First they planned to be Oklahoma teammates. Then they had to find new homes. Now seniors Scottie Reynolds and Damion James are leading their tournament-bound teams while retaining their deep connection
This is an article from the March 8, 2010 issue
The 2005 ABCD Camp video touts Damion James and Scottie Reynolds as "a modern-day hoops Odd Couple." As the camera pans their hotel room, it's hard to argue with the analogy: There's the fastidious James playing Felix Unger to Reynolds's Oscar Madison, scolding his roommate for letting the volcano of stuff atop his bed erupt onto the floor. Reynolds gets his jabs in, calling James "ugly" and mimicking his East Texas drawl. It's funny: When Reynolds, a 6'2" point guard from the northern Virginia suburbs, first called James, a 6'7" forward from the projects of Nacogdoches, after learning that James was also interested in playing at Oklahoma, "we couldn't understand each other, our accents were so different," says Reynolds. Now, he says, even though they don't talk as much as they'd like, they're like "real brothers."
Actually, they've always had a lot in common. Both were born to unwed teenage moms and raised in unconventional families. Both are guileless, almost to a fault, yet stingy with their trust. Both have remained tight with their high school coaches, and both felt a similar bond with Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. They took their visit to Norman on the same weekend and committed as high school juniors in the spring of 2005 before rooming together at ABCD. "It was a connection you don't find with too many people," Reynolds says of James. "I felt I could trust this dude and that we could be a real force together."
But in the spring of their senior year, Sampson left Oklahoma for Indiana under the cloud of an NCAA investigation, which would reveal that he and members of his staff had made more than 500 impermissible phone calls to recruits between 2000 and '04. James and Reynolds reconsidered their futures, ultimately heading in different directions— James to Texas and Reynolds to Villanova.
Four years later they are again in eerily similar situations: Both seniors are All-America candidates trying to help freshman-laden teams live up to lofty expectations. Moreover, both are leaving a stamp on the record books—James holds the Big 12 career rebounding record while Reynolds is on pace to top the career list at Villanova—and on their coaches, each of whom has had to rethink his assumptions about player motivation.
When Rick and Pam Reynolds decided to move to Virginia in 2002, after the Chicago-area Motorola plant where Rick had worked for 2½ years shut down, they told a crushed Scottie, who was rated one of the top eighth-grade basketball players in Illinois, that he could decide where they would settle. Scottie chose Herndon because his old AAU coach, Gary Hall, had moved there. Herndon High was not known for hoops, but even when Hall told Scottie after his sophomore season that he should transfer to a higher-profile program, Scottie stayed. "He has a great respect for the title of coach," says Hall. "He needs and thrives on relationships, and he is very loyal."
But nothing trumped Scottie's commitment to his faith. As a freshman he led the Hornets to the regional championship game and then, as a crowd of 5,000 at Robinson High in Fairfax, Va., looked on aghast, left early in the fourth quarter because it was time for Wednesday-night Bible study. Herndon lost in double overtime. Scottie took flak from schoolmates but never reordered his priorities. Is it any surprise his nickname around town was the Exception?
Born in Huntsville, Ala., Scottie was adopted as an infant by Pam and Rick, a white couple who had three biological children and would adopt two more African-American children after Scottie. The whole crew ate dinner together every night and piled into the family van to attend church on Sunday and Bible study on Wednesday. But even his parents say that upbringing alone can't explain their son's moral compass. "That's the way Scottie is wired," says Rick.
When college recruiters came calling, Reynolds sensed a comfortable fit with Sampson. It felt even better once he got to know James, a rebounding machine whose sunny personality brought out the goofball in Reynolds. "I could always tell when Scottie was talking to Damion on the phone," says Pam, "because he'd hang up laughing."
If Scottie's family was the picture of stability, Damion's was something else entirely. His mom, Katrina Williams, had him when she was 16, "just a baby herself," he says. She got help raising him from female relatives, including her mom, Katherine Williams, who lived next door at the Eastwood Terrace apartments in Nacogdoches. Katrina had five more kids, but Damion still lived primarily with his grandma. "I saw my brothers and sisters every day," he says. "When Mama got mad at me, I'd run to Granny's till she calmed down."
