Jay Williams is so much greater than his infamous motorcycle accident. The Yonkers, NY native had a stellar college basketball career at Duke University, leading the storied Blue Devils to the 2001 NCAA National Championship and winning the NABC Player of the Year Award.
The Chicago Bulls then selected him with the No. 2 of the 2002 NBA Draft Class, behind Yao Ming. But a then 21-year-old Williams made an unfortunate decision which saw that he would never play another NBA game again.
Now 40 years old, the former pro baller has since written a book called Life Is Not an Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention, in which he discusses that moment, grappling with his mental health to the point of contemplating suicide, battling addiction, and eventually deciding to completely remake himself. He’s also become a sought out public speaker, sports analyst and commentator, podcaster, and restaurateur, among many other things.
But Williams is proudest of being a husband and father of two children, with a third on the way. Read in his words what’s he been up to, why he considers himself a true “comeback story,” and why nobody is ever beyond redemption.
Jay Williams: I do a morning show for ESPN, so that requires me to wake up every day at 02:45 a.m., which is a challenging gig. Because my brain is activating while most people are still in their REM sleep and having conversations about sporting events that occurred the night before and making TV and radio interesting. Like having an opinion on things and quickly coming to that opinion. So that requires a lot of my time.
And then, on top of that, I have my podcast [The Limits], which really allows me to find more about the culture and create a cheat sheet for myself with where I was, where I am, where I would like to go, what’s happening within the Black community, and how a lot of things are being portrayed.
But [also finding out] what are they really [like] behind the scenes of our industry. Really allow me to spread my wings as a 40-year-old African American male who is an entrepreneur who loves TV but wants to utilize this platform to put on other people of color while also learning more about how to scale my business and to be the owner of my business. So for me right now, man, I’m at a pretty interesting time.
And I got a third child on the way. So I’m a dad and a husband with all these other things. That sets the priority, the tone of my life, with my wife and my kids. So I’m at this space where I’m very busy, but it’s a very fulfilling type of busyness right now.
CASSIUSLife: You’re making so many different moves in business, and people always talk about life after sports. So when I think of you, I think of Junior Bridgeman. We already know about the likes Kobe Bryant, LeBron, and athletes like them who are business magnates in their own rights.
But I’m not sure people think about Junior Bridgeman as much, even though he’s made a lot of powerful moves, too. And you’ve talked about Black men that don’t “get their flowers,” if you will.
So what are some of the moves you’ve made off-the-court since in your life after basketball?
Jay Williams: I love Junior Bridgeman, role model, man.
So I have a restaurant called The Cabin, based on the Lower East Side of New York, Alphabet City, which is dope. We made it through the pandemic, which is incredible because I didn’t think we were going to make it.
I have a financial RIAA roll up firm called MAI Capital, which is really cool. I’m partners with Peyton and Eli Manning, and the CEO is named John Hahn. I have a production company that will be making an announcement pretty soon with some pretty superstar athletes. I cannot say who they are right now, but I’ve been scheming about this one for a while, which has been good because being in the media position. I’ve been seeing and consulting with a lot of companies over the last 15 years because I’ve been on the ground floor of how athletes think and how they’re thinking about transforming their business.
I’m doing Best Shot with Maverick Carter and LeBron James. And SpringHill really was my first opportunity to see how athletes are scaling their own brands as that relates to media in their own world. Seeing how Mav has been able to create that footprint, obviously with The Shop, with Spring Hill, with Uninterrupted, all these different properties and how they were able to build that out. Selling The Boardroom to ESPN with Rich Kleiman and Kevin Durant, which is an amazing experience.
And sitting down with athletes and guys like Junior Bridgeman and hearing their stories. Sitting down with Serena [Williams], understanding that she has her own venture capital firm [Serena Ventures] and all the entities that she’s investing in before they even get to series A funding. It’s been fascinating, man.
CASSIUSLife: Who would you say was your most impactful guest on The Limits? Not to unintentionally shade anybody, but someone who told you something that wasn’t just about data points or business. But things that made you say, “I think I’m going to carry that nugget with me through life.”
Jay Williams: I’ll give you an example of what I just had in Kelly Rowland.
It might be hard for people to relate to Kelly, because not a lot of people have been childhood stars from the time they were teenagers, [then] that turns into Destiny’s Child and turn to success, right? But where there’s a lot of relatability for me is the balance of being a parent, the balance of being a mother full time while having a full time career.
So my wife Nikki is extremely ambitious, and there’s a lot of her identity within what she does. And she’s never had to rely upon any man to create any foundation for her. She’s done that on her own. But there is an inevitable challenge because she’s also aspired to be a mother. Then when you get to a certain point, which one has to be sacrificed? How do you balance doing a little bit less in your own career while being a mom if you’re not lucky enough to have a team around you?
Now, Kelly has a team around her. Right. But still there are challenges that come into that. So being able to literally pick the brain of Kelly Rowland, who still wrote a book full time, still has her career, things that she’s managing, still looking at businesses that she’s investing in while being a mom, and also hearing the tonality of her conversation about it’s important for my children to see that I am working and that there is still space for me because I value me and that hopefully will help my kids value them.
I have a daughter, and for me, I want my daughter to recognize how important it is to have work ethic. And how yes, Daddy is potentially somebody, but we still go out and we get after it. And Mom, who is still loving you, who is still attentive also has Mom’s identity. That it’s important for her not to lose and to continue to build that for herself.
