<
>

Shooting with Jay

3/3/2004

Rehab in the morning. Shooting at night. Pain -- searing, numbing, scar tissue-tearing pain -- in between.

For former Chicago Bulls and Duke University basketball star Jay Williams, the road back from a devastating motorcycle accident has been anything but smooth. And as he slogs through the draining process of rebuilding his shattered left leg, he'll take all the lighthearted distractions he can get.

Especially if it involves blasting digital space aliens.

"Video games are great for me," Williams says, a fan of Microsoft's "Halo." "It's kind of like a stress reducer. Especially lately. You get frustrated with how rehab is not moving as fast as you want, how you see just a little improvement day after day. Sometimes, playing Xbox gives you a mental break from that."

Control pads as therapeutic tools? Whatever helps. An avid gamer who grew up on Metal Gear and Sonic the Hedgehog, Williams is the spokesperson for the second annual Xbox Live Hoops Madness Tournament, a contest pitting game players at 32 colleges and universities against each other in Sega Sports' "ESPN College Hoops."

Four semifinalists will win a trip to San Antonio, site of this year's Final Four, to compete for cash, scholarships and two tickets to the national title game.

They'll also get to meet Williams, who will be on hand to challenge the winner -- and take a much-needed break from his grueling, six-days-a-week rehab program in Durham, North Carolina.

"It's funny," Williams says. "On the Bulls, [playing video games] is all we used to do. Everybody competed all the time. My thumbs are very quick -- especially know, since Xbox has sent me a couple of games to work on. I don't like to lose. I'm going to compete, talk trash, anything it takes to win."

Williams is no stranger to winning, on both the real and virtual courts. An All-American point guard and national player of the year at Duke, he helped lead the Blue Devils to the NCAA title in 2001 and was taken by Chicago with the second overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft.

Though Williams also appeared on the cover of Sega' "NCAA College Basketball 2K3," that didn't make him the digital alpha dog in the Bulls' game-obsessed locker room.

"In Chicago, every time we lost a game, [playing games] was how we kept our morale up," Williams recalls. "The video game king was Trenton Hassell. When he got traded to Minnesota, it became a battle. There was no dominant player. Everyone talked trash to everyone. Those were great times."

The good times came to a sudden halt last June, when Williams lost control of his just-purchased Yamaha motorcycle and crashed into a utility pole. The collision severed a main nerve in his left leg, fractured his pelvis and tore three of the four main ligaments in his left knee.

After averaging 9.5 points per game and earning second-team All-Rookie honors -- even posting a triple-double against New Jersey -- Williams was splayed out on the grassy curb of a Chicago street, wondering if his career was over.

"The first thing I was yelling wasn't 'I don't want to die,'" Williams later told the Associated Press. "It was 'I threw it all away.'"

The worst was yet to come. Williams was hospitalized and bedridden for nearly a month. Sitting up in bed became a chore; going to the bathroom a seven-step process.

Over time, Williams progressed from a wheelchair to a walker to crutches. Meanwhile, the Bulls drafted another highly-regarded point guard, Kansas' Kirk Hinrich, and prepared to move on.

"So many people counted me out when my accident occurred and said I couldn't do it," Williams says. "But the funny thing was the doctors never said I couldn't play again. They said it was up to me."

Determined to return to the NBA, Williams went to work -- lifting weights, walking and cycling in a pool, having his knee bent and massaged by therapists, the better to restore mobility and break up scar tissue.

The days became a blur, the next tougher than the last. Most nights, Williams recalls, he fell asleep by 7:30, physically and emotionally spent.

"I kind of feel like I'm living Groundhog Day," he says. "But in the end, a year or two years down the road, I'm going to be thankful I've done all this."

Five and a half months after his most recent surgery, Williams is seeing improvement. The feeling in his left leg has returned. In two weeks, he plans to start running.

According to Williams, doctors say his knee has regained enough stability that he might not need a brace to play basketball.

"Today was the first day I took a jump shot where I jumped off the ground a pretty legitimate distance," Williams says. "Before, my vertical was like an inch. My thigh looked like a toothpick. Now, it's starting to look like my regular thigh ... the way I look now, where am I going to be in six, seven months?"

Williams still faces an uphill climb. The Bulls recently bought out the remainder of his contract; as a relatively short (6-foot-2) player who relied on speed and quickness, Williams knows NBA general managers will see him as damaged goods until he can prove otherwise.

"The toughest thing I have to do is come every day with the attitude that I want to defeat this," he says. "It's not stressing my knee, getting it cracked upon, lifting weights, running. It's being mentally focused every day, giving it my all.

"Some days you don't want to come in and work hard. It's like a job. And I'm not dealing just with my injury. I'm still dealing with everyday life."

And that, Williams says, is where video games come in. EA Sports' Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 is a favorite diversion, as is Sega's college hoops game, which features an unlockable digital version of Duke's 2001 title team.

"Games these days are so advanced," Williams says. "It's not like when I was a little kid and everybody could do the same dunks and the same lay-ups. I remember last year, the game [version of me] was doing the same kind of hand gestures I do."

Like the rest of us, Williams isn't just playing for fun -- he's playing for escape. One digital jump shot and mowed down space alien at a time.

"It's kind of like being on the basketball court," he says. "When you step on the court, you let go of everything else."

Patrick Hruby is a sportswriter with the Washington Times and a contributor to ESPN.com's Page 2.