PORTLAND – He had hoped to board a charter flight in Minnesota with the rest of the basketball team Thursday. Fly to Maine, practice at the Portland Expo, sleep in a local hotel, then leave in the morning for a date with the Los Angeles Lakers in London.

DerMarr Johnson didn’t make it back to the state where he experienced some of his finest moments. Coach Kurt Rambis told Johnson hours before the plane taxied to the runway he had failed to make the Timberwolves. Eleven years after he graced the cover of Parade magazine as its schoolboy player of the year and eight years after the car crash that might have killed him, Johnson is looking for a job as an NBA player. Again, and at age 30.

“It’s awful,” said Rambis of those moments when a pro athlete hears he won’t become part of this team. “I’ve been in those shoes. I’ve been in that room before. It’s the worst.”

Forever known to Celtics fans as the Laker clotheslined by Kevin McHale in Game 4 of the 1984 finals, Rambis survived 14 seasons in the NBA through talent and work. He wasn’t a star. He was a fan favorite.

He understands the business but doesn’t forget he’s human.

Rambis was surprised Johnson had a Maine connection. It was for only six months or so. In 1999, Johnson and teammate Caron Butler, now with the Dallas Mavericks, played for a Max Good-coached team at Maine Central Institute that might have been Good’s best. The small gym in Pittsfield filled early on game nights.

Johnson, the 6-foot-9 swingman from Kensington, Md., went on to the University of Cincinnati. After one season he was in the 2000 NBA draft, picked sixth in the first round by the Atlanta Hawks. Two years later he fell asleep at the wheel of his new Mercedes-Benz and crashed into a tree.

Johnson had a broken neck. Holes were drilled into his skull to support the halo he wore to stabilize his injury. But he could move his arms and legs.

“There was good and there was bad,” said Mo Ager, dripping sweat after Thursday’s practice. “He’s alive. It might have been a fatal accident.”

But Johnson’s game was never the same. The promise that was so on display at MCI was never fully realized.

Ager and Johnson were training camp invitees, assured of nothing but an opportunity. Ager doesn’t have Johnson’s pedigree. He’s had tastes of the big time with Dallas and the New Jersey Nets. He played in Spain. Midway through last season he sparked the Maine Red Claws. Out of Michigan State, Ager is fighting for a place on the Timberwolves as a point guard, a new position for him. He was always the shooter.

“Did I know (Johnson) before? Of course. Everyone did. He was one of the best. But this is a business. It’s all about the numbers. I applaud him trying. This is a humbling experience.”

Johnson played for the Jiangsu Nangang Dragons last season in the Chinese Basketball Association. The Dragons still owned his rights, which delayed his clearance to practice with the Timberwolves.

“He was behind the rest of the team,” said Rambis. “I think he can play. He can shoot, he still has good length, he still has great athleticism. In the right system he can contribute.”

The Timberwolves have 17 players and want to get down to 14, just in case a player who can fit their system becomes available. Rambis likes Ager’s energy and that he came to camp in excellent shape.

“I’ve always fought. Nothing has been handed to me. I can’t say I feel anxious. I’ve learned to lean on the Lord and do my best,” Ager said as members of the Red Claws’ front office approached him with smiles and wishes of good luck.

It was a homecoming of sorts. The kind DerMarr Johnson didn’t get to realize.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

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