For The Love Of The Game
By DerMarr Johnson November 19, 2019
A halo. No, not the disk or circle that surrounds an angel or saint. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a brace that reminded me of one night and one accident. It reminds me of my life almost being taken, my dream career possibly being taken away forever.
You see, all my life, I wanted to be that superstar ball player. After my junior year in high school people were expecting me to go straight to the NBA. They saw this 6’9″ rangy player and thought of similar things to what we see of Kevin Durant now. In 1997, I remember seeing this New Yorker article where they called me “Magic Johnson with a jump shot.”
That was me. That’s who I was.
I decided to go to University of Cincinnati and had K-Mart not gotten hurt, most believed we would’ve won the championship that year. I left school after I was named Conference USA Freshman of the Year that season and was drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Hawks in 2000. I was a consensus McDonald’s, Parade Magazine and USA Today All-American. I successfully made it through my rookie and second year in the NBA. It was up-and-down, but filled with highlights and promise that I was going to breakout in my third year.
However, before my third season, I was with some friends in late September. We were driving home from being out with some of my teammates and I dozed off at a light near an exit to my home. I drifted across the street and hit a tree, thankfully able to get out before the car went up in smoke and flames. After that, all I can really remember is waking up in a hospital bed.
I broke four vertebrae in my neck. Paralysis was inches from happening. To make matters worse, while my mother was taking care of me and I was at the end of my stay at the hospital, my father unexpectedly passed away. I felt like I got off easy, like that could’ve been me. It felt like my dad gave his life so that I could live.
A week in the hospital, eight weeks in a halo, my father had just passed away and I was away from the game I grew up loving. I slept on my back with little to no movement and those first few weeks were hell. I’d have teammates, friends and family members stop by. I still remember having braids in my hair and the girl who did them would come in to wash mine out of a bucket and braid around the poles. But, even after all that, all I could think about was how I’d get back on the court.
Shortly after the accident, I was offered insurance money and didn’t think twice about rejecting it. My goal was to play again and I wasn’t giving that up.
Later that season, I was playing and I was back. I felt good. But, the team didn’t feel comfortable having me play. They fired the GM who drafted me and the new GM didn’t offer me a new deal. So, I ended up playing one season for the Knicks and then moved to where former Cincinnati teammate (and current BIG3 coach) Kenyon Martin was. It was in Denver.
I started games, I came back and played well for the Nuggets. I helped them reach the playoffs in each of my three years and we won the division once. But, I was never looked at the same. I was a role player trying to stay in the league and never got a full chance after the accident. Once a 21 year-old who was supposed to be the future of the Atlanta Hawks franchise was now a role player who kept edging closer to being on the outside looking in. I defended the best players, hit outside shots, dunked on half the centers in the league, but felt like I didn’t have luck on my side after the accident.
I bounced around overseas, I played in many other countries, even came back to the NBA for a little. It was a long road. Then, about three years ago, my friend and former teammate K-Mart reached out to me about being a player on Trilogy. He told me about the BIG3 and I was excited about getting the chance to play with and against NBA talent again.
I ended up moving to co-captain of 3’s Company instead of playing with Trilogy because at the time, Allen Iverson wanted to make me his captain. So instead of playing with Trilogy, I got into a different role than I expected. Because I was a captain it meant I wasn’t just playing. I was making decisions for the whole team, I had to draft the team, decide who to play, scout, watch film and ask others about how specific players played. I wanted to build the best team. That was apart of the process and I enjoyed it because I have aspirations to work in a front office one day.
So I’m proud to say I have handled it well and been so successful in this league. Almost all the guys I’ve drafted in the league have become stars. As a team, we made it to the Finals in season two and just missed a tiebreaker from being in the final four last season.
But, this next season will be the toughest yet. We suddenly and tragically lost our best player, Dre. A guy who is irreplaceable (no disrespect to others). A friend who I miss every day. Someone who was the most important player on our team. So we’re focused on trying to find someone who can help fill his shoes as a scorer and facilitator for our team.
Overall, I have found my passion with this league as a captain and decision-maker. From all the bad luck earlier in my career, I’ve taken this opportunity and adjusted to the three-on-three game, adapting to the physicality, defensive intensity and quick awareness needed on every possession. With the BIG3, I even got the opportunity to go back and get my degree because of the league’s schedule.
So while I never made that extra leap in the peak of my career due to the car accident, I’m grateful to be able to re-invent myself at 39 and become more than just a higher IQ basketball player. I’ve become a smarter person, I have life lessons and former peers, teammates and opponents that I have a special bond with. Guys who I grew up idolizing are now in the BIG3 and it’s made me feel like I did become what I aspired to be.