In rehab after crash, Yim still determined to help Blazers continue NBA playoff drive
A goal setter by nature, Jonathan Yim has something big in mind.
The video coordinator and player development coach of the Trail Blazers remains in Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, recuperating from injuries suffered in an automobile accident on Interstate-84 east of Portland on April 24.
"My goal is to be back for the Western Conference finals," Yim says. "That's what I'm working toward. I'm even hoping to work a little bit. I can't run around the court, but I'd like to be there to help out any way I can.
"I don't know how realistic it is, but I always set these unrealistic goals. I've achieved a lot them. What is getting me through rehab and (physical therapy) is that wanting to get back."
As he sits for an interview in his room on the third floor at Emanuel, Yim rests his broken right femur on the hospital bed. A cast covers his broken right hand. His neck is stiff after requiring surgery to fuse his C6 and C7 vertebrae, but he looks remarkably well for a person driving a car that plowed into the back of a semitruck at 55 to 60 miles per hour.
"I'm doing better every day," says Yim, 34.
He is hoping for a release from the hospital within a week.
He is figuring that by then, the Blazers will have disposed of Denver in the NBA Western Conference semifinals and looking ahead to a date with either Golden State or Houston in the West finals.
Yim is a man of faith. His late father, Howard Yim, was a minister with Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. The senior Yim died when Jonathan was 14. Jonathan believes his father is still looking out for him, especially after viewing a photo of his Toyota 4Runner following the wreck — crushed and spindled like an accordion.
In the car with Jonathan were his mother, Inja Yim; his sister, Tabitha Yim, and his brother-in-law, Darin Kikuchi. Tabitha and Darin have been discharged from the hospital; Inja is expected to be released by Tuesday.
"I've always felt like I had a guardian angel," Jonathan says. "When I saw the pictures, it was like, 'How did we survive that?' I had some pretty serious injuries, but everyone else got away pretty easily."
Yim pauses, reflecting on the moment.
"It was my dad," he says. "That's what my mom and sister say."
A friend of Yim's visited the lot where his totaled 4Runner was taken.
"The first question the tow-truck guy asked was, 'How many fatalities?'" Yim says. "And they've seen a ton of cars after accidents like ours. I think my dad protected us."
In a way, it may have been a come-to-Jesus moment for Yim.
"I feel a lot different about life now," he says. "I'm not a bad person. I'm not a bad guy. I don't do drugs or anything. But I lost my way a little bit the last couple of years. Not going to church as much.
"I'd strayed away a little bit. I felt like this was a reminder of God saving my life. Now I have to figure out why. I have to really attack that. I feel extremely blessed and grateful that I'm alive."
Tabitha Yim — Jonathan's only sibling — is a former world-caliber gymnast now the head coach of the women's team at Stanford. Her brother's sport is basketball. Jonathan played high school ball in Irvine, California, and while attending Cal State Fullerton, began his coaching career at age 19 in 2003, serving as head coach for a varsity girls high school team.
Jonathan coached and taught for several years before hooking up with Bob Tate, who was hired by the Los Angeles Clippers as shooting coach in 2012. Tate brought along Yim, who served for one season as an unpaid intern in the team's video department. Yim quit his prep teaching and coaching positions to create enough time to work for the Clippers.
"It was a risk," he says. "I had to drive 50 miles into L.A. every day in traffic. But it was a fun experience. I'm happy I did it, and it worked out."
The Clippers' former general manager, Neil Olshey, was hired to the same position with the Blazers in 2012. In the summer of 2013, the Blazers were looking for a video coordinator. Olshey called the Clippers, and off of their recommendation, hired Yim.
Almost immediately, Yim also began working in player development for the Blazers.
"There's no ego on our staff," Yim says. "Everyone has the opportunity to help the players get better."
Yim gained the trust of the coaching staff and players and, for the past three years, has added the official title of player development coach.
"Jon has done an excellent job for us," head coach Terry Stotts says. "He is an outstanding individual, a very caring person, very helpful to everybody at the practice facility and an important member of our staff."
On April 23, Portland defeated Oklahoma City 118-115 to win their first-round playoff series in five games.
The following day featured temperatures reaching 70 degrees in Portland. Jonathan's mother, sister and brother-in-law were in Portland, having attended the game the night before. Stotts had given the staff the day off.
"It was such a nice day, and Tabitha and Darin had never been to Multnomah Falls," Jonathan says. "It was a perfect time to be there — weekday afternoon, small crowd, not much traffic."
After eating lunch together in Portland, they loaded into Jonathan's 4Runner, the women in the back seat, for the 45-minute drive east on I-84. The visit went well. They walked up to the bridge, took photos, then headed in the early-evening hours back to Portland, stopping first in Troutdale for gas.
Two miles down the highway toward Portland, Jonathan found himself gazing at the Columbia River.
"I was looking at the river, and the sun was coming off it, and I was thinking, 'What a beautiful day. I'm so happy my family can experience this,'" he says.
The sun was reflecting off the river. The 4Runner was in the third lane, the "slow" lane.
"The light made everything light," he says. "It didn't get in my eyes, but it made everything light off the river. It reflected off the back of the semi-truck, and I just didn't see the truck until we were about to hit it."
Police say the truck was either stopped or moving slowly in traffic.
All four in the Yim party blacked out immediately after impact.
