clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Jay Williams opens up about his role in LeBron James’ YouTube Originals series, ‘Best Shot’

Williams talked to SB Nation in a phone interview about working with LeBron, his career-ending injury, and the importance of paying it forward.

Jay Williams first met Maverick Carter before their fame and fortune. This relationship aptly started on the basketball court, playing on the same Five-Star team growing up.

So it was a no-brainer when Carter and LeBron James came to Williams for the lead role in their new YouTube Originals series, Best Shot, where he navigates high school baskeball players from Newark’s Central High School through the tricky waters of being a student-athlete.

After all, Williams had dedicated his life to paying it forward ever since his promising NBA career ended with a motorcycle accident at the end of his rookie year. His new job was to be bigger than the sport he played, to create tangible impact and inspire others to do the same.

So Williams needed no convincing for this role. He knew his vision of giving back to the youth perfectly aligned with the impact Carter and James wanted to make with this series.

“One of the things I’ve always loved about [LeBron James], and also about Mav, is they’re always true to who they are about trying to make a difference from their humble beginnings,” he told SB Nation in a phone interview. “And one of the things I’m very passionate about is being honest and being candid about my journey.”

Best Shot is an eight-part series that releases new episodes onto the NBA’s YouTube channel every Wednesday.

SB Nation talked to Williams about his role in the series, how his life prepared him for such a role, what it was like working with LeBron James and Maverick Carter, and what he wants viewers to take away from this docu-series.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity:

SB Nation: How did you come to work with LeBron James and Maverick Carter on this series?

JAY WILLIAMS: I guess the inception point for the beginning of this whole thing has to go back to when Maverick and I played basketball. We played 5-star together. We played for the same team and we were familiar with each other and that’s where the relationship started. As time has gone on, I’ve always stayed in contact with them. Things have blown up for him and LeBro, and I’ve been kind of creating my own path, my own vertical within the media space.

But one of the things I’ve always loved about LBJ and also about Mav is they’re always true to who they are about, trying to make a difference from their humble beginnings. And one of the things I’m very passionate about is being honest and being candid about my journey. So just randomly talking, combining forces about how do we do the best job of storytelling other people’s truths and what their real scenarios are are what they’re experiencing and how they need to get to where they wanna go and giving back to the community.

When they came at me with the idea, it sounded great. And when I sat down with Michael J. Warren who worked as director. Obviously his experience working with Hov and Fade to Black, and how he wanted to shoot it, and how descriptive he was and how raw and gritty he wanted to make it and really have a true depiction of what it really was and I could be me. It just seemed like a perfect scenario all the way around.

Were there any challenges or difficulties doing this kind of work, versus what you do as an analyst on a daily basis?

I always helped coaching. I have a charity program called Rising Stars that kinda hooked younger kids in, so it was kind of similar to that. But I hadn’t been with a team that extensively.

For any athlete or anyone, if you’re not coaching a team, it’s challenging. So dedicating three days a week, while I’m working, with everything that’s going on with my wife [being pregnant], it was a lot.

But that commitment to the process of it was authentic. It wasn’t something that was created or organized, and [director Michael J. Warren] shot it in a very free flowing type of way. There was no direction on what they wanted us to do. It was really come as you are and let’s figure it out. The challenges are, where you are at a given time in your own life, how you’re connecting to them, are you having troubles connecting with one kid more than another? It was very organic.

Why does mentorship mean so much to you?

The word ‘mentor,’ I hear how people say it, but it’s really just paying it forward, you know? I hate how we use that word in a cliché sort of, ‘Oh, he’s your mentor.’ We all should have permission to pay it forward. Regardless of where you are, you pay lessons forward of what you’ve learned. That’s the real purpose of us being here. Sometimes our society can shift you to be selfish and only think about you, but being able to pass lessons down that you’ve learned, and these aren’t just lessons for just the kids that we’re dealing with.

That’s why YouTube is so great, we can make this free. This is a commitment that is passing it forward. That’s the premise of why this is different, and this is a unique situation. All of our lessons, whether that’s LeBron, myself, the kids — Hadi, the way they’re growing, Quan Quan, Zarique — we’re all faced with different challenges and how we grow up. [Editor’s Note: Williams is referring to Central High juniors Jihad “Haddie” Evans, Shaquan “Quan Quan” Clark, and Zarique Nutter].

And for them to be vulnerable to show the world how they’re dealing with it and how they’re trying to process everything, that’s special man. I wanna be a part of something special.

What was the biggest thing you’d say you learned about yourself through teaching and guiding these high school athletes?

I’m about to have a daughter in October, and there’s so many lessons.

Number 1, being accountable. i’m not saying that I wasn’t accountable before, but when you say that you are going to be there, or, ‘Hey next week i’m going to do this,’ when you don’t follow through on that, it’s just not you following through, you’re honestly letting down a kid that could take that and that whole experience shapes a different trajectory or his or her life. You say, ‘Hey I’m gonna be there next week, and then actually be there and be early and be present.

I think that’s the part about this [show] that the audience will like. None of us are just there to be there. We’re really in it, and I felt and I appreciate [Central High basketball coach Shawn “OG” McCray] so much because you take this home with you the same way I’m writing a letter to [my daughter]. I’m thinking through who these kids are, how they’re pushed, how can they do things differently, how I can help them shape their thoughts differently.

That first episode you watch, that’s me finding out who they are. It has nothing to do with basketball. I’m finding out who your character is. Are you gonna quit? Are you gonna be tired? Are you gonna fight through when you’re tired? Are you gonna do the drill correctly?Are you going to complain? Are you going to win? Are you going to whine? Are you going to put your head down and do that?

