Taking the Shot

DerMarr Johnson was a hot-shot hoopster before a season-ending accident. Can he reignite the heat in Denver?

On a folding chair along the sidelines is where soft-spoken Denver Nugget DerMarr Johnson spent most of his season. But with the playoffs under way, Johnson, who can surprise with explosive off-the-bench performances when it matters most, says he's hoping for some big minutes against the Clippers.

The road from being one of the best high school ballers in the nation to sitting on the Nuggets bench has been a rough one for the soon-to-be 26-year-old, who plays guard and forward. He first dunked a basketball in eighth grade, but even high school ball wasn't a certainty for him in the beginning.

Johnson grew up in a four-bedroom house in Washington, D.C., that averaged between fifteen and twenty residents who were always coming and going. Some were his older cousins who chose to chase the street life, but they shielded Johnson from the dope game -- simply because he was their little cousin, not because they saw his potential on the court. At that point, Johnson was just an average kid, busy running around and staying active, playing sports. He didn't take basketball too seriously, though he says it's always been his passion.

DerMarr Johnson is in a full-court press for the 
Jim J. Narcy
DerMarr Johnson is in a full-court press for the Nuggets.

Then he started growing taller -- eventually hitting six feet, nine inches and 210 pounds.

Johnson's cousins pushed him to ball, but it was Curtis Malone -- a friend of those cousins who coached a basketball team of inner-city kids -- who made him understand his potential. "When I met him, he was a kid whose grades weren't good, and he wasn't even playing on his high school team," Malone remembers. "He was such a quiet kid, and he really listened."

Malone asked Johnson to play on his hoops team, which got him off the streets and into practice every day. The two became so close that Johnson began calling Malone his "godfather" and eventually moved in with him. By Johnson's second attempt at ninth grade, Malone had helped him hit the books enough that he was eligible to join the high school team.

The baby-faced Johnson quickly gained notoriety as one of the best sophomores in the country after he schooled the competition at a basketball camp sponsored by adidas. He kept growing, and along with the height came some high-school-to-NBA hype. Malone did his best to keep the wrong people out of Johnson's ear and to keep the youngster from getting big-headed.

Malone knew a high school coach up in Maine, where he'd sent another kid with potential to play. It was a good school and a good place for Johnson to hone his skills -- and far enough away from the streets of D.C. to remove the temptation for fast money. Johnson's mother trusted Malone wholeheartedly and allowed her senior son to go to Maine, where he lived in a dormitory. NBA draft-speak followed him north, but Johnson decided to head to college first for fear of being drafted at too low a spot, Malone says.

During his senior year, Johnson was recognized as one of the top high school players in the country. He went to the University of Cincinnati in 1999, where he played alongside Kenyon Martin and grew tight with the power forward. An editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer predicted Johnson wouldn't be around for long. The author noted that "a 6-foot-9 shooting guard with 3-point range and a wingspan the width of Wyoming is as rare and precious as a vow of silence from Dick Vitale. If Johnson can survive a season of [coach Bob] Huggins's high-decibel advice, the NBA should be comparative child's play."

The 1999-2000 Bearcats team generated buzz of a national championship, but Martin was hurt that year, and the Bearcats were knocked out in the second round. Johnson won Freshman of the Year honors; Martin got National Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. First choice of the NBA's 2000 draft went to the New Jersey Nets, who selected Martin. Five picks later, Johnson was taken by the Atlanta Hawks at number six.

Johnson made the highlight reels in his rookie year with some outstanding dunks. The Hawks won eight more games in Johnson's second season than in his first, but they didn't deliver on playoff promises. Johnson was pumped and ready for his third season, but before it could get started, he fell asleep at the wheel, crashed into a tree and fractured four vertebrae in his neck. It cost him the whole season.

There was an option on Johnson's contract for the Hawks to pick him up for a fourth year, but the team fired its manager and Johnson was released. He spent a month or two with the Long Beach Jam in the American Basketball Association before the New York Knicks picked him up and returned him to the pro court for 21 games. When the Knicks didn't offer him a deal for the following season, Martin urged him to come and try out for the Nuggets, to whom the Nets had traded him for three future first-round draft picks.

Trying out for a team was an "awkward situation" for the former number-one high school hoopster who could have gone straight to the NBA. "You're used to always being good and wanted, and you come into a situation where they can cut you anytime," Johnson remembers.

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