Bigger than basketball: Devin Booker forms unlikely bond with Suns fan
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NEW YORK — As the A-listers and the decision-makers streamed into the room sporting their newly purchased and freshly pressed suits, a 16-year-old girl wearing blue jeans, pink high tops and a Suns jersey watched and waited. There went Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and 76ers coach Brett Brown, wondering if their teams would stay atop the draft or be booted out by three unlikely Ping-Pong balls. There went Minnesota’s reigning Rookie of the Year, Karl-Anthony Towns, holding court with Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere, Kentucky’s most likely lottery picks this June. Other than a photo with former Suns star and current Bucks coach Jason Kidd, Jenna Warren largely let them be. She was waiting for one man, her “baby,” Devin Booker.
It didn’t matter that they’d already spent most of the day together, shooting hoops in Central Park, slurping pasta at Carmine’s and shopping at the NBA store on Fifth Avenue. Jenna’s parents had warned her before the trip that Devin might not have much time for her, but he had spoiled her, rarely letting go of her hand during the nearly six hours they’d spent together. At every stop, she’s asked what her favorite part of the day has been, and each time she responds emphatically: “Here!”
As she overlooks the escalator leading into the lobby, she’s been separated from Devin for nearly two hours. After the NBA store, she’d returned to her hotel room to nap with her parents, and he’d primped—hosting two tailors and a barber—in his. It seemed to Jenna, who has Down syndrome, that she’d been separated from Devin for an eternity. But when she’s asked by Suns staffers and total strangers alike what her favorite part of the day has been, her answer is unchanging: “Here!”
Then she spots him and sprints to give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. She isn’t excited about the fresh haircut or the sharp custom suit with the Phoenix Suns lining, though; this is how she reacts every time she’s close to Devin. If she sees him—either on TV or in the arena or in person—she tells everyone who will listen, “I love him.” When he hugs her, she says, “I love you.” And he never hesitates to reciprocate.
As Devin and Jenna reacquaint, the room buzzes with the excitement of the most curious event on the NBA calendar. This lobby is packed with control-obsessed competitors who have spent their lives angling for every edge and are now forced to putter as a plastic orb and some simple statistics determine their futures. Many still spend the weeks, days and hours leading up to the reveal imagining and preparing for every possible outcome. But on this night, Devin instead decided to bring someone who reminds him of the magic of living in the moment.
“To her,” Devin says, “it doesn’t matter if we win or lose. It doesn’t matter whether we get pick No. 1 or No. 14. She makes me remember what’s bigger than basketball. She’ll be good either way, so I’ll be good either way.”
It didn’t take long for Devin to notice Jenna, and it wasn’t just because she watched every warmup and shrieked for each uncontested jumper he sank. Jenna reminded him of someone. Devin says he’s always formed fast and easy friendships with people with special needs. When he was in middle school, his group of friends included a boy named Caleb who had Down syndrome. They didn’t share a classroom, but Devin made sure they shared lunch on most days, and Caleb became one of the biggest fans of the Grandville Middle School Bulldogs, for whom Devin was a star. Only years later would Devin realize how meaningful that first friendship would be.
Devin was raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., with his older half-brother, Davon Wade, and his younger half-sister, Mya Powell. They all share the same mother, Veronica Gutierrez, and they spent most of their afternoons in the backyard. Devin and Davon would play everything from basketball to kickball, and Mya would watch and cheer from the deck. The boys left home at around the same time—as Davon enrolled in college, Devin moved to Mississippi to finish high school and and play for his father, former NBA player Melvin Booker. It was while they were away that Mya’s development began to slow.
Mya, who is 14 now, has Microdeletion syndrome, a genetic chromosomal disorder. The boys say that she now has the emotional intelligence of a 7-year-old. From afar, she has become a big basketball fan. “In middle school, on the first day of P.E. that they played basketball, she told everyone in the class that I was better than every single one of them,” Devin says now. One of the few regrets of Devin’s blooming basketball career is that Mya hasn’t been able to watch him play consistently. When he and Davon return home, the kids compete in everything from board games to basketball to Wii Tennis. No one likes to lose, and no one takes it easy on Mya. “She’s always saying, ‘I’m your little sister, shouldn’t you let me win?’ Devin says and smiles. “But I don’t let her win at anything.”
