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Continued: Gophers freshman McNeil embraces what he has

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

“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.

Ever.

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.”

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