- Matt Wong, NBA
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Ten years later, Jayson Williams still thinks about the shooting every day. The former NBA All-Star replays the night over and over in his head, wishing he could change the past and bring back Costas Christofi, the limousine driver he accidentally killed on Feb. 14, 2002.
The evening's festivities started harmlessly enough. Williams invited friends and family to his New Jersey mansion after watching a Harlem Globetrotters game. But while giving a tour to his guests, he mishandled a 12-gauge shotgun in his bedroom, fatally wounding Christofi. To make matters worse, Williams then tried to cover up the accident.
In 2004, Williams was acquitted of the most serious charge, aggravated manslaughter, but convicted on four lesser counts for the cover-up. The jury, however, couldn't decide on the charge of reckless manslaughter, which led the prosecution to seek a retrial on the count. But after years of legal delays, it never got to that point. In 2010, Williams pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of aggravated assault, which carried a maximum sentence of five years. He would not be eligible for parole until serving at least 18 months.
In New Jersey state prison, Williams was rehabilitated and released in August 2011 after serving the minimum sentence. But, while in prison, he was convicted of a separate DWI charge for an incident that took place in New York just a week prior to his guilty plea in the shooting case. So instead of being a free man, he was transferred to Rikers Island to serve an additional one-year sentence behind bars. In April, after eight months of good behavior, Williams was finally released from jail.
Five and a half months later, Williams continues to piece his life back together. In an extensive interview with ESPN.com, the 44-year-old Williams discusses his time in prison, opens up about how the accident still plays a role in his life and even bats around the idea of an NBA comeback.
Williams is back on his size-16 feet in New York, ready to share the lessons he has learned since that fateful day in 2002. He knows some might hesitate to trust a convicted felon or doubt he's a changed man. But Williams says he doesn't ask people to believe him.
"Just watch me," he says. "Just watch my actions."
Williams is busier than he could have imagined so soon after being back on this side of the barbed wire. He is the vice president of Gourmet Services International and partnering with Loud Digital Network to host his own online channel. His calendar is filled with speaking engagements and charity events, some several hours away. And his cell phone rings constantly with more requests for his time.
"I can't understand when people go to jail and come back out and don't wanna tell nobody," Williams says. "Man, tell somebody how bad this thing is so they don't have to go there."
Says his manager Akhtar Farzaie: "His story is what drives him every day. To be able to share to the youth or whomever it may be that's willing to listen, 'This is what happened to me, this is where I screwed up, this is what my downfall was.' Just to share to people the ripple effect, that one split second can cause hurt to so many people."
What's life been like since you've been out?
JW: It's been a lot more challenging than I thought. I never imagined I'd be leaving the house at 5:30 in the morning and working 18-hour days. And I think I make it more difficult than it has to be at certain times by trying to save the world. Some days I just save the community, some days I just have to wake up and save myself. But it has to be the other way around. I never understood it on the airplane when people said, 'Put on your own oxygen mask first,' and I was like, 'Why wouldn't you want to put it on your parents or your kids first?' You gotta get healthy first before you can truly help somebody.
How are you getting healthy?
JW: First of all putting God first, dying to my ego and staying sober, which is always a struggle. And I think learning how to say no. I learned how to say no in prison because that's a big word in prison. 'No, you can't have my food. No, you can't have my body. No, you can't have all my time. No, I don't agree with you. No, you're not getting that ball on that bogus call.' But when I got out, I caught myself being in the whirlwind [like] before I went in when sometimes people take advantage of your time.
People go, 'Jay, come do this man, it'd be good for your image,' and, 'C'mon Jay, this will show that you're doing things to redeem yourself.' But you have to be very careful of being used in situations not for the glory of God but for the glory of the individual. It's a fine line and you can't be everywhere and be everything to everybody and I think that's what got me into a lot of situations before because I wanted everybody to like me. I think right now I'm much more focused on not minding other people's business. If you like me, I love it. If you don't, that's your business and I can't mind it because I got too many things to do.
What kinds of things are you doing?
JW: One of things I never stopped, even after the accident, was doing charity events like I was doing before. But there's never been a template for what I'm doing. Athletes and celebrities come out of jail, and most of them go back to play or they go back to making movies or songs, but they never go back and explain to somebody how one mistake or one accident will change your life forever and really mean it.
I'd be a liar if I told you I wasn't trying to help myself. But I truly don't want to see anybody cause any more pain to anybody. And I don't want to see anybody in a cage, man. Everybody thinks they're so tough and they can go to jail. I've never seen a newbie go to jail and not cry the first two months every night, scream and have to get suicide prevention in front of his cell.
