Jay Williams, like most of us, is feeling a bit anxious at the moment. After months of working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s returned to the ESPN studio for NBA Countdown as the playoffs get set to begin and, on Monday, he’ll be in studio for his maiden voyage on ESPN Radio as he, Keyshawn Johnson, and Zubin Mehenti launch their new morning show: Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin from 6-10 a.m. ET.
“There’s been a heightened sense of anxiety,” Williams says of his recent return to the studio. “My daughter is immune suppressed. So is my mom — she’s had two kidney transplants. So, I’ve been hyper diligent about it, but ESPN’s done a really good job of sanitizing everything and the minimum amount of people are in the studio that need to be there and we’re all wearing the proper PPE until we are live on air. So, it’s been OK. Compared to what other people have to go through on a day-to-day level, there’s no comparison, right. At the same time, it’s been pretty insane times. Working from home for the past three or four months, you’re like, ‘Oh, I can work from home and still spend time with my family.’ But there’s something so unique about being in the presence of others and being able to react and not having a lag. It’s been cool to get that feeling back.”
When ESPN announced its new radio lineup, headlined by the morning show change that saw Golic & Wingo end its run in favor of the new trio of Williams, Johnson, and Mehenti, it raised plenty of eyebrows. Creating a wholly new show with three members who – while they all separately have years of experience – haven’t worked on a radio show together in the morning drive timeslot came as a surprise to some. It’s also led many to ask the group the same question: How do you think you guys will work together?
It’s a question Williams has grown a bit tired of, noting it’s a fairly new concern in the media landscape. “Before Mike & Mike worked together, there wasn’t this whole evaluation of their chemistry and how that would play out,” Williams says. “Before Mike & the Mad Dog were together it wasn’t like, ‘Hey, what’s their chemistry going to be like?’”
And yet, it’s something that will persist at least until the three get some time on the microphones together and build an identity for the show. It may be viewed as a challenge by some, but it is something Williams is excited for. A 13-year veteran of the industry despite being just 38 years old, Williams has climbed the ranks from ESPNU analyst to ESPN college hoops analyst to a spot on College Gameday to a move to the NBA side on Countdown and a regular spot on Get Up!
That journey has afforded him a tremendous amount of experience as well as some perspective on who he is in the media space.
“I think the way I saw my personality could fit in is that I’m always malleable,” Williams says. “Nobody can stop me from being me, and I’m gonna play off other people’s strengths, and I gotta give a lot of that credit to being around Coach K for three years. It’s like, how do you try to bring the best out of other people?”
Those years on the ESPN TV circuit has also given him an appreciation for time and nuance, and it’s what particularly excites him about the opportunity to work in radio. Where TV is about being as concise as possible to fit the most into a finite timeslot as you can, radio affords you so much more space to dive deeper than is ever afforded on most television shows. Time constraints are the enemy of nuance and context. They force you to condense an idea into its most basic form, which on sports television can often results in the creation of a hot take. The thought behind it gets lost, any context for the opinion swept away neatly in the corner so that what’s presented is only the most concentrated essence.
You’re left with declarations. A list. A ranking. A sweeping statement, iron-clad in its refusal to budge.
“I’ll give you NBA Countdown as a prime example,” Williams says of the time constraints of TV. “It’s Maria. It’s Jalen Rose. It’s Paul Pierce and myself. Paul Pierce is remote so he’s on a delay. So you have three minutes for the A-block. A minute and 45 seconds is for a feature piece. So, that leaves you a minute and 15 seconds for a thought on a game — let’s say you’re watching Devin Booker play since he’s been killing everybody. By the time Maria asks you a question, you’re at a minute. Now you’re sharing a minute with two other people and they have things they want to get across. Let’s say by the time Jalen Rose is done with his point you have 40 seconds. By the time Paul is done with his point, you have 15 seconds, and then everything transitions your way and you hear the producer in your ear, ‘10, 9, 8, 7…’ So you’re trying to squeeze 10 pounds into a two-pound jar. It just doesn’t work. You don’t get a chance to explain thoroughly what you’re talking about.”
“So, that’s difficult TV,” he says. “What happens is, you end up trying to say, like, what’s going to be catchy? What’s going to get people’s attention? But you’re also trying to stay true to what you see or what you evaluate. So it’s a very tricky position to be in. Whereas now with radio, Key can cook for a minute and a half or two minutes and then be like, ‘OK Jay what do you think?’ And, ‘Pfft, what do I think? Let me tell you what I think. Four things you just said there, I don’t know what the…’ and you can actually go down a couple of layers, which is drastically different than trying to squeeze two layers into 10 seconds. It’s just different worlds, man.”
The former Duke standout looks forward to having the airspace to move away from that. To present opinions with context and layers. To have conversations that yield growth from both parties — maybe even an admission of being wrong — in lieu of yelling and standoffishness. Disagreements will happen and Williams isn’t shy about sharing his opinion, but for a man whose adult life has been so much about the journey rather than the destination, his approach to sports conversations and opinions is the same. He’s not afraid of stepping back off of an opinion when new information is presented or someone brings something up he hasn’t considered.
To refuse to do so would lead him down a path he doesn’t want.
“Then you become a caricature,” Williams says. “I’m not trying to become that, man.”
Recently, Williams has had that with the debate over whether to play college football, where he was strongly for cancelling the season. After hearing Trevor Lawrence bring up how for many players being on campus and at the facility, where testing was regular and guys were closely monitored, he adapted his viewpoint.
