Road to recovery remains a long one
DURHAM, N.C. -- Jay Williams remembers the motorcycle crash as though it happened in slow motion, the red-and-black Yamaha R6 getting away from him and heading for a utility pole.
Moments later, his body was contorted on the grassy curb of a Chicago street. He was face down from the waist up, with his mangled pelvis and left leg tilting grotesquely skyward.
"I remember hearing the 'boom,' spinning around. Everybody was looking at me," Williams recalled Monday in an interview with The Associated Press. "The first thing I was yelling wasn't, 'I don't want to die.' It was, 'I threw it all away,' and I didn't want to throw it all away. I wanted to play again. It's weird how the first thing that came to mind was basketball instead of staying alive."
It's possible Williams did throw it all away, though he insists that will not be the case.
But with his Chicago Bulls and the NBA's other 28 teams opening training camps this week, Williams remains a long, long way from playing basketball again.
Thoughts of impending death or paralysis crept into Williams' head as he waited for an ambulance, unable to move his leg. He remembers how strange it seemed that no one -- with the exception of one woman who offered to call 911 -- came out of their homes.
After being hospitalized and bedridden for almost a month, he still cannot walk on his own.
Using crutches, his movements are accompanied by a painful grimace. With a frustrated tone he describes how going to the bathroom has become a seven-step process.
"I apologize for what I've done," Williams said, sitting in coach Mike Krzyzewski's office on the Duke campus, "but I'm young, and everyone, when they're young, makes mistakes. My mistake happens to be more significant than others.
"I promise that when I get back I'll be a warrior -- someone who's been through the worst of the worst."
Indeed, June 19, 2003, will go down as the worst day of Williams' 22 years.
He has been riding motorcycles -- mostly dirt bikes -- since he was 13 or 14, but on this day he left a friend's house to go to dinner and climbed aboard the powerful street bike he just purchased. It was a violation of the standard NBA contract, which prohibits skydiving, boxing, hang-gliding and other high-risk activities. The wipeout was his first.
Bulls general manager John Paxson wouldn't answer directly when asked if the team will pay Williams his $7.7 million salary for the next two seasons.
"We can't ignore how it happened and we do have to talk about it with him," Paxson said, "but the time is not right."
Williams' memory of the accident is vivid.
"I revved it a little bit, I clicked it into second gear, and all of a sudden I was going this way, then I was going that way," Williams said. "I saw the pole, I saw it coming, and I wanted to let go, and for some reason I couldn't. I was thinking, 'Let go,' but my body couldn't react."
The impact severed a main nerve in his leg, fractured his pelvis and tore three of the four main ligaments in his left knee.
"The worst thing that scared me, the one thing I did feel, was this: You ever have a drink spilled on your pants? You kind of feel the goozing sensation of the water dripping down your pants, and you're like 'Aw, that's nasty.'
"Well that's how it felt, but it wasn't something dripping on my leg. It was something dripping inside, and it hurt. They got me to the hospital, and I passed out."
Doctors kept him immobilized for eight weeks. His abdominal muscles weakened, and the first time he tried to sit up, it was too painful and difficult.
Peeling back his waistband, Williams showed a pair of two-inch scars.
"I woke up and had two metal pins coming out of my pelvis that came up, and another two bars that came across -- like a halo for my pelvis," he said. "I could rest my arms on it."
He eventually moved from a wheelchair to a walker, then graduated to the crutches that now are his constant companions along with his parents and his fiancee, Noelle.
Williams has become inspired by a workout companion, an amputee who lost a leg, as his days have morphed into a mishmash of doctor visits and rehab sessions with therapists massaging and bending his knee to produce a crackling of scar tissue. He winces as he describes it.
He also lifts weights and does walking and cycling exercises in a pool, returning home exhausted.
"I've got the 'Grandma Syndrome' -- ready to go to bed at 7 or 7:30," Williams said.
Therapists say he should be running by next summer as he regains the strength that fueled his speed and leaping ability -- two of the physical gifts that made him a two-time All-American, the 2002 college player and the No. 2 overall pick in that year's draft.
The Bulls drafted another point guard, Kirk Hinrich of Kansas, to take over the backup role that Williams occupied in late last season when the team was at its best with Jamal Crawford running the offense.
Williams, targeting the 2004-05 season for his return, has learned a lesson about the fleeting nature of good health.
He faces the possibility of more knee surgery but plans to move back to Chicago by the winter.
"I'm going to come back as hard as I can, and I might surprise a lot of people," Williams said. "If there was even 1 percent of doubt, that would hold me back."
His spirits improving, he recently got around to wondering what happened to the motorcycle. The Web site for Yamaha motorcycles notes that the 2004 version of the R6, which redlines at 15,500 RPMs, has "amazingly good road manners at low and medium speeds."
The police were called, the city was searched, but nobody was able to locate it.
Williams shrugged good-naturedly as he wondered where the bike went. He's curious, but he certainly doesn't want it back.
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press
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