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In ‘Best Shot,’ Jay Williams helps high school players survive the streets

NBA/YouTube

The YouTube documentary offers an unvarnished look into their lives.

There’s a moment in the first episode of the YouTube Premium documentary series, Best Shot, that sums up why these films are made—and why they’re so fascinating to watch. Shawn “OG” McCray, who coaches the Newark Central High School boy’s basketball team and does everything possible to keep his players off the road to ruin, says, almost to himself, “Sometimes, I wake up thinking, ‘How much of a difference am I really making?’”

In 21 years of coaching, 19 of his former players have been killed on the streets—and it’s a question that pertains to his current players. As McCray tells them when they began practice at the start of the season: If they don’t have a plan to get off the streets, the streets will have a plan for them.

But it’s also a question for Jay Williams, the former NCAA basketball star who was drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft but who basically ended his career by wrecking his motorcycle in 2003.

As his athletic career gets further behind him, Williams was looking for a way to connect to players whom he could mentor, in the same way others supported him when he was rising star. How could he repay the people who held him to a higher standard than he held himself?

We learn exactly how he’s doing that in Best Shot, an eight-part documentary series that premieres on the NBA YouTube channel this week.

“My life has taken so many different turns,” Williams told the Daily Dot. “As I continue to get older, I start to reflect on all the people that refused to not have a place in my life, that pushed me regardless of whether I was having a good day or a bad day. If I didn’t return their texts, these are the people that would be relentless.”

It’s Williams’ turn to do the same for kids he doesn’t know.

Williams was a college star at Duke, and before his accident, he showed plenty of potential as a high-level NBA player. But none of that matters to the sea of faces he stares at when he makes his first introduction to the Newark Central High team at the school gym in the series’ first episode. As Williams is quick to point out in a phone interview, he doesn’t get extra credit with these kids just because he played in the NBA. He won a national championship for the Blue Devils, but these kids who are struggling at home and in the classroom don’t take any pleasure from that.

Nope, Williams is just a 30-something dude standing in front of them. A stranger who wants to help, but who will have to work hard to earn their trust.

“Being an NBA player or being on TV, that doesn’t connect me with kids,” said Williams, who is a broadcaster for ESPN. “But I understand what it takes to get where they want to be. This isn’t about being a former NBA player coming in and saying I’ve done it before. It’s about, ‘Hey, this is how I live my life and how I’ve been taught by these people.’”

There’s plenty of room for Williams to make an impact on the players of Newark Central. The cameras follow one player named Shaquan who was jailed for getting into a fight and for being accused of stealing a cell phone. Another player named Jihad, the team’s best defender, is ruled ineligible to play in the first episode because of low grades. A number of other team members have family in jail. Few have traditional home lives.

Williams shows up as a team assistant coach. As the school’s principal Sharnee Brown tells him when they meet, there are plenty of opportunities for that. But as Best Shot, which was executive produced by NBA star LeBron James, shows, it wasn’t an easy transition for anybody.

Williams had to find a way to relate to the kids whose lives off the court could be unstable, and some of them gave pushback to being featured on a documentary with plenty of cameras in their faces. As Williams said, when you’re on the set of a documentary series, you have to wonder what’s real and what isn’t.

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What seems to be real is the love and passion showed by OG, the team’s coach. When he was a younger man, he was a part of a group in Newark called the Zoo Crew that used to throw parties for the community that he said attracted rappers like Queen Latifah and Treach from Naughty By Nature. He said the Crew felt like it was helping feed the community, but he also admitted that he was helping fund the project by selling drugs on the street corner.

OG turned his life around after most of the Zoo Crew was brought down by police, telling the Newark Star-Ledger in 2009 that “I always say I had one foot in, one foot out. Some people got two foot in and they just in. I always thought, ‘I’m better than this. I know I can do better things. This is not my life. I don’t want to be known as a drug dealer.’”

Now, he’s the coach of a successful basketball program, and he welcomed in Williams for this behind-the-scenes look. But Williams had to tread carefully. After all, this is OG’s program. Yeah, Williams is more successful than most basketball players will ever be, but how much attention is OG willing to cede?

The high school kids aren’t the only ones learning. Williams is learning, and so are the coaches. What are some of the ways you trained, they ask him? What did you learn from a coaching legend like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski? What kinds of disciplinary actions were effective on you?

“OG is a strong person,” Williams said. “They were really open about who they were and what their mission was. I don’t think there’s ego involved as long as we’re helping the kids become better.

“But it’s a tricky situation. You’re trying to find your way among kids who have been together a long time and a coach who’s been doing it a certain way for a long time. There were sensitive issues and sensitive relationships. I played in the NBA and I’m on TV, but it’s about relationships and how you build relationships and how you build trust. It just doesn’t happen overnight. You have to know your role and continue to build that relationship.”

And he wanted to do that in front of the YouTube Premium cameras. Williams said he’s become a big fan of YouTube in the past few years, and he said he thought hitching his project to the streaming channel was the way to get Newark Central’s story out to the masses.

“That’s the future, isn’t it?” he said. “How are you staying adaptive? How can you connect with as many people as possible? That’s what YouTube and YouTube (Premium) provide. The more you’re able to have a longer reach, the better off you’re going to be.”

Best Shot is more than a sports documentary series. It touches on history and race and culture. It also leaves you wondering where the team’s members will be in 10 years? Can they break the cycle, or will the streets have their own plan for them?

Right now, they’re filled with enthusiasm.

“The most important part about this is by the time you get done, you’re rooting for these kids,” Williams said. “And this isn’t just something that stops after the cameras go off. I spent a lot of time with these kids when the cameras weren’t there. I don’t know what’s going to happen to these kids in the future. But I said from the very beginning that if I was going to let these kids into my life, they were going to be part of my life. It’s a promise I made to them, and a promise I made to myself.”

He wants you to watch as he tries to keep it.

Josh Katzowitz

Josh Katzowitz

Josh Katzowitz is a staff writer at the Daily Dot specializing in YouTube and boxing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. A longtime sports writer, he's covered the NFL for CBSSports.com and boxing for Forbes. His work has been noted twice in the Best American Sports Writing book series.