At some point before every game, without fail, usually just after the locker room transitions from joking and playing to Air Pods, heads bobbing and silent pacing, Alabama forward Juwan Gary finds a quiet corner, drops his head and begins to pray.
The way he does it, the beginning is customized to the events of that day along with the typical pregame requests—remain healthy, play to the best of his abilities, get the win, etc. The ending, however, is always the same: He vows never to take the game for granted and thanks God that “Jamo” is still watching over him.
“Gotta end with that,” Gary says. “That, like, completes it. Gotta shoutout my angel.”
On a daily basis, Gary thinks about the events of May 26, 2018; the day that “changed my whole outlook on life.” He remembers random details; how unbearably hot the gym was, the joking around before the game, his friend James "Jamo" Hampton scoring and then falling to the floor.
Gary, Hampton and their Team United (N.C.) summer travel team were playing in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League in an evening game against Nike Phamily (Ariz.), when Hampton collapsed suddenly on the court midway through the second half.
The agonizing screams echoed off the walls inside the Boo Williams Sportsplex in Hampton, Va., as Hampton, who had a history of epileptic seizures, laid unresponsive.
Gary and his teammates cried, bellowing in disbelief as on-court trainers frantically performed CPR on Hampton for more than 10 minutes until paramedics arrived.
He passed away at the hospital later that evening.
“It was so hard; it still is at times,” Gary says. “He just had the best personality. He kept things light, just joking all the time. I had only met him that spring when he joined the team, but I felt like I’d known him my whole life. He was that kinda guy.”
The mental transition from grief to proper perspective can be a lengthy process, and for years Gary didn’t fully accept Hampton’s death as real.
Sure, he knew his friend and teammate wasn’t here, but it couldn’t be final.
Nah. No way.
So unfair. All of that life. All of that personality. His love for the game. His excitement to play college ball at Hampton University the following season.
“I didn’t want to believe it, so I just didn’t really process it,” Gary says. “Over time I felt like I owed him more than that. I mean he had a condition and he played hard on every play. He literally was the guy who did whatever it took. I wanted to be that guy. I felt like that was the best way to honor him and make him live on.”
Gary’s new perspective came in handy when he got to Alabama last season and suffered a torn ACL before the season began. He sat out the entire season and received a medical redshirt.
“I thought about Jamo a lot last year,” Gary says. “He didn’t come back from his situation, but I knew I’d heal and be ready to go. Imagine me feeling sorry for myself. I just did what he would do. [I] worked hard and appreciated the fact that I could still play the game.
He had a brief relapse into an old, dark mental space in December when Florida star Keyontae Johnson fell face-first on the court and was unresponsive during the Gators game against Florida State. Johnson was rushed to a local hospital before being airlifted to a hospital in Gainesville days later. He was released after 10 days but did not return to the team this season.
“I just started to pray for him immediately,” Gary says. “I can’t tell you how happy I was that he turned out to be OK. He’s still here, and that’s a blessing.”
Gary says his own road to recovery last season was less humbling than normal.
The typical ego that accompanies a once-upon-a-time elite high school recruit with a big reputation for versatility and scoring, wasn’t a factor as he worked his way into the rotation this season. He played just eight minutes a game during the regular season and averaged a modest 3.5 points and 2.5 rebounds a game.
“I knew how talented we’d be this season, and I knew I wouldn’t be ready right away,” Gary says. “I knew my role was gonna be different than what I thought it would be when I first got here. That’s OK. I’m a versatile player and I can help in a lot of different ways, so that just means there are a lot of ways I can contribute. No role is too small for me.”
That approach has translated in the NCAA men's tournament, where he is averaging 6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 75% from the floor, over 23 minutes of action.
In No. 2 Alabama’s 96–77 second-round win over No. 10 Maryland, Gary won the team’s hard hat award, which is reserved for the player that did all the dirty work to contribute to the win.
The Crimson Tide will face No. 11 UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Sunday.
“Juwan has been a huge asset for our team all season,” Alabama coach Nate Oats says. “He brings a lot of intangibles to the game. He brings energy, athleticism, toughness, versatility to the lineup. His seven offensive rebounds in 17 minutes in the SEC championship game against LSU shows the type of effort he gives us and what type of impact he can make on that end. He really helps our defense with how he’s able to switch as well.”
Gary will bring the same blue-collar approach into Sunday’s game against the Bruins. He’ll glance into his bag before the game and pull out the “Long Live Jamo” embroidered hoodie he brings on every trip to remember his friend. Once the season concludes, Gary already has plans to tattoo a portrait of Hampton on his leg with the “Long Live Jamo” message.
“Man, he’d be so hype to see me in the Sweet 16,” Gary says. “He loved the game. I’ve finally accepted that he’s gone, but he’s always here with me. That makes it easier when you see it like that, and when you understand how blessed you are to even be here playing this game we all love, it makes it easier not to ever take it for granted.”
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