Duke basketball is one of the most polarizing programs in sports, this we already know. From their perennial success, to the line-crossing Cameron Crazies, to their reputation as a haven for silver spooners, there are plenty of reasons to have Jalen Rose-levels of hate for the Blue Devils.
That being said, back around the turn of the century, one man gave me reason to not only watch, but also somewhat uneasily root for Duke Basketball: Jay Williams. This was back in the heyday of AND1, when kids just wanted handles, and laments were raised for the death of the midrange J. There’s not much that’s street about Duke basketball, but Jay Williams, or Jason Williams, as he was known back then, brought a little of that blacktop grittiness and playground shine to Durham.
(Before we move on, it must be noted that Jason David Williams, of whom we speak, later asked to be called Jay Williams in order to avoid confusion with Jason Chandler “White Chocolate” Williams, whose streetball cred Jay Williams can’t hold a candle to, no disrespect intended.)
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Williams was fearless in attacking the cup, had a sweet hop step, wasn’t afraid to pop from long range, passed with flash, and rocked more than a few tattoos as a Dukie. Jay Dubs also had a penchant for showing out when the lights were the brightest — perhaps not quite National TV Rondo status, but still, whether it was Kentucky, UNC, the Miracle Minute against Maryland (back when Duke-Maryland was still a big ACC rivalry), or the national championship against Agent Zero’s Arizona Wildcats, Williams made sure his name was called. It didn’t matter how poorly he’d been playing up to that point. When it was time to take over, he didn’t shy away.
Despite some of his decidedly non-stereotypical Duke tendencies, it rarely appeared like Williams played outside of Coach K’s system and gameplan (cough, Austin Rivers, cough). In fact, Coach K loved coaching Williams, and calls him “one of the most explosive players in the history of college basketball.” That’s high praise from a man who doesn’t offer a surplus of public adulation. While Williams only played three years at Duke before heading to the NBA, he left Duke basketball early because he graduated from the university in three years (if that’s not the most early-2000s way of leaving Duke basketball early, I don’t know what is).
Williams went on to be drafted No. 2 overall by the Bulls, and showed flashes his rookie season, although the first-year struggles seemed to be more prevalent than expected. His life-altering motorcycle accident in his first NBA offseason is well documented, as is his road to recovery. Today, Williams is a college basketball analyst for The Worldwide Leader, and is also a basketball trainer affiliated with Under Armour. Despite his absence from the NBA, the book on Williams’ basketball career is still being written. It’s just taken a different shape than expected.
Speaking of different shapes, Williams’ tenure at Duke might have served as a bit of a turning point for the program. College sports is prone to self-inflated tradition, and Duke basketball is probably one of the worst offenders. But when Williams showed up and balled out, he fit the Duke mold enough to be more than merely accepted. He broke the mold enough to announce to both Duke and the rest of the world: the times were changing.
If he didn’t get into the motorcycle accident, would Williams have been one of the best PGs in the NBA?
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