Jay Williams seemed to have it all. A two-time All-American at Duke University, he led his team to the 2001 national championship and was also the second overall pick in the NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls when he was just 19 years old.
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Getting endorsement deals, Michael Jordan’s old locker, and his first big pay check, Williams was an instant millionaire.
“I don't think I was consumed by the glitz and glamour but I liked it. I've never witnessed any of that before. I've never, never had money in my bank account,” Williams told “Nightline.”
But just weeks after his rookie season ended, Williams felt like he had finally made it. His basketball career was on the right track, he got his mom a house, was living in a great apartment and even had his own billboard. Little did he know, his dream life was about to end.
On June 19, 2003, Williams was racing back from a meeting with his agent on a motorcycle after meeting with his agent. The NBA star didn’t have a license, nor was he wearing a helmet.
“As I look up from the speedometer going 65-70 miles per hour I'm headed towards a utility pole and I'm headed towards my fate,” he recalled. “My body spinning around the air. I remember vividly parallel to the ground and I hit the ground almost like an anchor hitting cement.”
His bike hit a utility pole and soon his life hit rock bottom. The prodigy became a punchline.
Despite his valiant attempt at making a comeback, Williams’ NBA career was over at age 21.
“Any other person would think when you feel that you feel fluids rushing down the lower portion of your body, I don't want to die,” he said. “I started screaming out, ‘I threw it all away, I threw it all away.’ … Because I recognize right there at that point that I just made the stupid-ass decision that will forever define my life.”
The dark and long road to recovery was paved with pain, depression and an addiction to painkillers. Williams says that he twice attempted suicide.
“I think I was really lucky,” he said. “I tried to surround myself with people that held me to higher standards than I held myself. And I think I was I had to force myself to be vulnerable with me. I had to be open to listen to people tell me about my strengths and my weaknesses. And I had to be receptive to that.”
After struggling with recovery and even attempting a comeback, Williams became an author and EPSN Analyst. Williams is now helping young players build strength and character that goes beyond the courts in a new YouTube Originals documentary series “Best Shot” by channeling the lessons of what he learned from the game of basketball and recovering from the darkest phase of his life.
The series, out on July 18, follows Williams to Central High School, an oasis in of America’s most troubled cities -- Newark, New Jersey, a city where unemployment is high and crime rate is even higher. The children are tough because they have to be.
In the first episode, the players and coaches quickly admire Williams for his skills, but it’s the substance of his character that wins their trust. With basketball as the hook, the show’s goal is help adolescent boys become young men worthy of admiration, and to let them know that if they work hard, opportunity awaits them.
NBA great Lebron James serves as one of the show’s executive producers.
“Lebron had different challenges with his mother, with his family. So I think him being able to impart that kind of wisdom and lend another voice to this is important,” said Williams.
Show producers said that the backstory of the school’s head coach, Shawn McCray, was a key influence in selecting Central High School for the series.
“He told the kids his story about the motorcycle thing I thought he was a great asset to the season,” McCray told “Nightline.” “As far as building character and making the team understand brotherhood -- you have to stick together. You have to have each other's back.”
Born and raised in Newark, McCray was a high school hoop legend who played basketball in college. The coach, who is also a community activist, grew up in the projects and identifies with the struggles many players face at home.
“You have to worry about your guys because you don't know when they go home if they getting the proper meal, if they're sleeping at night,” he said. “They live in a crime-ridden area, there's shooting every other day. And you don't know if they're standing out there if they're going to get shot. So it’s like checking up on them constantly.”
He said he sees a lot of himself in the boys he coaches.
“A lot of them grew up with no fathers … I grew up without my dad,” he said. “I see that with these guys … You need a male figure in your life. I never got disciplined by a male until I was 13-years-old, when I started playing basketball.”
With his own son in prison, McCray said he has gotten the call “hundreds of times” over the course of his coaching career.
“Twenty-one deaths and just guys going to jail. Calling me, "’I'm locked up. I'm this. I'm that.’ And I’m like ‘Why did you do it?’” he said.
Known to his players as “O.G” or “Old Guy” McCray jokes, players Jihad Evans and Shaquan Clark describe him as part bear, part father, uncle, teacher and wise man who is reliably consistent, relentlessly supportive and unapologetically demanding.
“If you sigh, he'll get you happy because he crack jokes a lot,” Clark told “Nightline.”
McCray said he is often more worried about Clark’s whereabouts that his jump shot.
“Shaquan was probably the only kid that I worried about because of where he was going and where he was living. Sometimes you get caught up in your surroundings and I used to tell him, ‘Just go home. Don't hang out where you live,’” McCray said.
Clark, who be a senior this fall, missed two full seasons after a joy ride with his friends in a stolen car ended in an accident. Clark maintains he didn’t know about the robbery and that it was a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Arrested for robbery, the charges were eventually dropped and “Quan–Quan,” as he is commonly called by his teammates, found guidance from Williams on the show.
“It was helpful because he been through the same thing I've been through. When I text him, he tell me everything, "Don't, never hold your head down. Better day's going to- going to come so just keep your head up,” Clark said.
Evans, who is also known as “Haddie,” has struggled in school.
“It was hard because I couldn't play with my brothers. I actually sat down and thought about it, like I need to do better in school. Not just because of basketball, just period if I want to succeed in my life,” he told “Nightline.”
With the support of his mother and coaches, Evans improved in school but the big turning point came when he visited Duke University, hoop heaven and alma mater of Jay Williams. The trip inspired him to dream big and work even harder.
But hardship and heartache weren’t far away. While visiting the university, Evans’ mother called to inform him that his father had died.
“He had a heart attack, and that's still messing with me a lot,” said Evans. But I know that I got back, people on the basketball team that's there for me. Some days I have bad days. Some days I don't worry about it. But at the end of the day, it's still inside me.”
“That was real tough, because he had a relationship with his father and just to see him ... He's an emotional kid,” said McCray.
But Williams knows darkness well, and the most enduring lesson to the Central High team was that darkness never lasts for those who never give up.
“Everybody has a ripple. Everybody has something that goes wrong in your life. But how do you build from that and how do you use that to empower you to say yes this has happened to me. But I plan on being better from it,” said Williams.
It’s a lesson that Williams believes goes beyond the sport.
“This is about the pursuit of character and the pursuit of helping these kids building a foundation to they can become something in life,” he said.