'It's been a long road,' Bulls star says
CHICAGO -- Two years ago, a motorcycle crash mangled Jay Williams' left leg so badly he didn't know if he'd ever be able to walk again, much less play basketball.
He's not only back on the court these days, but running, cutting and jumping, determined to prove he's ready to return to the NBA. What once was a dream to keep him going through long hours of rehab is now his reality, and Williams is certain he'll be playing in the NBA this fall.
"I'll be somewhere by October," he said after a 45-minute workout Thursday. "It's been a long journey, it's been a long road. I'm glad I can finally see a light at the end of it."
Williams had everything going for him two summers ago. After being named the 2002 college player of the year following his junior season at Duke, the Chicago Bulls had made the guard the No. 2 pick in the draft. Though he struggled his rookie year, plagued by turnovers and poor shooting, he also showed flashes of the brilliance that had been expected.
In a November game against the New Jersey Nets, Williams dropped a triple-double on the defending Eastern Conference champs with 26 points, 13 assists and 14 rebounds.
But everything changed June 19, 2003.
Though riding a motorcycle violates the standard NBA contract, Williams had gotten a new Yamaha sportbike -- red and black, naturally. On his way to dinner that night, he lost control of the powerful bike and smashed into a utility pole. He was thrown onto a grassy curb, but the impact severed a main nerve in his left leg, fractured his pelvis and tore three of the four main ligaments in his left knee.
He was immobilized for eight weeks, first at a Chicago hospital, then at Duke University Medical Center. He was still on crutches six months after the accident, has had about a half-dozen surgeries and didn't start running full-speed until earlier this year.
"Everyone makes mistakes and that happened to me," Williams said. "But you know what? I wouldn't change it for the world. People can call me an idiot all they want, but I'm glad it happened to me because it's humbled me as a person and it's really made me pay attention to the people who are important to me in my life."
It also gave him a new appreciation for basketball.
Though Williams said from the start he wanted to play again, he admits he wasn't really sure if he could until April. That's when he came back to Chicago and started working with Tim Grover, Michael Jordan's longtime personal trainer.
"I was so nervous because Tim told me on the phone, 'Listen, if I don't think you can do it, I won't take your money. We'll go our separate ways. And I'll tell you how I really feel. But if you can, we're going to push you every day,"' Williams recalled. "I got here, I was so nervous, and I worked out and Tim was like, 'October, we'll have you ready."'
"Honestly, I was like I don't know if this dude's on something or what," Williams said, laughing. "Because I still, for myself, I wasn't very confident. I was asking him, 'What else do you think I should do? Do you think I should go back to school?' When he said that, after the first couple of days, I started to see that improvement."
Grover said the progress Williams has made is like "night and day." Williams was still limping when he arrived, and couldn't even touch the net. Now Williams estimates he's about 90 percent healthy, and the only visible signs of his injury are an ankle brace and a black wrap over his calf.
He spends 10-12 hours a day with Grover and his staff, doing physical therapy, Pilates and skill drills. The other day, he jumped over a 40-inch barrier. He also plays pickup games against what Grover called "high-level competition," and those are expected to get even more intense once the free agent signing period begins.
NBA players flock to Grover's gym in the summer, but no one's taking chances until they're under contract.
"He will be in a training camp this season coming up, in October. And he will be on somebody's roster," Grover said. "There's no doubt in my mind about that. ... We would not spend this much time and effort, and waste his time and our time if we didn't think it was possible."
Williams acknowledges he might never regain the explosiveness and quickness that set him apart. But he's put on seven pounds -- he now weighs 203 -- and is broader in the shoulders.
The time off also made him a smarter player, with most of his free time devoted to watching basketball.
"I know the game so much better right now that it just makes it easier for me when I play on the court," he said. "Be a point guard, lead my team, get my assists and hit open shots when I can, that's the kind of player I'm going to be."
While no team has offered him a contract yet, agent Kevin Bradbury said there are six to eight teams that have been checking on his progress. He'll do official workouts as soon as he clears the last few hurdles in his rehab program.
Williams' preference is to rejoin the Bulls, who waived him in February 2004 after buying out the last two years of his contract. But Chicago already has Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon, and general manager John Paxson wants to bring Chris Duhon back.
Besides, where Williams ends up is only a minor detail in the journey.
"Every day of my life for the past two years, people look at me with such sympathy. They feel really bad for me," Williams said. "I look at them and I'm like, 'You don't have to feel bad for me.' First of all, I'm still living, I'm here. There was a big chance I could have lost my life.
"This is gravy on the side," he said. "I'm getting the chance to play basketball, play the game I love. I look forward to showing everybody what I can do."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press