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"Fallen Angels" Looking for Another Chance

The defining moment of Julius Hodge’s career, indeed his life, came on April 8, 2006 on a road in North Denver.

Hear him tell the story to a Melbourne radio station last year:

"One my best mates came out to see me in Denver and we went out to a club. We left about 12:30. We left early because the club closed at 2 a.m.

"As we were leaving we were the first car on the highway and there was this Mexican gang. I guess their story was the first car on the highway, I guess, they were going to shoot up and unfortunately that was my vehicle. I pulled up at the light and I seen out of the corner of my eye, some guy with his hands up. I was kind tired and so I didn’t pay it no mind I drove off. Then seconds later, there’s this flurry of gunfire and there’s about 22 shots shot to my vehicle.

"Got hit…five times...five bullets. yes

"Two hit my lower left leg, one hit my lower right leg, one in my left eye, one grazed my stomach, and they shot out my window on my drivers side so the glass cut my head and I had some glass also inside of my head for a while. Yes, I was very fortunate I got to the hospital right away. The doctors told me I was five minutes away from bleeding to death."

Three times, he went under the knife to remove bullet fragments. Six months later, he suffered a foot infection related to the shooting. But that was the last time Hodge found himself the subject of controversy. He had been under investigation for attempting to sexually assault a woman in October 2005. The Denver District Attorney’s Office did not file charges, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the case. But the combination badly hurt his reputation.

DerMarr Johnson’s defining moment also came behind the wheel near his then- home in the Cascade section of Atlanta. Here’s his story of what happened on September 13, 2002.

"I remember everything from getting out of the car to going to the hospital. I was conscious the whole time. My friend was in the passenger seat and I guess he got up as soon as I hit the tree. He came over to the other side and told me, ‘Come on, you’ve got to get out.’ He helped get my body out and I dragged my legs out. We were on a small hill, so once I dragged my legs out, I rolled twice away from the car and stood up once I got down the hill.

"Once I stood up I realized there was no reason for me to stand up, I couldn’t go nowhere. So I just lay back down and he went to get the other guy from the car that was in the back seat and by the time they got out, the car blew up and it was on fire.

"Then some girls came out of nowhere in a black Navigator. They stopped and my friend asked them if they could take us to the hospital. Luckily one of the ladies was a nurse, so I guess that’s what gave them the kindness in their heart to stop. I got up and walked and sat in the back of their truck.

"There was a lot of blood leaking from my head. They pulled up to the hospital, which wasn’t too far, and I walked from their car into the hospital, sat on a bed and from there on I was in and out of it. The police were asking me questions, the doctors were asking me questions. They called my mom, they called my agent, they called everybody with the Hawks, and my teammates. I was taken to three different hospitals. After that first one, a helicopter took me to another one, and then I was driven to a third hospital, where I stayed from that Friday to the next Tuesday.

"Even when I got up and went to the hospital, I never knew anything was seriously wrong. I don’t know at what point I knew my neck was broken, because I was still walking. I just got a few stitches in the top of my head and there was blood coming from that. Other than the blood from my head, I didn’t know what was wrong. Maybe I wasn’t doing too much movement, because I don’t know how I could have been walking like that with four broken bones in my neck."

For Johnson, it was the first time he had been involved in any headline-grabbing incident. In the last 16 months, however, he's been arrested twice.

If any two players meet Kiki Vandeweghe’s definition of "fallen angels" it’s the 6’7" Hodge and the 6’9" Johnson…two similar players whose careers once looked promising, have fallen on hard times but are still young enough to take a chance on.

Both lost something those nights: a confidence they could succeed at the highest levels, some athleticism and all or part of the next season. By all accounts, both were accidents. Neither had been drinking excessively. Neither had been reckless. Hodge does admit he should have used better discretion. After all, the "club" he visited was a strip club notorious for racially charged fights...and it was his second stop at a strip club that night.

Now, both are on the court at the Nets' practice facility battling daily for what could be one roster position, a position both are fit to fill if they're physically right and if they've improved key elements of their games. The Nets need a backup point, but one who can fill other roles. The dribble-drive motion offense and its "parent", the Princeton offense, puts a premium on perimeter players with ball-handling and passing skills, players who can drive and dish or pick and pop themselves.

Crucial to how far they've come...and how far they'll be able to Vandeweghe. And ironically, it won't be the first time the two will be competing under Vandeweghe's eyes. In Denver, Vandeweghe had both of them in Nuggets' training camp in 2005, when Hodge was a rookie. Johnson won that competition. While Vandeweghe thought Hodge could be a big point guard, his coach, George Karl, didn't. (Hodge won't talk about Karl, telling the Adelaide radio host, "I don’t think I can say in words over the radio.")

Now Vandeweghe's offering Hodge a second chance. It seems to be working. Hodge played extremely well last year in both Australia's National Basketball League and the D-League. Down Under, he averaged 24.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.5 steals for Adelaide, shooting 53.2% overall and 50% from the arc. In 12 games, he had three triple doubles. He followed up with similar numbers at Albuquerque in the D-League: 23.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6 assists, shooting 59.9%...and another triple-double, giving four in 28 games in two leagues. For the past several months, he's been at the Nets' practice facility by day, playing pickup games with NBA-level players "like Emeka Okafor, Mike Dunleavy, Troy Murphy and Allan Houston" at the New York Athletic Club by night. He's even been blogging about it on Hoopshype.

"What happened to me in Denver made me smarter as a player and as a person," Hodge admitted to the Raleigh News & Observer this summer. "I probably wasn’t associating with the right people. I should have been staying around the team veterans like Marcus Camby.

"It helped me grow. One thing you learn is life is more than about those 48 minutes on the basketball court. You should always strive to live life to the fullest. You need to be a good person."

It was Vandeweghe as well who gave Johnson his second chance, back in October 2004, and is now giving him his third. After Johnson had missed all of 2002-03 in a head brace, then had a lacklustre role with the Knicks in 2003-04, he met with Vandeweghe and promised him he could do the job in Denver. In fact, he did, averaging a respectable 7.1 ppg in 17.6 minutes that year, starting 40 games and missing only 11. The next season, his numbers were a little down, as were his minutes, but he was a key part of the rotation. Since then, Johnson's game has declined, as has his reputation. His is not the Cinderella story that Hodge's has been. After playing limited minutes due to injuries in Denver during the 2006-07 season, he was charged with resisting arrest and tasered outside a Denver nightclub in June of 2007. The Nuggets dumped him. Following a short stint in Europe last season, he returned to the US in December when the Spurs signed him to a 10-day contract, then waived him a week later. He went to the D-League, where he put up decent numbers--17.2, 4.6, and 1.8 while shooting 44.4%. He had one game where he scored 43. Then at the end of the season he was picked up by the Spurs a again. For the season Johnson got into only five games, played only 28 minutes, scored only 17 points and wasn't on the playoff roster. In June, he was arrested again, this time for DUI, a case that still has to be resolved.

Asked after the second arrest if he thought it would affect his chances of staying with the Spurs, he admitted, "I don't know. Probably so." It did.

Still, there's no doubt that Johnson is the more experienced, little doubt he's the more talented. He's played in 344 games, starting 136. Hodge has played in 23 games, starting 1. Johnson's career highs are 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Hodge's are 4, 5, and six. But Hodge is also three and a half years younger and has less baggage. He is a better passer and the Nets are looking for a point-something, if not a point guard, then a point forward. He's been around since at least June, while Johnson's arrival is more recent. Hodge played in both summer leagues--not so well in the first, very well in the second. Vandeweghe has publicly said he has a good chance and his blog oozes with optimism. "I’m feeling good, really good about my chances to make the Nets roster," he wrote recently. I’ve been talking with the coaching staff and the managers as well and they agree that I’ve improved my shooting, my defense and leadership on the court." Indeed, Hodge is more like a draft pick, almost a blank slate.

While Hodge has to improve on his jumpshot--in particular--Johnson has to show he is still an NBA-quality player both on and off the court. He has to show that he has the assertiveness that has often been missing in his game. At 28, he knows this could be his last chance, not just his second chance with Vandeweghe. Johnson has not been heard from since his DUI arrest, no quotes in newspapers, television or blogs. No YouTube performances from his alter ego, rapper "Boss Slim", to match Hodge's blog. He would no doubt say he will let his game speak for itself. He has too.

There are two other non-roster players on the Nets' training camp roster: Desmon Farmer, the 6'5" shooting guard who was second in the D-League in scoring at 24.7 and Brian Hamilton, a 6'6" swingman with good hands and a penchant for defense who also played and impressed in the summer league in spite of his weak offense. Never underestimate Lawrence Frank's love of scrappy defenders.

Then, there's the issue of roster math. Not counting Keith Van Horn, the team has 15 players under contract. They'd like to carry 14. That means two players would have to go for either player to make the roster unless the team decides to go with 15, perhaps partially guaranteeing a player, which would give the team a bit more roster flexibility. Maurice Ager has an expiring contract. The Nets are known to have shopped Stromile Swift as well.

And bottom line: we're talking about the last man on the bench, someone who is likely to be doing much more than modeling clothes.

But, at least early, Hodge and Johnson will be a nice subplot in the Nets training camp. Vandeweghe has made player development a top priority and rescuing "fallen angels" is part of that, he has said. He knows both players well. He knows as well their situations. If one of them makes the team, and some of his other "fallen angels"--Jarvis Hayes, Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons--succeed, it will justify his strategy and be a welcome development, for everyone.

If not, it's still a good story.