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After Crash, New Direction Is No Accident

Ex-Duke Star Williams Is Resolute About Returning to NBA Despite Motorcycle Mishap

By Michael Arkush
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page D09

DURHAM, N.C. -- The road to another Final Four for Duke is easy to chart -- two more wins, including Friday night against Michigan State. The road, however, for Jason Williams, one of the most accomplished players in school history, has not been as easy to chart, not since the accident.

Those who remember reading the accounts of the events of June 19, 2003, cringe at the memories: When Williams's motorcycle slammed into a utility pole, he severely damaged two nerves in his left leg, fractured his pelvis and tore three ligaments in his left knee. It appeared likely -- in fact, still appears likely to many -- that Williams, who had completed his rookie season as a point guard for the Chicago Bulls, never again would play pro basketball. He was fortunate he didn't lose his leg.

Jason Williams, the 2002 college player of the year for Duke, played one season with the Chicago Bulls before he was injured in a motorcycle crash on June 19, 2003. (Bob Jordan -- AP)

Upon meeting Williams, it is natural to search for signs of psychological damage. He said he doesn't have time to think about the past, though that seems no reason to call off the search. Surely he thinks about the past. Yet it soon becomes evident that he is not spewing cliches, that he is not prone to self-pity, to bemoaning what should have been. Williams has no time for the past. He is busy trying to plan his future.

"There is nothing that can push me more than when people doubt me," said Williams, 23. "I feed off that. If anything, it's going to make me work harder because I'm closer. I've been able to come from darkness. I see the light, and nothing is going to stop me from going towards it."

There was plenty of darkness in those early hours and days. The challenge wasn't to get back on the court. The challenge was to get back on his feet. He started with a walker, then crutches. "I taught myself how to walk all over again," he recalled. "You don't realize how many steps you take per day."

After two initial operations in Chicago -- he has undergone seven -- Williams was transferred, with the help of his former coach, Mike Krzyzewski, to Duke University Medical Center. Duke was the perfect environment, surrounding him with the people who knew him best, who cared the most. His mother and father came from New Jersey to move in with him for a few months. He began to make progress, not dramatic perhaps, yet progress nonetheless.

In early February, Williams's Rottweiler was playing with a ball, recalled Kevin Bradbury, one of his agents, "when Jason rolled the ball on one foot and made a soccer move with it. He used to do that all the time. He hadn't done that since the accident."

From the start, Williams has conducted his rehab under the supervision of Bob Bruzga, Duke's clinical services manager of sports medicine physical therapy. His regimen has included jogging, leg strengthening, stretching and working on his range of motion and agility coordination. Early on, Williams often asked Bruzga the same question: Can I make it back to the NBA?

"What I always told him," Bruzga recalled, "is that I didn't know, but I was going to take him as far as we could go."

The plan is for Williams to return to Chicago in June to work with Tim Grover, who trained Michael Jordan. He hopes to play in games this summer with former and active NBA players and begin working out for teams. Several franchises, according to Bill Duffy, another of his agents, have kept in touch since about a year after the accident. So far, Williams has taken only jump shots.

"At some point," Duffy acknowledged, "he's going to have to get on the court." Yet everybody in the Williams camp emphasizes that there will be no sense of urgency. "He is still very young," Duffy added. "There's no time frame."

The Bulls, the team that drafted him second overall in the 2002 draft, have a new point guard of the future in Kirk Hinrich and appear headed to the playoffs for the first time since capturing their sixth NBA championship in 1998.

"Stuff happens in life," Williams said. "It wasn't meant for me to be there right now."

The Bulls bought out the remainder of his contract for $3 million, which, because Williams violated its terms by riding a motorcycle, they were not obligated to do. The hardest part has been the same questions he hears wherever he goes.

"Everybody feels the need to apologize," said Williams, a two-time all-American and the college player of the year in 2002. "They say, 'I'm so sorry this happened to you. You were a great player.' There's no reason to apologize to me. I'm going to come back. I'm here. I'm okay."

The challenge of returning to the NBA remains formidable. Williams was known for his quickness, and no amount of dedication can guarantee he will fully regain it.

"He's got some nerve damage in his foot," said Claude T. Moorman III, director of Duke Sports Medicine. "He's never going to have quite the strength he had before even if he does have a full recovery. The speed of the game -- the cutting, the planting, the jumping, the leaping -- all the different things that go into a great natural athlete like Jason are going to have to be rewired and rebuilt. He's come a long way, but he's still got work to do on it."

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