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.

“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.”

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.

 

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Milwaukee 115 FINAL
Orlando 100
New York 82 FINAL
Indiana 103
Denver 69 FINAL
Memphis 99
Chicago 118 FINAL
LA Lakers 123
Montreal 1 FINAL
NY Rangers 0
Winnipeg 2 FINAL
Philadelphia 5
Boston 5 FINAL
NY Islanders 2
Arizona 3 FINAL
Toronto 1
Dallas 6 FINAL
Ottawa 3
Detroit 1 FINAL
Tampa Bay 5
Columbus 2 FINAL
Florida 3
Nashville 4 FINAL(SO)
St. Louis 5
Minnesota 1 FINAL
Calgary 0
Buffalo 2 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Anaheim 3 FINAL
San Jose 6
DePaul 72 FINAL
Providence 83
Michigan State 71 FINAL
Rutgers 51
Boston Univ 67 FINAL
Army 71
Fla Atlantic 61 FINAL
Charlotte 86
Youngstown St 87 FINAL
Detroit 93
East Tenn St 55 FINAL
Furman 59
Saint Louis 60 FINAL
George Mason 68
USC Upstate 78 FINAL
Jacksonville 65
High Point 72 FINAL
Liberty 53
Central Conn St 55 FINAL
Long Island 67
Western Ky 56 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 69
Dayton 64 FINAL
Massachusetts 66
Chattanooga 72 FINAL
Mercer 75
Wofford 58 FINAL
UNC Greensboro 42
Maryland 56 FINAL
Ohio State 80
FIU 56 FINAL
Old Dominion 71
Fair-Dickinson 65 FINAL
Robert Morris 87
Mount St Marys 67 FINAL
St Francis-NY 73
Bryant 68 FINAL
St Francis-PA 75
Northern Ky 75 FINAL
Stetson 85
Coll of Charleston 70 FINAL
Towson 74
Western Carolina 85 FINAL
Va Military 70
Sacred Heart 64 FINAL
Wagner 75
Lipscomb 62 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 78
Kennesaw St 67 FINAL
North Florida 86
Appalachian St 46 FINAL
Ga Southern 83
Holy Cross 54 FINAL
Loyola-Maryland 64
Eastern Ill 51 FINAL
UT Martin 81
Jacksonville St 82 FINAL
Belmont 103
Connecticut 58 FINAL
Cincinnati 70
Rider 58 FINAL
Saint Peters 49
SIU Edwardsville 75 FINAL
SE Missouri St 61
Marshall 69 FINAL
Southern Miss 54
Tenn Tech 56 FINAL
Tennessee St 64
Middle Tennessee 58 FINAL
TX-San Antonio 69
Ill-Chicago 65 FINAL
Milwaukee 71
Weber State 67 FINAL
North Dakota 60
Denver 54 FINAL
North Dakota St 61
IUPU-Ft Wayne 66 FINAL
South Dakota 55
Louisiana 85 FINAL
South Alabama 89
Ark-Little Rock 75 FINAL
Arkansas State 65
Georgia State 88 FINAL
Texas-Arlington 74
ULM 58 FINAL
Troy 55
Portland 46 FINAL
Gonzaga 64
Kentucky 69 FINAL
Missouri 53
Eastern Ky 78 FINAL
Murray State 85
UAB 69 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 71
Idaho State 76 FINAL
Northern Colorado 79
UMKC 57 FINAL
Grand Canyon 78
Chicago State 62 FINAL
Utah Valley U 78
Colorado 98 FINAL
USC 94
Cal Poly 57 FINAL
UC Irvine 67
Hawaii 84 FINAL
CS-Northridge 73
Pepperdine 50 FINAL
Pacific 43
Santa Clara 64 FINAL
San Diego 69
Utah 59 FINAL
UCLA 69
UC Santa Barbara 64 FINAL
UC Davis 70
Montana 73 FINAL
Portland State 54
Montana State 59 FINAL
Sacramento St 75
