High School Sports

Father of Charlotte AAU basketball player who died: 'I'm devastated, man'

A little over a week ago, Early "Gus" Johnson put his 19-year-old son, James Hampton, on a bus heading from Washington, D.C., to Hampton, Virginia, to play in a Nike EYBL summer travel basketball tournament.

Thursday morning, Johnson headed to a funeral home to pick out a casket for his son to be buried in.

"I'm devastated, man," Johnson said. "I can't even begin to put this in words. He was well-loved. He was always smiling, joking. He never got into trouble. I couldn't ask for a better son. I swear, this hurts, man."

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James Hampton collapsed on the court while playing for Team United, a Charlotte-based AAU basketball organization, in a Saturday night game a week ago. Team United plays on Nike's EYBL summer circuit.

Hampton had scored a basket and was running down the court when he collapsed. He had a history of seizures and was taking daily medication, his father said, to lessen the symptoms.

Twice last year, Hampton collapsed because of a seizure while playing AAU summer basketball. But this time was different.

After the seizures, Hampton always got up, his father said. This time, Hampton was on the court and didn't move.

He was limp.

Hampton appeared unconscious as medical personnel ran on to the court to assist him. Chest compressions were administered. His teammates and coaches first gathered on their bench across the court, many in tears.

City of Hampton Fire and Rescue Lt. Mike Zoladkiewicz said a Hampton EMT crew was at the Boo Williams Sportsplex and initiated CPR on Hampton and used the automated external defibrillator machine on site.

He said the crew on site does not transport patients, that their main responsibility is to start care until the transportation unit arrives and takes over. Zoladkiewicz confirmed that the on-site responders did regain a pulse on Hampton before the emergency crew arrived.

"Whatever they were doing it was working," Zoladkiewicz said.

Hampton was taken by ambulance to the Sentara CarePlex Hospital, less than a mile from the Sportsplex.

"I got a phone call," Johnson said, "and I saw a number I didn't recognize. This was Saturday night. When I answered it was Coach (Michael) Wright (Hampton's high school coach at Liberty Heights School in Charlotte). He said, 'James just fell out.'

"I said, 'What?'

"He said, 'They have a nurse working on him and doing CPR to bring him back. But he wasn't responding.' Whoever was giving him CPR was a certified person and they took Coach Wright to the side and told coach that this was no seizure, that he had a slight heart attack."

Not long after he was moved to the nearby hospital, Hampton was gone.

His funeral will be June 8 at noon at the Temple of Praise Church, 700 Southern Ave. SE, Washington, D.C.

Charlotte Liberty Heights boys basketball player James Hampton, 19, will be buried June 8 in Washington, D.C. Courtesy MIchael Wright, Liberty Heights

Johnson is awaiting the results of an autopsy he said was performed in Richmond.

The father said he's just looking for answers.

The Hampton facility

In Hampton, games were being played on eight courts — four on each side of the Boo Williams complex, separated by a lobby that includes restrooms and a concession stand.

During the morning games, curtains were hanging in both gyms to separate courts.

By Saturday afternoon, the curtains were raised about halfway on the side of the complex where Team United was playing, the smaller of the two gyms. That gym was hot, and tournament officials had all the doors open trying to let fresh air in, including a garage door near the rear of the facility.

A McClatchy reporter on site when Hampton collapsed said the air conditioning appeared to be working in the lobby and in the bigger gym, but didn't appear to be as effective in the area where Team United was playing.

On Sunday, Nike officials again opened the gym doors and lifted the curtains that separated the courts. Nike also brought in large tubes to help circulate cool air throughout the gyms.

Liberty Heights boys basketball player James Hampton died suddenly Saturday while playing in a Nike summer circuit game. Michael Wright, Liberty Heights School

Johnson said his son had twice been hospitalized last summer after passing out during games with seizures and had undergone multiple tests from multiple specialists on his brain and heart. Johnson said his son was diagnosed with epilepsy and prescribed medication. He was told he could continue basketball, Johnson said.