After the Suns drafted Devin with the No. 13 pick in the 2015 draft, he and Davon moved to Arizona. Mya didn’t quite grasp the time change and would insist to Veronica almost every morning that they FaceTime her brothers. Which meant that most mornings, Devin was awoken before 5 a.m. by the beaming face and excited voice of his little sister.
“She’s our everything,” Devin says. “She changed all our lives. She changed them for the better. There’s no one in the world who brings more joy to me or to our family.”
Devin has never talked to Jenna’s family about Mya, but they suspected right away that he had a family member or a close friend with special needs. It didn’t take more than six weeks into the season for Devin to introduce himself to the family. They had been season-ticket holders since 2010, and they took advantage of the early access to the arena it afforded them. For most 7 p.m. home games, they were settled into their seats by 5, among the first dozen fans in attendance. Devin’s early warmup routine involves making five three-pointers from various spots around the arc, ending right in front of where Jenna sits with her stepdad and mom, Ray and Gracie Colvin. Eventually, he answered her cheers with an introduction. “We just trusted him right away,” Gracie says. “We have always strived to treat Jenna like the normal person she is. Down syndrome is what she has, but it isn’t what defines her. And Devin never treated her any differently either.”
Jenna is outgoing and uninhibited. She couldn’t walk until she was 3 years old, but Gracie enrolled her in dance by the time she was 4. At her first recital, she literally upstaged her ensemble and put on her own show. Her instructor had to come out to collect her, but Jenna blew kisses to the crowd even as she was being carried off, drawing a huge ovation. She’s also tough, having survived four heart surgeries and a handful of other operations. Her family doesn’t know what drew her so deeply into basketball, but Gracie, who homeschools her, has used it to help teach her everything from social skills to subtraction. Through the years, she’s met dozen of players and has had several favorites—from Steve Nash to Goran Dragic—but none have bonded with her like Devin has.
After Eric Bledsoe’s season-ending injury in late December, Devin moved into the starting lineup, ane became the fourth-youngest player in league history to score 1,000 points, finishing fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting and emerging as the face of the Suns franchise. And before just about every home game, he’d make sure to say hello to Jenna, Gracie and Ray. At the Suns’ third-to-last home game of the year, on April 3 against Utah, he invited the three of them down to the court. “I remember when I was young just looking at the hardwood and hoping to touch the floor,” Devin says. “I thought it would be a special experience for her.” She told him it was the best day of her life.
So when the Suns asked him to represent the organization at the NBA draft lottery and told him he could bring guests, he knew who should come with him. When the Suns first called the Colvins, they assumed it was about season-ticket renewal. They kept the secret from Jenna for a week until Devin asked her on Instagram to join him in New York. The Colvins had just arrived in Ontario, Calif., for a church gathering when they got the notification. They pulled into a Chevron gas station and recorded her response.
Devin never mentions Jenna’s syndrome when he introduces her. In the lead-up to the draft lottery, Bruce Bowen interviews Devin and asks him whom he invited to New York. “I brought my best friend and the biggest Suns fan I know,” Devin says. Hearing Devin say her name, Jenna stands and waves to the crowd. As Devin leaves the couch and gets ready to walk onto the stage, he’s more convinced than ever that the Suns will secure the No. 1 pick.
Instead, the draft lottery went chalk for the first time in history, leaving the Suns at No. 4 and giving them Washington’s No. 13 pick. There’s a twinge of disappointment among the Colvins and the three Suns’ staffers seated next to them in the front row—until Ray reminds everyone how well the team did with its No. 13 pick a year ago.
After a few interviews, Devin finds Jenna again to pose for one final round of photos and squeeze in a couple more hugs. As Ray looks on, he turns to Gracie and says, “Well this was the experience of a lifetime, wasn’t it?”
When he signs his next deal, Devin wants to buy a big house where his mother and his sister can live with him and his brother. Maybe, he thinks, Mya and Jenna will meet some time. Maybe they would even become friends. But that’s a question for the future, and for Devin, this day is all about the here and the now. Jenna tells him thanks for everything. She tells him she’ll miss him. “I’ll see you soon,” he tells her, and holds her tight one last time. As he walks away, her family surrounds her and asks one more time about how her day has been. “I love him,” she says.