want Derrick Rose to be healthy and start destroying people like he was when he won MVP. Now it’s not so much about what I miss, it’s more about what’s in front of me. Now I channel all of those old feelings into my competitive drive. Now I’m using my brain and wanting to be better on-air or asking myself if I want to try to be the host of a morning show or have my own radio show… Now I’m not using my 40-inch vertical I’m using my intellect and that’s way more fascinating to me than all of the physical attributes.
JJ: What’s the craziest story you’ve never told from your recruitment days in high school?
JW: (Laughs) I like how you slipped that in there Jay, well done! No, but I really didn’t have any crazy stories. I didn’t have anyone offering me bags of money; I wish they did. I don’t demonize those kids either. I would’ve had a whole bunch of FUBU and a lot of two-way pagers! I think one of my darkest moments that I went through was when I was addicted and out about partying in New York City. I met some random people and the next thing you know I pass out and wake up the next morning in the corner of a subway. It’s like, “How the heck did I end up here!” People were passing me by like I wasn’t even there. Writing this book was such a cathartic thing because it forced me to go back and communicate with some people and have them tell me the truth about how I was back then because a lot of this stuff I just didn’t remember.
JJ: The cool thing about the book and your story is that it appears to really resonate with everyone.
JW: Jay, thanks a lot. I hope that my message translates to, not only McDonald’s All American types of players coming up, but to people in general and that is that we all fall down but hopefully you will not let that define your story. What truly defines you is how you pick yourself back up. The one thing that’s been so amazing for me is to own my mistakes and to say, you know what, I wasn’t always a good person, I made a lot of bad choices, I had an addiction issue, I was insecure… It wasn’t until then that I recognized how powerful of a voice I had. It was the major part of my healing process and the hope is that other people recognize that and start healing themselves. There are so many things in life that you have to pick yourself back up from; for me it just happened to be a motorcycle.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY