College Basketball

UNC basketball’s Justin Coleman: A journey to happiness

Justin Coleman (31), a member of the North Carolina JV basketball team, listens to coach Hubert Davis in the locker room during halftime of their game against Mt. Olive at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. on November 11, 2013.
Justin Coleman (31), a member of the North Carolina JV basketball team, listens to coach Hubert Davis in the locker room during halftime of their game against Mt. Olive at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. on November 11, 2013. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Janine Coleman had just finished a teleconference for work when her phone lit up again. It was Justin Coleman, her oldest child and only son, a senior at North Carolina, with some news at the start of his second-to-last semester.

At first the conversation was mundane. They shared some small talk, some ordinary exchanges about his day and hers. Finally, Justin, a former member of UNC’s junior varsity basketball team and a walk-on on the varsity last season, found the right opening.

“Well, guess what?” he asked his mom.

“What?” she said.

“I just got put on scholarship,” he said.

There was a pause, with Janine not sure how to react or what to say.

“I was like, ‘Are you serious?’” she said. “I thought for a moment, ‘I hope he’s not joking.’”

Then came the initial wave of emotion. Her youngest children, two 10-year-old twin daughters, were nearby to witness it.

“I can’t even describe it,” Janine said. “And I think my reaction was of (being) dumbfounded. I was speechless. I have 10-year-old twins and when I reacted, I guess they thought something was wrong. I was just blown away.”

Her son’s news might have elicited such a reaction even if it was just as simple of a story as a former junior varsity player turned varsity walk-on who earned a scholarship for his senior season. That’s rare enough.

That, though, is only a part of Justin Coleman’s story. Coleman, a Raleigh native who graduated from Broughton High, arrived at this point after an injury that left his surgeon telling him he’d never play basketball again.

He arrived here after being involved in a car accident that left another motorist dead, and left Coleman “destroyed,” he said at the time. Either event – the injury or the accident – could have derailed him, left him too shaken or too hurt to move on.

Instead, he recently found himself in the players’ lounge in the Smith Center at UNC. Roy Williams walked in and said, “Guys, how about saying hello to our newest scholarship player.”

“They got really excited,” Williams said in a statement. “Which was a neat moment.”

After a few days passed, Coleman tried to look back and put it into words. He came up with: “surreal” and “indescribable” and “thankful” and “an honor” and “amazing” and “surreal” again and “unbelievable” again and, actually …

“I just can’t put it into words,” Coleman said, before adding, “It’s beyond description.”

Dream almost derailed

Growing up Coleman lived a good life but a normal one. It was a life of little-kid dreams and weekends spent in the gym, playing basketball – a life of good grades and hard work in class and on the court and, as he got a little older, a life that portended good things in the future.

He became a UNC basketball fan the way kids growing up in North Carolina often do. And he wanted to play at UNC, in the Smith Center, from the first time he watched Space Jam, with Michael Jordan taking on a team of intergalactic alien superstars.

Perhaps that had a way of capturing Coleman’s imagination. Then, in real life, the Tar Heels won the 2005 national championship when he was in elementary school. On the morning after the championship game Coleman walked into school to a “big celebration,” he said.

His basketball dreams lived on without interruption through middle school and early on in high school, and then everything changed in an instant, in the time it took him to go up for a dunk in an AAU game to when he landed on the court and slid into a wall, head first. This was in May 2010.

Coleman was playing for his Garner Road AAU team, a team his father, Clarence Coleman, was coaching. Justin went up for a dunk and an opposing player knocked him off balance. The collision with the court, and the wall, left him with three broken vertebrate in his neck.

“Seeing it happen, you instantly turn from a coach to a father at that point,” Clarence Coleman said.

Doctors told Coleman and his parents that similar injuries result in paralysis 90 percent of the time. Coleman’s surgery left him with 10 screws and two plates, and with this judgment from his doctors: He’d never play sports again.

Justin Coleman, though, had nothing to do with such talk. Never mind that he’d been lucky enough not to be paralyzed and fortunate enough, after surgery, to be assured that he’d recover to do nearly anything he wanted to do except play sports. He disagreed with his doctors.

“I always kind of had a little hunch that I was going to play,” Coleman said recently. “Even though the writing was on the wall that (I wouldn’t). I never counted it out. I don’t know if it was denial. It was just something inside of me that I wasn’t (finished).”

The doctors had years of schooling, training and experience, and a wealth of research on their side. Coleman simply had heart and the faith that they were wrong, and he was right. Eventually the doctors agreed with him.

Seven months after the injury Coleman heard from his surgeon, who had discussed Coleman’s case with colleagues and studied his latest test results. The surgeon concluded what Coleman never stopped believing: He could play basketball again.

It was too late for him to get back into shape for his junior season at Broughton, but Coleman began preparing for his senior year. He went to work.

“I just watched his discipline,” Janine Coleman said. “The intensity of how he worked out and got in the best shape of his life and sustained that. And he always set goals for himself. He always does.

“He writes them down. He has academic goals. He set goals for himself like that. And just watching him achieve those goals is just amazing.”

Keeping faith under tragic circumstances

Months passed. Justin Coleman worked himself into shape and kept his GPA above a 4.0. One year after his injury, with Coleman well into his recovery, he was on his way to the pool one day with his sister. Coleman brought books so he could study while she swam.

