- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

Tomorrow night Jay Williams is scheduled to make his first appearance at Chicago’s United Center since the Bulls guard was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in June.

This would have been Williams’ second NBA season, but now he is just visiting. His teammates have not seen him since the accident, and it will be an emotional occasion. Once hyped to the max after joining the Bulls as the No.2 pick in the 2002 draft, Williams will sit on the bench in street clothes watching his team play the latest big thing, LeBron James, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. When Williams will return to the court is anyone’s guess.

If Bobby Hurley has anything to do with it, it will be later rather than sooner.

“Just take your time and get yourself together” was the essence of Hurley’s message to Williams when the two met recently.

As former All-American point guards from Duke who grew up in New Jersey, won national championships, had their numbers retired and became high NBA draft picks, Hurley and Williams have a lot in common. Too much, it turns out.

Hurley was nearly killed in an automobile accident Dec.12, 1993. He had been the No.7 pick in the NBA Draft, the Sacramento Kings’ point guard of the future. Nineteen games into his rookie season, Hurley was leaving Arco Arena after a home game when his Toyota 4Runner was broadsided by a station wagon. He was not wearing a seatbelt and flew 100 feet into a ditch.

Hurley recovered, but his NBA career was inexorably altered.

Now Williams is facing the same reality.

Known by his given name, “Jason,” until he left Duke after three seasons, Williams bought a red-and-black Yamaha R6 motorcycle six months ago. On June19, while riding through Chicago’s north side to a friend’s house, he lost control and slammed into a pole.

The impact severed a main nerve in Williams’ left leg, fractured his pelvis and tore three of the four ligaments in his left knee. He underwent two operations in Chicago, then returned to Durham, N.C., and the Duke Medical Center for grueling, seven-days-a-week rehabilitation.

Williams was quoted as saying that while lying on the ground, he was afraid he was going to die and that he yelled out, “I threw it all away!” Even though he had ridden dirt bikes for a long time and took safety classes, he acknowledged that riding the motorcycle “was a stupid thing to do.”

News of Williams’ mishap triggered flashbacks. Golden State general manager Garry St. Jean, who was Hurley’s coach in Sacramento, said he thought, “Oh my God, here’s another guy from Duke.” Hurley said he hardly thinks of his own accident but couldn’t help recalling it when he heard about Williams.

“It brought back a lot of feelings I had,” said Hurley, who helped Duke win national championships in 1991 and 1992 and holds the NCAA record for career assists. “The things I went through, the bad memories. It brought everything back to being real for me. I always followed Jay’s career, and I want him to do well. He’s from New Jersey. He went to Duke. He was at a camp I spoke at when I was in college. There are a lot of similarities between us.”

Williams has been flooded with support and sympathy from the NBA, from the Duke and college basketball fraternities, from fans and well-wishers worldwide. But Hurley, having been there, was able to offer something else — advice and guidance.

Hurley bided his time — “I didn’t want to be the first to call him,” he said — then offered to talk to Williams. They met in Durham.

“I wanted to let him know about some of the things I went through,” Hurley said. “The things I could have done better as far as recovering. … I know I was really gung-ho about proving I could get back on the court as quickly as possible.

“There’s nothing wrong with taking the time you need to get yourself together in a lot of different ways. No one really knows what it’s like to go through something as traumatic as that, as life-changing, unless they go through it.”

Hurley almost died. His trachea was crushed, and both lungs collapsed. He suffered broken ribs, a shattered shoulder blade and a partially torn ACL. If he had any good luck, it was that a passerby and teammate Mike Peplowski quickly arrived at the scene, pulled Hurley out of the ditch and called for help. Paramedics promptly responded.

“The report on Bobby was supposed to have been an autopsy report,” said his father, Bob Hurley Sr., a longtime basketball coach at St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City. “That particular hospital had never had someone survive such injuries.

“We just feel badly for Jason and his family,” Hurley Sr. added. “We knew long ago what a family could go through. Worry No.1 was whether he’d make it and then how all these things would affect what he wanted to do. As I look back on it, the auto accident completely put the brakes on what would have been a promising career. He worked hard, but he was never the same.”

Hurley, slightly built to begin with, lost a lot of weight after the accident and did not regain it before he returned. He said the injury to his left shoulder permanently altered his shooting mechanics. Yet he healed faster physically than emotionally, and that is where Hurley said he really needed more time. He sulked about not playing enough and lost his zest for the game simultaneously.

