Gary Trent Jr. was at the airport on his way to Duke's basketball game at Georgia Tech nearly three years ago when he was hit with devastating news that his best friend, Jordan Bolton, was clinging to life.
Trent and Bolton had shared a brother-like bond since they met in middle school in Apple Valley.
They won a state championship together in high school. They did everything together, shared their childhood NBA dreams, and were starring on college teams like they had always planned.
"I was in shock," Trent said, remembering a frantic phone call from Bolton's mother, Tiffany Elliott. "I didn't believe it."
On Feb. 10, 2018, Bolton took a THC pill for the first time at a party and smashed into a wall while hallucinating. He was living at the time in Devils Lake, N.D., where he was a standout basketball player for Lake Region State College.
On the ambulance ride to the hospital, Bolton was unconscious long enough to recall seeing the faces of his friends and family race through his mind, including Trent.
"I even saw my own funeral," Bolton said. "That's when I said, 'I'm not ready yet.' "
He had never smoked marijuana or done any drug before. One lapse in judgment resulted in Bolton breaking his neck and suffering a C4-C5 injury of his vertebrae. He was paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors told him he would likely never walk again. He was only 21 years old.
Bolton's journey from that point to defy the odds would push his buddy, Trent (aka JR), to fight alongside him. One friend battling to walk, the other pursuing the professional basketball career they both dreamed of. Trent is now in his third year with the Portland Trailblazers. They are each other's biggest fan, harshest critic, and motivator.
"That's how close we have always been," Bolton said. "I always knew he had [NBA potential] in him. It was just a matter of getting the right opportunity. And as soon as I went down, he knew I was going to be back. He didn't have any doubts about it. He just knew it was going to take time."
Rehabbing six hours a day six days a week since October 2018, Bolton's accomplishments already surpass what most medical experts predicted. Regaining feeling in his lower body to have bowel and bladder function, even walking with assistance in pool workouts, were significant milestones.
"Going from an athletic 21-year-old to having a spinal cord injury [while still having] the wherewithal to change your focus and generate such a positive mental, emotional and spiritual connection toward regrowth is pretty inspiring," said Barry Weintraub, Bolton's trainer at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Golden Valley.
"He's got a no-quit spirit and no-quit attitude. And I think that's where he and Gary feed off each other so well," Weintraub added. "They're always pushing each other forward, and challenging each other to get to that next level."
Trent, who lives in Portland, has continued to visit Bolton often in Minnesota since the weeks following the incident, including sleeping some nights at the hospital just before Duke's run to the Elite Eight in the 2018 NCAA tournament. The night Trent was drafted in the second round and 37th overall that summer, Bolton told Trent on the phone that the teams that passed on his pal would be sorry.
The 6-foot-6 guard recently was one of the breakout players of the NBA bubble in Orlando, where he earned a spot in the main rotation for the Trailblazers in the playoffs against the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
"Jordan has seen my development from the fifth grade," Trent said. "The same way he's feeling about me, I feel about his body and recovery. Always got love for him since he was there from the beginning."
Big progress already
On Thanksgiving, Bolton, with his mother and younger sister, Jayden, sat in their living room together watching movies. It felt, in many ways, like old times.
That moment was a breakthrough in itself.
About three years ago, Elliott left her daughter, then a junior at Apple Valley, to live in their house on her own. Elliott wouldn't leave Bolton's hospital bedside while he endured multiple surgeries and setbacks in the first few months after the accident.
"She had to grow up a little faster than she would have if this hadn't happened," said Elliott of Jayden, now a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, distance learning at home during the pandemic.
"I didn't come back home until it was time for him to discharge," Elliott said. "I had people bring me clothes and everything I needed. I slept on a recliner chair."
Mom still hasn't left his side. And she's been witness to Bolton's recovery, which in videos posted on Twitter and Instagram has inspired people throughout Minnesota and across the country. Bolton started a phrase, "Why not JB?" that was printed on bracelets and sold to help pay for his rehab.
"His end goal is to walk again, but he is fully understanding what it takes to get there," trainer Weintraub said. "He celebrates the small victories, which allows us not to focus on the end goal all of the time. …
"Most of the science says where he's at he shouldn't be here with most of his accomplishments already. And so, I look at everything we get beyond this as a victory."
Bolton strengthened his legs enough to start getting more activation and movement outside of the pool. He added sessions with a chiropractor twice a week to his already tedious regiment. He's added muscle mass, gaining 10 pounds in the last year. Previously an avid video game player, Bolton also strives to one day, sooner than later, be able to open and close his fingers to grasp and use a controller. He still has goals of pursuing a law degree.
"The people with the right mind-set and right work ethic will go far beyond what the expectations are," Bolton said.
When they were in middle school, Trent remembers Bolton not just being tough to beat at video games but as one of the best athletes in Apple Valley, dunking well under 6-feet tall.
To see him so frail, trying to heal from post-injury surgeries, broke Trent's heart at first but he knew his best friend would endure.
This October, Trent surprised Bolton with a visit for his 23rd birthday, but celebrating was minimal. They spent most of their time together grinding in the gym, getting stronger mentally and physically.
"Everything is coming together," Trent said. "Every time I see him, his body looks fuller. He's starting to fill out more. You can see his muscle start to come back a little bit. Whatever happens is going to happen.
"But if he keeps working, sky's the limit. He's going to keep fighting and going out there working as hard as he can."
Marcus Fuller • 612-673-7570