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Former Bull Jay Williams reinvents himself as ESPN analyst

The second pick in the 2002 draft is part of the network’s reworked “NBA Countdown” show. And he’s as frustrated with his old team as fans are.

Jay Williams averaged 9.5 points and 4.7 assists in 75 games in 2002-03, his only season with the Bulls.
Jay Williams averaged 9.5 points and 4.7 assists in 75 games in 2002-03, his only season with the Bulls.
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It wasn’t a part of Jay Williams’ story that I wanted to dwell on. It seemed too sensitive to touch and too deep to enter. I was interested in how he became a basketball analyst at ESPN and what he thought of the Bulls, who made him the second pick in the 2002 draft.

But why Williams entered broadcasting in the first place was unavoidable, and he dismissed any sensitivity and depth with a matter-of-fact answer.

“I got into a motorcycle accident,” he said. “It’s true.”

Sad, too. On June 19, 2003, Williams crashed while riding his motorcycle on the North Side. He was coming off a disappointing rookie season in which he complained about playing time, was taken to task by the media and lost more games (52) than he did in three seasons at Duke (13).

“I remember seeing Michael Jordan’s locker, and I just took it,” Williams said. “And everyone’s like, I can’t believe you would do that. And I’m like, well, we haven’t won since he’s been here. Maybe somebody should do it. Why not me? And I remember I got killed for it.

“But I’ve always been overcompetitive, so I guess having people that saw me, that look of hope and excitement turn to a look of sorrow and pity and people reminding me how I threw it all away kind of forced me to be very introspective about who I was as a person, about what I wanted to achieve.”

Williams’ injuries from the accident were too severe for him to achieve anything on a basketball court again. But behind a camera, Williams has excelled. Last fall, he signed a multiyear contract extension with ESPN/ABC and became part of the network’s reinvented “NBA Countdown” show. Maria Taylor hosts, with Jalen Rose joining Williams as regular analysts. Richard Jefferson and Paul Pierce also contribute.

The Bulls make their lone appearance of the season on ESPN at 6 p.m. Friday against the 76ers, but “Countdown” won’t precede it because of the early tipoff. It will air next at 2 p.m. Saturday on Ch. 7 before the Clippers-Pelicans game.

Williams began his post-playing days working for a sports agency, but he said the work was “a little bit too in the muck” for his taste. He then turned to TV, working for local channels in New Jersey and New York. He became a full-time game and studio analyst at ESPN in 2008.

“I found TV randomly,” he said. “I didn’t know if I really liked it at first, but just like my first game with the Bulls, I got thrown to the wolves and I got mesmerized by how interactive it was. This caricature people form on the air sometimes is a departure from who they really are. This is who I am.”

He’s a ball of energy, which he showed for five years as part of ESPN’s basketball version of “College GameDay.” But now his focus is the NBA, though he said he never lost touch with the league. He calls himself a lifelong Bulls fan after the way chairman Jerry Reinsdorf took care of him following his accident, and he stays in contact with the organization.

Williams shares in Bulls fans’ frustrations with the 15-27 team. He’s exasperated with Lauri Markkanen, who Williams says must take some of the scoring burden off Zach LaVine, and he empathizes with coach Jim Boylen.

“Zach is trying his hardest, but Zach is also innately somewhat quiet,” said Williams, whose former agent, Bill Duffy, represents LaVine. “I wonder who is the leader on the court, who is the guy that can bring all these guys together. And sometimes the leader needs to be the best player because that’s who everybody listens to.

“So you have a lot of young players that are vying for that position. You have a head coach that it seems sometimes guys don’t listen to him. I know there’s been some friction between Zach and Jim, and it’s really hard for a new coach who doesn’t have that clout to come in and really dig his heels in the ground and have guys listen to him. That comes with time.”

Williams hopes the Bulls solve all this in time to make a playoff push.

“I watch this team, and sometimes I get so frustrated because they can still make the playoffs,” he said. “My hands are over my head because I get so frustrated. If they make the playoffs, it almost seems like, OK, let’s keep seeing where we’re going. That has to be the goal.”

Cubs Convention coverage

With the Cubs off NBC Sports Chicago and Marquee Sports Network still five weeks from launching, fans won’t be able to watch the opening ceremony Friday on TV. But they can watch a livestream on the team’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages starting at 6 p.m.

The Cubs also will livestream three panels: “Off the Mound with Ryan Dempster” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, “David Ross & the Coaching Staff” at 10 a.m. Saturday and “Cubs Talk” at 11 a.m. Saturday.