“Mentally, it was a really traumatic event, and it took me a year or two to feel like the Bobby Hurley I was prior to that,” he said. “Basketball, in the scope of things, didn’t feel as important to me.”

By all accounts, Williams does not plan to rush himself. But his future remains in doubt; the accident was so bad that doctors considered amputating his leg. In contrast to Hurley, who was more of the prototypical, ball-distributing point guard, the 6-2, 195-pound Williams was a lightning-quick scorer with point guard skills. In a basketball sense, Williams was hurt worse than Hurley because speed and explosiveness were central to his game.

“And he was strong,” said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose teams had some memorable battles with Jason Williams and the Blue Devils. “That was the other part of him. He was a very strong guard. The other thing I liked about him was that he got his own shot, too. He could create a shot if he needed it.”

Doctors are guardedly optimistic about Jay Williams’ return. As for Williams, nothing is guarded about his optimism. He insists he will play again and play well. He recently told a reporter, “I don’t know if I’ll still be the fastest. But when I do come back, I will be a warrior because nothing will be tougher than what I already went through.”

Williams, who led Duke to the NCAA championship in 2001 and earned several national player of the year awards, was not available for comment despite several interview requests. His business manager, Kevin Bradbury, said Williams’ recovery is ahead of schedule.

“Doctors told him if he’s doing his rehab right, he could be playing next year,” Bradbury said. “But he’s not going to rush it. He took Bobby’s advice. He’s not going to push himself to where he’s not ready.”

Those who know Williams say he can beat some very long odds.

“He’ll do whatever it takes,” Gary Williams said. “You couldn’t shake him. If he made a mistake on the court, he’d come right back at you. He has that inner resolve.”

Said Hurley: “He knows it’s going to be a long haul, but if anybody has the heart and the athleticism and the drive to overcome it, he does.”

No one doubts Jay Williams’ resolve. There also is no disputing just how badly he was hurt and the long-term effect of the injuries.

“The fact that his game was very much reliant on speed and quickness and the burst he had to his game, it’s all going to be a big question,” Bulls general manager John Paxson said. “He’s got a long way to go.”

Williams struggled like most rookies last year, sharing the point guard position with Jamal Crawford, but he finished strong. Starting 54 games, Williams averaged 9.5 points and 4.7 assists. Improvement was a given until the accident.

“We were expecting him to develop into one of the best guards in the league,” Paxson said. “He brought a speed to the game that you need in this league.”

Now everything is uncertain, including his status with the Bulls. Even though Williams violated the standard NBA contract by riding a motorcycle, he is receiving his $3.7million salary this year. He is scheduled to earn slightly more next season, but Paxson said it is too soon for any determination.

“We’ve talked to Jay and [agent] Bill Duffy, and they’ve both been terrific,” Paxson said. “I don’t know where it will go past this year. We’re in a little bit of a bind because we do want to be patient, and we want to give Jay an opportunity. But this is a business where you have to be forward thinking, and you have to be realistic in terms of whether he can get back to being an NBA player again.”

At 7-17, the injury-riddled Bulls could use Williams right now. But there is hope. The team seems to have responded to the fiery Scott Skiles, who replaced Bill Cartwright as coach last month. Paxson’s trade for Antonio Davis and Jerome Williams has helped. And a new backcourt is playing well. Chicago drafted guard Kirk Hinrich from Kansas after Williams’ accident. The Bulls won two straight for the first time this week after Crawford moved to off guard and Hinrich took over at the point. Is this the Bulls’ backcourt of the future?

Not if Jay Williams can help it. But the thought of Bobby Hurley and what might have been won’t go away. After Hurley came back, he was no more than a serviceable backup for the Kings and the Vancouver Grizzlies before being released in 1998. A knee injury during a summer league game ended any hope of a comeback.

It wasn’t easy, but Hurley eventually adapted to the real world. He lives in Colts Neck, N.J., married with three children, a successful owner and breeder of thoroughbred horses. One of them, Songandaprayer, set the pace during the 2001 Kentucky Derby before falling back. In September, he joined the Philadelphia 76ers as a scout.

Hurley, 32, was asked which notion wins the internal battle, that a promising NBA career was cut short or that he is lucky to be alive.

“The one that wins out is lucky to be alive,” he said. “Just because I’ve always looked at people that got a worse deal than I did. Believe me, I think about the fact my career didn’t end up the way I wanted it to end up. I have a lot of baggage with that. But I’ve got a wife and three beautiful children, which wouldn’t have happened if [the accident] didn’t happen. No one needs to feel sorry for me.”

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