James didn't learn the identity of his father until he was 17, when Katrina pointed out a man named Jerry Bell, whose five other sons Damion had known growing up without realizing they were his half-brothers. (Katrina had told Damion that a man named James was his father.) "My father was never there for me, and I had promised myself I would be there for my kids," says Bell, who co-owns a recording label in Houston and a mobile T-shirt business in Nacogdoches. "I just didn't know Damion was mine."
Damion's neighborhood was rough. "Drugs, fighting, violence, dogfighting—I was around all that stuff 24/7," he says. Both his parents had trouble with the law: In the '90s Bell spent five years in prison for cocaine trafficking, and when Damion was 17, his mom spent three months in jail for assault. Yet James expresses nothing but love for and gratitude to his parents, who remain good friends and make the eight-hour round-trip together to Austin for his home games. "My mama is my Number 1," he says. He packs a picture of himself and Katrina in his suitcase for road trips.
James is convinced that he would be selling drugs like many of his friends and relatives if not for Nacogdoches High basketball coach Mark Richardson and assistant Robert Lucero. "They changed my life," he says. "They pushed me on the court and in the classroom, told me I could be a success. If I wanted to go out with the fellas and chase girls, they wouldn't let me."
During summers Damion worked at Lucero's father's trucking company in Dallas so he could make money to cover AAU traveling expenses. "The hardness you'd think Damion would have from growing up where he did isn't there," says Richardson, now the coach at Rider High in Wichita Falls, Texas. "That allowed basketball to do a lot for him. He had to trust that we knew what we were talking about when we said, This chemistry class is important."
James next put his trust in Sampson—"I think Coach Sampson might have reminded Damion of me," says Richardson—and committed to Oklahoma in early April 2005. James called and texted Reynolds urging him to do the same.
"I felt so good being with Coach Sampson and the players and staff," says Reynolds. "I thought everything was going to work out." Then, on media day at the McDonald's All-American game in San Diego on March 28, 2006, he heard that Sampson was leaving for Indiana. Neither Reynolds nor James, who was in English class when he got word, wanted to speak to Sampson. Both wanted to cry. Neither of them felt a connection with new Sooners coach Jeff Capel, so the school released them from their letters of intent, and they frantically looked for other schools.
With Hall's help, Reynolds zeroed in on Villanova, a program that fulfilled several of his requirements: strong academics, a guard tradition and an available scholarship. Coach Jay Wright had seen Reynolds play after he committed to Oklahoma and had been impressed by what he calls Reynolds's "assassin's mentality." But the two didn't know each other. "It was like an arranged marriage," says Hall. "We didn't know if it would work out."
On a team loaded with kids from Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., Reynolds stood out. He had come in with rock-star hype, unusual for a Wildcats recruit, yet he was humble. He didn't drink or smoke. He still went to church and Bible study without fail, and he hung on the coach's every word.
"I think guys on the team were like, C'mon, is this guy for real? How can anybody be this good of a kid?" says Wright, who couldn't believe it either. "It was confusing, really. Off the court he was so genuine, but on it he would do anything within the rules to win. He was crafty, tricky and as nasty as they come."
If Wright didn't understand Reynolds, the feeling was mutual. Reynolds did everything his coach asked, but, says Wright, "I could tell he didn't trust me." Wright didn't have the time to chat for hours the way Hall did, so Reynolds wasn't building the kind of relationship he needed. "It was hard for me, and I didn't let myself open up," says Reynolds. "I wasn't all in."
You wouldn't have known it watching him on the court. Again and again Reynolds delivered exactly what his team needed. Freshman year: He scored 40 points against Connecticut in a game Villanova had to win to stay alive for the NCAA tournament. Sophomore year: After the Wildcats fell behind Clemson by 18 in the first half in an NCAA first-round game, Reynolds hit three threes to open the second half and went on to score 21 points in a 75--69 upset. Junior year: He dashed through traffic for a layup with .5 seconds remaining to beat Pitt 78--76 and send Villanova to the Final Four for the first time since its championship season of 1985.