“I was like, damn, you’re right Trevor Lawrence, but I will say to you this, why do they have to go home?” Williams observes. “These are student athletes. You don’t need to have a football season, and they can still remain on campus as athletes and still have that protection that’s in place, you just don’t need to have 10 conference games. But you know what, why don’t we think about postponing the season before we think about canceling? So, what I feel like happens in that conversation is people are like, ‘Oh yeah, Jay, I can’t believe you said you’d cancel the season.’ I’m like, well that’s what I thought. Trevor Lawrence has changed the way that I thought, and that’s what’s supposed to happen with constructive conversation.”
Allowing yourself to listen to an opposing viewpoint, rather than digging in further, is where nuance comes in. And as Williams sees it, makes for more lively discussion, regardless of medium.
“I think being able to learn and evolve while having fun,” Williams adds, “while being lighthearted, while telling stories about your experiences personally — I think that’s good TV and good radio, man.”
Williams is excited about working with Johnson, who is a veteran of the ESPN airwaves both on TV (where he’s returning as a member of the NFL Live team) and radio, having spent years with a show on ESPN Los Angeles. As Williams notes, he has spent his media career finding himself and his voice, arriving at a point where he’s fully confident in who he is as a broadcaster and confident in being authentic. Johnson has had that his whole life, being unabashedly Keyshawn. That dynamic is something Williams thinks will work terrifically on their new show, with Mehenti helping bridge it all together as a veteran host of both SportsCenter and various radio programs.
Keyshawn and JWill bring unique perspectives of the two sports that dominate ESPN’s airwaves. Johnson as a former All-Pro receiver in the NFL and Williams as a former top NBA prospect who’s spent more than a decade covering hoops at the college and pro level for ESPN. However, both are ravenous fans of the other, and can bring those perspectives to challenge the other, even in the sport they have unique expertise in.
“The beautiful thing about Key and I over the last couple weeks is, we’ve been on so many affiliate calls, so many sponsor calls, I’ve let him cook.” Williams says. “And he lets me cook, and we have a lot of banter back and forth. He’s a USC guy. He tries to throw shade my way all the time about this Duke thing. I threw shade back his way about the Jets, like when are you guys going to get ownership that actually wants to win? So we joke back and forth, and I got obviously the Bulls connection. I didn’t play 10 plus years in the NBA like Keyshawn did as he played in the NFL, which gives him such unique POV to how he sees football. You know, how I see football is as a fan. My cousin is David Tyree. I grew up with the Giants from Jersey. I know the NFC East like the back of my hand. He’s a fan of basketball. I follow basketball because that’s been my job, and plus I’ve worked out with all these guys.
So I feel like there’s a beautiful clashing of these two sports where we’re both fans of the other person’s sports and we can challenge each other on what our takes are, but we are also going to be real about who we are. That’s the one thing I know Keyshawn’s always done. For me, growing up in front of the camera, I’ve had to learn how to do that but now at 38, 39, I’m like, ‘Yo, this is who I am, and I’m ever growing and evolving as a person.’ And we want people to grow along with that ride. And I think that’s a pretty cool and versatile angle of attack.”
That dynamic is something Williams is excited for, as he continues to shed the label of being a “basketball guy.” It’s something that any former player that enters the media space has to go through, shaking free of the concept that their value in the media space is tied solely to the sport they played, when, like anyone else, they have passions and interests outside of their profession. It’s something Williams has gone through twice, first losing his basketball career and having to find a new path and now shifting from a hoops analyst to someone who talks about all sports on Get Up! and now ESPN’s morning drive radio show. Looking back now, Williams points to his career-ending injury as the best thing that’s happened to him because it forced him to question his own identity as well as everyone in his orbit.
“The greatest gift that’s ever been given to me is when I had basketball taken away from me,” Williams says. “Because there was so much of me that was associated with what I did as my identity, and what that did was when that association with my identity was taken away, it wasn’t just taken from me, it was taken from everybody else that knew me. So the all of a sudden it became: What’s your narrative? If you’re not dribbling the ball and killing it, who are you? And that was a question I had to ask myself. It’s a question I still ask myself as I continue to grow as a person.”
His journey and career evolution now takes him into the radio space, where he’ll be free to talk about what he’s passionate about, which, if folks aren’t aware of yet, extends far, far beyond basketball. His experiences serve as the lens he sees the sports world through. He might not have played football, but he can still relate to the football player who suffered a gruesome injury and now has to work his way back in the public eye, unsure he’ll ever be the same player again. He’s also understanding of what he doesn’t know, and is excited about the chance to bring in ESPN’s roster of analysts that can lend that expertise and provide him opportunities to bounce ideas and opinions off of, always seeking to bring the audience a bit closer along the way.
He might not know what it’s like standing in the pocket on third-and-13 to explain something Carson Wentz is doing, but he’s more than willing to bring Dan Orlovsky on the show to detail what that feels like, then give his own personal insight layered on top of that. For Williams it’s all about nuance and finding the intricacies of the game. It’s something he keeps coming back to, and it’s a passion that readily exudes from him. He’s hopeful the audience will respond to that as well as he tries to connect his own viewpoint to the expertise of the deep roster at the Worldwide Leader.
“People will say to me, why do I need to hear your opinion on home maintenance?” Williams says. “Well, cause I have a home. I don’t know everything about it, but when my furnace broke I’ve gotta go fix it or pay someone to come fix it and show me how to do it so I can do it better the next time. And that’s what radio is going to be for me. Can I tell you what it is to kick a PK if you’re playing for an MLS team? No, but I played soccer growing up and my wife played soccer, so once again, commonality. How do you build a bridge? That’s what I’m all about, building bridges.”