Williams' attorney, Joe Hayden, recalls times when it was hard to communicate with Williams, who had become distant and moody during the legal process. While he was never disrespectful, Hayden says, the grind of those eight years -- the lengthy trial, the unresolved case, the issues with alcohol, the illness and death of his father, the divorce proceedings -- was taking its toll on Williams. That's why Williams says the first time he had peace during this time of his life was the day he was finally sentenced to prison. He went to his cell, closed the door and said, "It's finally over." Then he decided, he says, "I was going to do the time and not let the time do me."
Says Hayden: "I began to see the change when I visited him in prison. He seemed very accepting. He didn't know whether he was going to get parole, he didn't know what was going to happen with the New York charge, whether he would have to go to Rikers. And he looked me dead in the eye and said, 'Whatever happens, I deserve it. I'll deal with it. Hopefully it'll be short, but if it's long, it's long.'
"It's at that point that I began to believe that Jayson had really made a turn in his life and was heading in the right direction, as opposed to wanting people to get him out of there."
Can you talk about your time in prison?
JW: The only one that brought me peace and comfort being locked in a cage and trying to forgive myself and have other people forgive me was God. People are gonna read this article and say, everybody who goes to prison finds God. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. But one of the things I wanted to make sure I did in prison, I wanted to be remorseful, I wanted to repent -- to change truly, to be a better person every day -- and I wanted to reform. And when I got out I wanted God to give me resolution.
I honestly believe I could have become one of the most dangerous people in prison with my influence and my stature and my finances. When I first got to prison, the first couple of weeks I was like, 'Wow, I can become a really dangerous man in here.' But believe this or not, I didn't have my accountant send me one dime in prison. I didn't want to be no different. I didn't want them to go in there and say I was living like Big Willie and cause envy. Strangers, true strangers, and a few family members sent me money.
What were your quarters like?
JW: There were 36 people together in one room the size of my bedroom in my house. In the back was where the problems were -- they'd play cards and watch TV in the back. I've seen people get four or five years added to their sentence because sports and 'General Hospital' rule everything. You touch that TV, you got problems.
In prison, you quickly learn instincts you didn't know you had, such as how people walk. Somebody has a limp, somebody drags their feet; I can tell you how all 36 people in that cell walked with my face to the wall. If you wanted to get sleep you better memorize things like that. If somebody walked down and had on his sneakers at night, you know you had a problem, because you know you're supposed to hear slippers. But if people go "strap up," that means you hear squeaking and somebody's coming to fight.
What kind of people were in there with you?
JW: My fellow peers. People who all deserve second chances, made mistakes and people that know the Bible will forgive them if they want forgiveness. Nobody that I was better than and nobody that was better than me. Just my fellow peers, that's who was in there with me.
What did you do with your time in prison?
JW: We started a church in there with two people and soon we had 80 percent of the people we lived with attending. It changed the culture. People were saying good morning. We started off with 15 minutes and then it started running to 25-30 minutes. And at the end we did 50 pushups. We worked on the mind, body and spirit. We had people on fire for God.
When I got transferred to Rikers, it was one of the saddest days of my life because I had to leave the church and culture that we created in [Mid-State Correctional Facility] and I had to leave friends that I've spent more time with except for my parents. I remember all 36 guys sitting around saying goodbye the day I left.
Did you play ball in prison? What were the games like?
JW: Yes. The games were quite competitive -- some very athletic people in prison -- but there was a whole lot of arguing. Every call went with an argument, sometimes a fight.
What was the hardest part about prison for you?
JW: Claustrophobia. I was never worried about a human being, I was worried about being claustrophobic. At Rikers Island, they lock the door and you hear it. [Makes a loud slamming noise.] And they double lock it. You can't see out of the windows -- they're barred up, full of dirt and grime and there's no light that comes through there. It was August and the walls were sweaty, and you're locked in a cell.
Being left alone in a cell with your thoughts is a dangerous thing, Williams admits. That's why there are suicide prevention assistants walking up and down the halls at all times.
Thankfully for Williams, he found an outlet for his contemplations through his cellmate Matt Maher, a former soccer player who is in the midst of serving a five-year sentence for killing a man while driving drunk.
The two professional athletes formed a bond at the New Jersey state prison. They studied the Bible together, played ball together and even cooked together -- usually mackerel and ramen noodles, Williams says. Maher was the one person Williams could truly trust at all times. "I only ate with one person," Williams says. "You can't eat with just anybody because you don't know how their day is going."
Maher had also started a blog while he was in prison. Since there was no Internet there, he would write and date his entries, then send them in envelopes to his mother, who would post them online a week later. Soon Williams began to write, too. Not comfortable with the blog format, the 6-foot-10 inmate started addressing letters to his father, who died in 2009 from a stroke. Using just the inside of a pen -- because, in prison, the plastic outside parts of a pen could be just as mighty as a sword -- he poured out his thoughts about God, prison, family and the many tragedies in his personal life, including the deaths of his sisters (two died from AIDS acquired through a blood transfusion, one was murdered) and being molested by his uncle when he was 10.