On the way Coleman made a left turn and never saw Rubin Smith on his motorcycle. Smith died in the collision. He was 32. Coleman, who was charged with failure to yield in the accident, was left horrified and grief-stricken. Not long after, though, Smith’s mother, Vanessa Gaines, told Coleman that she and her family forgave him.

“She gave this family a tremendous, tremendous gift of forgiveness,” Clarence Coleman said. “There’s no greater gift, probably, in all the world than to be able to forgive in that situation. And she did it.

“And it was an uplifting moment for (Justin) because whatever weight he had on his shoulders, it seemed like it just truly lifted out.”

The Colemans are a family of faith. Justin Coleman and his parents speak openly about how their faith carried them through everything he experienced during a yearlong span in high school, when the most stressful thing some kids have to worry about are chemistry tests and finding a date to the prom.

Like faith, basketball was important, too. It gave Coleman something to work toward when doctors told him he’d never play again. Then, after the car accident, it provided him with something of a refuge.

“As a teenager facing the kind of adversity that he faced, who knows the choices that he could have made,” Janine Coleman said. “And I’m so thankful that he tried to make a positive out of everything and stay motivated and stay focused on the right thing.”

Justin Coleman kept to his goals. He returned to his high school team for his senior season and became a captain.

He received “some looks,” he said, from smaller schools where he could have played basketball but told them, instead, that he planned to go to UNC. After he earned his acceptance he made a goal to make UNC’s junior varsity basketball team – anywhere from about 50 to 75 players try out for it annually – and he did that, too.

UNC’s junior varsity program, which still exists because Dean Smith kept it even after the days of freshman ineligibility ended in the 1970s, is believed to be the only one among major-conference schools.

The JV team plays in the Smith Center hours before the varsity. And so Janine and Clarence Coleman regularly made the drive to Chapel Hill to watch Justin, a 6-foot-2 guard whose knack for penetration and outside shooting made him one of the JV team’s best players.

Janine, a 1991 UNC graduate, attended games in the Smith Center during her college years. During Justin’s JV games there, she often found herself caught in the moment of it all.

It was one thing for Justin to go to UNC and another for him to make the JV team. And then, she said, “To have my son actually play on the floor of the Smith Center is just the most amazing thing in the world.”

Except it didn’t end there. Justin Coleman made a goal of making varsity.

On scholarship, goals to go

Every fall, before the start of practice, there’s a tryout – an audition, really – for JV guys to make varsity. Some years one or two former JV players are called up. Other years, usually because there’s no room, no players are called up.

Coleman, along with Sasha Seymore, another former junior varsity player who was UNC’s senior class president, made the team before last season. Another goal checked.

“To run out of that tunnel with the varsity behind Marcus Paige, you know – that’s just remarkable stuff,” Clarence Coleman said. “It’s unbelievable in some ways. But believable if you’re one who has deep faith like Justin does and like our family does.”

When Clarence received the news, he was driving home from work. Justin called him and Clarence called him back and, like his wife, there was a brief moment when he wondered if his son was trying to pull something on him. Then the reality set in.

Clarence thought of his son’s journey, from the physical recovery after the injury to the mental recovery after the accident to making the JV team to becoming a varsity walk-on to this, earning a UNC basketball scholarship. Through coaching with the Garner Road AAU program, Clarence had worked with players who received college scholarships.

He coached T.J. Warren, who went to N.C. State, and Isaiah Hicks, who spent many nights in the Colemans’ basement before he went on to UNC. Many others too. And now Clarence’s son was among them.

“The one thing that we can say,” he said, “is that he hit the floor, but he certainly did get back up.”

That Justin earned a basketball scholarship comes with tangible and intangible meaning. It means, in one way, that he’s no longer merely a walk-on, that the university is providing him the same benefit it gives to Paige and Justin Jackson and others who were recruited to play at UNC.

It also means his parents will save a lot of money. A full athletic scholarship for an in-state student at UNC is valued at about $25,000, including the cost of attendance stipend athletes now receive.

Before now, Coleman’s parents been paying for their son’s tuition. There’s more college tuition to come, too. Justin’s oldest sister is a high school senior and then there are the 10-year-old twin girls.

“This scholarship means a lot to this family,” Janine Coleman said. “It means a lot. We’re paying for college 100 percent ourselves, and so this is truly – this means a lot.”

She sent a note to Williams, thanking him for his decision. She wrote that she and her husband never felt like “walk-on parents” – that they felt as much a part of the team’s basketball family as anybody else.

Justin Coleman, who is on track to graduate in the spring with a degree in business administration, felt that way, too. When some teammates played pickup game in the middle of campus recently, Coleman came to watch. Eventually nearly every member of the team was there, on an outdoors court where Paige and others took on regular college kids in light pickup games.

“We’re not just teammates,” Coleman said. “We’re all each other’s best friends. … I didn’t have a brother growing up. I had three sisters that I loved, but it’s just – I’m just thankful.”

But not necessarily satisfied. Coleman still has his goals.

“My goal right now is to win a championship,” he said.

He knows that his contribution won’t come in games, not exactly, but that he can contribute in practices and in other ways. He can help prepare Paige and other guards for what an opponent might do. Or provide encouragement from the bench that might make a difference.

And so, Coleman said again, “My goal is to help this team win a championship. This program has done so much for me. And to go out and be a part of a championship team, or a team that brings a championship (to UNC) – it would mean the world to me.

“That’s my main focus. Getting everybody on board. Everybody else is on the same page. … It’s exhilarating, you know. It really is. It’s beyond words – it’s unbelievable, really.”

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