Before Duke took the court this past weekend against UVa, TDD had a chance to board the ESPN College Game Day bus to sit down with former Blue Devil Jay Williams to discuss his path to becoming one of the network’s top personalities, his career in Durham, and how it all came to be. To start, did you ever expect you would end up with the role you have for ESPN and the platform and voice you are able to have in that role?
Jay Williams: Not necessarily. At the age of 33 I thought I’d be coming close to retirement in the NBA after having had a 13 or 14 year career. I never thought about doing television, but obviously paths change and for me it led to doing television after a short stint of trying to be an agent which I absolutely hated…which I was appalled by actually. So now being involved in broadcasting and maybe even working towards being a host one day hopefully, it’s really a dream come true. It’s a bigger platform now I feel that I have, even bigger than what I probably could have had being a basketball player.
What sparked your interest in taking the plunge and trying TV, and working for ESPN?
It came down to a guy named Reed Bergman, an agent, maybe when I was 25 or 26. I had done a short stint of doing television earlier when I was 21 or 22 right when I initially got hurt. I was fortunate enough that there was a guy named Dan at ESPN at the time who ran basketball programming who took a chance on me, but I wasn’t really committed to it initially because at that point my mentality, was that I really wanted and was focused on getting back to play basketball. So I did it for like a year or two and then I stopped and focused on my basketball career and that obviously didn’t really lead anywhere.
So I took a step back and I had no idea really what I wanted to do until Reed Bergman, my agent, told me “You need to be on TV…you just have this energy about you that will really translate well across the camera.”
So I just started looking at guys like Regis Philbin, Oprah and many others and just began focusing on how they communicated on TV and I started learning from that. I started realizing that “wow, ok, maybe I could do it my own way”, and luckily for me I got to start working again with ESPN and I kinda worked my way up from the bottom.
The viewpoints that you take, Jay, and the platform or voice that you have on TV - how do you think your perspective developed to what we see of you today in your ESPN role?
It’s been a process. As a player when I first got into this whole thing, it was difficult for me to understand what every Division 1 team was doing. It’s over 350 Division I teams and so for me, I came from the ACC, so I knew the ACC but I couldn’t talk in-depth about the Big 12, the Big 10, the Big East, the A-10, the Pac-12, the SEC, all of these conferences with the Horizon League, the Missouri Valley. I didn’t have an understanding of that coming in because you didn’t have that as a player, so it took some time for me to get my overall basketball knowledge down and then obviously there’s time it takes to get comfortable on TV.
Things such as which camera do I address, how to balance a conversation in your ear between a producer and your analyst and with your host and being involved in a debate, so it took awhile to understand that but after I was able to grasp all that, I was finally able to be me on TV. But that took a good five years for me to feel like I could be myself on TV and be comfortable. My overall knowledge and knowledge of the game has increased a ton since I started doing this and now I’m getting a chance to spend time with all these great coaches like Izzo, Boeheim, to Coach K to Self to Bruce Pearl and you really learn from all of these guys. Your basketball IQ continues to pickup and you are able to take viewpoints on different things because of that.
That seems like a lot to take in…
It really does take time. I’ll tell you it just takes time to learn how to be yourself on TV because you are filled with all the nuances of how to do TV that you lose track of how to be yourself. Now there’s an understanding of how the game is to me. I would describe it the same way my freshman year was for me at Duke.
Freshman year I had never played the point guard position before, which is very similar to never having done TV before. So me walking into a game all of a sudden Coach K is trying to get your attention from the sideline when I’ve never been used to always having eye contact with my coach…I’m not used to balancing my eyes on the shot clock and the court and I’m not used to every four minutes that we’re getting ready to have another TV timeout, I’m not used to thinking about how do my other teammates feel, I’m not used to thinking about how does Carlos Boozer feel, does he need another touch, what set are we in. It’s the same way on the TV side, so like during my sophomore and junior year in college basketball, now all of a sudden the game became a lot slower instead of the game being eight million miles per hour, the game was five miles per hour and you see things differently. To be honest, I think it’s the same way on air. Now I don’t think about what camera I need to talk to, I just naturally go where I know I need to go. I don’t think about every single topic that I might talk about because I know I have to be able to listen to what you are going to say and to be able to react to what you say. When I first started doing TV, I had all these thoughts in my head about things I’m going to say and a byproduct of that is you really don’t pay attention to what the person next to you is actually saying, it’s pre-determined in your head in those situation what you are going to say. I think those small nuances of doing TV are where I’ve really learned and grown from.
Have there been any really memorable experiences for you in your ESPN career that really stand out to you Jay?
In a negative or positive way, Steve?
I had an experience my second year in where I wasn’t used to balancing the multiple voices in my head. What I mean by that is not that I’m crazy and that I belong in the looney bin. What I mean is having one producer or two producers in my head where one is describing what camera you are on where the other is describing what is coming up next and what the host is going to be doing to help the host control things while you are involved in a debate at the time with Doug Gottlieb, who was another analyst at the time that I was on with my host Ryan Burr.
I remember up at that time, people up in Bristol, they are avid, avid University of Connecticut Huskies fans…like diehard, and I remember we were talking about Syracuse and we were in the middle of a really great debate and I was making a point about Syracuse Basketball and Jim Boeheim and I think it was one of the years where they were going to the Big East Finals. All of a sudden producer is in my ear telling me, “oh man, Syracuse sucks, UConn rules” and I just out of nowhere said, “UCONN doesn’t rule!”.
I said it on air because I was responding to him in my ear. Now, if you are a viewer at home, you probably think I have Tourette’s or at the very least you’re wondering “what’s wrong with this guy”, he just said something random in the conversation and all you are saying to yourself in that moment is oh man, ok, it’s epic fail. So that’s definitely one of my more memorable experiences on TV, haha. I’ve had a lot of those times, it’s different when you are doing live TV, we’re not reading off the teleprompter, you either know the team or you do not know the team and it’s your job to perform.
What’s it been like for you being on ESPN in your role having been a Duke guy before that?
First off, I love my program and I love that I was a part of it, and I love where I’m from and I love my Coach, he’s a legendary Coach, Hall of Fame Coach, maybe one of the best to ever do this all time and I respect what he’s done.
At the same time I think it can become a lose-lose situation for me and that’s made me not care. What I mean by that is people automatically think that because I attended Duke, and that I love my school, and I do love my school, that I’m somehow supposed to pick my school every time. If I were doing that every single time, I wouldn’t be doing my job. The feedback you get sometime from that tension is they think you don’t pick the school sometimes because you somehow don’t like the school, because you are trying too hard to be overly unbiased and for me, I got to a point maybe about four years ago because of talking with Jay Bilas…he’s been great, and he’s got so much more experience that’s seasoned and has been doing this for a lot longer than I have. He told me, “Jay, it doesn’t matter what you say because somebody is not going to like it”.
Today is a prime example… I wear a UVA jersey because that’s the way I pick a team every night for the game of the night that we’re covering. I know I had Duke people so angry at me, telling me I can’t believe you would disrespect Duke like that by wearing a UVA jersey and standing up there like that. What I say in response is “Hey, this is Entertainment, that’s what the E in ESPN stands for, Entertainment and Sports. We’re having fun, and we can do that while I still have tremendous respect for my university.
So, I think that was a real challenge for me at first and I was very sensitive to how others felt. But as far as being a Duke guy, I love it, I absolutely love it and I love that I had a great education there and that I strive to be better each and every day and I also want to do the best at my job so I can represent my Coach and my school the best way that I can. I have to do that by being intelligent and telling people honestly how I feel.
Speaking of your relationship with Coach K and Duke, what were the personal feelings for you when you saw Coach K win his 1000th game this year?
I think, very similar to K, there was a lot of hoopla around it, but when you are watching the game, you’re in the game. Unfortunately I couldn’t be there because we were coming back from Ann Arbor, and my flight got a little bit delayed so I got into New York late. When I finally got home and it was right around the middle of the second half. At that point I’m not really worried about 1,000 as I am worried about the game. There’s certain times where I’m in my own safe haven at home, I’m by myself or with my friends where I can root for the team that I played for because I can’t always do that. It was magnificent once it finally occurred and seeing Trajan Langdon there, seeing Billy King there, and Danny Ferry there and all the guys that played a role in this was just great. The brilliant thing about Coach K is he knows that he didn’t do this alone and he automatically deflects any attention he gets to the players, because he knows they helped him get there.
