Seven years after everything changed, Daquein McNeil sits high up in the Williams Arena rafters, overlooking a court 900 miles from home.
This is all that’s good; all that makes him smile; all that probably saved him. The empty gym comes alive in the moments before that day’s Gophers practice.
“We’re sitting here now, but this would be like a dark moment in my life,” the freshman guard said, his low voice barely audible over the slap of basketballs against the floor below.
He often wonders where he would be if he weren’t here. “This is a blessing, to have on this jersey and play in front of all these people,” McNeil said. “So whether I play or don’t play, I’m just happy to be here.”
These days, his aunt Conica Smith drives to Trinity cemetery on every holiday and crouches next to the stoneless grave of her sister — McNeil’s mother. Smith will talk aloud about how far her nephew has come. She will look up at the clouds above the rough streets of East Baltimore and explain how when he smiles now, it’s “that real kind, the kind that comes from inside.”
When coach Richard Pitino first signed McNeil at Florida International shortly before taking the Gophers job, he saw undiscovered promise in an inner-city kid who was hardly recruited. And when Pitino made the move, having cracked the surface of his quiet new recruit, he wanted to take the guard along. It has paid off for both; McNeil has worked his way into the rotation as a defensive specialist.
“He’s got a tough story,” Pitino said. “There isn’t a whole lot of family. And so we wanted to be loyal to him.”
Losing Dad, losing Mom
McNeil was 13 on February 7, 2007, when he was told his father, Alfred McNeil, was dead.
Daequin McNeil shakes his head when he talks about his father’s murder, the details meaningless.
In East Baltimore, friend Mike McCormick said, that’s how it goes. The story isn’t told. People don’t ask questions.
There is no obituary.
“I want to say that it was just the wrong place at the wrong time,” McNeil said. “But that’s just the way it is when you grow up in the city of Baltimore. I guess it was just his turn.”
McNeil sought comfort in his mother, April Mattocks. McNeil would smile and kiss her face twice whenever he saw her, something he had done since he was a small child.
“Every time, it was always kiss, kiss,” Smith said.
Soon the kisses became rarer, her declining health pushing them apart.
Two months after his father’s death, McNeil’s mother, having battled lupus for more than a decade, died as well.
But any screams were kept within the walls of McNeil’s head. He told everyone around him he didn’t want to talk.
“Everything with him is so kept in,” said McCormick, now 26, who as a 19-year-old high school basketball coach met McNeil shortly after his parents’ deaths. “It’s almost like a lockbox that he keeps inside of him. Even if he was feeling at his worst, he won’t tell you. He’d say, ‘I’m good. I’m OK.’ ”
A boy and his ball
As a 1-year-old, McNeil wouldn’t stop crying.
Not after he was fed. Not after he was changed. Not when he was rocked.
“He was a crybaby!” said Smith, whom everyone just calls “Cookie.”
That all changed when a basketball was put in front of him. The crying stopped. Smith learned to bring a ball along anywhere they might need to take a picture.
“He was just so happy with the ball,” Smith said. “The ball would light up his eyes.”
As he got older, McNeil’s father took him to 3-on-3 games before heart problems caused his dad to stop, Smith said. At the only game his mother came to, when McNeil was in the seventh grade, he knew he had found his purpose. He saw the energy his play infused into her tired eyes and the inspiration her gaze reflected back.
Years earlier, with his mother in poor health, McNeil had moved in with Smith in East Baltimore’s Section 8 housing projects. Kenny Marks, a family friend, described it as “a lot of abandoned homes, constantly seeing people’s houses raided, constantly seeing people get locked up, constantly seeing people selling drugs.”
The two-bedroom house was shared by four — including Smith’s sons, Michael and Myron — and sometimes five people, with Mattocks staying for stretches when she was sick.
McNeil would see his mother as much as he could, visiting her in the hospital even when she was too tired to stay awake. He kissed her face twice while she slept.
But in the summer of 2007, everything changed. McNeil began to withdraw, going to school so little that his teachers didn’t recognize him when he showed up. He developed a new set of friends. He hung out in gangs.
In this life, there was no place for basketball, so McNeil stopped that, too.
Smith, who was working as an assistant at a law firm while enrolled in a GED program, tried to keep up. She would get calls from the high school saying he never showed, and she would leave work, comb the streets for her nephew, knock on doors, call the police.
“I mean, it was rough,” she said of their many battles. “I was back and forth with Daquein on the street. I didn’t let my boys go to the street — why would I allow Daquein to go to the street? I don’t care how angry he’d be with me.”
Sometimes when McNeil would disappear, Smith would climb back into her car and drive across the neighborhood, only to find him at a playground court, alone in the dark, shooting baskets.
“That was his relief,” Smith said. “If he couldn’t get it outside, he was going to get it within that ball.”
One of those nights she sat him down.
“She said, ‘This is not what my sister would want for you,’ ” McNeil said. “I was like, ‘You’re right.’ I had to snap out of it, get back on the right track.”
A basketball comeback
Seeing McNeil’s struggles, McCormick took a special interest in the young, promising player.
After McNeil failed his freshman year, McCormick helped ease him into another school in the area. Smith already had coaxed McNeil back into a community basketball league, and in his new environment, he thrived — not just on the court but off.
During the first quarter, his grades began to rise. For the second, third and fourth, he was on the honor roll.
“That was almost a celebration,” McCormick said with a laugh. “Like jump in the air, click your heels.”
As his game and grades advanced, McNeil left Baltimore for Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, Vt., where he played his final three seasons before following Pitino to Minnesota.
McNeil originally wanted to redshirt his freshman season. Pitino refused. Now, Smith will click on the ESPN boxscores, shake her head and smile, as she monitors her nephew’s progress.
McNeil isn’t the one studying boxscores, tracking his statistics. In his mind, he has already won.
“I know how to see something brighter,” he said. “Sometimes, even though bad things are happening around me, I’ve just got to think someone’s having a worse day than I am.
“So why should I complain?”
Instead, McNeil looks to the Williams Arena rafters. Often, he says, he imagines his mother bringing him the same silent direction she did when he was in seventh grade. He would kiss her twice.
He envisions his dad, out of harm’s way, watching his games. He would go back to the playground, deal up one more 3-on-3.
Stretched before him is a future that seven years ago never seemed possible. Snapping out of his stare across Williams Arena, McNeil stands up and collects himself.
He trots down the steps to join his teammates. Practice is getting underway.