July 10, 2012
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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...
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