"All (his doctors) were treating him for was a seizure," Johnson said, "and he hadn't had a seizure in awhile. .... I took him to a heart specialist and a brain specialist and they kept saying there's nothing wrong with his heart. They said he's good and can play.

"If they had said he had a bad heart, he wouldn't be playing any ball."

Wright, Hampton's high school coach in Charlotte, said he knew about Hampton's epilepsy when he agreed to take the player onto his team last fall. Hampton eventually moved in with Wright and the two became very close.

"Everybody loved James," Wright said. "All you needed was five minutes with him. Just five minutes."

Wright was diagnosed with migraines by doctors as a teen and he said his coaches wouldn't allow him to play, fearful of his condition. So when he heard about Hampton's medical issues, he wanted to give him a chance to play at Liberty Heights, a private school where students in grades 9-12 take classes online. The school doesn’t have a physical campus. Liberty Heights offers high school and post-grad basketball teams.

Hampton’s father, who lives in Washington, said his son had transferred from a public school in D.C., hoping that playing a national schedule at Liberty Heights would help him get a college scholarship. Liberty Heights' high school team was 23-12 last season.

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'He would never take a chance'

Wright, the Liberty Heights coach, said he worked at a behavioral health hospital and was familiar with seizures, and he did extra research when he added Hampton to his team.

"I talked to James' doctor," Wright said. "I had him take his medicine, made sure he was hydrated. He was great with himself about all that. The father had every test done on his son. He would never take a chance on his son."

James Hampton was about to enroll at Hampton University, where he had accepted a full scholarship. Hampton coach Ed Joyner Jr. was at the hospital when the player died. Courtesy Early "Gus" Johnson

Wright said Hampton did not have a seizure while in Charlotte and that he was about to enroll at Hampton University where he had accepted a full scholarship. Hampton coach Ed Joyner Jr. was at the hospital when Hampton passed.

"It's an hour and thirty minutes from his house," Wright said. "His family could see him play. James did his own research and found out how important a degree from Hampton was.

"Wyoming called about him; Georgia Southern, South Florida, Murray State. But he was done. He was getting ready to go to Hampton and he was talking with the coaches. Now this."

Wright's voice trails off. He pauses.

An audible gasp.

"It's just tough, man," he finally said. "I don't have words."

Wright said if you offered him $1 million to say five bad things about Hampton, he couldn't get past two.

"I would have to scratch and say I didn't like the (Washington) D.C. slang," he said. "I've been doing this a long time, man. He was just different. Everybody was rooting for that kid."

A new life, gone

Wright said the saddest thing is that Hampton was just a few weeks away from starting a new life. Wright said that Hampton's best friend had been murdered and that one of his former teammates had been put in jail.

Looking at Hampton on the gym floor last Saturday, Wright said so many emotions and memories came rushing at him, like a storm.

"It was just rough, rough, rough, seeing my boy like that, man," he said. "I haven't been able to talk."

Current and former NBA players including Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant and Scottie Pippen have tweeted out messages of support for Hampton and his family. South Carolina men's basketball coach Frank Martin and ESPN personality Dick Vitale are among hundreds of other sports celebrities doing the same.

Johnson, Hampton's father, appreciates all of it.

He just wishes he could have his son back.

"It's hurting me the way he went out," Johnson said. "Maybe it could've been prevented. He had big hopes and big dreams. He's gone now. Everybody's giving love — all these NBA players — and they don't know this kid. All these coaches he's ever played for are showing great love. It's really unbelievable. I'm proud to have had a son like him. The thing is, the man upstairs makes all the calls and you've got to deal with it.

"This one is just tough for me."

Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr.
Staff writers Steve Wiseman and Jonas Pope IV contributed
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CMS Heart of a Champion Day

On Saturday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will host an annual event that provides free sports physicals for rising 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders at its schools. Those physicals include free heart screenings to detect health risks before they become an issue. The event will be held at the Airport Training Center and is open to registered CMS students as well as eligible students at Northside Christian, Charlotte Catholic and Hickory Grove. Click here for more information.