DENVER - After a car accident left him with a broken neck and a tragedy left him with a broken heart, DerMarr Johnson easily could have given up on his dream of playing in the NBA. He just wasn't going to let it happen.
Two years after the toughest two weeks of his life, Johnson is still plugging away, trying to latch on in Denver after signing with the Nuggets this week.
"I just never for once thought it was over. I just thought I'd be back playing in no time," Johnson said. "I think I can help the team. I'm still young, I'm still learning and I can be a good player in this league."
Johnson never imagined it would have gotten to this point.
A lanky, 6-foot-9 guard, Johnson showed plenty of potential in one season at Cincinnati, averaging 12.6 points and 3.8 rebounds before bolting for the NBA. The Atlanta Hawks liked his game, taking him with the sixth overall pick in the 2000 draft.
Johnson only averaged 5.1 points as a rookie, but started showing more consistency during his second season, finishing with 8.4 points.
The improvement had Johnson ready for a breakout season in 2002. He never got the chance.
Driving home with two friends from an Atlanta nightclub, Johnson fell asleep at the wheel, leading to a fiery crash. With four cracked vertebrae in his neck, Johnson was told he was close to being paralyzed and would probably never play basketball again.
It wasn't even the worst news Johnson would hear that month.
Just a week later, while his mother was visiting him in the hospital, Johnson's father, Melvin, died from complications from surgery in Maryland. Still dazed from that news, Johnson learned a week later that his college coach, Bob Huggins, suffered a heart attack.
In the midst of all the pain, Johnson was given a ray of hope. Just a month after his accident, Johnson's girlfriend gave birth to a son, DerMarr Jr.
"My son being born and me healing, that just brought everything up after my dad passed," Johnson said.
He has used his experience as motivation. Just three weeks after being fitted with a halo to stabilize his neck, he was driving against doctors orders. Despite lingering numbness in his right arm, he was shooting baskets within seven weeks of getting the halo off.
But things didn't come easily.
Though he was cleared to play in January 2003, the Hawks kept Johnson on the bench and didn't pick up his option after the season. Johnson played for Memphis' summer league team, then started last season in Phoenix's training camp before getting cut.
That left him little option but to play in the minor leagues. It worked out pretty well.
Teaming with Dennis Rodman on Long Island of the ABA, Johnson averaged 22.6 points and 6.4 rebounds. It was just the lift he needed.
"It was fun, actually. I was playing basketball again, so I was happy," Johnson said. "I wasn't going to complain if I was playing basketball. It was a fun experience, but I don't want to go back."
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