And that’s not being selfish, but Mommy doing the right thing for Mommy overall helps us as a family. Right. So I think those are challenging conversations to have because we’re all still trying to figure it out.
CASSIUSLife: So what keeps you centered through it all? Husband, father, entrepreneur, etc.?
Jay Williams: I don’t really know another way to come at it other than just being really real and authentic with people. I almost died. I didn’t have any activity below my waist for two years. I didn’t think I was going to have children. I threw away my career, is how other people would label it.
I had a job at ESPNU for six or seven years where I made $35,000 a year. Literally carrying my own camera equipment, learning how to hustle with it, learning how to get my own interviews, learning how to work at my craft, learning how to make my diction better, learning how to slow myself down so I can continue to articulate my thoughts properly and be precise with them, grinding my ass off.
So I think being able to take all those experiences and tie them into the people and hearing their stories of how they grinded their asses off to get to where they are at and then create that cheat sheet for myself and for other people of color to learn how they can do it for themselves. That’s the whole premise of why I’m doing what I’m doing.
You [do] know the last time I was an athlete, I was 21 years old, right? I haven’t been an athlete for 19 years! But oh, yeah, [to so many people] I’m still an athlete. You should hear when I go to different boardrooms or different conversations, even in my own community back in playing from New Jersey. “Well, Jay, you’re an athlete,” [they’ll say].
I’m 40. I’ve got two kids, with a third on the way. I have four different companies that are minority-owned businesses. So I feel like I’m more I’ve spent more time like a working class, blue collar individual than I have as an athlete in my life. Trying to scrape and claw and learn how to get my foot in the door and utilize TV in the capacity that I wanted to utilize basketball. But I’m still the athlete.
And I still get the stereotypes thrown around me [like], “Oh, you’re very articulate…” I’m still getting things like that said to me. So, yes, I concur with your comment about it’s still the athlete or entertainer. And for me, frankly, I debunk that stereotype.
But I also recognize that that stereotype still allows me to be in certain rooms that leaders in my community aren’t allowed to be in. So the word “bridge” is so important to me because I don’t think there’s a lot of people that are serving in that bridge-like capacity to their community.
CASSIUSLife: You did an interview on the Journeys of Faith podcast a little over three years ago. And your main statement was, “I do not know what my journey has in store for me, but I believe, like, the word on my left wrist that there is purpose for me.” So my question to you is, to the best of your ability, as much as you can connect the dots looking forward, what do you think your purpose is?
Jay Williams: Well, number one, I know my purpose has been my family. When I look into my daughter’s eyes, my son’s eyes, I have a daughter in the way I recognize. First and foremost, that is the main part of my purpose, because I never thought I could have a family, and I’ve always yearned to be a father and to be a husband. So I think number one is with my family.
I think number two is with my community. Man, when you’re vulnerable with this type of stuff, it always leaves room for somebody else to tell you the way they would have done it. But it’s hard to walk in other people’s shoes.. I think there was a lot of depression and a lot of anger around the opportunity that I threw away for my family, about not only playing a sport that I would have played anyway at the YMCA to get paid millions of dollars, but to create generational wealth, not just for me, but for the people that I came up with.
Jay Williams: LeBron has created opportunities not only for himself, but for Maverick Carter, for Rich Paul, for Randy [Mims], and with Robot [Company] and what they’ve been able to do for so many people of color. That’s beautiful, man, that doesn’t get applauded the same way other things get pushed up in the hierarchy of what we discuss
So I think a big part of my purpose is to continue to push the narrative that who you surround yourself with will ultimately allow your branches to extend, to achieve your ultimate purpose. I’ve been extremely more cognizant about who I allow myself to be around and who I allow myself to learn from. And I think that’s a major part of my purpose.
I think by becoming part of other people’s boards, that I want to see them become successful is a major part of my purpose, because I want to see other people of color win. [But] I’ll also be realistic. That wasn’t always my mission.
My mission was very selfish in a lot of ways because I felt like for a long time in my life that I missed out on an opportunity for me. I was angry at myself because I didn’t take full advantage because of a mistake I made. So that’s changed over the last several years. But that’s been a process, and that’s been a journey for me, too, to get to that place.
CASSIUSLife: Well, it’s a tough thing to feel like you’re beyond redemption, right? Because at that point, it’s all over, the story’s all told and complete.
Jay Williams: I’ve been afforded an opportunity that my journey isn’t complete. My journey is only complete when I’m dead. So why wouldn’t I want to be real about the process that I’m going through and how my brain is a little bit all over the place? Because I’m talking about what I’ve learned on this short part of my journey.
I’ve been afforded a beautiful moment in my life to realize that I’ve been given an opportunity to live again. Most people can’t even find that true meaning, right?
Like, somebody was like, well, “Your story isn’t like the real comeback story.”
I’m like, “Oh, it’s not? What’s the real comeback story?”
He said, “You didn’t come back and play in the NBA,” and it sounded like a huge deal.
“Oh, you mean like the movie perception of a comeback story, right?,” I’m saying to myself. So many people only look at their lives through the movie stylistic performance of it. And I’m sitting there saying, “I have a comeback. I came back. I came back mentally — I’m here.” We should praise things like that.
So [we’re never] beyond redemption, man, because I was here yesterday, and I was almost gone tomorrow.