Long Beach State 91 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 85
Loyola Marymount 54 FINAL
St Marys-CA 68
San Francisco 74 FINAL
BYU 78
California 76 FINAL
Washington St 67
Louisiana 47 FINAL
South Alabama 57
Saint Josephs 51 FINAL
Saint Louis 52
Appalachian St 77 FINAL
Georgia Southern 74
Niagara 58 FINAL
Saint Peters 65
Old Dominion 80 FINAL
FIU 67
Southern Miss 65 FINAL
Marshall 67
Georgia State 45 FINAL
TX-Arlington 57
Ark-Little Rock 69 FINAL
Arkansas State 70
ULM 51 FINAL
Troy 90
Pittsburgh 45 FINAL
(17) Duke 62
(6) Tennessee 73 FINAL
(10) Kentucky 72
(24) Oklahoma 81 FINAL
(14) Texas 84
Nebraska Omaha 59 FINAL
IUPU-Ft Wayne 70
UC-Riverside 68 FINAL
CS-Northridge 56
Army 65 FINAL
Boston U 40
New Orleans 40 FINAL
Nicholls 56
Charlotte 68 FINAL
Florida Atlantic 71
Towson 54 FINAL
Delaware 72
Hofstra 66 FINAL
Northeastern 45
New Hampshire 56 FINAL
Maine 87
Albany 89 FINAL
Vermont 48
Hartford 60 FINAL
Stony Brook 58
UNC-Wilmington 62 FINAL
William & Mary 67
Clemson 62 FINAL
Wake Forest 64
Alabama 54 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 85
(23) Syracuse 58 FINAL
(8) Louisville 78
Missouri 68 FINAL
Florida 52
Iona 66 FINAL
Fairfield 77
Manhattan 38 FINAL
Marist 77
NC State 63 FINAL
Virginia 71
(4) Notre Dame 74 FINAL
Virginia Tech 50
(22) Rutgers 58 FINAL
Purdue 49
(5) Maryland 91 FINAL
Michigan 65
Milwaukee 58 FINAL
Cleveland State 67
Wright State 108 FINAL
Oakland 89
Jacksonville 64 FINAL
USC Upstate 66
North Florida 40 FINAL
Kennesaw St 46
Stetson 62 FINAL
Northern Ky 68
Loyola-Maryland 57 FINAL
Holy Cross 51
Lamar 87 FINAL
Sam Houston St 68
Fla Gulf Coast 71 FINAL
Lipscomb 49
Vanderbilt 44 FINAL
(18) Miss State 69
IUPUI 62 FINAL
Western Ill 73
Abilene Christian 53 FINAL
Houston Baptist 50
Incarnate Word 54 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 63
McNeese State 78 FINAL
SE Louisiana 57
Oral Roberts 46 FINAL
South Dakota St 71
Louisiana Tech 66 FINAL
Western Ky 82
TX-San Antonio 53 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 73
Texas-El Paso 52 FINAL
UAB 67
Auburn 47 FINAL
Arkansas 52
Grand Canyon 65 FINAL
UMKC 59
Illinois 57 FINAL
(15) Nebraska 59
(20) Iowa 102 FINAL
Northwestern 99
Utah Valley U 55 FINAL
Chicago State 60
Green Bay 67 FINAL
Valparaiso 52
Ole Miss 41 FINAL
LSU 70
Portland State 31 FINAL
Montana 72
Sacramento St 64 FINAL
Montana State 91
North Dakota 55 FINAL
Weber State 48
Ohio State 85 FINAL
Wisconsin 73
Northern Colorado 61 FINAL
Idaho State 70
BYU 68 FINAL
San Francisco 63
St Marys-CA 56 FINAL
Loyola Marymount 49
Pacific 63 FINAL
Pepperdine 59
Cal-Irvine 61 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 58
San Diego 64 FINAL
Santa Clara 61
UC Davis 64 FINAL
Cal Poly 72
Long Beach St 64 FINAL
Hawaii 72
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Which of these teams is the most frustrating to watch right now?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close