flight pro basketball
In the early morning hours of Sept. 13, 2002, a Mercedes-Benz S600 veered off a road in southwest Atlanta and rammed into some trees. The crash broke the neck of the driver, very nearly paralyzing him. The driver was DerMarr Johnson of the Hawks. The Magazine has been following DJ for five years, ever since rumors swirled that hed be the first high school junior to jump to the NBA. He ended up going to the U. of Cincinnati, playing one year there before Atlanta drafted him with the sixth pick of the 2000 draft. This season, his third with the Hawks, was supposed to be the 22-year-old, 6'9" shooting guards big opportunity. It is also the year after which his three-year, $5.6M contract will expire.
The accident was the start of a personal and professional whirlpool thats still spinning. And DJ is trying to make sense of it all.
Im not a superstitious guy. I dont believe in Friday the 13th or anything like that. I guess what happened was just meant to happen when it happened. I had no idea what was coming or what would go down afterward. The day before was a good day. Everything was looking up.
This was going to be my third year in the NBAmy breakout year. I had flashes my rookie year, but I just wasnt getting the minutes. Toward the end of last season I felt like it was really coming together. I put in 28 against Milwaukee, and even then I missed a few shots that I should have hit. But we won the game, and I felt like Id contributed. Coach [Lon] Kruger had confidence in me. My rookie days were long behind me.
I dont think I took even a week off after the season ended. I got right back to working out. I was really really hitting the weights and I could feel myself filling out. I went from 192 to 210. The hawks had made their playoff guarantee, and I thought wed be one of the top four teams in our conference.
Sept. 12 was a Thursday. Some of the hawks were in from out of town, training camp wouldnt open for another three weeks and we were playing pickup. Best-of-seven series, and it was tied 3-3. No refs, so when its game point, we all just keep fouling the guy trying to make the last shot. You want to make him earn that point by doing something special. And I hit a jump shot over Glenn Robinson to win it.
A lot of the guys were flying out the next day. So a bunch of us went out to a club that night to enjoy ourselves.
When I go to a club, there are times when I dont even drink water. Its just about being with my friends and socializing. You could ask my girlfriend, EmeraldI dont even dance. I cant remember what I had to eat or drink that night. But I will tell you this: I was definitely not intoxicated.
It was pretty late, about 4 in the morning, when we headed home. I was driving. My memory is of pulling off at the exit to my house. The music was loud, and I cut it down because Devon Williams and James Barnett, my friends, were asleep. I might have been at a red light. Its hard to remember. The next thing I know Im getting pulled out of the car. I cant remember that anything hurt. I was kind of shocked. As Devon pulled my body, I slid out my legs. We were on a hill. I rolled over a few times down the hill and stood upand then I kind of fell right back down.
My Mercedes was smashed into a tree. It was on fire, thenpow!there was a split-second explosion. The whole thing was all blurry, like a dream.
Out of nowhere this car stops. It was a woman. My buddy Devon was like, Can you take us to the hospital? we were able to walk to her car. There was a lot of blood, but I never thought there was anything wrong with my neck.
At first it got reported that I was killed in the accident. Thats how some of my teammates heard about it. Jason Terry was on his way to the airport when the report came over the radio. He started calling around and found out that I was at the hospital [Atlanta Medical Center]. A lot of my teammates came to the hospital. They were waiting as I was rolled out on a table. There was a big gash in my head where theyd sewn me up. My face was swollen. I had a neck brace on. My hands were all scabbed and bloody. I could tell by their eyes that I didnt look too good. I didnt really speak. I think they all touched my hands. I just looked up at everybody and tried to smile.
Devon and James had come through better than meDevon was basically uninjured, James had broken ribs and a collapsed lung. I cant remember who it was who told me about the four fractures in my neck. I do remember that whenever they had to move me, the nurses would team up and everybody would say, one, two, three, and then turn me so I wouldnt do it myself. I was in a daze. I was sleepy. Thats why I crashed the car in the first place.
Later, I found out that they were close to operating. Even with everything that happened, I was real lucky. An inch this way, an inch that way and I could have been paralyzed for life. And you never know what would have happened if theyd done the surgery. I was real close to the possibility of getting messed up.
Then came the halo. Id never seen a halo brace before. I can remember my mom being in a car accident when I was young and having a white brace around her neck for a little while. But this was much different. I think I was lying flat on my back. Maybe they lifted me up. They were holding this metal brace, and I remember thinking, How they gonna do this?
You know how a dentist drills into your teeth? Well, all of a sudden theyre drilling right into my forehead. Im not asleep. Im not knocked out. Im wide awake. And Im saying, Hey, I can feel this! This hurts. A lot! I mean, this is crazy!
Theyre drilling a hole on the left, another on the right. Im thinkin, this is probably going to save me, but who made this up? Theres gotta be a better way to do this than drilling into a mans skull!
They screwed the metal halo into my head. Metal pins run from the halo down to shoulder pieces that are attached to a vest. The idea is to keep your neck secure. And you know something, once they got the brace on, I felt better.
My mom flew in from Washington. She called Emerald and told her what happened. Emeralds emotional. She wanted to fly down from DC, too, but she was late in her pregnancy, and she wasnt allowed to travel. I just told her, Youve got to take care of yourself and the baby. Ill be okay.
photographs bY JaMie squire/gettY iMages for ESPN THE MAGAZINE
But I really had no idea how it would be with this halo on. At first, I couldnt eat. My neck was up high, and it was almost too much effort to get the food up. The halo stays in for about seven weeks while the bones heal. I was just hoping to get the brace off in time to go home to Washington to see my child born.
