JAY WILLIAMS can hear the doubters whispering when he walks into a room. Can he ever be the point guard he was? Will he even play again? Would any team sign him? The questions haunt him because he doesn't know whether he'll ever regain the speed and explosiveness that made the Chicago Bulls draft him No. 2 in 2002. What he does know is that, like fellow Duke alum Grant Hill, he has gladly endured the tedium of rehab for a shot at returning to the NBA.
On June 19, 2003, only two months after a rookie season in which he averaged 9.5 points and 4.7 assists, Williams lost control of his new Yamaha R6 motorcycle and crashed into a utility pole in Chicago. The impact fractured his pelvis, severed a major nerve in his left leg and tore three of the four main ligaments in his left knee. "What I remember most while I was lying there was saying over and over, 'I threw it all away,'" recalls Williams. "It wasn't until I got to the hospital that I thought, Forget basketball, I could die from this." After doctors briefly considered amputating the leg, he underwent two pelvic surgeries and an operation to repair his knee. While immobilized for two months in Chicago and Durham, N.C., hospitals, his left quad withered to the size of his forearm. "I used to look at it and wonder, What is that?" says Williams. "It was like someone had taken my leg and left me with someone else's."
Williams didn't have full range of motion in his leg until last May, when he began light workouts that included using an elliptical climber. "I passed out a minute after I got on that thing," says Williams. "Out cold. My body just wasn't used to working so hard." He's now able to train hard up to four hours a day, jogging for 20 minutes and shooting 100 to 150 jump shots before heading to the weight room with his two personal trainers. He says his knee is 100% but that his left foot is slow to recover after workouts. Last month the 6'2", 195-pound Williams dunked for the first time since the accident.
In addition to the rehab, Williams is studying to take the Series 6 exam, which would qualify him to sell mutual funds and annuities, and he will work 20 games as a college basketball analyst for ESPN. Because the collective bargaining agreement prohibits players from riding motorcycles, the Bulls had the right to void the remaining two years and $7.7 million on Williams's contract. Instead they generously gave him $3 million and extended his health-insurance coverage for six months.
The Bulls, along with the Houston Rockets and the Atlanta Hawks, have inquired about Williams's health in the last month. He's hoping to suit up again by the start of next season. "I feel like I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel," says Williams. "I know I can make it back." --Chris Mannix