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A.J. Price knows value of opportunity after overcoming adversity

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To Deron Williams, A.J. Price was nothing more than a nobody looking for trouble in the final minute of the Washington Wizards’ loss to the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center last week.

When Price stopped Williams from taking an unimpeded path to the basket on a fast break, he simply wanted the all-star point guard to know he was there. He body-checked Williams, and snatched the ball away for good measure, leading to a heated exchange that required both players to be separated.

After the game, Williams delivered some dismissive comments about Price needing to make the most of the “little minutes” he’s going to get as a backup with the Wizards. Price explained the situation as a common occurrence on the basketball court: Players talk trash. Emotions sometimes boil over. You move on.

“Before I’m a basketball player, I’m a man first. I can stand on my own two feet and if I feel somebody is disrespecting me, I’m going to speak up,” Price said. “Just letting him know. ‘I’m not afraid of you. I’m not backing down, regardless of who you are or what your stature is in this league.’ I’m not backing down from anybody.”

Backing down has never been an option for Price, someone who has had more comebacks than a heckled comedian, and doesn’t plan to go away anytime soon.

Price, 26, has dodged death, nearly tossed away his second chance over some idiocy, redeemed himself, almost had basketball taken away again because of a knee injury, made it to the NBA, suffered another knee injury, returned to become a rotation player and then got tossed aside by his first NBA team.

Now, Price is a favorite to be the Wizards’ starting point guard on opening night while John Wall recovers from a stress injury in his left knee.

“It’s not a knock on the league, but most of these players have been handed everything since day one. AAU, all the way up,” Price said. “I almost lost my life at 17. Had brain surgery at 18. . . . I’ve been through controversy. I’ve been through everything. It’s nothing too challenging for me. Nothing I haven’t seen before and nothing I can’t handle.”

‘I wasn’t a good person’

Price’s journey to the NBA seemed destined from the start. His mother, Inga, named him Anthony Jordan after his father, Tony, and Michael Jordan, “the greatest basketball player alive,” she said.

Inga Price is a former point guard for Morgan State. Tony Price was the top scorer of the 1979 NCAA tournament and led Penn to the Final Four in Salt Lake City, where the Quakers lost to Magic Johnson and Michigan State — and he became a forgotten footnote to the start of Johnson’s rivalry with Larry Bird.

Surrounded by basketball his whole life, A.J. Price went on to lead Amityville (N.Y.) Memorial High School to two state titles, became one of the top recruits in the country and picked a national power in Connecticut. But after that, Price’s life and basketball career were riddled with one challenge after another.

“I told A.J., ‘Man, you’ve got a wonderful story to tell and it’s not finished.’ Matter of fact, we’re not even in the middle,” Inga Price, an account executive for Travelers Insurance Company, said with a laugh in a recent telephone interview.

A few weeks into his freshman year at Connecticut in October 2004, Price started feeling fatigued, dehydrated and couldn’t get out of bed. Price blacked out and was airlifted to a neurological intensive care unit in Hartford, where he spent 10 days. Doctors discovered that he had a brain hemorrhage. Price was so out of commission that he doesn’t recollect his 18th birthday — or going on a respirator a day later.

“I went to sleep one night and to this day, I don’t remember two weeks of my life,” Price said.

He had several cerebral angiograms — the dots are still on his head, though covered by his hair, he said — but it took several months before he eventually had arteriovenous malformation diagnosed, a condition that causes arteries and veins in the brain to get tangled and sometimes burst. He had surgery in February 2005, had to learn how to walk again and finally was cleared to play basketball again several months later.

“I wasn’t a good person and that’s why I believe it happened to me,” said Price, who was born with the brain abnormality. “It definitely humbled me. Probably like every other high school all-American at the time, I was cocky, arrogant, brash. All those things.”

But Price hadn’t fully grasped or appreciated what he had overcome, because that summer, he made a “stupid decision” and got arrested — along with teammate Marcus Williams — on charges of stealing laptop computers and lying to police.

Jim Calhoun, then coach at Connecticut, suspended Price for the 2005-06 season and the incident strained the relationship between father and son until the younger Price straightened out his life.

“I always say, ‘Idle time is the devil’s workshop,’ ” said Inga Price, explaining why her son slipped. “He was a little depressed and wondering ‘Why me?’ ”

‘I’m a spiritual person’

Price played the next two seasons without any missteps, even earning all-Big East honors as a junior, but tore the left anterior cruciate ligament during a loss to San Diego in the first round of the 2008 NCAA tournament. He returned from knee surgery as a fifth-year senior and led the Huskies to the Final Four — where they lost to the same school that knocked out Price’s father 30 years earlier.

The Indiana Pacers took him 52nd overall in the 2009 draft but after a decent rookie season, Price fractured the patella in his left knee during a celebrity game in Long Island, N.Y. His production declined in each of the past two seasons, and the Pacers renounced their rights to him, making him a free agent.

“I’m a spiritual person. Extremely spiritual. I take everything as a blessing,” Price said. “Everything that happens to me happened for a reason. Made me who I am today. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

With all that Price has overcome, he certainly feels prepared for any situation. So he wasn’t intimidated when he joined the Wizards and was placed in an intense competition for the starting point guard job. And ever since his run-in with Williams, Price has started to separate himself from Shelvin Mack and Jannero Pargo with his two best performances of the preseason.

Price had eight points and eight assists in a loss to Toronto, then had 17 points and 11 assists, and made a three-pointer that secured the Wizards’ 102-94 win in Milwaukee.

“Leadership,” Coach Randy Wittman said, when asked what Price provides the team. “He kind of solidified running the offense, getting guys in spots. The flow of the game, the pace of the game has been good, his decision-making, good, obviously, when you go for 17 and 11 with low turnovers.”

Price is one of the more talkative players on the roster, always quick to shout instructions on the court and find a timely and funny quip off the floor. He is starting to find a comfort level with his teammates, even if the preseason has forced him to adjust to playing a lot, and a little, on different nights.

“It’s unfortunate John went down, but it’s part of the game. It happens,” Price said. “So I’m just trying to step in and fill the void as best I could. Like I said, I’m not going to try to be John Wall. I can’t be John Wall. I’m going to be A.J. Price. I just want to come out and bring the things I can bring to this team and hopefully keep us afloat and win some games until we get our full roster back.”

Whatever Price does going forward, Inga Price believes, “We’re playing with house money, now. Anything that happens at this point in his life is a plus, because we’ve had our blessing. God spared his life and I believe he did it for a reason, and it may not have anything to do with basketball. But I believe that through basketball, he can do some wonderful things.”

© The Washington Post Company