PARKER— Dating to his prep career at Chaparral High School, Josh Adams has had a reputation for being tough. University of Wyoming assistant basketball coach Jeremy Shyatt noticed that toughness in the first game he saw Adams play at an AAU tournament in Dallas.
“They threw an alley-oop (pass) to him and he hit his shoulder on the backboard and landed on his neck,” Shyatt said. “I called my dad (then-Wyoming head coach Larry Shyatt) and said: ‘Josh might be out the rest of the summer.’ He got right back up and told his (AAU) coaches: ‘No, I’m fine. I’m fine.’ It was the running joke from that point on — I always called him a crash-test dummy. It was how he threw his body around all the time.”
Adams has always played with an edge, trying to overcome doubters. He led Chaparral to a state championship in 2012, but few major colleges showed interest in him. He landed at Wyoming, where the 6-foot-2, 190-pound guard blossomed into the Mountain West’s player of the year a season ago.
Now, that “crash-test dummy” is in the midst of his biggest challenge yet, relearning his basketball skills and rebuilding his body after a devastating auto accident last summer that nearly killed him. Early in the morning Aug. 13, Adams fell asleep at the wheel of his car on Crowfoot Valley Road in Parker and drove into a ditch. His car went airborne before crashing. He suffered a broken neck between the C-5 and C-6 vertebrae. He also suffered a dislocated sternum and required 25 stitches to close wounds on his face.
“I was centimeters from paralysis,” Adams said.
At the time he was only a week from leaving to play professionally in Russia, having signed a two-year contract with Avtodor Saratov of the VTB United League. Now he was lucky to be alive. Playing basketball again? It seemed like a longshot.
“Obviously my first question to the doctor after the accident was, ‘Am I ever going to be able to play again?’ And you know how surgeons are,” Adams said. “They’re not too positive, and not too negative — so he told me that if I allowed him to do the surgery, there was a good chance I would be able to play again barring any complications.”
And there Adams was last week at Chaparral High School, cleared by doctors for his first full-contact practice since the accident.
“Better than he ever was”
Adams’ star status at Chaparral was cemented with the final play of his senior season, when his tip-in at the final buzzer in overtime of the 2012 Class 5A state championship game gave the Wolverines a 69-67 victory over Arapahoe. It was the defining play of an iconic game many believe to be the best prep basketball game ever played at the state finals. And it was a play only that Adams — with razor-sharp instincts and jaw-dropping athleticism that allowed him to hang in the air and tip the ball — could make.
“We all knew that Josh put so much time into the game, and that he does some things no other player could do,” said Chaparral athletic director Rob Johnson, who was the Wolverines’ basketball coach at the time. “That tip-in is one of them: No other player could have done that.”
It was a play that would come to foreshadow the star Adams became at Wyoming, where as a senior he set the Cowboys’ season scoring record. As a junior he was named MVP of the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas for leading the Cowboys to the championship, all the while using his 45-inch vertical jump to evolve into one of the best dunkers in college basketball. Not bad for a lightly recruited player whose only other scholarship offers came from Northern Colorado and the University of Portland.
“He’s intense in everything he does, which is a good thing, because he wears his emotions on his sleeve,” said Jeremy Shyatt, the Wyoming assistant. “During his freshman year, because of some injuries, he started a lot. He was that raw, athletic, high-motor, high-octane kid. His junior year, when we won (the Mountain West Tournament) championship, we had a lot of older guys. But he was the guy who had the voice and was the leader.”
Adams’ fire stemmed from a longtime desire for his journey to lead him to one place and one place only: the NBA. And from the moment Aug. 13 when his dreams seemed to be spinning out of control, it has been Adams’ mental toughness that only strengthened his belief — and his friends’ and family’s belief in him — and his hoops destiny.
“From my perspective, with the ability he has, he’s been overlooked at every single level,” said his father, Phil Adams. “Whoever does pick him up is going to be extremely happy, just like Wyoming was. Because if somebody’s willing to take that risk, I don’t really think they know what they’re going to be getting. But the only way for him to prove that worth is to get back on the court and show somebody that not only is he back, he’s better than he ever was.”
As soon as Adams was stabilized, doctors performed surgery to fuse his vertebrae. He spent a week in a hospital after the surgery, and the next 10 days at home completely immobilized in a recliner. After all that, he began physical therapy to regain his motor functions, peripheral vision and range of motion.
