Gophers freshman McNeil embraces what he has

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2014 - 12:10 PM

Daquein McNeil overcame the loss of his parents by learning not to dwell on the negativity in his life.

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.

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