Determination holds court

The Baltimore Sun

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The ball bounced off the back rim, and in one fluid motion, Jay Williams went up to grab the rebound, quickly started his team on a fast break and after driving straight to the basket at the other end of the practice floor, made a wraparound pass to rookie Matt Walsh for a layup.

Four years ago, that kind of play might have seemed routine for Williams, then a rookie guard with the Chicago Bulls who had been the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft after coming out of Duke after his junior season. Someday in the near future, Williams hopes that kind of play will be the norm again.

Just not yet.

Nothing Williams does these days in his comeback with the New Jersey Nets can be considered ordinary.

Nearly 3 1/2 years after slamming his motorcycle into a pole going 70 mph and suffering a fractured pelvis, torn ligaments in both knees and substantial nerve damage in his left leg, Williams is trying to resume a career that seemed sadly - and foolishly - to have ended on that Chicago street on June 19, 2003.

It's something that many, including Williams, thought would never happen.

"You always doubt it," Williams said last week after a practice. "I'm human, just like everybody else. I'm emotional, I get stressed out. At times you don't think you're going to make it. At times you think you're great. Every day when I didn't think I would make it, it wouldn't stop me from working and just keep fighting for it."

Are there still lingering doubts? "I'm not doubting it now," he said. "I'm out there playing, and I think I can play with these guys. The only thing I'm trying to get back is just my level of confidence. I'm still trying to find out who I am as a basketball player, who I am going to be. There's a level of patience, too. It's not going to happen overnight."

The process has been a slow, tedious one for Williams. It took him more than three months to leave the hospital, more than five to wash himself in the shower, more than six to get out of bed without help. It took more than a year for the nerve damage in his left leg to heal and for the limp to disappear, more than two years for him to be able to play basketball again.

Williams has lost some of the cockiness he displayed at Duke, where he went by Jason and helped the Blue Devils win a national championship in 2001. A frustrating rookie season with the Bulls was more than enough to bring Williams a sense of reality, but the biggest dose came when his motorcycle accelerated from a dead stop at a traffic light into a near-deadly wheelie into the light pole.

Once Williams knew he was going to live, he had to figure out a way to do it without basketball.

"Life is precious," said Williams, who wears a metal plate in his abdomen. "You spend so much time worrying about little, minute things, and miss some of the important stuff. Don't get me wrong, basketball is a blessing. But every day when I get out of bed by myself, every day I'm able to wash myself in the shower. It's the little things. Stuff like that puts it in perspective."

Williams, now 25, chose the Nets as the team to attempt his comeback with for different reasons. He grew up in nearby Plainfield, and has the support of his family and friends. He knows the opportunity to play will be limited behind perennial All-Star Jason Kidd and promising rookie Marcus Williams, but Jay Williams simply wants a chance to contribute.

"Right now I understand where I'm at. Marcus is playing extremely well, and Jason is playing well, so I can come in and give them a break whenever I can and be that energetic guy for right now," Williams said. "That's not what I always want to be, but it's something I can be right now."

The Nets likely will have a roster spot once they trade or buy out the contract of Jeff McInnis, who has been asked not to return to the team. In terms of personality and work ethic, Jay Williams seems as if he already has a spot locked up. It's just a matter of whether his skills are still there.

After three preseason games, that's up for debate. In losses to the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors, Williams played a total of 39 minutes, shooting 2-for-8 from the field (including 1-for-4 on threes) with two assists and 10 turnovers.

"I've been playing with NBA guys, but this is the first time I've been really playing against this kind of competition day in and day out," said Williams, who averaged 9.5 points and 4.7 assists as a rookie in Chicago. "It's a level of adjustment for me, too. It's a whole different style of game I'm getting used to. I can compete with these guys and do well."

Williams started thinking about a comeback last summer, when he was playing in high-level pickup games at a private gym in Chicago.

"I wasn't even close to being as fast as I am now," said Williams, who has lost much of his once-stunning leaping ability. "I knew I had to keep getting better. It makes a difference when you're crossing over Joe Schmo in Chicago and then you can cross over J Kidd and you're at the rack and you're like, 'Did I really do that?'"

Kidd is impressed with the effort Williams has made to resurrect his career.

"It shows his heart and determination to get back to that level, and he's close," Kidd said. "He's playing hard, he's talking, and the hard work he's put in is unbelievable. He's a veteran, but at the same time, he's like a rookie because he's been out for so long."

For now, Nets coach Lawrence Frank is not closing any doors for Williams.

"The fact that he's on the court, it's unbelievable," Frank said. "It talks about his will and determination and passion to play the game of basketball. I think everyone on the team has a great level of respect for what he's been able to overcome. I think he's definitely made progress. He's a story definitely worth rooting for."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad