Thou wilt show me the path of life.
This is an article from the Nov. 14, 2011 issue
Dieter Horton first caught sight of the skinny kid with the long arms one afternoon in April 2008. The boy was sitting in the first row of the bleachers in the small gym at Antelope Valley College, waiting silently, his knees together. Only when he stood up, 30 minutes later, did Horton realize just how tall he was. At least 6'8", Horton thought. Then he looked closer: Who the hell is this kid?
After all, AVC is located in Lancaster, Calif., in the heart of the Antelope Valley, only an hour's drive north of Los Angeles over the San Gabriel Mountains but in a world of its own. If there was a teenager within a nose of 6'6" in the valley, Horton could tell you his home address, his girlfriend's name and what he liked on his pizza. In 11 years as a junior college basketball coach in California, Horton had won a state title, sent nearly 20 kids to Division I schools and set a state juco record by finishing 37--0 at Fullerton College in 2005--06. Young, ambitious and handsome in a clean-cut way, Horton scouted so relentlessly that his phys-ed students had grown accustomed to his teaching with a cellphone pressed to his ear. Yet here was a towering kid unfamiliar to the coach from local high schools or the AAU circuit or even city rec leagues.
When Horton finished talking with one of his players, the boy walked over. He wore an enormous pair of beat-up hightops, ratty shorts and a white T-shirt so large it looked like a muumuu. He hunched over, as if trying to shrink to standard proportions. "Coach," he said, "my name is Dewayne Dedmon. I want to play basketball."
Instantly Horton recognized the name. For years stories had floated around the valley about a tall kid who wasn't allowed to play basketball, but the coach had never believed them. He heard lots of stories. Most came from the kids themselves. Every year dozens of cocky teenagers approached Horton and assured him they'd score 20 a game if only he'd give them a uniform and the rock. To weed out the dreamers and boasters, he told them, "Come back next week." Only one in 10 ever did.
"O.K., Dewayne Dedmon, how about we see what you got," Horton said. "Show up next Tuesday at 3 p.m., and we'll work you out."
Dedmon nodded. "Yes, sir," he said. "I'll see you then."
Within a few days, Horton had forgotten all about him.
Gail Lewis was so proud she felt like crying. She stared at the letters on the notepaper stuck to the wall and read along. She knew the line, from Proverbs. Then she looked down at her nine-year-old son, sitting on his bed in their sparsely furnished three-bedroom apartment in Lancaster. Here he was, only halfway grown up and already disciplining himself.
It wasn't the first time he'd had to. Dewayne was a gentle boy with a big heart, but he struggled to contain an independent streak. When he spoke disrespectfully to an adult, or used a bad word, he would retreat to his room. There he'd look through his Bible until he found a relevant scripture and carefully copy the passage. In moments such as these, Gail knew her decision had been the right one.
She'd joined the Truth four years earlier, in 1995. At the time she'd needed structure—for herself and for the three young children she was raising alone on her income as a receptionist in a doctor's office. She took Dewayne and his older sisters, Sabrina and Marina, to Kingdom Hall for an hour of Bible study on Tuesday, two hours of ministry school on Thursday and a two-hour public meeting on Sunday. On Saturday they all performed their most important duty as Jehovah's Witnesses: spreading the word. If the people whose doors they knocked on sometimes looked at them scornfully, Gail felt only pity for them.
She knew her family was on the right side of the Lord, along with so many others. She could recite the stats: There were several million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide, and over a million in more than 10,000 congregations in the U.S. Like Gail, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that we are living in the end days of a wicked world, and that when the Apocalypse comes, only true believers will be granted eternal life. They recognize not the Holy Trinity but only the Father, and they take the Bible as his literal word. You can serve only one master, the Bible says; allegiance to anyone or anything but Jehovah is forbidden. So like all Witnesses, Gail was expected not to vote in elections or salute the flag. She could not run for public office or serve in the armed forces. Her family celebrated neither birthdays nor holidays. Gail could not receive a blood transfusion, even if refusing one could be fatal, because the Bible says one must "abstain from blood."
Then there was the matter of sports. Though not expressly forbidden, playing on a team encouraged children to show allegiance to something other than Jehovah and challenged their other priorities: Afternoons were for meetings, not practices, and weekends for service, not games. Even though Gail had been a talented volleyball player and quite a dancer, she knew sports were not right for her children now.
So, in a country in which parents put basketballs in their sons' cribs, in which fathers such as Earl Woods and Marv Marinovich trained their offspring to be sports stars from birth, Gail Lewis did the opposite. She forbade her tall, athletic son to play sports.
On Tuesday, Horton walked into the Antelope Valley gym at 2:30 p.m. He was on his way to work out in the dingy weight room, which housed rusted dumbbells and ancient Nautilus equipment. AVC, founded in 1929 in a sprawling desert populated by alfalfa farmers, had grown from a tiny adjunct to a high school into an institution with a student body of more than 12,000. Like many other California schools, AVC struggled with funding. Its classrooms were cramped and facilities outdated. The locker room was so small that during football season the players lined up around a corner to use the shower. That the basketball program had enjoyed so much success in such conditions was something of which Horton and his predecessor, Newton Chelette, were rightly proud.
As Horton hurried across the warped gym floor, he noticed someone watching him. Later it would strike him as unusual that the boy had arrived 30 minutes early. At the time, though, Horton was just surprised to see Dedmon at all.
Well, the coach figured, he's here. He grabbed a ball and passed it to Dedmon. "O.K., let's go," he said. "Start with Mikan drills."
Dedmon stared back at him.
"You know what those are, right?" Horton said.
"No, sir," Dedmon replied.
So Horton took back the ball and demonstrated the simplest drill: Stand on the right side of the basket, take one step and lay the ball in righthanded. Catch the ball as it exits the net, move to the left side and do the same thing lefthanded.
Dedmon took an ungainly step and muffed the layup. As the workout proceeded, he botched his footwork on post moves, fumbled the ball while dribbling and fired his jump shot from so far behind his head that it seemed he might topple over.
After half an hour Horton was tempted to end the workout. But then he told Dedmon to go through the Mikan drills one more time. Slowly at first, Dedmon moved from side to side, catching the ball and laying it in. It wasn't pretty, but Horton noticed something remarkable: Dedmon was already 50% better than the first time he had performed the drills.
Still, Horton couldn't get a read on the kid. Dedmon was shy and awfully skinny for an 18-year-old, no more than 190 pounds, and had never really been coached. But he had potential, and you couldn't be picky at a place like AVC, especially when it came to 6'8" kids. Horton told Dedmon he would grayshirt him. It was a no-risk move—the kid would keep his eligibility but wouldn't use up a roster spot—even if in Horton's experience only one in three grayshirts ever panned out.
Dedmon seemed puzzled by the term grayshirt. So the pair headed to Horton's office, a small corner room in a trailer with fake-wood walls that looked out on a vacant lot. Horton sat behind his old metal desk and explained college basketball: how eligibility worked and the difference between a juco and a Division I school. He was amazed at how little Dedmon knew. He had never heard of the Big Ten or even the Pac-10.
By the end of the afternoon, however, Dedmon understood the most important thing: He could attend AVC as a part-time student and practice with the team. He'd receive a small amount of financial aid, but the rest—transportation, getting a job, improving his game—would be up to him.
To Gail Lewis's children, the world was a small place. Its borders were the dusty slopes and the desert on the horizons. From the San Gabriel Mountains, Antelope Valley appears to be a flat plain upon which man has tried to impose his will with mixed results. There are shopping malls, highways and a man-made lake watched over by a lone windmill. Everything feels tenuous. Tumbleweeds roll onto the highway; backyards abut rocky desert where cacti provide the only hint of green. Towns sprawl, their highway exits marked by the letters of the alphabet. Street numbers rise past 40000. There is no center to anything; in Lancaster, 145,000 people live in 94 square miles.
Though Gail moved her family often, it was always within the valley, from Palmdale north to Lancaster, one condo or apartment to the next. They hardly ever went Down Below, as the locals called L.A., other than to visit friends in suburban Long Beach. Money was tight. Life consisted of church, school and family.
Here Gail could maintain order, though occasionally she relented. After Dewayne pleaded, she told him he could play one season of volleyball, in the eighth grade. It didn't seem a huge risk—the practices didn't conflict with meetings, and she hoped playing would burn off some of his energy.
Then one day the team was losing a match and an assistant coach yelled at Dewayne. Really yelled at him. He'd been scolded before, but not like this. He yelled back. And that, Gail decided, was that. You are never playing again, she declared. As she would later say, "No boy of mine was going to embarrass me like that. He needed to learn."
How do you win a race in which everyone else has an 18-year head start? The day after that first workout with Horton, Dedmon started with the basics, stuff most kids learned in junior high. Drop steps, pivots, box outs. Horton reconstructed Dedmon's jumper and forbade him to shoot from outside the key. Start at your hip, then make an L with your arm and push it up into an I, Horton said. One-two-three, he counted with every shot, one-two-three. In one sense Dedmon was a coach's nightmare; in another he was a coach's dream. He had no bad habits to correct, because he had no habits. He was a blank slate.
One day Horton showed up with a pair of size-18 Adidas hightops he'd ordered for $35 off Eastbay.com. Dedmon was ecstatic—"like it was Christmas," Horton remembers. In the fall, when Dedmon received his uniform and warmups, he was overjoyed. He wore them everywhere: to class, on the bus, while studying.
Not only did Dedmon have new clothes, he had a dozen new friends. He became particularly close with fellow grayshirts Edwin Herrera and Jason Logan. They ate burgers at Primos and called themselves the Three Amigos. Logan liked Dedmon, who was funny and gentle, but didn't think much of his basketball ability. "You could tell he'd never played," Logan remembers. "He couldn't jump. He couldn't even dunk some days."
In October, after six months of working out with Horton and on his own, Dedmon joined the team for its first practices. They were brutal. Drills were performed until perfected. If a player didn't go hard, everyone ran sprints. Whole afternoons were spent solely on defense. Dedmon loved it. He raced up and down the floor as if in an Olympic trial. He dived after loose balls. His teammates stared; didn't the new kid understand this was just practice? As AVC assistant coach Tim Atkerson puts it, Dedmon "defied all the things that [kids just out of] high school are supposed to be."
Whatever was needed, Dedmon did it. He helped clean the gym. After games he stuck around and let elementary school kids throw him alley-oops. The assistant coaches' children particularly took to him. He put them on his shoulders, remembered their names, made them feel special. They saw him as just another kid, if an enormous one.
There was only one problem: attendance. Dedmon missed class repeatedly and fared poorly in his studies; he missed some practices too. Horton was annoyed until he learned that Dedmon lived in southeast Palmdale, 15 miles away, and had no regular ride to school. His family had one car, and his mom needed it for work most days. So Dedmon relied on friends with cars or took 45-minute bus rides.
Horton didn't get it. Here was a kid who needed to make up a lot of ground, and yet for some reason he was having trouble just getting to school.
It began with the shoes. One afternoon when he was a boy, Dewayne announced that he couldn't find his. And without shoes, how could he go to Kingdom Hall? "Too bad, then you're going without them," Gail said.
"No buts. We're going."
She made him get into the car in his socks. In Gail Lewis's house, you didn't miss meetings.
It got worse. Dewayne became insubordinate. He began hanging out with boys she didn't like, boys who were rude and got him into trouble. But now, when she got mad at him, instead of writing scripture, he jumped on his bike and rode away, sometimes from 17th Street west all the way to 70th Street, to a family friend's house. One time Gail locked him out for an afternoon. When she returned home, she found him sitting on the porch, fuming. "Boy, get in the house," she said. "You have to learn."
This defiance bled into school. As the family moved, Dewayne attended three schools. He kept talking about sports—not volleyball but basketball now. He pleaded to play. Gail held firm. She saw herself as a one-woman team: mother, father, uncle and aunt. She knew boys get to an age at which they're susceptible to influences and can take the wrong path. It was up to her to hold the line. It would be different if Dewayne's father were in the picture.
Thomas Dewayne Dedmon had been easy to spot at 6'3" and 210 pounds. But his was a transient life. He worked in the military for a while and fathered six children, three with one woman and three with Gail, whom he never married. Gail thought Thomas was giving and caring but also lazy and a bad influence on their kids. When she started to make changes in her life, trying to do the right thing and show more self-respect, she knew he couldn't be part of it.
A few years later she heard the news: At age 34, Thomas had taken his own life, according to Gail. Their youngest child, Dewayne, was three years old.
Horton couldn't believe it: Dedmon had grown again. Here it was, December 2008, early in his grayshirt season, and he was nearly 6'10"—almost two inches taller than when he'd first shown up in the AVC gym.
Dedmon was transforming himself in other ways too. Thanks to financial aid and part-time jobs, he had more money to eat, and he ate nonstop—even it was mostly fast food. When he didn't eat, he slept. For the first time in his life he was lifting weights, and slowly the muscle accreted. He drew his shoulders back, puffed out his chest, became more confident. On the practice court his footwork improved and with it his explosiveness. His jump shot remained erratic, but his form was textbook: one-two-three, L to I. "I've never seen a kid with that high a learning curve," says Atkerson. "If you saw him one week and came back two weeks later, you could see a significant improvement in all facets."
It was time to challenge the kid. AVC had a hugely athletic player named Kyisean Reed, who would go on to sign with Utah State. Reed was 6'6" and could touch the box on the backboard from a standing jump. For months he and Dedmon had matched up in practice. One day in late December, Horton gathered the team together and announced, "If at any point during practice Kyisean dunks on Dewayne, I'll end practice. Even if it's the first play."
Given an opportunity to free their teammates for an afternoon, most kids would allow themselves to be dunked on right away. Not Dedmon. Three times that day Reed rose up for a jam, and three times Dedmon met him at the basket with tremendous force. The same thing happened the next day, and the day after that. If Reed got a step on him, Dedmon came flying in from behind, nearly decapitating his teammate. At times Reed looked at Horton for help—"He's killing me here!"—but Horton let them play on. Reed never got that dunk.
Dedmon's energy began changing the tenor of the team. His teammates gravitated to him. As Horton puts it, "Here's this 6'10" kid playing harder than anyone they'd ever seen, playing so hard he's almost hurting himself. People respect that."
There is a price for such rapid development, though. Dedmon grew so fast that his body balked. His hamstrings tightened, his knees ached, his back got sore. The only solution was to freeze away the pain. So Dedmon, at the coaches' suggestion, lowered himself into a 57¬∫ whirlpool, where he sat for 20 minutes at a time, perched on an orange Home Depot bucket. Even though his body went numb from the waist down, he didn't complain. Tell Dedmon to do something, and he did it.
He came to her the fall of his senior year of high school, a few months after he turned 18. I'm going to play basketball, Dewayne said, and there's nothing you can do about it. I'm my own man now.
Absolutely not, said Gail. The Bible says you can't serve two masters.
I can do both, he said.
Gail knew he wouldn't listen to her. What Dewayne needed was a male influence. So she called upon the men at Kingdom Hall. Two of them came to the house and sat down in the small kitchen across from Dewayne. Gail put out snacks, and the men explained how basketball could take Dewayne away from his Christian upbringing. How it could corrupt him.
Dewayne sat and listened to the men. There was a lot at stake. He would be going against not just his mother's wishes but also the churchmen's. Among Jehovah's Witnesses, even minor infractions such as saluting the flag or dating a nonbeliever can lead to punishment by a judicial committee. Drifting away from the Truth can result in "disassociation": A member is disavowed by loved ones and shunned by friends. Then there was a more profound risk. If Dewayne still believed in the Truth and continued to defy his church, he might eventually face divine execution at the Battle of Armageddon. All for playing a game.
His whole life, his mother had been his world and the church his guide. The instructions were clear. "Avoid independent thinking," it said in a 1983 Watchtower magazine, and "questioning the counsel that is provided by God's visible organization."
And yet Dewayne knew that this was likely his last chance to play ball. When he graduated in the spring, he'd need to get a job, probably something minimum wage. That's what kids like him did in Lancaster—that is, if they didn't get involved in drugs or worse. He knew plenty headed that way. He didn't want to join them.
He told the men and his mother that he'd made his decision, and it was final: He was going to play. Gail was crushed. Still, she hoped it was only a dalliance, and as the year went on she became hopeful. After all, Dewayne hardly ever played. His few minutes in games were mop-up duty and an occasional call to clog up the middle on defense. Almost all he did during his senior year at Lancaster High was sit—on the bus, on the bench, on the sideline. The coach, David Humphreys, didn't have much use for a skinny kid with no discernible skills, even if he was 6'7". Humphreys was trying to win a Golden League title.
When the season was over, though, instead of giving up on sports and returning to the church, Dewayne did the opposite. One day in the spring he came home and told Gail he was going to go to college. To play basketball.
The text pinged onto Horton's phone one morning in the fall of 2009. It was from the school janitor, Herman Mena. Dedmon was just in here for an hour and a half, it read. The time stamp was 12:45 a.m.
Moving out of the house had changed Dedmon's world. One day at the start of the semester Mena had come by with a borrowed truck and helped Dedmon load up his belongings: one mattress, an old TV, a dresser and some clothes. They'd moved him into a sublet a few blocks from AVC. From that point on Dedmon had practically lived on campus. He showed up at seven in the morning to lift, often arriving on his foot-propelled Razor scooter, looking like a giraffe on wheels. He stuck around after his evening classes; Mena opened the gym for him, and Dedmon lifted weights and worked on his game. "I'm going to be a point guard!" he shouted, and Mena laughed and shook his head. Eventually Dedmon would take a work-study job alongside Mena, cleaning the cafeteria four or five times a week at midnight, the tallest janitor you've ever seen.
That fall Dedmon finally got a chance to play in a real game. It was ugly. A whistle a couple of minutes in, another not long after, and then he was on the bench. The next game was worse: He grappled for position, challenged every shot and flew around the court, but he finished with four fouls and only two points. It was the Kyisean Reed approach—cede nothing, challenge everything—only it doesn't work in a real game. The next time out he got three fouls in the first half. Horton had to yank him again. Dedmon jogged to the bench, where he sat down next to Mike Rios, the school's athletic academic adviser. "Coach, why'd I come out?" Dedmon asked.
"You have three fouls," said Rios.
"Well, how many do I get?"
Rios chuckled and put his arm around Dedmon. "You only get five, my man, only five."
The breakthrough came against Fullerton College on Nov. 21, the sixth game of the season. One of Fullerton's players bumped Dedmon repeatedly, then finally threw an elbow at his head. It was the ultimate honor: Fullerton was trying to get Dedmon out of the game. Of course, Dedmon didn't see it that way. He shoved the Fullerton player and drew a technical foul. But Dedmon stayed in the game and something changed. Energized, he became more aggressive on offense. He finished tied for the team lead in points (14) and rebounds (eight) in an overtime win. Better yet, he didn't foul out.
The kid was improving by the day, and he seemed to retain everything. One morning AVC's point guard was late to a walk-through, and Dedmon volunteered to take his place. Horton stared in disbelief while Dedmon ran the offense as if he'd been doing it all year. "We had probably 50 plays, and he could run point through five on every play perfectly—the timing and nuance, baseline out-of-bounds, half-court, you name it," says Horton. "Here was this 6'10" kid who'd hardly even played, and he had the best basketball IQ I'd seen. I was taken aback."
In games Dedmon scored his points on offensive rebounds and monstrous putback dunks and became so good at converting lobs that Horton installed four plays for him, his favorite being X, a back-pick against a zone in which Dedmon soared in from the right side. Defense was still his forte, though. He pulled down 14 boards in one game, blocked seven shots in another. Logan was not only losing to his friend in one-on-one but was also finding it hard to even score.
As fond as coaches and teammates were of Dedmon, he was even more popular with the fans. AVC is something of an anomaly among junior colleges: Its games are so popular that certain fans have reserved seats, while residents, students and alumni crowd the 828-seat gym, standing and stomping on the bleachers. They loved how Dedmon hustled, how he made the rim shake on follow dunks, how he yelled after big plays. That kid plays with joy, they said.
Gail hardly ever went to her son's games. Not during his senior year in high school and not now, in 2009, his first season of playing significant minutes. After all, games were often during meetings or community outreach, which took up 70 hours a month.
It hurt Gail that she was losing touch with Dewayne, just as it hurt him that she never met his teammates or knew what he was doing. When they spoke on the phone, they often argued. Again and again, the same loop:
"Mom, you're not listening," he would say.
"You never call me," she would reply.
One time they really got into it. Finally, Gail said, "You know something ..." but then, before she said something she would regret, she caught herself and hung up.
She called back early that evening, because the Bible says, "Don't let the sun go down on your wrath." When he answered, she said, "You know, Dewayne, I love you, I'm your mom, and you're still my son, but we need to come to an agreement."
He loved her too, he said. But things were about to change even more. It was time to tell her about the recruitment process that had begun over the summer and about USC.
Bob Cantu had been an assistant at USC for eight years by the fall of 2009. He'd helped recruit Derrick Williams (though Williams went on to play at Arizona when coach Tim Floyd left the Trojans) and other big-time players. Even so, Cantu still dreamed about finding an Ervin Johnson.
The legend of Johnson is oft told in coaching circles: how in 1988 a 6'11" player walked into Floyd's office at New Orleans after spending the previous two years working at a grocery store in Baton Rouge; how he went on to lead the American South Conference in blocks, rebounds and shooting percentage and to play 13 years in the NBA.
There have been just a handful of others like Johnson—7-footer Michael Olowokandi didn't play basketball until he was 18, when he cold-called the University of the Pacific. So catalogued and cross-referenced was every young big man in the country that it seemed there were no undiscovered gems. Yet when Cantu first saw Dewayne Dedmon in July 2009, months before he played his first official game for AVC, he didn't see a gangly kid who'd never played in a college game. He saw Ervin Johnson.
The setting was a junior college showcase at USC's Galen Center. It was essentially a window-shopping event for big schools: About 30 jucos from around California brought their teams and played two days' worth of games so coaches could scout transfer prospects. For Horton, the exposure would help his players get Division I scholarships, and those scholarships would help sell his program to future recruits.
Dedmon arrived as an afterthought; he had no stats, no scouting file and no buzz. Then, 30 seconds into his first game, he pinned a shot against the glass. Then another. Then he ran the floor and got a dunk. He missed a lot of easy shots, and he looked lost at times, but it didn't matter. Cantu and new Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill were standing on the baseline, smitten.
By the second day so were plenty of others. USC had an advantage, though: Cantu and Horton were old friends. "Are you friggin' kidding me?" Cantu said when he called Horton a couple of days after the event. "Have you been holding out on me with this kid?"
"No, Bob, I told you about him. You just didn't believe me, remember?" Cantu had to give him that: It had been an unlikely story.
By fall the word was out: There was a tall, raw kid at Antelope Valley with an incredible motor who was still growing. That Dedmon was nowhere near graduating didn't seem to matter, nor did the fact that he still hadn't played a college game. The coaches had begun showing up en masse during the recruiting period: Clemson, USC, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, LSU. There were so many that Atkerson and fellow AVC assistant Brad Wiggs felt more like bellhops than coaches. Line up the chairs, get water, make small talk.
Dedmon was shocked at first. He hadn't thought he was any good. Now, after the Fullerton game, he felt as if he belonged. It was time to commit. He thought about all those schools, all those faraway places. He wanted to stay near his sisters, the two people to whom he was closest. That narrowed the list considerably. Then he visited USC. Riding shotgun in a golf cart with Horton, he toured the campus, awed by the buildings, dorm rooms and giant auditoriums. What really got him, though, was the training room in Little Galen, where the football players ate. Dedmon stared at the menu: tri-tip steak, chicken, pasta. "You mean I get to eat all that?" he asked, incredulous.
"Yeah, Dewayne, you get to eat as much as you want," said Horton.
This was Shangri-la. The way Dedmon's body had been growing, he couldn't take in calories fast enough. He'd probably been eating only 3,000 or so a day, many of them empty, when his body needed 5,000. Just the idea of being on scholarship overwhelmed him; add to that the quality of the school and the coaching staff, and he was sold. Though he wouldn't officially sign for another five months, he verbally committed to USC that November.
From that day, whether it was freezing or 90¬∫ out, Dedmon wore his USC sweatshirt. Around town he became a hero. The Antelope Valley Press wrote about him. Students high-fived him. His teachers marveled at how he'd changed and what an unlikely path he had taken. After all, most of the time we hear about wayward young men who one day find God. Dedmon, however, was the opposite. As history professor Cynthia Lehman says, "He just walked into the gym one day and found basketball."
It is a warm afternoon in July 2011 at Los Angeles Trade Technical College (LATTC) in downtown L.A., and the Say No Classic summer league is in full swing. Rap music booms from the speakers, roughly 75 fans lounge in the wooden bleachers, and tall young men wander around in shorts, athletic sandals and hoodies, waiting for their games. The court is filled with top Division I players. Larry Drew of UCLA is here, as are Malik Story of Nevada and Quincy Lawson of Loyola Marymount. And, wearing a mini-Mohawk and towering over the rest of the players at just over 7 feet, Dewayne Dedmon.
So much has happened in the last year and a half. After signing with USC, Dedmon celebrated his first Christmas, watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas at the Hortons' house with Dieter's five-year-old son, Charles. Then Dedmon suffered a gruesome injury late in AVC's 2009--10 season—his forehead was fractured and his sinus cavity was partially collapsed by an elbow—and missed the last seven Pioneer Conference games. In April 2010, Horton was hired as an assistant by USC, and not long after that the Trojans' coaches asked if Dedmon could arrive by New Year's and redshirt the second half of the '10--11 season. That meant cramming in all his units, taking an online course and graduating from AVC early, all without the help of the coach who'd mentored him, because Horton's contact with Dedmon was now severely limited by NCAA rules. So Dedmon applied the discipline he'd learned during his days at Kingdom Hall and succeeded with the help of flash cards and study sessions with Lehman. He even made the Dean's List one semester.
When he arrived at USC in January for the second half of the basketball season, he once again treated practices like games, sprinting and banging. Starting forwards Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson weren't quite sure what to make of the new 7-foot maniac, but one thing was clear: He pushed them. When USC made a surprising run to qualify for the NCAA tournament, the coaches cited Dedmon's influence in practice as one reason why.
Provided access to the training table, Dedmon ate five times a day and chugged protein shakes. His weight rose to 258 pounds from 222. In workouts he began knocking down jumpers, extending his range beyond the three-point line. He became a savvy passer, added post moves and proved to be the second-fastest player on the team in length-of-the-court races, behind only point guard Maurice Jones.
"For a big guy he has the best motor I've seen," says O'Neill, who has more than 20 years of coaching experience in college and the NBA. He compares Dedmon's desire with Ben Wallace's and his potential skill set with Kevin Garnett's. O'Neill intended to bring Dedmon along slowly, but when Vucevic declared for the NBA draft, the coach had no choice: Dedmon's learning curve had to be shortened again.
Despite being a 7-footer at a Pac-12 school, Dedmon remained off the radar of collegiate pundits and NBA recruiting experts throughout the spring and into the summer of 2011. After all, most kids transferred from jucos with gaudy numbers; Dedmon averaged 6.6 points and 7.8 rebounds in his 23 games at AVC. Asked about Dedmon last April, Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress offered only, "Can't say I've seen him play."
Even now, at LATTC, Dedmon is playing in only his third summer league game and remains something of a mystery to opponents. Though not for long. His team scores its first basket when Dedmon rises up for a resounding tip dunk. The team's next bucket comes when he makes a nice slip cut, catches a bounce pass and throws it down again. When he gets his third dunk of the quarter, it's after dropping down to the baseline, and this one has the whole stanchion rocking. He runs the floor as if each fast break is a kamikaze mission to the rim. On defense, his legs splay like a spider's as he scurries around swatting at shots. When he connects, he roars, "Nooooo!" You wonder when he will run out of energy—but then you remember that he's spent a lifetime waiting for this. As he says, "I'm so far behind, I can't stop running."