"When I came to, my sister was crying, and my brother-in-law was like, 'What just happened?'" Jonathan says. "He was trying to get out of the car. My initial reaction was to keep everyone calm. I was spitting up blood, bleeding, and didn't know where it was coming from."
Jonathan's mother was conscious and signaled she was OK. Bystanders called 911. Jonathan, Inja, Tabitha and Darin were brought to the trauma unit in the Emanuel emergency room in four separate ambulances.
"I've never been as scared as I was in that ambulance," Jonathan says. "I didn't know what was going to happen to my mom, sister and brother-in-law. When we got to the hospital, we were put in different wings. I was crying. I didn't know where everybody was."
Jonathan called Beth Hancock, Olshey's executive assistant.
"Beth was great," Jonathan says.
She drove to the hospital immediately and helped him gain information about the condition of his mother, sister and brother-in-law. She wheeled Jonathan down the hall to get a CT scan. Jonathan was told Inja would undergo surgery for stomach issues, and panic set in for a moment.
"I was worried it might be the last time I'd see her," he says.
Jonathan's injuries were the most serious. He sustained a broken femur, fractures in his neck, a broken hand, a collapsed lung, a concussion and a laceration on his head. He refused pain medication, at least at first.
"I didn't want to fall asleep," he says. "I wanted to stay awake and make sure everyone was OK."
At 11:30 p.m., Hancock called Stotts, whom she had alerted earlier about the accident, and put Jonathan on the phone.
"At that time, I had no idea the magnitude of the injuries," Stotts says.
Jonathan becomes emotional talking about their conversation.
"Coach answered the phone when we called," Yim says, his voice choking, his eyes tearing. "I told him I was sorry. I felt like I let him down. He has done so much for me. He is always advocating for me.
"Here we are, going to get ready for a new playoff series, and I have a lot of work to do. There was nothing I could have controlled, but ... Coach was real cool."
"Jon felt bad for a lot of reasons," Stotts says "The guilt about the accident. The playoffs. He is such a conscientious person. He takes his job very seriously and is proud of what he contributes to the team. It didn't surprise me that was his reaction, but he had nothing to apologize for."
Stotts was Yim's first visitor the next morning. He stayed for three or four hours.
"Coach sat with me," Jonathan says. He pauses for several seconds. "Just having him here was ... it meant a lot to me. I don't think we talked a lot. He just sat there. He just wanted me to know he was there for me, you know? That was cool."
Stotts checked in with Yim's mother, sister and brother-in-law. Jonathan was scheduled for surgery on his broken femur that morning.
"Coach could sense I was scared," Yim says. "He walked me all the way down to surgery. He was holding my hand. The last thing I said to him, 'I love you, Coach.' He said, 'Me, too.'"
Yim had called his best friend in Irvine, Cody Jacobson, at 1 a.m. Jacobson got on an early flight and was at Emanuel by midday. It was good to have company. Jonathan doesn't have a steady girlfriend. His family was in the hospital with him, as patients.
"I was having anxiety attacks," he says, "but having Coach and Cody there, it was comforting."
Two days later, Yim underwent a second surgery to repair misplaced discs in his neck and to fuse the vertabrae. He says the neck doesn't bother him at all now, and that while the broken leg is painful, the most discomforting injury is to his right hand.
"I'm right-handed, and I cannot do anything with this hand, and it hurts the most," he says. "I can't use the hand to put any weight on. Makes everything a little bit harder. But I'll get past it."
In the days following the accident, Yim had communication — much of it through text messages — from every Blazer player. Several of them visited the hospital.
"Even 'Nurk,'" Yim says with a smile, the reference to injured center Jusuf Nurkic, himself lugging around a broken leg. "And most of the coaches have stopped by to see me. Everyone has been great."
Olshey has been in regular communication.
"Neil has been unbelievable," Yim says. "He was one of the first people to call me. He has been very generous and kind and reassuring. He has been really cool about taking care of me and my family. Makes me feel loved by the organization."
There have been hundreds of messages through Twitter and Instagram from Blazer fans, most of whom Yim has never met.
"I didn't expect anything like that," he says. "It's been overwhelming. I really appreciate it."
Through the season, Yim has worn a bow tie for Wednesday games. For the second game of the Blazers' series against Denver last Wednesday at Pepsi Center, all Blazer coaches and team personnel wore bow ties in Yim's honor, dedicating the game to Jonathan. The Blazers won 97-90, making them 10-0 on Wednesdays this season.
"We had made plans after practice on Saturday, then went out and bought a bunch of ties for the occasion," Stotts says.
"That was a very moving gesture," Yim says, his voice choking again.
Yim had never undergone surgery before or been limited physically in what he can do.
"That's the hardest thing for me," he says. "Mentally, I feel like I could go out and run 10 miles, but physically, I can't. The first few days, I was really depressed. But then I started getting better."
By the fourth day of rehab, he stood up for the first time. The next day, he took five steps. Now, he is walking with the help of a walker.
Yim is a fitness advocate who has completed four Ironman triathlons — three half, one full.
"It is helping me with the recovery in terms of being an athlete and understanding the process of working toward goals," he says. "My head tells me I want to do another full Ironman next summer, but we'll see."
The more immediate goal, Yim says, is to be there when — not if — the Blazers begin the Western Conference finals.
"Good," says Stotts, chuckling softly when told of Yim's intentions. "I don't put anything past Jon. He is goal-oriented, very driven. There's nothing he doesn't think he can do. And who's to say he won't? Look at the things he has already accomplished."
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