After the Wildcats lost to eventual champion North Carolina in the semis, Reynolds put his name in for the draft without hiring an agent. It was during his seven-team round of workouts that he finally realized he could trust Wright, and after consulting with NBA coaches and general managers, he decided to return for his senior season. "In every situation I was in, I found myself applying something Coach Wright had taught me," says Reynolds, who through Sunday was averaging 18.9 points and 3.3 assists and hitting 40.9% of his threes. "Everything he says to me now, I know it's making me a better player."
Wright believes he finally has the kind of relationship with Reynolds that Hall had. "He knows exactly what I'm thinking, what I want done," the coach says. "I've never had a guy [like him, with whom] I don't have to say a word." That's not all: Because of Reynolds, Wright is now more willing to go after high-profile recruits, such as the four top 50 players in this year's Villanova freshman class. "Scottie has given me faith that even great players can remain humble and grounded," he says.
At Texas, James joined a blockbuster class that included current NBA players Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin. The school had been his top choice before he met Sampson and Reynolds, so he knew the players and the staff. He fit right in.
But like Reynolds, James had trouble connecting with his new coach, Rick Barnes. James was a starter from the get-go, setting screens, grabbing rebounds and adding his inside power and outside touch to a high-octane offense. But Barnes thought James lacked consistency. The coach rode James hard, stopping film sessions to point out mistakes. "Who is this?" he'd say, pointing his laser. "How can we be this bad? Does this person not care?" James would drop his head. "I was probably harder on Damion than on any of the others," says Barnes, "because he was going to be our main post guy, the enforcer."
Before the game at Oklahoma in James's sophomore year, Barnes shooed everyone out of the locker room but James and launched into a help-me-help-you talk. James said, "Coach, I'm sorry that I've disappointed you. I'm sorry I'm not the kind of player you want me to be." Barnes felt a lump in his throat. Then James confessed that Barnes's use of profanity, which is an invitation to fight in the projects, bothered him.
"I realized then, I don't have a clue what my job is," says Barnes. "I had gotten so caught up in winning, I wasn't helping him at all. All he had ever done was try." Barnes promised James that he'd quit cursing. (By all accounts he has.) The next day James thanked him. Since then they have grown close. "Damion has taught me a lot," says Barnes.
After averaging 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds his junior year, James too put his name in for the draft but didn't hire an agent. Not even Barnes expected him to return to Austin. Yet he did, having heard the same message from NBA coaches and G.M.'s that Reynolds heard: First show us that you can be a leader. "He listened," says Barnes. "Most kids don't." Ask anyone at Eastwood Terrace: James, who will be just five units short of an education degree this spring, is—like his friend Reynolds—the exception.
Villanova reached No. 2 in the polls after starting 20--1; since then it has gone 3--3 and dropped to No. 9 on March 1. Without Reynolds, who has bailed the Wildcats out again and again, the record would be far worse. "We always struggle when we have young guys," says Wright. "I was really anticipating that this year. But Scottie just takes over in the second half." Through Sunday, Reynolds has averaged 7.0 points in the first half in Big East games, 13.3 in the second.
Texas's slide has been more precipitous. After a 17--0 start earned the school its first-ever No. 1 ranking on Jan. 18, the Longhorns had lost seven of 12 games at week's end and dropped out of the poll. With freshmen often running the backcourt, it's been more difficult for James to rescue Texas, but he has tried. He leads the team in points (17.5 per game), rebounds (10.3) and steals (1.66).
"He has had a phenomenal year," says Barnes. "He has really embraced the game. Now he'll even point things out—'Coach, we could set a screen like this.' In the past he never said a word."
Neither James nor Reynolds is likely to be a lottery pick—both are undersized for their positions—but scouts say they both have futures in the NBA. They may play together yet.
Meanwhile, they owe each other a phone call. The two haven't talked in more than a year. Reynolds blames it on James's penchant for changing his cell number. "I must have 20 numbers for him," he says.
They do track each other's progress, though. "Scottie is having a great year," says James. "He has that killer instinct. I love that in him. If I had to vote for player of the year, I'd vote for myself, but I'd vote for him second."
Spoken like a real brother.
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