Car crash interrupts Stokes' draft plan

On the day before his first NBA workout, an accident could have ended Jarnell Stokes' career for good. AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal/Mike Brown

Jarnell Stokes didn't look up from his phone.

The Tennessee junior was in the backseat of a car service sedan, heading to the airport in Tampa, Florida, to catch a flight to Miami for his first NBA draft workout, when an oncoming car slammed into the driver's side, right near where he was sitting.

He wasn't wearing a seat belt.

At the moment of impact, Stokes raised his right arm to brace himself against the partition in the middle of the car. His head slammed into his arm, not the glass.

"It saved my life," said Stokes, a forward projected as a mid-to-late first-round pick in next Thursday's draft.

The Florida Highway Patrol confirmed that the two-car crash occurred in Bradenton, Florida, at approximately 1 p.m. at the corner of Fifth Street West and Cortez Road on May 24.

Stokes said the driver of the other car ran. FHP said they didn't have it on record as a hit-and-run.

"I was faced with death," he said. "It has changed my life forever."

He estimates 10 seconds elapsed after the collision until he got out of the car. The front of the vehicle he was in was smashed. The airbag had deployed, cushioning the driver's impact.

"I basically had to slow everything down to unlock my door," Stokes said. "The limo driver was yelling for help. I was able to open his door and get him out. As I was walking out of the car, I felt a sensitivity to sunlight."

Despite feeling woozy from what would later be determined as a concussion, Stokes started jumping up and down. He was worried his basketball career was over.

"I was almost certain after the crash that I wouldn't be able to walk again or something devastating was going to happen," he said. "I had blood everywhere. My face was covered in blood. I felt like the injuries should have been much worse.

"I couldn't walk in a straight line, I couldn't remember the last sentence I said. That's how bad the concussion was."

But he still wanted to make it to the airport to meet the Heat. It was his first workout. He was anxious. Stokes had steadily improved at Tennessee, rising from 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game as a freshman to 15.1 and 10.6 this past season as the Volunteers made a surprising run to the Sweet 16. This was his moment, his springboard from his hometown of Memphis to the NBA.

"I was ready," he said.

But he wasn't going anywhere but a hospital and then back to IMG Academy.

Dan Barto, Stokes' trainer, was the first friendly face he saw at the hospital. Barto said the whole right side of Stokes' body was littered with cuts and bruises.

"It looked like someone rubbed sand paper all over him," Barto said. "He was in shock.''

Once released, Barto brought him back to IMG, where he was examined further. He had a sore knee, neck and head. The normal concussion protocol was followed. He wasn't allowed to condition, run or do much of anything. They were nervous that his knee might swell over the next 24 hours, but it didn't.

"But he was emotionally unsettled," Barto said. "Here he was, a top-10 player, and then he was in a hospital where nobody cared and he was alone."

Stokes had to take seven to 10 days off. After about five days, Stokes said he bought NyQuil and basically "slept for three days" before he passed his concussion tests. Stokes had to cancel workouts at Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Boston.

But the Heat still ended up being his first, just not until June 4. Then came Phoenix a day later, before Utah, Memphis, Houston, Chicago, Toronto and San Antonio. The L.A. Clippers and Oklahoma City may possibly work him out before the draft, too.

Stokes said he constantly thinks about the accident during the workouts.

"He had a near-death experience," Barto said.

Stokes is lucky. He said he will never get in a car without putting on his seat belt again.

"I came out of that car devastated,'' Stokes said. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen to me and whether I could play basketball. If I've got a tired moment now, I think back to that.

"A lot of teams like me in the 20s. There are no promises, no guarantees, but it would be a dream come true for me. I still have cuts and things healing. I just have to remember that I was blessed with life.''