If his inspirational rise had continued, Daquein McNeil would be a University of Minnesota grad now, the first of Richard Pitino’s players to spend four years in the system.
McNeil would have his youth studies degree and countless memories from Williams Arena.
But these days, McNeil’s dorm has been replaced with a jail cell, the basketball shoes by a pair of handcuffs.
After gaining the trust of his Gophers coaches and teammates, and transforming a hard-luck beginning into a feel-good tale, McNeil derailed his own momentum. A series of disturbing turns has left him with a much different reality: maximum security prison, awaiting trial for murder.
McNeil lost both parents at age 13 but overcame those inner-city Baltimore tragedies, earning a scholarship offer from Pitino to Florida International University. When Pitino left FIU for Minnesota, McNeil joined him, averaging about 10 minutes per game as a freshman guard on the 2014 NIT championship team and endearing himself to teammates with his high-energy work ethic.
“He needed us,” Pitino said last month. “And I thought we were really helping provide that family support that he never had.”
McNeil’s promising time abruptly ended in 2014, when he was arrested early in his sophomore season for beating his girlfriend in her apartment.
By June 4, 2017, he was back in Baltimore, where, according to court records, a witness said he set fire to a house in a drug dispute. A 59-year-old man was found dead next door.
McNeil’s family is calling it a case of mistaken identity. His trial was scheduled to start last week — on the anniversary of the fire — but was postponed to Sept. 12. Charged with first-degree arson and first-degree murder, McNeil could spend the rest of his life in prison, without parole.
“It’s a sad story because he had a great story,” said McNeil’s cousin, Kenny Marks. “I used to tell him, ‘It’s unbelievable.’ Here’s a kid who grew up in the projects and worked hard and got a full scholarship to play college basketball and just … it’s just sad.”
The good times
Conica Smith became McNeil’s legal guardian after his mother died in 2007 and kept him focused after a period when he practically abandoned school and hung out in gangs.
This latest chapter “is hard because that’s my sister’s only child,” Smith said. “Before someone passes away, if you’ve given your word to take care of a child, you want to raise them to the best of your ability, even better than your own.”
McNeil’s father was shot and killed. Two months later, his mother succumbed to lupus. After drifting aimlessly, McNeil rediscovered his focus through basketball. He transferred to Vermont Academy, where he was a three-year starter and averaged 19 points per game as a senior.
“I recruited him at FIU and knew his back story,” Pitino said. “He was always a very, very quiet, respectful kid. When I took the Minnesota job, I thought he could play at that [Big Ten] level, I really did.”
After appearing in 30 games as a freshman, McNeil averaged 18.8 minutes, 3.2 points and 3.2 rebounds in four games as a sophomore before his arrest.
“He had a huge heart,” former teammate Joey King said. “He loved his teammates, and everyone loved him. He had a promising first year. He did the right things in practice and worked really hard. We were expecting big things from him as a sophomore.”
Trouble in Minnesota
McNeil took what appeared to be a sudden turn in November 2014, with the Gophers headed to New York for the NIT Season Tip-Off.
He had been dating a 28-year-old woman for 10 months and taken her to Baltimore at least once to meet his extended family. But three days before Thanksgiving, he went to her Minneapolis apartment and left her covered in bruises and lash marks.
Court records say McNeil entered her room, smashed a mirror with a cooking pan, pulled out dresser drawers and dumped a bottle of alcohol over her clothes. He allegedly used both hands to strangle her, yelling, “You ruined my life, now I’m going to ruin your life.” He also whipped her with a leather belt.
He spent eight days — including Thanksgiving and his 21st birthday — in Hennepin County jail and eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree assault. A strangulation charge was dismissed. McNeil was suspended indefinitely from the team and dropped out of school.
“When this first happened, the whole family couldn’t believe it because he never showed those signs of anger or aggression,” Marks said.
Said King: “It kind of came out of nowhere. I didn’t see it coming. I’m not sure where he was at mentally, but from everything I saw, he was comfortable.”
Marks and Smith helped post $75,000 bail, but McNeil missed a court hearing in April 2015, violating his probation.
Marks said he and McNeil had a “big falling out” after that missed hearing. Marks had been helping map out a plan for McNeil’s return to basketball, either at Coppin State or in Canada.
“I don’t think he had a passion to play basketball anymore,” Marks said.
Marks said he didn’t even know McNeil was back in Baltimore in 2017 before the second arrest. Smith, the aunt everyone calls “Cookie,” had raised McNeil in East Baltimore but said he spent most homecomings with family on the city’s west side, in the Remington neighborhood.
“When Daquein visited Baltimore it was like they were treating him as if he were a superstar, having parties and get-togethers,” she said. “… I stopped him from drinking, from smoking — you couldn’t do any of that in my house.”
She said the one time she saw McNeil in 2017 came in West Baltimore.
“I had to literally chase him down, wondering why he was on that side of town,” she said. “He was just hanging with the wrong people.
“If his mind is not strong enough, and he didn’t have the right people around him, what could he reach for?”
The fire burned at 319 West 27th St., in the Remington neighborhood. Charles Brewer, 59, was found unresponsive on the second floor next door, and later pronounced dead.
One witness told police a man entered the house, looking for a woman who owed drug money, threatening to burn the house down if she didn’t pay. The suspect then gathered papers on the second floor and set them afire.
The witness later picked McNeil out of a photo array. Smith said McNeil wasn’t even at the scene of the fire but was elsewhere, having his hair styled by another relative.
“It is an identity case,” said Marci Johnson, one of the public defenders representing McNeil. “There were some squatters living at a vacant building, and they were on drugs.
“[Brewer] had also been homeless but had been taken in by the neighbor. He was in very, very poor health. We’re still not sure on how much smoke there was next door because of differing reports.
“One of the addicts that was squatting identified Daquein as the person to collect, so there’s a lot of different things going on. Number one, was it [McNeil]? Number two, was it arson? Number three, was it murder?”
Prosecutors from the state’s attorney’s office declined to comment through a spokeswoman because the case remains open.
Face in the crowd
Baltimore Police issued a news release on July 24, 2017, noting the pending murder charge against McNeil. The story received minimal coverage.
Pitino said he hadn’t spoken to McNeil since he left the team, noting that former Gophers assistant Kimani Young “had been in touch with him about trying to find a spot for [McNeil] to play elsewhere.”
“Then, obviously, that [arson story] popped up online one day, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ ” Pitino said. “It breaks my heart, it really does. I don’t know the whole story, but what I read, it just seems very, very tragic.”
Former Gophers guard Austin Hollins played with McNeil for only one season, but long enough to see the promise.
“It’s sad to see a kid like that make a few bad decisions (whatever the situation may be) and end up where he is now,” Hollins said via text. “… You always wonder if there was something you could’ve done to have more of an impact or to have helped them more so they don’t end up like that.”
For now, McNeil is biding his time at the Jessup Correctional Institution, among scores of detainees who’ve been reshuffled after the recent closing of the decrepit Baltimore City Detention Center.
The Star Tribune wrote a letter to McNeil, now 24, through the prison but did not receive a response. Smith said she has been getting updates on McNeil’s case from other relatives.
Johnson said her interactions with McNeil have been friendly.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to him if he’s acquitted,” she said. “I don’t know what his plans are. I think he really derailed himself, so I don’t know. I specifically did ask him that, but I don’t think he’s got any … any idea what he’s going to do.”