A week after the accident, we get a call from my 18-year-old little brother, Melvin, in Washington. He said, Dads on the floor, and he wont wake up. My moms still taking care of me in Atlanta. And so we tell my brother to call 911.
My father had had surgery for internal problems, and I guess the surgery didnt go too good. But Id seen him the month before at the hospital, and he was cool. He was walking down the corridor with the IV pole in his hand. Thats how my dad is: Whos gonna stop me? The doctors? Im all right. Shortly after that, hed gone home to my moms house. Then comes the second call. The ambulance is there, but they cant get my father breathing. My mom
Her son almost dies, now her husbands dead. And now shes got to be the one to tell my grandmother. It was so hard to see my mom like that. Im a really strong person, but I just broke down for a while.
I dont remember the exact time frame, but sometime after that another call came in with news that my college coach, Bob Huggins, had a heart attack. [Ed.s note: Huggins heart attack was on Sept. 28, 2002.] It makes you start to wonder: Why is this all happening?
Everything was coming at the same time. My contract with the Hawks runs out after this season. The accident came just before the time when the Hawks would have picked up my option. I could have pushed to have it picked up long before that. But it was no big deal. I saw how the Hawks did it with JT [Jason Terry] and Dion [Glover]. It happens at the last minute. But after the accident, the Hawks really didnt have a choice. Theyre over the cap. Since I would be making $3 million, that meant, counting the luxury tax, it would cost the hawks $6 million to resign me. I understood. They treated me like family, so how could I be mad? The whole time, I was thinking, as soon as they take this halo off, Im going to be ready to go.
Then the phone rang again. It was Oct. 14. Thats one date I remember. It was Emerald. Her water had broken. It was early for that to happen. My halo was still on. I didnt want people to see me like that. It was hard even getting clothes to fit right with the halo on. My shirts had to be cut down the middle so I could angle them over the poles. I didnt want to make a scene. But I rushed to the airport to get to Washington.
My son was born before I got there. Junior. I wasnt used to holding a baby. Because of the halo, I couldnt put him next to my chest. You know, it still hasnt all the way sunk in. My dad died. My sons born. All I know is things got to get better.
I honestly thought that Id be playing by the All-Star Game. Hey, its just broken bones. I broke my arm twice when I was in elementary school. I can remember playing basketball with one hand. I know my neck is a little more sensitive. But its still bones. Bones heal.
Seven weeks after they drilled it in, the halo came off. I was shocked. I wanted to put it right back on. My neck was so weakthe poles had been holding it up. If I wanted to reach down to get a video game while I was wearing the halo, I could bend right over and pick it up. It gave you the support. Without it, I had to squat. I couldnt turn my head a bit.
You know how weak I was? I tried to dribble a basketball with my right hand, and it wouldnt even come back to me. I could barely lift my right arm. But every day I got a little stronger.
They said it would be eight to 10 months before I could work out. But Im the type to want to test myself. I can remember my first shot. It was an air ball. Wasnt even close. The days passed, and the motion started coming back. At first, I had to put a lot of effort into just shooting a free throw.
What is really hard is going to the games. I have a seat right behind the Hawks bench. They didnt want me to sit next to the team in case anybody dives for a loose ball. The doctors didnt want me to have any physical contact.
When the team started losing, I could see myself in the game and see losses turn into wins. Coach Kruger got let go when the losses mounted. There was nothing I could do but sit there and watch.
Around Christmas the doctor said that things were going a lot faster than he thought. But we still have a ways to go. I was only supposed to be taking stationary shots. No jump shots. But when youre out on the court and you see the basket there and you know that it dont take too much effort to dunk, youve got to try. I went up and layed it in as a test. Then I just dunked itand it felt good.
Some of my teammates say Im pushing it too far. But Ive played some one-on-one with friends and right now I feel like I can go out in a pickup game and be as good as anybody. Im just not in NBA shape. I still cant turn my neck all the way. But the motion is coming back. It took a lot longer than I thought, but much shorter than the doctors predicted.
In January, the docs cleared me to practice with the team. Theres not too much they let me do. The three-man weave, shooting drills. When the team does the contact stuff, I have to step aside. Some of my teammates just dont want to take the chance. Shareef [Abdur-Rahim] said he didnt want it on his conscience. He said, If youre going in for a layup, Im going to let you. I aint going to foul you. It would be nice if everybody in the NBA felt that way.
I was watching the Fiesta Bowl at the beginning of the year, when Miamis Willis McGahee got injured. He had insured himself just before that game. I have insurance too. I was told what I would get if I couldnt playI dont want to get into it, but its a nice figure. Pete Babcock, our GM, said that if I couldnt play, the Hawks would find me an office job so that I would have benefits. There was great support around meand that made me feel good. But the whole time, I always knew I was gonna play again.
I dont know whats going to happen with the team. I have no control over it. All I can do is concentrate on improving myself every day.
I love Atlanta. Id like to stay here. Coach [Terry] Stotts was an assistant coach with Milwaukee last year when I put in 28. Maybe he remembers what I can do. But I really want to show everybody something by the end of the year.
I dont know if theyll let me on the court. I know how it is out there. I didnt see anybody taking it easy on Alonzo mourning. But if I keep progressing, and the doctors say its cool, I dont see why I cant play.
I just bought a new Bentley to replace the car I wrecked. My financial adviser wanted me to get a Honda Accord. He says I would be very unique. The only guy in the NBA with a Honda Accord.
I told him thats not necessary. Ill be playing again soon.