“For any athlete who has been through something like that, the reality that this dream he had been working toward his whole life could have been over was a sinking feeling,” his father said, referring to the days and weeks after the accident. “Just not knowing what was going to happen from there was emotionally and physically horrible for him.”
Because of the seriousness of his injuries, Adams had to rebuild his strength as well as his technique from the ground up.
“The injuries forced him to slow down and build a better foundation, not only as a basketball player but as a man,” said Nick Graham, a private basketball trainer who has worked extensively with Adams. “It humbled him and it made him appreciate things, because when we first started he couldn’t do anything but stationary ball handling. He was forced to work on one of the things he felt like he needed to improve upon the most.”
In his time away from competition, Adams also placed a renewed emphasis on connecting with the grassroots basketball community that launched his career. He volunteered to coach fourth- through sixth-graders in Graham’s three-on-three league, and he also hosts a regular Bible study with Graham and a handful of the top area high school players.
“After workouts we would read passages together and we do Bible studies with players at night, and that’s really the coolest thing about his recovery because during that whole time, he’s been committed to giving back and helping younger basketball players,” Graham said.
Adams still looms large at Chaparral, where the passage of time — the school honored the five-year anniversary of the Wolverines’ 2012 state championship team with a halftime ceremony at Friday night’s game — and his rapid recovery from a career-threatening injury have only served to swell his memory.
“He has far more influence than we even realize, and probably even far more than the players even realize,” Johnson said. “I sat in the gym one day and listened to him talk to the guys, and he kind of ripped into them a little bit and let them have it — they weren’t playing hard or practicing hard, and Josh was being Josh. He told him exactly how he felt, and it wasn’t nice, and you know what? The kids went home, they appreciated the message, and they started stepping it up on the court.”
Super support appreciated
Adams’ relationship with the Wolverines, as well as with the Colorado high school and local college basketball community, has been reciprocal. To the disbelief and appreciation of Adams’ family, about $50,000 poured in for his medical expenses via the GoFundMe website. Adams said the outpouring of support he has received from former teachers, coaches and teammates kept him strong through the struggles and enabled his family to bypass a potential financial crisis.
“Chaparral has always been there for me, and as I’ve gotten cleared to play, they’ve always opened up their gym and supplied everything I needed, whether it’s basketballs or bodies to get a pickup game in,” Adams said. “I appreciate everything that they’ve done, because they’re as much a part of this recovery as everybody else.”
His friends in Wyoming have played a big role too, especially Shyatt and former Cowboys teammate Larry Nance Jr. Adams has a close relationship with both men on and off the court; Nance and Shyatt have been firsthand witnesses to the roller-coaster nature of Adams’ career — and both are eager to see what he’s able to do now that he’s back on the court.
“I think for him, selfishly, I’m happy that everything has kind of worked the way it has,” Shyatt said. “He went from this hero in high school to being this unheralded, no-name freshman in college. Then he was a hero again his junior and senior year. Then, after he played so poorly (during predraft workouts with NBA teams) in Portsmouth, he was forgotten about again. This has given him a chance to step back, get his edge back and create his brand again. Hopefully he’s got himself in a position where he can play the role of hero again.”
And now, in the aftermath of having nearly everything taken from him, Adams has a renewed hunger for basketball. He plans to be signed and playing in Russia by the end of this month — for Avtodor Saratov or another professional club there — with the ultimate dream of working his way into the NBA.
“What I’ve learned most, not only through this accident but through the predraft process, the college process and the high school process, is that everybody has their own path,” Adams said. “Some people, like the LeBron Jameses, are so talented that they’re ready to go to the league at age 18, and then there’s people like me where the journey’s going to take a little bit longer. I know now to enjoy the journey and the path that you’re on, because it really can be taken from you at any second.”
Adams realizes the odds of him making it to the NBA are slim, but no amount of naysayers will deter him.
“If I’m a gambling man, that’s somebody I’m going to gamble on,” Graham said. “It’s easy to like him, and it’s easy to root for him. So it’s not just his talent, but the way that he carries himself. That’s why there will be people in the NBA that will eventually give him a legit chance because they want to see him make it.”
That’s all he wants. A shot.
“Always keep your head down, stay in your own lane, and do everything you can to achieve that goal,” Adams said of his message to younger players. “You have to have a burning desire to reach that goal that you have in mind, but you’ve got to focus on the journey as well as the end result.”
Staff writer Nick Kosmider contributed to this report.