In June, Williams published many of these letters in his second book called "Humbled." It's a sharp contrast from his 2001 book "Loose Balls," which told colorful tales from his NBA playing days, including multiple incidents of gunplay.
How did the idea for "Humbled" come about?
JW: I remember writing 25-30 pages at 5:30-6 o'clock in the morning while people were sleeping and not remember what I wrote. I wrote so much stuff and sent it to Matt Maher's mother, who kept it in safe keeping for me and would read it. At one time, Matt's friend had a death in the family and she read [the letters] and it was bringing her peace and comfort. She asked me after about 16 months in prison, 'Jay, would you mind if I try to put some of these stories together?' ...
I actually had a seven-digit advance to write a salacious book with the No. 1 literary agent. And I spoke to a famous person who told me I got too much God in my book. I had to make a decision: Do I want to make this a Hollywood bestseller, "Shawshank Redemption," or do I just want to let go and let God? I self-published it, and let go and let God. The book's proceeds go to charity.
Why did you choose to write the letters to your dad?
JW: Because I didn't feel like writing in a blog. It didn't come out smooth or honest when I was writing in a blog. When I was writing to my dad, I let my guard down.
How would you compare 'Humbled' to 'Loose Balls'?
JW: Two different eras, two different mindsets. I was young in one, now I'm hopefully a little wiser.
What's your hope for this book?
JW: My overall goal here is to help people. I've always tried to help people. But there was a time in my life when I was opening up nightclubs, but I should've been opening up churches. God tried to deal with me privately for years, but I said, 'God, when I get to be about 42, 43, I'll get back to you.' Then God said, 'I've been trying to deal with you privately, now I'm gonna deal with you publicly. Here comes news cameras, here comes all your business in the street, here comes your bottom, here comes your ambulances and your police cars and your judges and your lawyers and your graveyards. Now do I have your attention?'
God had to break me down. Not because he wanted to sit back and get vendettas and vengeance, just because he loves me. I love the person that God is making me into.
Jayson Williams can still display the same wit, humor and larger than life personality that made him a fan favorite in the NBA. He can still fill up a room with his booming laugh and tell stories with the candor and charisma that once made him a popular NBA analyst with NBC. And he can still do all this while dealing with a world of hurt.
"With my family, with three sisters being killed and the tragedies of being molested by someone you trusted and causing so much pain like taking an innocent man's life like I did, we have to find something to make us smile," Williams says.
"My grandma used to say, 'Jay, you have a fantastic smile, get out this room and don't come back in unless you smiling.'"
This day is more of the same. He appears weary, worn out by his hectic schedule and, he'll be honest, hesitant to be doing this interview in the first place. He thinks he's soliciting, just like when he tweets. He would rather people read his actions than his words. But this being the same Jayson Williams who made the all-interview team as a player, he can't help but speak openly. And he surely can't help but throw in a few jokes and funny stories, like the one about the homeless man at his recovery group who taught him how to turn off his smartphone when he got out of prison.
But don't be mistaken, there's still pain beneath the surface of one of the toughest guys to ever put on an NBA uniform. So when the conversation turns to his two daughters, whom he hasn't seen in years because of prison and a pending divorce, he breaks down.
What do you still struggle with now?
JW: I struggle with the loss of lives. The loss of Mr. Christofi and the loss of my father. An hour doesn't go by that I don't think about [the accident], think about how can I replay this as to bring back Mr. Christofi.
And not one person died that night, two people died. My dad had never been in the hospital in 70 years. That's the ripple effect. I can do the time, but can my father do it? No. Can my kids do it? No.
Because of prison I haven't seen my kids in years.
How does that affect you?
JW: You never sleep. And you can't blame them. They didn't recklessly mishandle the shotgun. I did.
How does the accident play a role in your life now?
JW: You never look at it for pity for yourself. I caused pain. So I have to constantly go to Scripture.
When I was in South Carolina, I wrote about this in the book, I used to have to plow and ride on this John Deere at two miles per hour and you had to pick a point where you're going straight ahead and not look back. If you look back and you lose your point straight ahead, when you look up you already ran over the soy beans, all the corn -- you messed up everything. So you've gotta keep your head looking forward. And I have to keep going to Scripture.
Poor me? Poor me, my butt. I caused this.
[Voice shaking.] When you haven't seen your kids in years and you're going around trying to save other people's you have to look at yourself in the mirror and still say, 'What's going on?' Because I'm going through some difficulties, some challenges, the only ones that are hurting right now are my children, and to me they're the biggest part of my life.
This is a scar where, for whatever reason, I'm not up for father of the year. And it's my fault. That's the toughest thing in my life because I've got the best parents in the world and I'm not a good parent. I've never been able to take them to the park and be a fool with them because I always had to worry about people saying, 'Look at him being reckless, how can he be having fun with all the pain he caused?' So my kids have never really got a chance to see their dad.
