Ex-NBA Star Jayson Williams Helping Problem Gamblers (And Other Addicts) To Rebound

The former all-star also weighed in on gambling's presence in the NBA in the '90s
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Add Jayson Williams to the list of former all-star professional athletes who have gained a toehold in the world of U.S. gambling expansion.

But while others may appear in TV commercials and tout sportsbooks that are their business partners, the 53-year-old Williams has carved out a niche of his own by founding an “outdoor adventure therapy” business aptly named Rebound to help those struggling with addictions such as gambling.

Williams, who spoke Tuesday as a panelist in Newark, N.J. — not far from where he played for eight years as a power forward on the New Jersey Nets — at the Seton Hall Law School’s “Gaming Law, Compliance, and Integrity Program Bootcamp,” founded Rebound in Wellington, Fla., in 2016, not long after he began abstaining from alcohol, which he proudly said he continues to this day.

Rebound employees work with those ailing with everything from severe depression, anxiety, sexual addiction, and drug and alcohol abuse to gambling problems.

“Most of the people who come to us didn’t start out as alcoholics or drug addicts,” Williams said. “They got that way because of gambling. [They think] If you lose everything, why not turn to the bottle, or turn to the needle?”

Williams said that clients attend the Rebound program in groups of just six at a time, and that about 70 clients per year complete the program.

New forms of adrenaline rushes

The adventures, Williams said, can be “similar to a high you get, or don’t get, from gambling.”

“I throw you out of a plane — I’m a pilot,” Williams quipped of the sky diving exercise. Scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, and hiking are among the 19 different activities clients experience during the program, accompanied by four hours per day of traditional sessions with psychologists.

“We take you out of your comfort zone with new experiences that you have never tried before,” Williams said.

In the last 18 months, Williams added, the percentage of visitors he is seeing who have gotten into trouble due to gambling has increased — parallel to the proliferation of state law approvals and the resulting advertising blitzes across the U.S. to sign up for mobile sports betting apps.

“You put ESPN on and they speak for two hours about the [football] point spread,” said Williams, adding that he no longer uses email or subscribes to social media sites. “That was frowned upon some 10 years ago. Gambling was taboo before, but the world is changing. We’re just trying to help people.”

Williams also said that he is “for gaming, for sure — responsible gaming. The gaming industry is not a bad thing, and I respect it. Some people can bet within their means — most people can.”

Still, noting a Rutgers University study finding that 6.3% of adults in New Jersey struggle to some degree with a gambling compulsion, Williams added, “That is a lot of people, considering how gambling can destroy your life.”

Williams, who began abusing alcohol in his early teens, told the Seton Hall audience, “I’m a guy where one drink is too many, and a thousand is not enough. Some people can drink a glass of wine and go home. I am not one of those people.”

Gambling during Williams’ NBA playing days …

Williams looked calm, rested, and content Tuesday as he talked about his business’s efforts to turn troubled lives around. The 1998 NBA All-Star served 18 months in prison after a guilty plea of aggravated assault in the shooting of a limousine driver at his 27,000-square-foot western New Jersey mansion in 2002.

And while Williams — once a perennial first-team NBA All-Media selection for his outspokenness and quick wit — was a bit more diplomatic than in years past, he didn’t completely stonewall a reporter’s query, either.

Asked by NJ Online Gambling about how prevalent gambling seemed to be during his playing career from 1991 to 2000, Williams replied, “I know for sure that there was a lot of gambling going on when I was there.

“But never gambling going on to lose the game,” he said. “It was gambling that ‘I’d get more points, or assists,’ or ‘I could [make] a free throw with my eyes closed.’

“Some things are public, like Mark Jackson betting against Charles Barkley in a game,” Williams said of a 1990 incident in which the two star players were fined $5,000 each when it was discovered that they had a running $500 bet on the outcome of their teams’ head-to-head matchups.

Williams teased the audience by saying, “This is probably a question that will get me in a lot of trouble” and “it’s the biggest secret in all of sports” before adding, “Even the biggest player in the world, for a time, had to take time off because of some issues. I’m not going to say who that is, because he’s a good friend. And I hope everything stays in this room.”

Williams was responding to a question from this reporter — who covered his entire eight-year Nets career and eight more years of Williams’ legal difficulties as well.

“When we did find out there was a lot of gambling going on, it didn’t have to be amongst each other,” Williams added. “It could be owing the casinos a lot of money, which was a problem in and of itself.

“One thing I learned about the NBA, you’re not bigger than the game, so the game is going to keep going on, and the biggest guy in the world had to take some time off.”

… and the name that didn’t quite drop

Of course, it’s no “secret” — to use Williams’ word — that Michael Jordan abruptly (and temporarily) retired from the NBA in 1993 at the age of 30 after leading the Chicago Bulls to a third consecutive NBA championship. But there remain questions as to why he walked away.

This retirement came just a few months after Jordan was spotted at an Atlantic City casino past midnight between Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Knicks (the Bulls lost Game 2).

A Sports Illustrated analysis in 2020 of the rumor that the league forced Jordan to retire due to gambling included the headline “debunking,” and most other analyses have reached the same conclusion.

Also, Jordan’s father was murdered in the summer of 1993, and Jordan suggested at the time that the tragedy had caused him to lose his zest for the game.

We do know that the NBA performed at least two investigations of Jordan’s gambling in the early 1990s, and Jordan himself has acknowledged that he has gambled extensively — particularly on the golf course.

But former Commissioner David Stern — who, by the way, was not considered a Jordan ally — put the issue to bed for some when, just months before he died last year, he said in an interview for the critically acclaimed The Last Dance documentary: “The folklore, the urban legend that I sent him away because he was gambling — ridiculous. … It’s just not true.”

Photo: Shutterstock
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