That gave me a great foundation and base to see who they were individually. We hadn’t even worked on correcting them yet. This was just individually.

Do you think people will look at high school athletes and education differently after watching Best Shot?

We have conversations about teaching the youth. There is a set curriculum or set rules that you have to abide by in order to build yourself up in society so you can be seen or deemed as respectable.

What’s the first thing people ask? Where’d you go to high school at? Where’d you go to college? When you talk to [these kids], they say, ‘This isn’t applicable to things I’ll have to do in daily life.’ And they’re right. But this is the game, and you have to play this game.

My thing is helping them understand that you have to play the game, but you don’t have to abide by all the rules. The rules within the educational system really teach you not push the boundaries, or not to think outside the box. They teach you to think inwardly about what’s in the box. So being able to have a voice where somebody says, ‘Hey. look, in order to play a sport, the sport has to incentivize you to actually do your work in school. But now let me show you how some of this school work, even though you don’t see the foundation of it, let me make it applicable to your life.’

‘So you want to be an NBA player? How much money are you gonna make your rookie year? You’re the first pick. You don’t know? Well, how do you not know, if you wanna be the first pick in the draft?’

‘You make X amount. How much is your contract inflated by each year? What does inflated mean? Well OK, we should look that word up.’

So how do I push the limits of the way you think, and then apply all these things that these kids want to achieve — their dreams — and dummy it down, and simple it down. And then make that applicable with how you see school.

So now you’re looking at school a little bit differently.

What do you want people to take from this series?

That a lot of people say they want to give back, but what happens is these kids end up becoming white noise. It’s almost like the same way you’d see a homeless person. When’s the last time you had a conversation with someone who was homeless?

The important thing is most people see this visually and they see it on social media, but what are you doing? What are you doing to give back? How are you helping them expand their mind and not let them think, ‘I just want to get out of New Jersey?’ Some of these kids have never been out of Newark. I tell them, ‘Do you know New Jersey is called the Garden State?’

So this is not just a role that I want to play. I want to inspire others to play a bigger role in our youth and impact them, because they deserve it. They deserve it. And I want them to know that their dreams are bigger than Newark. They should be and they can accomplish that. But they need to have the right people around them to give them those experiences.

What was it like working with LeBron James off the court?

Man, LeBron is a very busy dude, I’m very busy, too, but when we actually got a chance to get together in Cleveland, I had met him before in passing, but we had never gotten a chance to actually kick it.

I was thoroughly impressed with how present he became. In dealing with athletes or celebrities or people in general, I think there’s a tendency to get on their pedestal or their platform and just kind of blow the ink. You ever wonder if someone is saying something because it’s the right thing to say, or if they really believe it? All the time, right?

So when I’m out there and I’m with him on the court, now i’m catching him after practice. These dudes are in playoff time. There’s so much pressure on his shoulders to win another championship. Think about the season that they went through, with lineup change with the team, and what happened with Isaiah Thomas, and them losing games and all this drama.

But when we started talking about Best Shot, this dude just went to a foundational space that I felt like I was talking to the LeBron James that was 16-17 years old. He automatically went back to the struggle of when he had to think outside the box. If he weren’t a superstar, he wondered where he would be now, because he got a lot of attention because he was a superstar. What happens to the other kids who aren’t deemed to be the next great?

It shows the level of appreciation he has for his board. I say this to the kids all the time: you are the sum of the five people you surround yourself with the most. You have to think about who is on your board. So I’m sitting here telling you that I’m gonna be on your board and I’m gonna be truthful and tell you if I think somebody is BSing you, or if someone is thinking about themselves rather than thinking about you. Having that board is everything in life.

For Lebron to go back to those moments and to speak to me in a [keep it] 100, very real type of way about his experience and what he wants this experience to be for these kids, and then not overly doing it but staying out of the way and letting [his team] figure it out, is a very beautiful thing. I respect that about him.

What’s your favorite inspirational quote?

One I have tattooed on the left inside of my forearm. ‘Strength doesn’t come from physical capacity, it comes from indomitable will.’ That’s by a legend in Mahatma Ghandi, and it’s so true. In an episode, I wrote that particular quote in a letter to one kid named Isaiah, who’s 17 and lives by himself. He lives by himself at 17 and pays rent, and is a senior in high school.

People associate strength with physical, and that’s the wrong assumption. You’re as strong as your mind is. You can break out of your own chains. And just because your situation is currently this way does not mean it needs to be this way all the time. You’re the only one that can change it. You can ask for help and do all this stuff, but you have to have a different mindset of changing it.

That’s a quote that’s very significant to this whole show that we’re doing, because that’s one that’s applicable to all these kids.

Would you ever coach?

I don’t think it’s just about coaching, man. I think people naturally go back to that. ‘Oh, you’re gonna become a coach.’

There’s different types of coaches in life. I don’t have to be a coach on the basketball court. I can be a coach for businesses. I can be a coach for kids. I can be a coach for people who have gone through adversity, because everyone has had some type of damn accident in some form or capacity. My accident may be my motorcycle, you could have lost a family member, you could be dealing with weight issues. We all have things through adversity that we’re trying to work through, and my thing is, how do I help people get out of their own way?

What’s your final message to anyone reading this interview?

I was 21 years old when I got hurt. I spent the next 5-6 years wondering why the hell I was left here. And I was frustrated, I was angered with my past. And I let other people’s depiction of who I was filter my mind with who I am. It’s my job to be bigger than the sport that I played. It’s my job is to create impact. That’s why I was left here.

So everything I will ever do with my life will be thoughtful, will be thoroughly vetted out, and it will have impact. The opportunity to start off my real career doing something like this show, this is what I’m about. This is who I became, this is who I am. I want to inspire others to do the same.