Jay Williams’ Chicago Bulls debut was a memorable one.
The celebrated second overall pick in the 2002 draft posted 13 points, seven assists and seven rebounds in the team’s unexpected road victory over the Boston Celtics on Oct. 30, 2002.
But Williams also missed four free throws in the final 90 seconds to make the outcome more precarious than it needed to be, which prompted veteran Jalen Rose, who scored 21 points, to offer up this postgame classic.
“In the NBA, we just call that choking,” Rose said that night.
At the time, the quote did nothing to diffuse the growing storyline about Williams’ rocky transition to the NBA, which featured a bold move to become the first player to assume Michael Jordan’s locker since His Airness’ retirement, and a battle for playing time with Jamal Crawford in a triangle offense neither felt showcased their true game.
Fast forward close to two decades.
On Tuesday night, Rose and Williams will appear alongside host Maria Taylor and ESPN Senior NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski on “NBA Countdown,” previewing Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The former Bulls teammates will do so just one series after they disagreed about Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s defensive strategy against the Atlanta Hawks.
When Hawks All-Star guard Trae Young carved up the Bucks for 48 points, a development that seemed to support Williams’ stance, Rose responded with another gem.
“Jay made a great point that I didn’t initially agree with,” Rose said in a telephone conversation with NBC Sports Chicago. “And the next game, he said, ‘See, I was trying to tell you.’ And I said, ‘I can’t hear you. I was hacked.’”
This reference is to Williams’ social media stance that a tweet from his account praising Ime Udoka becoming the first Black coach in Celtics history — overlooking title-winners in Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and Doc Rivers, among others — was a product of hackers. It’s also yet another example of Rose’s tough-love approach and the type of on-show chemistry that can’t be fabricated. Chemistry that’s genuine and hard-earned.
“If we had lost that game (in 2002), I wouldn’t have said that about him missing free throws. I know the difference,” Rose said. “In the media cycle at that time, and based on him being a high draft choice, maybe he didn’t like that.
“But as the NBA Countdown veteran, I think we stuck the landing this time. When you’re me and say something, people can twist what you say. So this is no shade toward any past Countdown talent or team. What I mean by ‘stick the landing’ is each of us has gotten a chance to blossom in our own space and establish ourselves as one of the elite at what we do.
“Jay and I are industry veterans who have worked our way up. Maria does football and basketball. Woj is the best at what he does in the game. Now, as we progress as a team, it’s like any roster. When I look at the 76ers, it’s not like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons aren’t talented. It’s that they’re redundant in a lot of ways.
“That’s what I love about our team. There is no redundancy. And there’s going to be plenty of ‘agree to disagree.’ And what makes it a team is you can say whatever you want to say and nobody takes it personal.”
Or, as Williams put it in a separate phone conversation with NBC Sports Chicago: “Jalen tells it straight from his perspective. My perspective lends to different experiences. I do think being around J-Rose has helped me be a lot stronger in my opinions. But just because somebody tells you something straight, that doesn’t mean that them telling it straight makes it right. It means they’re giving you their honest truth. I’m giving you my honest truth from a different perspective.
“That debate we had the other day on live TV about Coach (Mike) Budenholzer’s drop coverage. That makes for great television.”
A DIFFICULT SEASON
The 2002-03 Bulls were — how shall we say this? — not always great television.
In Bill Cartwright’s lone full season as coach, they did finish 30-52 for the franchise’s best record since the dynasty dismantled. But with a team featuring proud veterans in Rose, Donyell Marshall and Eddie Robinson, youth in Williams, Crawford, Marcus Fizer, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, and playing time battles between several players, it was, in Rose’s words, “a unique cast of characters.”
Losing teams test everyone’s professionalism.
“Coming from Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) and Duke, I felt like I had a family. And then when I came to the Bulls it was just a completely different environment,” Williams said. “All of a sudden, Jamal Crawford and I are battling each other every single day to see who was going to start. When, looking back on it, how come we didn’t play together? Imagine what that would’ve been.
“We had Jalen, who was a pioneer who blazed in a different style and fashion than what I was used to. So I think you just had a lot of things that take time to get worked out. And I didn’t have time because I was afforded one year.”
The 2002-03 season can’t be reflected upon without the tragic conclusion, which featured Williams ending his playing career with a motorcycle accident in June.
But people forget it started with trauma as well.
“That was the summer I almost got assassinated,” Rose said.
Rose was driving a drop-top Bentley as a loaner on a postcard-perfect, early-September Los Angeles night when he stopped at a stoplight at Sunset Boulevard and Barrington Place. A man exited from the vehicle behind with a gun and demanded the car.
When Rose sped off, the gunman fired nine rounds, hitting Rose’s friend, who sat in the passenger seat, in the neck.
“The car was smoking. I’m laying down, can’t even see the street. My friend is bleeding everywhere. I’m rubbing his leg and saying, ‘It’s gonna be alright, dawg,’” Rose said. “And I’m like, ‘Where you feel it?’ And he said he got hit in the face. I told him, ‘Stay calm. I’m going to call 911, take you to the hospital.’
“I called 911 and I’m like, ‘My dawg just got shot. I’m on Sunset just past Barrington on the 405. Can you tell me where the closest emergency room is?’”
In a moment that can only be described as surreal, the 911 operator, not picking up on Rose’s slang, sent Rose to a veterinarian.