I'm trying to take my mind off of this by coming back home and saying at least I did something to help somebody else's kids, when my kids need it the most. I suck at being a dad. Not because of my heart, because I love my kids more than anything in this world. Because I suck at it.
I can't make up for lost time with them or with anybody. All I can do is say sorry to everybody, show them I'm remorseful.
What's your relationship with the Christofi family?
They wrote me a letter years back saying they forgave me. But this had to do with legalities, something that, to be honest with you, it was like, 'Take this few million dollars, but can you sign this letter?' Do I want to have a relationship with them? Of course. From Day 1 I wanted to have a relationship with them. When that time comes, when they're ready, I'm ready.
Are you able to be the fun-loving guy you were before the accident?
It's a struggle. That was my biggest problem -- I always wanted to make other people feel good. I dated a young lady named Cynthia Bailey, a supermodel. She's a beautiful woman, inside and out, but Picasso she was not. But she drew me a beautiful picture once -- it was me in a clown's uniform and the clown was crying. She titled it 'Tears of a Clown.' She said, 'All you try to do is make everybody's life better but never your own.' It's one of the few pieces of artwork that I've kept. She was right. I never had peace.
Do you have peace now?
As long as I have God, I have peace.
Williams was one of the top rebounders in the game before a broken leg ended his NBA career in 1999. So it should come as no surprise that effort and positioning are two of his focuses these days.
To Williams, that means attending recovery meetings daily to stay sober and gathering for Bible studies regularly, including one with his spiritual mentor, NFL Hall of Famer Curtis Martin. It also means, Williams says, keeping his inner circle tighter than ever and boxing out all the "yes men" who were in his life previously.
"I always had to have the biggest car and the biggest house," Williams says about his life as an NBA player, "because if you have the biggest car and the biggest house, you got more friends, and more friends means less insecurity. B.S. It's just the other way around. Now I got fewer friends, more security, less problems, more peace and plenty of God."
"You know who ain't going back to jail?" he adds. "Me. You know why? Because I'm with me. And I know me now and I know where I'm weak. You know what I'm saying? I don't need nobody to tell me I'm not weak when I know I'm weak and I'm struggling every day."
Williams also says he's feeling great physically. He's back down to his playing weight and looks like he could still bang on the blocks and grab a few rebounds. In fact, he says he has been schooling some up-and-comers in the NBA on and off the court. Which is why, even at the age of 44, he isn't ruling out the possibility of attempting a comeback to the game he still loves.
Do you still play basketball?
I play basketball every day. I train every day. I mentor about three or four NBA guys and many college kids. None of them have beat me one-on-one. I don't know if they let me win because of where I've been [laughing], but it means so much when you can still play at their level and still communicate with them. When you can dunk on somebody and then sit down and tell them, 'Hey man, one mistake can change your life forever,' they listen. They're absorbing everything I'm telling them. They don't want this to happen to them.
What advice do you give them?
Don't nothing good happen after 11:30. If you don't get whatever you want by 11:30, you don't need it. If Julius Erving would have tried to explain it to me when he was 40 and I was 20 -- which he didn't, and he's a friend -- I wouldn't have listened. But these guys listen because I caused so much pain and lost so much that I'm not a cliché. I lived it. There ain't no B.S. I ain't go to jail for 30 days. I've been there. I've been to the mountaintop and I've been to the valley.
What do you want to do with your life next?
What I want to do people say I'm too old to do or too damaged to do. I say how old would you be if you didn't know how old you were? I keep myself ready for whatever God has in store for me physically, mentally and spiritually. If I told you what I wish to do, you would think I'm crazy. But I keep myself physically ready at all times.
Are you talking about playing in the NBA again?
I love basketball and I love the NBA probably more than anybody. But my main focus right now is helping people.
Do you miss the game?
I miss the game dearly. I miss everything about the game. There's so many things that if I ever can get my hand back on basketball again I'd explain to everybody how good it is and how to enjoy every minute of it. And try to tell these young folk how lucky they are. So to be able to play at their level when I'm working out with them and then still talk to them, you have their respect. But I need to pound with them to get my point across.
Could you see yourself involved in the NBA again?
I take it one day at a time with my sobriety and whatever God has in store for me. If I start looking too far ahead then I'm gonna start controlling things. I don't wanna do that no more. I want to be the employee and let God be the employer. I can tell you one thing: I can honestly say I'm in better shape than I ever was in life.
Are you fully recovered from your leg injuries?
Running like a sewing machine. Smooth.
So you're saying you're ready for a comeback?
[Laughing.] I'm ready for whatever God has in store for me.
In an interview with ESPN.com, Jayson Williams opens up about prison, the accident and a potential NBA comeback.