Not at the hands of a hit-and-run driver. Not when he was on his way to the airport for his first workout with an NBA team — and not just any team, the defending champion Miami Heat. Not because, after all his hard work and attention to detail, he’d let his guard down by not wearing his seatbelt.
With his white T-shirt soaked with blood and a sore knee, a dark thought crossed Stokes’ mind: Will I still be able to play basketball?
“I had invested so much,” Stokes said by phone on Friday. “I was able to dominate at the combine. I’d worked on my body — I’d lost 5-10 pounds — and I’d improved my shot. I was excited to showcase these things in the workouts. And I saw my Draft dreams coming to a close.”
The former Tennessee star ran to the front of the rented sedan and helped the driver get out. Then, disoriented from what he’d later learn was a concussion, he started jumping up and down and running around, attempting to reassure himself that the accident hadn’t robbed him of his ability to do what he loves.
His first phone call was to his little brother Isaiah, an up-and-coming player in his own right – just to tell him to put his seatbelt on. He then called his agent, Travis King, and asked him to get another ride so he could continue to Miami.
That was a little ambitious. As a result of his concussion, Stokes was sensitive to light, couldn’t remember things people told him and was unable to walk in a straight line. The doctors said he should sit out a month, which would cost him his golden opportunity to showcase his game to NBA teams.
For Jarnell, that obviously wouldn’t do. He rested as much as he could for the next few days, and then proceeded to pass all the protocols. His knee felt fine. Never mind a month, Stokes was cleared to work out again after one week.
As such, he received his chance to show out for the Heat — not to mention the Bulls, the Clippers, the Thunder and a host of other teams. And with a renewed perspective on how lucky he had been to still be in this position, he planned to make the most of his opportunity.
“I feel like some workouts, I’ve been able to dominate top players that are so-called ‘ranked ahead of me,’” Stokes said. “My stamina isn’t where it was before the crash, but it’s better than what it should be.
“For the most part, knowing I had a car wreck three weeks ago, I couldn’t have asked for it to go better.”
When you consider where he grew up — the famously tough Whitehaven area of Memphis – it makes sense Stokes didn’t let the trivial matter of a devastating accident get in his way.
“I was robbed when I was younger — a lot,” Stokes said, “So that made me somewhat aware of my surroundings. It basically gave me a tough exterior, not including my body size. Mentally, it’s made me tough. I don’t feel like anyone in any game could punk me.”
His parents kept him on the strait and narrow — especially his dad, Willie, a Navy veteran, who shielded his son from Whitehaven’s gangs and drugs and kept him on the path to a better life. From a young age, Willie instituted 4:45 a.m. wakeup calls for workouts. He forced him to eat right, and he demanded that he stick with basketball despite the fact that Jarnell, in his own estimation, wasn’t initially all that good.