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THE WORDS were eerily similar to ones Julius Hodge had heard before: "Rex wants to see you." As Hodge walked down a hallway inside the Pepsi Center toward the office of Denver Nuggets vice president of player personnel Rex Chapman, one thing was running through his mind. "I thought he was going to send me back to the D-League," says Hodge. "Instead, he told me I was traded." It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks for Hodge, who in the span of 10 days has gone from the Colorado 14ers ( Denver's D-League affiliate) to the Nuggets and finally to the Milwaukee Bucks, who acquired him last week along with Earl Boykins in a trade for Steve Blake. "It's crazy, isn't it?" says Hodge. "But the way things have gone for me, I'm just happy to be playing at all."
Last April the 6'7" Hodge, Denver's top pick (20th overall) in the 2005 NBA draft, was driving home with a friend from a Denver nightclub when—in an incident strikingly similar to the one in which another Denver athlete, Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams, was killed on Jan. 1—a car pulled up alongside his black BMW and someone inside the other vehicle opened fire. Three bullets struck Hodge, two in his left leg and one in his left hip. "I remember pulling over and trying to get out and walk and feeling my legs just burning," says Hodge, who used his fingers to dig out a slug that had passed through his left leg and into his right. His friend flagged down a couple in a passing car, and they brought Hodge to a nearby hospital.
There, doctors told Hodge that while he would not need surgery, one of the bullets was lodged just millimeters from the femoral artery in his left leg and could not be removed. If the slug were to shift slightly and penetrate the artery, Hodge ran the risk of severe blood loss and possibly the amputation of his leg. As he lay in a hospital bed that night, Hodge began to contemplate a life without basketball. "I was thinking about how I was going to have to start my high school coaching career a little early," he says. "Or maybe try and become an actor."
The next day Hodge was released from the hospital and began a painful rehabilitation. For two months he was on a steady regimen of pain relievers and antibiotics. When he finally regained some mobility in July, he started feeling sharp pains in his left leg where the bullet still remained. Having determined that it was now safe to operate, doctors went in and removed the slug, one of four surgeries Hodge would undergo over the next four months. "It wasn't just the bullet that was in there," says Hodge. "There were bits of clothing and fragments as well that were causing me a lot of pain."
The operations cost the 23-year-old from New York City a spot on the Nuggets' summer league roster, and it wasn't until late November that Hodge was finally cleared to play. A league source says Denver thought about waiving him but instead shipped him 17 miles away to Broomfield to rehab and learn to play point guard.
In nine games with the 14ers, he averaged 12.1 points and 9.4 assists. On Dec. 27 he hit a game-winning, 17 foot jumper with 4.6 seconds left as Colorado overcame an 18 point deficit to beat the Anaheim Arsenal. Six days later Hodge was a Nugget, and in just his second game back he earned his first career start, in a lineup with Allen Iverson. Then came the trade to injury-ravaged Milwaukee. "I'm jubilant," says Hodge. "This is an opportunity I've been waiting for."
Hodge has put the assault behind him—the Adams County sheriff's office says Hodge has been cooperative but couldn't supply much information, and no suspects have yet been identified—and he is focused on staying in the NBA. "My body feels good," he says. "I'm ready to play the game at this level."
And ready to prove he was worthy of being a No. 1 pick. No. 1, that is, with a bullet.