POSTED: Oct 3, 2013 6:23 PM ET
MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — Bullets whizzing past his head, Othyus Jeffers picked up the stroller carrying his young niece and rushed her into the house.
He hurried back out the door to help his sister, who had been shot in the leg by her then-boyfriend during a domestic dispute. She looked at her brother, dressed in joggers' pants from Illinois-Chicago University and his trademark Jordans, which almost never left his feet. As Jeffers went to check on his sister, she saw blood trickling out of his left pant leg and staining his sneakers.
Two hours before the college junior was scheduled to work out for a handful of NBA scouts to help him make a decision about staying in school or entering the draft, Jeffers had been shot in the thigh, and he didn't even realize it.
"I didn't know until she told me," Jeffers said. "Then when I pulled my pants down and moved my leg, the blood squirted out."
Doctors told Jeffers that the bullet traveled a zigzagging pattern through his leg, somehow missing every major artery before exiting on the other side of his leg. In what has been a recurring theme during his 28 years on this planet, he hardly missed a beat. Jeffers was back on the court doing basketball drills in a week.
"Everybody around me calls me Wolverine because I always seem to heal up quicker than I should be doing," Jeffers said with a nonchalant chuckle.
That isn't even the half of it for Jeffers, who lost two brothers to gun violence before he graduated high school and tore the ACL in his right knee weeks before he was set to sign a guaranteed contract with the Washington Wizards. Now he's fighting for the last available spot on the Minnesota Timberwolves' roster, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"What he's been through is how he plays," said Wolves President Flip Saunders, who coached Jeffers in Washington. "He's hard-nosed, kind of a mad dog that just gets after it and really competes. He basically goes at it where he understands that nothing's given to him."
And so much has been taken away.
Jeffers was 8 years old when his brother, Gerome, was shot and killed.
"My brothers always played basketball," he said. "They went to AAU tournaments and things like that. So I was used to them leaving, but I wasn't used to them not ever showing up again. And it hit me a little bit later, when I was nearing 9. Where's Gerome and where do we go from here?"
Tragedy struck again during his senior year when another one of his brothers, Edmund, was gunned down in their neighborhood, which was in the shadow of the United Center.
"The place I'm from, death pretty much happens on the regular. So I kind of got numb to the feeling," Jeffers said. "At that time I knew exactly what death was. I had to humble myself to the point of where do I go from here? What do I do next? During that time I was pretty much nearing adulthood and I was also becoming the man of the house. I had to keep things together."
He went to junior college in Los Angeles to get his grades in order, then to Illinois-Chicago before finishing up his college career at Robert Morris. He was named the NAIA player of the year in 2008, but went undrafted. He played in Italy and the D-League and got his first taste of the NBA in 2010 with the Utah Jazz. He played so well for the Wizards down the stretch in 2011 that they were ready to sign him.
During a workout that summer, he felt a pop in his right knee. Once again, he had no idea how badly he was hurt.
"I just felt kind of wobbly," he said. "I didn't understand actually what an ACL was. I didn't go to the doctor until a week later."
The same surgeon who repaired Derrick Rose's knee did the procedure on Jeffers, who sat out the lockout-shortened season and the Wizards withdrew their qualifying offer. After a year of rehab, Jeffers got a tryout with the Phoenix Suns in training camp last year and spent the rest of the season in the D-League.
When Saunders took over in Minnesota this summer, he noticed a need for some defensive tenacity on the perimeter and immediately thought of Jeffers.
"He really has his priorities in order and he has a real appreciation for where he's from," said Wolves assistant David Adelman, who coached Minnesota's summer league team. "It shows on the court. He's proud of where he's from and what he's been through and it shows in how he plays."
There's one spot open on the roster right now. Jeffers is in the mix along with Robbie Hummel and Lorenzo Brown. If he finds a way to make it, he knows that it will only give him a stronger platform when he goes home to his troubled neighborhood to try to provide inspiration to kids who are besieged by drugs and violence every day.
"I took the long road. I didn't go to a big-time school," he said. "Everything I did was something the normal or average kid could do themselves. They just need the push. They just need to be educated."