"I never doubted I would play again"
On September 13, 2002, Atlanta Hawks guard DerMarr Johnson fell asleep at the wheel and drove his car into a tree on his way home from a night out with two friends. Just over a year later, he is completely healed from the broken neck suffered in the accident and recently signed a free agent make-good contract with the Phoenix Suns. The following is Johnson’s personal account of the horrifying accident and its painful aftermath, his remarkable recovery and his hopes of returning to the dynamic player he was and still believes he is.
“I remember everything from getting out of the car to going to the hospital. I was conscious the whole time. My friend was in the passenger seat and I guess he got up as soon as I hit the tree. He came over to the other side and told me, ‘Come on, you’ve got to get out.’ He helped get my body out and I dragged my legs out. We were on a small hill, so once I dragged my legs out, I rolled twice away from the car and stood up once I got down the hill. Once I stood up I realized there was no reason for me to stand up, I couldn’t go nowhere. So I just lay back down and he went to get the other guy from the car that was in the back seat and by the time they got out, the car blew up and it was on fire.
“Then some girls came out of nowhere in a black Navigator. They stopped and my friend asked them if they could take us to the hospital. Luckily one of the ladies was a nurse, so I guess that’s what gave them the kindness in their heart to stop. I got up and walked and sat in the back of their truck. There was a lot of blood leaking from my head. They pulled up to the hospital, which wasn’t too far, and I walked from their car into the hospital, sat on a bed and from there on I was in and out of it. The police were asking me questions, the doctors were asking me questions. They called my mom, they called my agent, they called everybody with the Hawks, and my teammates. I was taken to three different hospitals. After that first one, a helicopter took me to another one, and then I was driven to a third hospital, where I stayed from that Friday to the next Tuesday.
“Even when I got up and went to the hospital, I never knew anything was seriously wrong. I don’t know at what point I knew my neck was broken, because I was still walking. I just got a few stitches in the top of my head and there was blood coming from that. Other than the blood from my head, I didn’t know what was wrong. Maybe I wasn’t doing too much movement, because I don’t know how I could have been walking like that with four broken bones in my neck.
“Once I got to the hospital, I was sleepy anyway, so once I lay in that bed I was sleeping in and out. That next day when I woke up, I was told I had some broken bones in my neck. They had me in something that had my neck still where I couldn’t move. I remember them lifting me, and they put the thing on my neck and I couldn’t move. It was painful. Every time I wanted to turn a certain way, the nurses had to kind of, ‘One, two, three,’ and kind of lift me on one side. I had to lie side to side. When one side got tired from looking at the TV, they’d flip me to the other side. They had to bathe me and feed me. I never felt so helpless in my life.
“I never thought my basketball career would be over, though. I never really put much thought into that. Everybody around me was scared for me, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to play again. My whole thing was, it was a broken bone and the broken bone was going to be fixed and I was going to be back. Maybe I didn’t take it as seriously as it really was or maybe I’m just overly optimistic, but I just thought the bone was going to heal fine.
“The halo was the craziest thing about the whole situation. I got to the hospital Friday and Monday is when they put the halo on me. They took the brace off my head. I didn’t even know how they were going to put the halo on. I had seen them before but I didn’t know what it was. They numbed me but I felt it as they drilled holes in four different spots in my head, right over my eyebrows and over both of my ears. I don’t know if the numbness didn’t work, but I felt them drilling the holes in my head and it was very painful. Then they stuck the poles in there.
“I went home Tuesday and it was the most miserable day. I couldn’t move at all. I hadn’t eaten well in the hospital. My mom had all this food cooked and I couldn’t really enjoy the food. I couldn’t bend down and get it. My head was up so it wasn’t comfortable eating.
“After a while, I actually got used to that halo (laughs). I was moving around in it. I was even driving in it. If I made a left, I’d see you at the last minute if you were crossing. I was doing a lot of stuff I probably shouldn’t have been doing.
“Sleeping was the hardest part. I had to sleep on my back for the first few days. After I got more comfortable and the pain-killers started kicking in a little more, I was able to sleep on my side and through the night I would switch from side to side and to my back.
“When they first took the halo off, that was painful too. That might have been more painful than when they first put the halo on because my muscles were so weak from my head being held up by the poles, it hurt and I couldn’t move. It would hurt every move I made. I put on a neck collar, which didn’t allow my neck to move either. It took a few days for that pain to go away. After a few weeks, I was taking the neck brace off, even when I wasn’t supposed to.
“Even then, I never doubted I would play again. I thought when they took the halo off I was going to be almost ready to be rolling. It wasn’t that easy. It was quicker than everybody else expected, though. A few days after they took the halo off, I took the brace off and then I started therapy.
BACK TO BASKETBALL
“The game of basketball never left me. I was shooting around even with the halo on. I would go to the gym and do my lay-ups. While the team would be in the locker room talking at halftime, I’d go to the practice court and shoot around as much as I could. My body was feeling good the whole time. I was able to go up and dunk and stuff like that, as long as I didn’t come down too hard. I got to feeling better and better and I was working out more. The last two months of the season I was on the practice court before the game working out. I was trying to play last year, but they wouldn’t let me.
“The more I played, the better I got. I felt like by the end of the summer I was better than I was beforehand, just by the extra year of looking and learning. I’m probably not as strong as I was before, but I’ll get there. I do think I’m a better basketball player.
“Now, I’m at 100 percent. I’m not holding back at all. I’ve been knocked around a lot this summer and I made sure of that. I’m known for standing around and knocking down the threes, but I was driving to the rack purposely, and I still do that, trying to get fouled and trying to get knocked down. I’ve been hit hard. I’ve been hit dead-on in the head and it hasn’t hurt. The guys look at me and wonder if I’m all right, and I just say, “I’m all right, I’m all right. Let’s keep playing. Don’t worry about me.”
“I get asked about the accident all the time, but I’m not bothered by it, especially because now I’m in a new place, in training camp with the Phoenix Suns. I’ve told the story hundreds of times. I don’t mind answering questions about it. I’m trying to get back in the NBA and I’m sure people are going to want to know what really happened.
“I’m aware that it is a good story and I think it is too. I just never doubted. This is the worst-case situation for me. I thought I’d be back in Atlanta ready to get a starting position and have a great year this year and next year and get paid a lot of money. But now I’m in a situation where I could possibly be cut. I could never have pictured myself in a situation like that. I was the sixth pick in the draft. I was the number one high school player in the country. I never thought I would be in a situation where I could be cut.
“I’ve just got to work hard like I’ve been doing. It’s not in my hands right now. It’s in God’s hands and the Suns hands.”
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