BY NEIL HAYES
For the Sun-Times
Jay Williams chuckles when he is told he has been a frequent topic of conversation in Chicago since news broke that Derrick Rose needed his third knee surgery.
The former Bulls first-round draft pick doesn’t understand a connection others consider obvious.
‘‘My accident was a mistake,’’ Williams said. ‘‘I did it to myself, while poor Derrick has had these things occur on the floor while playing his heart out for his team. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, I guess.
‘‘I can’t believe all the negative reactions on Twitter. The kid has given the city everything. He can’t control what happens with his knees.’’
Williams is in a good place. He is in such a good place that it’s difficult to imagine the voice on the phone belongs to the man who ended his basketball career — and nearly his life — in a motorcycle accident on the corner of Fletcher and Honore in 2003.
This voice is wise. It offers perspective in high-definition.
Williams’ leg has been rebuilt. He has overcome depression, addiction to pain-killers and suicidal thoughts. He is an ESPN college basketball analyst and also has consulting and marketing firms. His book, titled Life Is Not an Accident: Re-Inventing Yourself Through Adversity, soon will be published by HarperCollins. He recently taped a show with Oprah.
The kid ridiculed for giving it all away has grown into a man with much more to give.
‘‘The accident is the best thing that ever happened to me,’’ Williams said. ‘‘It might not have been the best thing that ever happened to the Bulls or their fans, but life happens the way it should happen. I apologize for the mistake I made years ago, and I’m a better man for it.’’
Perhaps most impressive about Williams rising above the event that defined him for so long is the fact that people won’t let him forget it.
Williams reported this week that the Bulls would be interested in hiring Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg if current coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t return next season. It makes sense because Hoiberg is thought of highly by the same Bulls management team that has been at odds with Thibodeau.
Williams not only played with Hoiberg when they were both with the Bulls, but he considers him as much of a mentor as then-Bulls coach Bill Cartwright.
That didn’t stop people from roasting Williams on social-media networks. Some of the comments — ‘‘He hit his head too hard in his motorcycle accident” and ‘‘Go ride a motorcycle and kill yourself’’ — serve as constant reminders of the decision he made when he was 21.
Now he sees Rose being similarly abused for something he can’t control.
‘‘For so long I was depressed because I felt like I let so many people, as well as myself, down,’’ Williams said. ‘‘People love to throw that at you because they think it might hurt you. They still love to remind me of what was, and I have to remind myself of what is and be OK with that.
‘‘That was a long process.’’
Williams can identify with some of what Rose is going through. He almost lost his leg. He spent five weeks in intensive care. He rehabbed every day for more than two years. He has undergone 13 surgeries to Rose’s three.
‘‘People see the injury and the end product when you come back,’’ he said. ‘‘They don’t see the rehab. They don’t understand.
‘‘Ask anybody who has been through intense physical therapy. It’s one of the most tedious things you can go through in life. You’re used to your body reacting the same way every day, but it doesn’t react that way anymore.
‘‘The pain associated with getting the body back in condition is grueling. Nobody was there to applaud me when I took a step for the first time or learned to run for the first time, but they bash you when you get back on the court.
‘‘For Derrick, it has to be a grueling, tiring marathon. Not only is he battling an injury, but he is battling his own mind because, mentally, he has to live up to being the MVP and get back to the way he was. Nobody is going to let him forget who he was. He needs to get to the point where he can say, ‘This is who I am now.’ ’’
In short, Rose needs to get to the place where Williams’ long and painful journey led him.
‘‘I look at my whole life as an opportunity,’’ Williams said. ‘‘People think of life as obligation: an obligation to go to work, to go to a meeting, to do things with their family.
‘‘I don’t look at it like that. I was blessed with a second chance, and everything is an opportunity.’’
Contact Neil Hayes at
email@example.com or at neilhayeswriter.com.