High school basketball coaches, especially those in the toughest neighborhoods, do way more than draw up plays. In fact, that might be the least important thing they do.
As Jay Williams learned this past winter, they help raise teenagers. In some cases, you can remove the word “help” from that description.
Williams, the Plainfield, New Jersey native and former Duke point guard who has become one of ESPN’s best hardwood analysts, experienced it firsthand. He served as an assistant coach with Newark Central for an eight-part documentary produced by LeBron James. “Best Shot” premieres July 18 on the NBA YouTube Channel.
“I can’t tell you how many times I cried throughout this journey,” Williams said in a recent phone interview. “I can’t tell you how many times my mouth has been left wide open with some of the things I’ve seen or heard. It was a life-moving experience.”
Juggling his broadcasting duties with coaching, Williams spent three days per week with Newark Central under head coach Shawn McCray. The Blue Devils posted a 23-9 record and won a sectional title before falling in the NJSIAA Group II championship game.
That was the backdrop.
The guts of the story is how McCray and Williams guide young men through the minefield of drugs, gangs and broken homes.
Borrowing a line from director Michael Warren, Williams described the result as “The Wire meets Friday Night Lights.”
In a way, this was new territory for the former St. Joseph-Metuchen star, who grew up in a great family and attended first-rate schools. But he’s also faced down some incredibly daunting hurdles — the motorcycle accident that curtailed his NBA career, his ensuing addiction to painkillers and battles with depression.
“I would never be able to be the person I am today unless I had people who held me to a higher standard than I held myself,” Williams said. “I’ve gone through two attempts at suicide. My career went a different way because of a decision I made. Throughout this journey with this team, we have surrounded these kids with higher standards. We hold them to those standards.”
He added, “You’re going to see a couple of kids who are faced with things that are similar to my accident. If I dealt with my accident at 21 years old, imagine how some of these kids are dealing with these types of things at 15, 16 years old. That becomes part of your DNA, the stitching of who you are.”
It’s a heavy lift for a coach, and we haven’t even gotten into academics, playing time, skill development, scouting or game tactics.
One of Williams’ most endearing qualities as an analyst is his willingness to admit error. That kind of introspection will make him a very good coach someday when he finally decides to trade the microphone for a clipboard.
“I don’t do everything right,” he said. “I make my own mistakes and I own those mistakes and try to get better. That’s what coaching is — recognizing that it’s not just about the wins.”
It’s about mentoring.
“You have to know what their goals are, what their dreams are,” Williams said. “That’s why I get inspired to coach. The bond we had by the end of the year, it was special. That’s what this is about.”