It wasn't like in the movies. On film, DerMarr Johnson has seen cars blow up hundreds of times, but this was different, more hazy.
"It kind of felt like a dream," he says, and, indeed, as he describes the way his blue Mercedes smacked into a tree in the early morning hours of Sept. 13, he keeps pausing, trying to reel a coherent recollection from his murky pool of memory.
"I was weak, and my friend, he pulled my body out of the car. I pulled out my legs. Then we rolled down the hill together, away from the car, which was already on fire.
"It wasn't like you'd think. Sort of a loud bang and then more flames, but not some big explosion. And I didn't even really think I was that hurt. I didn't know."
Johnson didn't know his face was dripping with blood. Or that his neck was broken in four places, or that his promising career with the Atlanta Hawks had begun to slip away. All he knew over the next few hours as he was led to a hospital and through a battery of tests was that his head hurt, and that he was going to miss his flight to the District, where he was supposed to meet his pregnant girlfriend.
"I just thought I'd need a few stitches and some sleep," says Johnson, 22, who grew up in suburban Maryland and still has family and friends there. Usually, he'd spend a chunk of his summer in the Washington area. But Johnson spent most of this past summer training in Atlanta as for the first time since being drafted in the first round from the University of Cincinnati, he seemed to be settling into the starting lineup. He only had the last two weeks of September to visit his family before training camp started and assumed that after the doctors sewed him up, he'd be as good as new and ready to hop a plane.
Instead, five months later, he is still waiting to return to normal. While the four fractures in his neck have healed much more quickly than anyone around him expected, he still can't turn his head to the right without moving his entire body along with it. And that means he can't play basketball, which in turn means he can't get on with the rest of his life.
Making matters more frustrating is that his doctors can't give him any kind of estimate on when he will heal more fully, or even whether he will at all.
"Of course, if you ask D.J., he wants to play tomorrow," says Hawks General Manager Pete Babcock. "But if you can't see one side of the court, it's dangerous when you're trying to play a game where peripheral vision is so important.
"The good news is that he's healing well, but it's still frustrating for us and even more for D.J., because he wants some definitive answers. All we really have are question marks."
Johnson doesn't even know exactly how the accident happened. All he remembers is that at around 4:30 a.m., "I was sitting at a stop light, and then the next minute, I'm being pulled out of the car." Prior to that, he had been at a club with a bunch of friends, although he emphasizes he hadn't been drinking, an assertion confirmed by toxicology tests performed as soon as he arrived at the hospital. Instead, it seems, he merely fell asleep at the wheel while driving on a suburban street less than three miles from his house. The two friends in the car with him were also asleep when Johnson dozed off, and it was only by chance that one of them, Floyd Williams, was relatively unhurt and able to pull Johnson and the third man out of the car before it exploded.
"There was smoke and dust everywhere, and all I was thinking was, 'We've got to get out of here,' " says Williams, who has known Johnson since their days in Prince George's County. "Less than a minute after we rolled down this hill [and into a ditch,] the car blew up. By the time we got to the hospital, I heard the doctors say DerMarr was bleeding heavily.
"We were on beds next to each other, and I just turned to him and said, 'You are about to have a son. It's not meant for you to die.' "
Doctors would later tell Johnson that had he been sitting a quarter-inch to the left or right in the driver's seat, or if the tree he hit had been slightly less covered in leaves, or if the steering wheel had been angled even a fraction differently, he probably would have died, and in fact, there were many who thought he had. By around 7 o'clock the morning of the accident, a local news station was reporting he had been killed, and word was circulating around the country to his former Cincinnati teammates that they were headed to a funeral.
By mid-morning, those reports had been corrected, and much of the Hawks' organization was beginning to gather at a hospital where Johnson was being transferred. They saw him briefly as doctors debated whether to perform surgery that would have certainly ended his career; in the end, they decided on rehabilitation therapy instead, but even so, no one could guarantee Johnson he would ever play again.
The question hovered over Johnson's hospital bed until a week later, when the family was dealt a more crushing blow: Johnson's father died at age 46 from complications during a surgery that had been scheduled before Johnson's accident. Johnson was devastated. "I felt like my life was traded for my dad's," he says, although he also adds, "I really do think things are meant to be. Three weeks later, my son was born. And he actually looked like my dad."
It was an unbelievably emotional month, and a complicated logistical one as well. Johnson was still in Atlanta recovering when his girlfriend, Emerald Thomas, went into labor in Washington, and just getting on a plane to be with her was a challenge. Doctors had put him in a device called a halo, a bulky metal brace that actually screwed into his forehead and stabilized his neck in order to allow it to heal. At the airport, Johnson set off every metal detector he encountered, yet as he was holding his baby boy later that day, he felt extremely fortunate to be around at all.
"Even to this day, I don't think I really realize how serious [the accident] was -- everyone else seems to think it was a lot worse than I do," he says. "But I do realize I'm lucky, and since I'm an optimistic person, I really believe this is just one more thing I can get better from."
The way Johnson looks at it, this year was supposed to be a challenge for him anyway. After having only played a year of college ball, he had spent the previous two seasons as a bit of a project, still in need of a lot of teaching. But after last year's all-star break, he jumped into the starting lineup, averaging 10.1 points, and this season, he had planned to cement his place on the team. Learning to move his shoulders again wasn't exactly the kind of improvement he had been hoping to show, but he realizes he has progressed much more quickly than doctors expected.
Some estimates didn't have him playing basketball at all this season; instead, he is practicing regularly with the Hawks, even though he can't participate in contact drills. And while the team did not pick up his $3 million option for next season -- "we're a [luxury] tax team, so it would have actually been more like $6 million, and DerMarr understood, we just couldn't commit to that without knowing what was happening with him," Babcock says -- the team did promise that as soon as he can play again, it will re-sign him in some manner.
"It'll be nice if he can play for even just a month at the end of this season, just so we can all have an evaluation period, but we've also told him that if he can never play again, we can find a job for him in the organization, so he could be around the game and have a health plan and all of that," Babcock says. "No matter what, we're not going to abandon him."
It's a nice sentiment, although of course, as far as Johnson is concerned, it's not going to come to that. His life might not be a movie, but he's seen enough "boy gets in crash -- boy works hard -- boy recovers and wins the championship" scenarios to envision one for himself.
"Right now, it's just a lot of waiting, but then again, I'm only 22. I've got time," he says. "So trust me. I'll be back."