A night later Dedmon will hit a 16-foot jump shot to win the game. In August he will travel to Brazil on an exhibition tour and score a team-high 19 points and block four shots for USC against a Brazilian professional squad, then Skype his sisters to talk about it. By the end of August he will have gone from unknown to known. The Spurs and the NBA's head scout, Ryan Blake, will have called the AVC offices asking for information. Dedmon will be projected as a power forward who can face up, hit the trail three-pointer and block a ton of shots. He will be mentioned as a first-round, perhaps even lottery, pick. That he will break his right hand during practice in October will only heighten the interest—for, Dewayne being Dewayne, he will keep playing with the hand in a soft cast and begin focusing obsessively on improving his left hand, leaving himself on track to play in the season opener.
On this July day, though, Dedmon is still just a thoughtful, playful boy who lists his activities on Facebook as basketball and sleep and says he still doesn't think he's that good. He remains torn between two worlds. He says he still accepts some of the religious doctrine he was raised to believe—he won't take a blood transfusion, for example—only now, "I'm just not so much into it." He is amazed at the turn his life has taken, at the ripple effects of his decision to play a game. "Since basketball came, it helped me out with [the church] so I didn't have to be completely immersed," he says. "I don't know where my life would be, I don't know what I'd be doing." He pauses. "That's crazy."
What is more important than faith and family?
To get to Gail Lewis's house in southeast Palmdale, you drive down Highway 138, past the fish fry and the soul-food grocery store and the wig shop. A right turn takes you past vacant lots and condo complexes to Longhorn Pavilion Apartments, where 160 small units are encircled by a metal gate. Behind the complex the desert takes over again: Scrub brush and sand become rocky hills. Out front signs say NOW RENTING: LAUNDRY IN EVERY APARTMENT and placards near the office read future resident parking. Wet clothes hang from railings, dents are visible in the stucco walls, shirtless kids cluster in stairwells.
Gail's condo is up one flight. A brown leather-bound book titled Holy Scriptures sits on her kitchen table. On a wall there is a picture of the family when Dewayne was five years old, with round cheeks and a killer smile, dressed in a blue blazer. Gail welcomes a guest and offers bottled water. She is a tall, warm, pretty woman with a nice smile, and she flips her long hair when she talks. Though thin, she says she wishes she worked out more. She does not proselytize, at least not today.
She says she's trying to come to terms with Dewayne's life. It's been hard. The previous fall USC invited her down for a campus tour, and after many entreaties from the coaches she accepted. She'd never seen so many school buildings—"Gosh, they sure spend a lot of money on this school, all just for education," she says. She liked the coach, that bald man with glasses. He seemed nice, and he told her she could call any time.
There is good and bad. She's glad Dewayne is educating himself, especially since his classes will give him opportunities to make evening meetings. She's looked into it, and there are Kingdom Halls close to USC. Still, she wishes he told her more. Until a reporter called a few weeks earlier, she had no idea Dewayne was even playing in a summer league. "That is just blowing me away right now," she said then. "I wish my kids were still [young], back when they listened and did what you said. They get older and become independent and get a mind of their own."
Mother and son are on better terms now. Dewayne texts her occasionally, and they talk on the phone. She went to a couple of his games at AVC and plans on going down to USC when her schedule allows. When they talk, she reminds him of his Christian upbringing, and he says, "Mom, I think about it all the time."
"Maybe sometimes you need to act on your thinking," she replies.
She knows Dewayne might be drafted into the NBA, and she's concerned. "It would be kind of difficult, because you can't serve two masters," she says. "He would probably have to make a decision within himself. He thought he could do both, but obviously you can't."
If he decides to go to the NBA, she says, she will not stand in his way, though she hopes he will be like that one man, A.C. Green, the Lakers' forward who kept his morals and said he remained a virgin until he was married, in April 2002. For now, though, she holds out hope he will return to the fold. She tells Dewayne he has to want his faith just like he wants basketball, that he is like the prodigal son and just needs to find his way home. "I told him, 'You turned away from [your faith], but I'm gonna pray until you come back,' " she says. "I told him, 'I'm not gonna stop praying until you return.'"
Soon Gail ushers her visitor out the door, into the stifling heat of the Antelope Valley. Outside the gates of the complex the desert stretches out as far as the eye can see, hot and dry. In the cool room inside she returns to her reading, preparing for her next trip out into the community to talk to lost souls.
Gail Lewis truly believes it: Everyone can find his salvation.