Five Minutes With: Jay Williams, Inspiring NBA Superstar Who Overcame All Odds
Jay Williams was one of the brightest college basketball stars of a generation, winning the National Championship with Duke in 2001 and being named National Player of the Year in 2002. But his life turned on a dime in 2003. Not long after being drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bulls, the 21 year old suffered a devastating motorcycle accident where he nearly lost his left leg.
While the injury derailed Williams’ playing career, it also served as an opportunity for him to pivot. The blessing in disguise has allowed him to find success as an ESPN analyst, a motivational speaker and now a New York Times’ best-selling author.
He’s also featured in an eight-part YouTube Original documentary series, Best Shot, which is executive produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter. As he finished up his role in the series, we caught up with Williams to talk about what he learned from his life-changing experience.
Goalcast: What was your mindset like right after the injury? Did your life kind of flash before your eyes?
Jay Williams: For any 21 one year old, their life would flash before their eyes when they almost kill themselves. I don’t think I had a mindset after my injury. I was lost.
Everything that I had worked my entire life for and that I had finally achieved was suddenly gone and it was because of my doing to myself, not a random accident or somebody else’s mistake. It was my mistake. It was as if I was hovering in space. I had no idea where I was or how to plant my feet because I had no idea who I was anymore.
GC: How difficult was it going from being so healthy, strong and athletically gifted to being limited physically?
JW: My hand speed is still really fast and my first step is really fast — in some ways I still feel like that player I was when I was younger. I feel like I can relate to everyone in that our bodies naturally change as we get older. For me, it just happened a lot sooner.
When you see something on the court, the 20-year-old body in me would’ve jumped on it. After my injury, I had a 45-year-old body at 21. If I would see something, by the time I jumped on it, they’ve already made two moves. I had to accept my new body and learn how to recalibrate and readjust.
It taught me a valuable lesson that everyone needs to learn. You may not be able to do things the same way as you did a year ago, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be effective.
GC: A lot of people get down following a serious injury. Whether it’s a CrossFitter tweaking a shoulder or a casual soccer player tearing an ACL, it’s hard not to feel like your body has let you down a little bit. What advice do you have for someone who is in that mind state?
JW: Life is all about perspective. It’s easy for people to have a limited perspective when you’re going through something like an injury. There’s a tendency to let your mind drift to the negative. If you are forced to have a moment where you have to stop, try to surround yourself with as much positive trajectory as possible.
Think about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. Put together a strategy, and yes that strategy will change as you’re going through it. Focus your mind on the solution instead of what happened or why you are stuck. Everyone will have that “why me” moment, but the more you’re stuck to it, the more you’ll start giving excuses. The quicker you can strategize how you to get out of it, the faster you can advance towards your goal.
GC: What’s the key to recovering from serious injury from a physical perspective?
JW: You have to play the game within the game, within the game. We are metric driven people and like to see outcome. When I came out of my injury, I wanted to gain full flexibility of my knee. My leg was straight for eight months, so I had to do a series of small goals to meet my end goal of full flexibility. You have to create building blocks to reach your main target.
GC: And what about mentally? Some people wonder if they’ll ever be normal again whereas you recovered and more.
JW: You are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. Every company has a board that meets regularly to discuss with the CEO where the company was, where it is now and where it’s going in the future.
If you’re the CEO, who is on your board?
Your board is the different verticals of your life. Is your physical therapist on your board? Surround yourself with uplifting people. Find those who have gone through a similar recovery to yours and start a text chain. You are the sum of those around you. I continue to surround myself with people who will help better me as a person.
GC: Sometimes success isn’t how we envision it. For you, maybe at the time, you figured you’d get back on the court and thrive again but looking at your life now, you’re successful in a completely different realm. Can you share some advice on kind of rolling with the punches a little bit, taking what life gives you but still finding a way to succeed — even if it isn’t how you originally envisioned?
JW: When I was 13 years old playing in the 17 and up league, my basketball team had a chance to play against a team with all these great players. I was 13 and they were all 17 and I was getting my head smashed in.
We were down 40 points in the second quarter and my coach called a time out. I was defeated and he told me, “you will never quit. This is a learning opportunity — this is a learning opportunity for me and most importantly for you. Are you going to quit because you are getting your head smashed in?”
It forced me to find a way to get back into this game as if we were tied and really fight for it. This is what life is all about. I don’t measure success the same way others might.
Someone said I’m not really a success story because I didn’t come back to the NBA. I said, “why did I need to come back to the NBA to be a success story?” I’m a success story because I found a way through psychologically. I see success stories as going through experiences that help you learn about where you want to be and the person you want to be.
GC: Can you talk about your depression and the darkness? How did you get through it?
JW: The biggest part of my depression wasn’t about me, it was more so about the people around me that I let down. It was the sensation of looking at the people I cared most about in my life, who sacrificed the most for me to get to where I was.
I had to own the feeling that I was the reason we weren’t all able to achieve what I was about to achieve. I watched my mother and father work so hard every day and accomplish so much. I went from being able to provide for my family like never before to being laid down on my back and not having any functionality of my legs.
It was a humbling, scary, depressing, emotional roller coaster of feelings. Who really knows who they are when they’re 21 years old?
It’s an ongoing process for us all, so at such a young age to be known my entire life for what I did and not really reflect on who I was or what I stood for felt like being lost in space.
The most challenging part was the vulnerability with the sense of being lost. You start picking up the pieces by re-diagraming the puzzle. I had to take something negative and turn it into something positive. I was chasing this person who I was before, but that’s not who I am now.
This was my opportunity to have a fresh start and realign myself with some pillars that I want to stand for in my life. The subtle change in my mindset was what made a difference for me.
GC: If you could go back in time and change things — prevent the accident, change the course of your life — would you do that?
JW: No, I wouldn’t change a thing. My life has happened exactly the way it’s supposed to happen. I would not be the person I am today, trying to impact change to the degree that I’m doing it if I hadn’t gotten hurt. I don’t know if I would’ve had the mental capacity to be this aware at 36 if I hadn’t gone through the hell I went through to get to today.
GC: In general, if you could offer three keys to success, what would they be?
JW: Most importantly, you have to understand your why. Your “why” can change throughout different stages of life. You have to know why you want to wake up each day.
Second, your board is important. If you understand your why, you need to surround yourself with people who understand your why. They are your board.
Finally, while you’re on this course and you understand your why and develop your board, always take time out of each and every day to stop and think about why you’re here. Think about things that have happened throughout the course of your day.
It’s easy to get lost in the glitz and glamor or the muck of life. It’s important to take just ten minutes to quietly think about what has happened throughout the your day, the people who have come into your life, or just stop to hear the wind blow the leave. If you don’t take that moment to stop and think, why are you even here?