I will say that’s the best thing about Duke and that’s also the curse about Duke, the best thing about Duke is you are absolutely a part of something that is bigger than yourself. You are a part of a family and I am a part of a family for the rest of your life. The difficult thing about that is if you are fortunate enough to go to the next level, if you don’t go to a great team right way where there’s only a handful of those, then what happens is you are splintered and you aren’t part of a family anymore and that takes some time to adjust to. Duke’s a special place though.
You mentioned it earlier, but I wanted to ask about being the first Duke basketball player to graduate in 3 years…was that a part of your plan going into Duke?
Yeah, I was the first to ever do it, but it wasn’t the plan going in.
During my sophomore year, after that I was faced with the opportunity to go pro early, but I was very lucky in the way things ended up. The way our season ended my freshman year, we lost to Florida and to be quite honest, I got punked that game. I felt horrible about the way I played and how much I let my team down. So after that first year instead of going home and playing around with my friends, I decided to stay there and workout the entire summer. Coach K was great in that time and he said “Hey, since you are here, why don’t you take some summer school classes and increase your load.” So I ended up overloading that summer and after my sophomore year was over, I realized with Coach K that “Why not stay another year and kill two birds with one stone.”
I’ll never forget Coach K telling me at that time that “There’s a chance for you to do something different, there’s a chance for you to not follow the norm and to blaze your own path and I want you to be different”.
That talk right there, all of a sudden I was like “Hey, let’s stay again, summer school again, let’s overload the course load again and I knew that I would have to take one more summer school class after my junior year and then I’d be done”.
So it wasn’t part of the initial plan going in, but the great thing about Coach K is a lot of coaches in that situation would just try to tell you what they think you should do, but me and him sat there and we went through the pros and cons of each thought. Here’s the pros and cons of staying and the pros and cons of going. Then he told me that he wanted you to make the best decision for you and for your family.
During the recruiting process with Duke, how much if any communication was there with Coach K that he wanted you to come in and play along with Will Avery, who left early for the pros when you came in as a freshman?
When I committed to Duke, and we laugh about the mentality that some of these kids have today and how they have changed over the years, I thought that William Avery was going to be a junior and playing and I thought I would have to go in behind him.
I didn’t look at it in that way though, I looked at it as an opportunity for me to take his spot and I wanted to battle him every single day in practice because I knew if I competed every single day against somebody that was better than me, it was going to overall make me better. So to be honest, it was kinda a real shock for me when he decided to leave early because we really didn’t leave school early around that time.
Will Avery left and Corey Maggette and Elton Brand, they all left early and there was supposedly a lack of communication between some players and Coach K, and he had a hard time dealing with that. So the growth process for me developed exponentially and very quickly and we had to expedite a lot of stuff. So especially for a guy who played the three and the four in high school to all of a sudden play the point guard for a Hall of Fame Coach, it was quite an experience.
In closing Jay - since we’re out of time for this interview - as you look back at your Duke career, what are the major takeaways for you?
If Duke is never in my life, there’s no way I’m at where I’m at with my life right now.
Things happen in life, you can’t have foresight into what’s going to occur, what kind of adversity you will go through. If I don’t have a leader in my life like Coach K, I had a great mother and father who helped build the foundation for the man I have become, but there’s no way I’m at where I’m at without that man. I owe that university and Coach K as my head coach and as a mentor in my life…I owe him everything because I still live my life today by those values that I was taught in school.
For instance, I’m going to be early all the time, I’m going to stay late, I’m going to out-try, and I’m going to try and outwork you all the time. I remember him saying my freshman year, “You know Jay, in order to be great, you can’t keep walking into a room and keep turning the light on and off when you are in the room. You have to keep that switch on all the time and it’s a mentality.”
That’s the way I’ve been living my life ever since.
One on one with Jay Williams
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