All it takes is for James Anderson Jr. to score or grab a rebound – really anything – to move his mother to tears.
Mary Anderson watches from the Clover Park High School gymnasium’s bleachers, holding back tears. Watching her son play basketball gets her just about every time.
Anderson is a 6-foot-7 reserve post for the Warriors, who play Steilacoom in a loser-out game in the 2A West Central District tournament on Wednesday. Three wins and Clover Park would clinch a trip to the state tournament.
But during a summer league game this past season, Clover Park coach Mel Ninnis couldn't help but notice Mary sobbing with glee as James banked in a hook shot off the glass backboard.
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He didn't find this strange. How could he? Ninnis knows the story about how Anderson isn’t supposed to be alive – let along finishing hook shots – after what transpired just over 10 years ago.
In summer 2007, the Andersons were traveling northbound on Interstate 55 in southeastern Missouri in their white 2000 Mercury Villager van. They were visiting family in Kosciusko, Mississippi, where James’ father, James Anderson Sr., grew up.
They sang songs in between naps as they traveled. James, who was 8, was sprawled out in the back.
They were a few hours away from St. Louis when Mary fell asleep at the wheel. The car swerved left as her foot pressed on the accelerator like a lead block.
The Andersons’ vehicle flipped over the median and rotated counterclockwise eight times, before the van settled, top down, in the middle of the southbound lane.
“I just felt like the van was flipping and flipping and flipping like a washing machine,” James Anderson Sr. said.
He was the only one awake when the vehicle stopped and remembers vividly looking over at his wife, hanging upside down and unconscious. He heard his two youngest children, Edward and Mary, crying in the seat behind him. He didn’t see James.
After wriggling free, James Anderson Sr. spotted a white pillow in the middle of the road 40 or 50 feet back. He sprinted down and saw his son laying there, unconscious with blood gushing out of his mouth and left ear. He scooped him up off the road and carried him back toward the van.
Moments later, a semi-truck came to a screeching halt to avoid hitting the mangled van. If James hadn’t have been removed from the road and the truck didn’t stop like it did, the semi almost certainly would have hit him.
The emergency response crew performed a vehicle extrication to remove Mary from the van. She and James were airlifted to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. James Anderson Sr. and the other two children were transported to an emergency care center closer to the accident.
James was unconscious. His head was fractured from the center of his forehead between his eyes to the back of his head where the vertebrae begins.
“We were all really scared,” Mary said.
He was comatose for three days before waking up.
“I remember waking up and I couldn’t move my neck, my whole (left) side of my body, I could not move. I couldn’t move at all. Blood just kept pouring out my (left) ear,” James said. “I felt like I was disabled — paralyzed. I couldn’t move at all.”
His father remembers it differently. He was in the cafeteria when James woke up, so he rushed back, returning as nurses took his son’s vitals.
“He was sitting in the bed, and when he saw me walk in he was like ‘Daddy!’ and up smiling,” James Anderson Sr. said. “He wanted to know what happened and he wanted to watch cartoons.”
The doctors found no brain trauma and said his head would suture back to together with him being so young.
There were some concerning side effects because of James’ head trauma, most of which subsided over time. His lazy left eye straightened itself out and blood stopped flowing out of his left ear. It took time to overcome his fear of being in a car.
Severe migraines continue to plague him to this day. He said they make rooms feel as if they are spinning. There are days all James can do is sit in his rooms with the shades drawn.
The headaches made school difficult. He missed a lot – like his entire freshman year at Clover Park and a good portion of his sophomore year.
“I couldn’t really cope with it,” James said. “Migraines every single day. I couldn’t really go to school.
“It was just awful.”
It made playing sports difficult, too. He and his father bonded over the basketball — his favorite sport, with the two often running drills in their backyard court. But James couldn’t play at a competitive level.
“It made us all sad,” James Anderson Sr. said. “Because he’s such a good kid. He’s got size, he’s got everything you’d need to be a good basketball player, a sport that he likes, but he can’t play. The injury just shut him down.”
As the migraines improved, James Anderson Sr. explored having his son medically cleared for high school basketball two years ago.
Then they met Ninnis.
The Clover Park coach remembers James Anderson Sr. reaching out to him one fall afternoon, touting his 6-foot-7 son and how he could possibly help out the basketball team.
James Anderson Sr. wanted to find the right fit for his son. With James’ condition, he could attend any school that offered the program he needed. Clover Park fit that description, and he liked everything he heard about Ninnis, who is one of the South Sound’s winningest coaches.
But more importantly, Ninnis came off as straight-forward, stern and focused on teaching life lessons as much as basketball.
He returned the next day to introduce James to Ninnis and turn in the registration paperwork to admit his son into the school’s “Open Doors” program, which provides an online curriculum for students who are not equipped to succeed in the traditional classroom setting – like James with his migraines.
By the time James Anderson Sr. turned in the paperwork, he returned to see Ninnis already running his son through some drills.
And after two sprints up and down the court, James said he felt the gym start spinning. Ninnis rushed over, repeating, “It’s OK, James. It’s OK.”
“It just seemed like a good fit,” James Anderson Sr. said.
James left every one of Clover Park’s practices for the first few months because of intense migraines. And he spent every night afterward in his quiet room with the shades drawn to mitigate the pain and dizziness.
But every morning, when James Anderson Sr. asked if he wanted to go back, James responded with no hesitation: “Yes, dad.”
“He’s very strong willed. And that came out then,” Mary said.
He spent that first season swinging between the varsity and JV teams.
“He was running like a deer with spots on him,” Ninnis said of his first season. “His legs were going everywhere. He couldn’t catch the basketball … and now everything is starting to come together. He can run, he can jump, he can time-block shots, he can dunk.”
What’s more, James’ headaches have become less severe. There are still days he needs to be shut down, but less than there used to be.
He made significant jumps in summer league and fall league leading up this season. He’s become a key role player, which is partly why the Warriors are hoping to soon clinch a trip to the 2A state tournament.
“It’s just a miracle,” James Anderson Sr. said. “For him to be thrown through glass like that and just to be participating, it’s amazing. It’s truly amazing.”
James Anderson Jr. said just being part of a team has been the best thing.
“These guys, they’re like my brothers,” he said. “Really, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like without them. I’m close with a lot of them.”
James is 18 and on pace to graduate from Open Doors this spring. But he could transfer to Clover Park next fall and be granted a waiver by the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association to play next season due to his situation. He said he’s still mulling over whether he wants play next year or fulfill his dream of attending college.
“I’m blessed to be here,” James said. “I feel pretty happy right now.”