It’s not often you can witness your dreams, aspirations and accomplishments unfold right in front of you. But that was the case for Jay Williams on Tuesday night, as his Rising Stars gala dinner and charity auction at the New York Athletic Club manifested his vision in living color.
As longtime admirers of Jay, we’ve been ecstatic about his efforts as CEO of Rising Stars, a program that mentors youths to help them succeed in education and in life. We were honored to be in attendance for a star-studded night that saw a group of good people gather together to support a friend and his dream of helping others.
The guest list – which included Knicks guard Chris Duhon; Giants Michael Strahan, David Diehl and Jesse Palmer; former Yankees pitcher and current MLB.com commentator Jeff Nelson; and longtime Vermont coach (and outstanding master of ceremonies) Tom Brennan – were all united for a common goal: to help Jay with a mission he deeply cares about.
“I was very fortunate to have my mother and father – my father worked for AT&T and American Express for a long time, my mother was involved with education for 20-plus years – and they instilled those values in me from a young age,” Jason told the crowd. “I wanted to be something different. Being here tonight, and being surrounded by all you guys, really makes me feel good, because you guys can all help make a difference.”
Strahan, a friend of Jason’s and a supporter of the program, brought the house down as usual, unable to resist taking a shot at his basketball-playing counterparts.
“You know one thing I noticed taking pictures out there,” Strahan told the group, “we have Chris and Jason out there… the football players are taller than the basketball players! [Laughter] That’s funny to me, I’m sorry!”
“We’re not the product of ourselves. We’re not the product of just waking up and saying, ‘We’re great.’ We’re the product of belief of someone else in us,” Strahan said. “If it’s your spouse, if it’s your kid, if it’s your parent – someone believes in you. You represent something. That right there, in itself, is why we are blessed. Because we have those people who stood behind us, who pushed us, who guided us, even when they didn’t know they were doing it.”
The evidence was right in front of us, as several successful graduates of the program took the microphone to detail their experiences, discussing how Rising Stars allowed them to work with people who encouraged them to be their best.
One of the foremost influences for Jason was his mother, Althea, who has always reminded me of my own mother with her energy and positivity. I’ve known Althea for about a decade, dating back to when she called a Duke radio show I hosted the night Jay was a guest to make sure he was doing his homework. We all had a good laugh – except for Jay, who blushed like there was no tomorrow – but it was obvious that even from New Jersey, Althea was actively reminding her son to remain on the right path for success.
Althea, who serves as the National Director of Public Relations for Rising Stars, reminded the crowd that though the money raised was extremely helpful, it’s just as important to take an active role in children’s lives.
“I’m asking each one of you to look into your hearts, to look into your souls,” Althea said. “I thank you for your contributions to this beautiful dinner – it wouldn’t have been anything without you – but it’s so much more. If you care with your heart for an organization that is willing to reach out and really make a difference, to look into the eyes of a child and tell them, ‘You can.’ Not ‘You cannot.’
“Tonight means an awful lot to me. I saw faces I haven’t seen in a while. It’s just about what we can do, and I’m asking you tonight: It’s more than just coming out. It’s about being involved.”
Her point was well taken. We spend so much time thinking about our own situations, our own concerns. And yet there are so many younger people in the world that could benefit not just from a gift of money, but from the type of guidance we’ve received from our parents, our teachers and others who inspired and supported us along the way. In that spirit, I let Althea know that I planned to find time to take a more active role with the organization’s programs in the coming months.
I’ve always known Jason to be a caring and thoughtful person, but he has a perspective that not many people possess. He’s always been grounded, but the accident that cut Jay’s playing career short after his first year in the NBA cemented how the people in his life had helped give him opportunities to reach his goals and become the person he is today – someone who’s made it his life’s mission to help other people.
Maybe the accident, as terrible as it was, was a blessing in disguise in that Jason truly figured out who he was, and it’s so much more than just a basketball player.
His ultimate goal is to build a charter school in Harlem, and I’ve never known Jason to be someone who falls short at anything in life, and he doesn’t take a single day for granted.
“You know, my dream turned out to be something different [from basketball],” Jason said. “But I’m still here today. I didn’t have to be here. I could have passed away at the age of 21 years old, seven years ago.
“Every day I wake up, I have a smile on my face. I was in a hospital bed for a year and a half, pretty much not being able to move. I was pretty fortunate to have my mom who was helping me, my dad who was helping me… I had family around.
“And if we can build that same kind of environment for my kids, that’s what life is all about.”
If you’d like more information on how you can get involved with Jay Williams’ Rising Stars Foundation, visit their site: http://www.jaywillrisingstars.org/