By Dave Goldstein
TORONTO - This season DerMarr Johnson has been cut, relegated to a minor-league team and, eventually, cemented to an NBA bench. Yet despite those struggles, 2003-04 will be remembered not as a disappointing season, but as the most remarkable one of Johnson's young career.
After his second promising campaign with the Atlanta Hawks in 2001-02, Johnson was involved in a car accident in which he broke his neck, cracking four vertebrae. Hawks trainer Wally Blase told the Enquirer last season that it was a "miracle" Johnson was not in a wheelchair. Although he practiced sooner than expected, Johnson missed the entire season and was not re-signed by the Hawks. He was picked up by the Phoenix Suns this preseason, but did not make their final roster, and he was with the Long Beach Jam of the ABA when the call to return finally came. On Feb. 3, the New York Knicks signed Johnson to a 10-day contract, which has since been extended to cover the rest of the season.
"It feels great to be back," Johnson said. "Last year was really tough. I'd never been hurt, never had to watch from the sidelines, but I learned a lot. I always knew I'd be back, that it was just a matter of time. God has blessed me by letting me be here."
Johnson's learning experiences did not come to an end with the end of his rehabilitation. After months of rotation exercises and other drills to regain full motion in his neck, Johnson had to take on another novel challenge - trying out for an NBA team.
An athletic, 6-foot-9 swingman with a feathery shooting touch, Johnson was Parade's High School Player of the Year, the 2000 Conference USA Freshman of the Year and a lottery pick after just one year at Cincinnati.
Making an NBA team had never been an issue, but with a questionable neck and a year of inactivity under his belt, it took months to do it.
Johnson played well in the summer league and was given a look by the Suns in training camp, but an abundance of guaranteed contracts and a lack of roster spots made the match impossible. The ABA may seem an incongruent stop for a player with Johnson's credentials, but the experience paid off.
"That was a reality check, but honestly, I thought it was fun," Johnson said. "I was just happy to be playing in a real game. The money didn't do anything for me, but I was just happy to be getting games under my belt. Going from getting drafted sixth to being in a position where I could get cut, and then actually getting cut, it was like 'wow.' But you've just got to keep working."
Playing behind players such as Allan Houston, Penny Hardaway and Tim Thomas, Johnson has appeared in only nine games as a Knick, and averages only 2.1 points per outing, but his effort and desire have been contagious. Houston, after discussing the challenge of returning from his own comparatively short month-long absence, lauded Johnson's confidence and perseverance. Long-time Knicks broadcaster and NBA great Walt Frazier said Johnson could be a team leader despite his short tenure in New York.
"It's remarkable that he's playing at all after the adversity he's had to overcome," Frazier said. "Unequivocally, the players have to admire him, because what he's done, not many guys could do. Doctors said he would never play again and he proved them wrong, so he's shown a rare amount of fortitude."
With all he's been through, it's easy to forget that Johnson is just 23. Some may consider his successful return to the NBA a miracle, but to Johnson, it's just a delayed return to his professional career.
Buoyed by support from Bob Huggins, Kenny Satterfield and Kenyon Martin (who had Johnson's name stitched onto his sneakers last season), Johnson came back to make a dominant return in the NBA.
"I want to win a championship, and I want to be an All-Star in this league before it's all said and done," Johnson said. "I was hoping both would happen a lot sooner, but I hit a speed bump that I had to go over.
"I think they're still attainable, I'm just going to have to work extra, extra hard."
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