For a lot of young boys and girls, basketball is nothing more than a fun game played with friends. For the boys of Central High School in Newark, New Jersey, it’s much more than that: it’s an escape from what’s going on outside the gym.
The Central High School boys basketball team is at the center of a new YouTube docu-series, executive produced by LeBron James and directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Michael John Warren, called “Best Shot.” The series premieres on the NBA’s YouTube channel on Wednesday.
Jay Williams, the former Duke star and college player of the year, assisted the team throughout the season and had a front-row seat to watch their growth.
“Working with these kids was a real game changer because I think there’s a tendency for everybody to get lost into your own life,” the second pick in the 2002 NBA draft said via phone. “For me to buckle down and say, ‘This is the team that I’m immersed with,’ and then to start and understand all the kids and what they’re going through on a day-to-day basis, that’s what made me buy in.”
Like most high school basketball teams, the goal is set early: a state championship. And that wasn’t any different for Central. Unlike other high school stories, though, the boys from Central High School have more difficult obstacles off the court — ranging from family tragedy to police run-ins, most of which are addressed in the series.
“One of the things that I was able to see throughout the work that we put in is that there were high stakes, not just for the team on the court but for all the kids off the court,” Williams said. “I’m a prime example of that.”
In 2003, Williams, a New Jersey native himself, was involved in a serious motorcycle accident that essentially ended his professional basketball career.
“People will try to throw my accident in my face like that’s going to hinder me from being vocal about my pain or if I firmly believe something,” he said, “and that’s something that I have to live with.”
While many would shy away from discussing such a tragic event in their lives, Williams embraces the accident as a learning experience for himself and others.
“I think we all can sit back and reflect on things that could’ve gone very wrong,” Williams said, “and I think a lot of people in this world have been ‘lucky’ - I say ‘lucky’ because I look at luck in a different way.
“I was lucky that I did get hurt, because it taught me how I wanted to live my life. But if I can use my experience to help other people to not have the same mistakes or similar experiences where you can still learn and have appreciation, then that’s what I call lucky on my part.”
Williams plays a big brother-like role in “Best Shot” and has a positive impact on the boys. Having someone on the outside in their corner for once makes a noteworthy impression on their lives.
“Best Shot” is a lot more than a show about basketball. Its greater purpose is to shine a light on the experiences of kids who don’t get the same attention as top-100 prospects.
“Sports are just a vehicle to hook you — basketball is just a thing to dangle out there to lure you in,” Williams said. “But this is about life. This is about all these kids trying to make it.”