Jayson Williams Returns to Lower East Side For Mentorship Program

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If you’re an early riser, you might have come across an unexpected sight at the crack of dawn the past few Tuesdays: a group of teenage boys waiting to get inside the gym at 301 Henry St., Henry Street Settlement’s youth center. What’s motivating them to bounce out of bed three hours or more before the start of the school day is a new program run by former NBA star Jayson Williams.

Williams, born and raised on the Lower East Side,  has been coming back to the old neighborhood once a week to teach kids from local middle schools some basketball basics and, hopefully, some life lessons. About 15 students from Castle Middle School and University Neighborhood Middle School were ready to go before 7 a.m. yesterday. After an hour on the court, they all sat down for a nutritious breakfast and then walked together to school. The 10-week program, Williams explained, is all about “starting the day off right.”

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A first-round pick in the 1990 NBA draft, Williams played nine years for Philadelphia and New Jersey before a career-ending injury and a downward spiral in his personal life. Williams was released from prison in 2012, after serving two years for the accidental fatal shooting of his chauffeur and a drunk driving conviction. During the past three years, he’s focused on getting his life back on track.

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“Henry Street has always had a special place in my heart,” said Williams in explaining how the new program came to fruition. In the 5th and 6th grades, he and his mom lived in the organization’s homeless shelter before eventually moving to the LaGuardia public housing development. His mom worked at Gouverneur Hospital for 36 years and still lives on the LES. Williams got back in contact with the settlement house through Debbie Cox, a longtime neighborhood friend who is an administrative coordinator at the Workforce Development Center.

Matt Phifer, Henry Street’s director of education services, said the program is obviously making an impact, even though it’s just beginning. When he arrived yesterday at 6 a.m., five kids were already in the gym. “They’re being taught about accountability, showing up on time,” Phifer explained, “all of those things that are really important in sports and also important in life. They’re learning transferrable skills.”  Williams is donating his time, but also providing uniforms, new shoes and food. He’s even making arrangements to take the teens paddle boarding on the Hudson.

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During breakfast yesterday morning, Williams passed around menus to three upscale restaurants and asked the kids to decide where they’d like to go for a nice meal. They chose Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in the Financial District. But first, an etiquette coach will be coming in for a crash course on table manners. Williams said the point is to offer the teens new experiences — to broaden their perspective on life.  But the program is about more than fun and games. He warned the boys that anyone missing two Tuesdays in a row would be out of the program. “You’re ready to go at 7 a.m.,” he told them. “You don’t see NBA games or college or a job where you can be late. We’re family and we’re going to keep each other accountable.”

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Williams said he wishes a program like the one he’s created at Henry Street existed back in there day when he was a student at P.S. 134 and M.S. 56. “These relationships they’re forming now are going to last for the rest of their lives,” Williams added. “I want them to come in here with a smile on their face and no chip on their shoulder.”

Elijah Thomason, a student at University Neighborhood Middle School said of the program, “It wakes me up and basketball is a game that keeps me out of trouble. (Jayson Williams) has taught me how to be myself, to play basketball, to not let anything get to me and to just make this team our family.”