Luckily, Rose found a regular hospital two blocks away. His friend survived. According to Rose, the bullet remains lodged in his friend’s neck.
“That was the same summer I met Jay,” Rose said. “I went to training camp, never missed games. I never really even talked about what happened. This was pre-social media. Think about that. That shows how different media was back then. A 20-point scorer’s car got shot up. His friend almost died. And it was a one-day news cycle.
“So I probably was a little bit on edge that year to say the least. I was the extra grizzled veteran on that team that year — on a team, by the way, that I had just been traded to in February that had nine wins. In Indiana, we had the second-best record to the Spurs the 6.5 years I was there.
“That was a test to my professionalism. Are you going to pout? Are you not going to play? I took pride in being a professional. That meant something to me. And in my mind, optimism was coming with that draft pick. And that draft pick happened to be J-Will.”
Williams posted a triple-double against Jason Kidd and the defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets early in his rookie season and ultimately earned All-Rookie second-team honors. But he landed on the injured list with a sprained ankle and mostly endured an underwhelming season compared to expectations.
Losing didn’t help. In early March, a frustrated Williams made a half-hearted, heat-of-the-moment trade reference and opined a rift existed between players and coaches. At the time, Rose called Williams’ theory “stupid.”
“Jalen Rose is Jalen Rose. I think that’s something that took some processing for me,” Williams says today. “I didn’t really get a chance to spend a lot of time talking to Jalen as a player. We played together. But also I recognized that I had played basketball at Duke. Jalen had said in his own documentary about the Fab Five how he felt about Duke basketball players.
“It was interesting navigating not only being the No. 2 overall pick but coming to a very young team. It felt like where we all, ‘There’s the ball, go fight for it.’ That bothered me a little bit while I played. Jalen and I never got the chance to course-correct it as players.”
Rose, for what it’s worth, downplays any friction between him and Williams from that season. He said he took Williams out to dinner in Los Angeles between the draft and training camp and the two often would ride together to games as part of Williams’ rookie responsibilities.
“I wanted to win. The day he got his triple dub, I was Bundini Brown,” Rose said, referencing Muhamad Ali’s trainer. “I said, ‘You got J-Kidd today.’
“There’s nothing I said or did with Jamal that I didn’t say or do with Jay. When we went to Indiana for my first game there after my trade, everybody was invited to the party. It was just a crazy season overall.”
Five years ago, Williams walked up to Rose outside the ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn. Williams’ autobiography had been published recently.
“I just straight up had a conversation with him,” Williams recalled. “I said, ‘Yo, I didn’t get a chance to play with you as long as I thought I’d get a chance to play with you. I wrote a book about how I felt, my truth about certain things. I understand life isn’t black or white. There’s a lot of gray. But I just wanted to say, ‘You’re great at what you do, man.’ And I feel I’m going to work my tail off to be in this industry for a long time.’ We had a real talk.”
Rose was well-established in the industry at this point. In fact, he began a streak of covering NBA Finals while playing for the 2002-03 Bulls, drawing an assignment from BET Madd Sports. He had worked his way up through the ranks.
Eventually, so did Williams, who worked at CBS and on ESPN’s college basketball coverage before landing his NBA Countdown gig before the 2019-20 season.
But there never was any guarantee they’d be working alongside each other on such a grand platform.
“It’s almost like this is the career that we were meant to have together instead of the career on the court,” Williams said. “That was my vet when I first came into the league. I’m a grown man now. I’m not a 21-year-old trying to figure life out within the league. So it allows us to connect on a different threshold that we didn’t get a chance to connect on when I first came into the league.”
“Instead of it being this world we used to be in where everyone fended for themselves, now it’s like us working collectively.”
When Williams found himself at the center of another media firestorm recently involving Durant, Rose had his former and current teammate’s back. Williams said Durant once told him at a party not to ever compare him to Giannis Antetokounmpo, which Durant, using social media, branded a lie.
“In this day and age, people start name-calling and making comments on your family and your character. People say, ‘You should’ve died in that motorcycle accident. Or you hit your head too hard on that pole,’” Williams said. “It’s very similar to basketball. It becomes very personal for people.
“Who better to help you navigate that than Jalen Rose? He always reminds me that it’s a love-hate relationship when you’re being real and you’re giving your unfiltered opinion on things. Being able to talk to J-Rose about things like that, that helps me.”
Williams talked about the pride he feels working alongside not only Wojnarowski — whom he called “KD, because nobody can do what he does” — but two Black colleagues in Rose and Taylor. That lineup is in question following an explosive New York Times story that detailed internal backlash after ESPN “The Jump” host Rachel Nichols expressed frustration with Taylor’s ascent in comments Nichols didn’t know were being fed to a network server.
But for now, both former Bulls appreciate their chemistry and connection.
“It’s a godsend that we find ourselves at the biggest platform on ESPN, commentating on a sport that we both love and both have perspective on from a different angle,” Williams said.
Rose, always the vet to Williams’ rook, gets the final word.
“I’m happy for J-Will, seeing a life trait of overcoming adversity because we both have overcome fatal adversity,” Rose said. “And even though he’s not on the show anymore, we had that in common with Paul Pierce too.
“These three men, while they were NBA players, went through extreme traumatic situations and have found a way to overcome them and craft out a media career. I’m happy for J-Will as a former teammate and a brother and a friend to see his endurance. That’s impressive.”