NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. – On some level, even now, Juwan Gary can’t believe that he’s here talking about this right now.
The best way to describe Gary over the last 48 days is emotionally torn.
On this particular muggy Friday afternoon, Gary is downright giddy; he’d just led Team United (N.C.) to a big win over Houston Hoops at the Nike Peach Jam and later that evening he was set to announce his college decision.
Yet the other part of him feels somber and, well, guilty.
“It’s weird because all I can think about is how bad Jamo wanted to be here at Peach Jam,” said Gary, who committed to Alabama Friday night. “He’d talk about it all the time. It hurts that he’s not here.”
On May 26, James “Jamo” Hampton collapsed on the hardwood with 9:37 left in the second half of Team United’s game against Nike Phamily (Ariz.) at the Nike EYBL Hampton.
Hampton appeared unresponsive and on-court trainers began CPR on him and continued for more than 10 minutes until paramedics arrived.
He passed away at the hospital later that evening.
“It’s been rough,” Gary said. “Just seeing my friend laying there on that court is something that I’ll never forget. It’s hard to accept sometimes.”
The mental transition from grief to proper perspective can be a lengthy process.
In the interim, the players and coaches have decided to play in Hampton’s honor as they take on Team WhyNot (Calif.) in the quarterfinals on Saturday at noon vying for the Peach Jam title.
“These kids are so resilient,” Team United co-director Jacoby Davis said. “You hear about these stories all the time, but you never think it’s gonna happen to you. It’s been hard on all of us, but I’m so proud of the effort they’re giving.”
Team United qualified for Peach Jam by winning the game they played less than 18 hours after Hampton passed.
“I don’t think anyone slept that night,” Team United forward Nicholas Evtimov said. “It was all heart in that game. It meant a lot that that was the game that got us here.”
Team United hadn’t qualified for Peach Jam since 2013.
“It’s like a dream come true for all of us,” Gary said. “We just want to keep it going. We all know we’ve got to step up every game. We’re not holding anything back.”
Davis said that the staff is taking a similar approach.
“We still get on them the same way we would any other time,” Davis said. “Our coach Ed Cooke does a great job with these guys and he doesn’t let up on them at all. Anything less would be disrespectful to Jamo’s memory and we’d never do that. Everyone loved Jamo.”
Evtimov said Hampton was the player on the team that, win or lose, kept everything light with humor.
“Oh man he was hilarious,” he said. “Always cracking jokes, but he was focused on the court.”
Gary said knowing that Hampton passed playing the game he loved helps him to cope.
“He was always happy out there playing,” Gary said. “We all love this game, but he really, really loved to play. I remember he got that first offer from Hampton and he was so excited. He said he was gonna commit. Man, I miss my guy!”
To keep Hampton’s memory alive the team sports wristbands with his name on them and stitched his initials on their jerseys and shooting shirts.
“We’re all locked in,” Evtimov said. “We want to win it for Jamo.”
That said, Gary has already thought about how he and his teammates will feel if they don’t accomplish their goal of winning Peach Jam.
Would they feel as if they let Hampton down? Dishonored him? Would it make them take steps back in their mourning process?
“I thought about it all,” Gary said. “And what I came up with is it’s all about effort. If we put it all out there and play our hearts out and still lose then it’s OK. It will hurt because we’re competitors, but we’re already honoring him by going on and playing hard and not taking this game for granted. Not taking life for granted. He’ll be a part of us forever, whether we’re playing or not.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY