Teen hoops player finds a way to forgive
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Derrick "Deejay" Brown and his mother, Treena Hunter, sit in their living room in the Farragut Houses in Brooklyn. Home from the hospital for about a week, they still have stitches from several plastic surgeries over the course of three days, the shock of what happened only intensifying -- anger and despair settling in.
Treena stares into a mirror, following the new twisted scar that starts from the corner of her lips and spikes up her left cheek. Deejay has a scar on the left side of his face, too, only his is straighter and looks slightly longer. Both of their faces twitch every few seconds. Doctors say the 10-inch blade caused permanent nerve damage.
"Mommy, you forgive him, right?" Deejay asks.
It's an unexpected question, with no immediate answer.
"Mommy, you gotta forgive him," Deejay says, now insisting more than asking.
"My heart dropped because I knew I had forgiven him, but I was afraid to tell Deejay," Treena recalled during an August interview. "I was so relieved, and I started laughing, 'Yeah, I forgive him.'"
It can't be that easy, can it, for a 15-year-old boy to find a way to forgive the man who tried to kill his mother -- the man who tried to kill him, stabbed him in the back ... in the ear ... in the face? Holding a grudge, getting revenge -- that's the obvious track, right, especially for a teenage kid angry at his stepdad? How did forgiveness emerge as the obvious choice for this high school point guard? How, for Deejay, was it the only choice?
"If somebody does something [to] you, bad or good, you always forgive them," Deejay says, without hesitating, during a September interview. "If you want someone to forgive you, you gotta forgive other people, you know? It comes back."
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Neither knows how many stitches it took to close the wounds. Too many. They do know, however, the intensity of fear and pain -- the kind of pain that comes from not knowing why the man Treena married, the man Deejay called "Daddy," the man they trusted so much, had tried to kill them. Derrick Hunter, 44, is behind bars now for stabbing each of them three times on the morning of July 4, 2007.
"At first, I didn't know how I got through it," Deejay says. "When I first got to the hospital, I was like, 'How am I going to get through this? How am I gonna play basketball again? What are people going to think?' I just had to suck it up and like, first it was like, I gotta forgive him, you know? That's how I gotta move on. And I have to move on to play basketball again."
Derrick Hunter had no prior arrests. According to family and police reports, he had no history of alcohol or drug abuse, or any mental health problems. Derrick Hunter went after his wife, and ultimately his stepson, in a post-argument fit of rage. Deejay had tried to protect his mom.
On April 9, 2008, Derrick Hunter was sentenced to 10 years in prison, without parole, for two counts of attempted murder. That day, a court order of protection also was issued forbidding Derrick from having any contact with Deejay until the year 2026. That means no letters, phone calls or supervised visits until 10 years after his scheduled release in 2016 from Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Dannemora, N.Y.
Deejay couldn't wait that long, however. And simply forgiving his stepfather wasn't enough. He says he wanted to see his stepfather in person and tell him that he had forgiven him, to "tell him, 'What you did was wrong and that you have to face what you did in prison.'"
Deejay also wanted to tell his stepfather that he was still there for him.
To make that happen, Deejay had to convince a New York judge to lift the order of protection for one day. With his mother's blessing, Deejay contacted the New York State Unified Court System in January. An eight-month legal review followed.
During that time, Deejay, his mother and his stepfather were interviewed in person several times each to make sure that Deejay's request to see his stepfather was beneficial and safe for all involved. In August, a judge decided it was, and temporarily lifted the order for one day in September. Deejay would get to see his stepdad.
Mark Collins, an assistant state coordinator who specializes in alternative dispute resolutions and played a key role in facilitating the prison meeting, said Deejay, like many victims of serious crimes, had questions.
"And who better to answer those questions than his stepfather?" Collins says. "Because of that, and also the maturity level of Deejay, who is only 15 but very mature for his age, certainly satisfied our ability to move forward with his request."
Deejay saw Derrick in prison on Sept. 11. They spent three hours talking that day. They talked about Deejay's four siblings, three of them being Derrick's own children he had with Deejay's mom. They talked about the NBA, and how far Deejay thought hoops would take him. They even talked about girls.
Then, Deejay got the chance to ask his stepdad, "Why?" He got an answer. Only Deejay knows if he's fine with it. Deejay told his stepfather he's still angry and he still has bad days. But in the end, Deejay got his chance to tell the man he calls "daddy" that he had forgiven him.
"He's still my father," Deejay says. "He taught me how to tie a tie. Taught me how to tie my shoe. My other biological father, he wasn't there for me. My father takes care of me, and that's Derrick. He's in jail now so we can't have a bigger relationship now, but we still respect one another."
More than two years after the attack, the questions still linger: Where does Deejay get the strength to forgive? What does Deejay know about forgiveness? Is he old enough to understand all of this?
For Treena, it's simple. And she doesn't care what anybody thinks.
"I had already forgiven Derrick the moment it happened," she says. "That's just who I am. I didn't openly forgive him because no one wanted me to. Everyone was saying I needed to hate him.
"I taught him [Deejay] to forgive and to be humble and to love unconditionally. But some people think that's crazy because abuse is abuse. And that doesn't mean I wanted to be with Derrick again. I wanted to forgive him so that I can live. And if [Deejay] never takes anything with him, I want him to take what I taught him."
Deejay beams at his mother.
"I think that the greatest strength I got from her is me being able to forgive," he says. "My mom means everything to me. More than basketball. I get my strength off of her, and she gets her strength off of me.
"As soon I got out of the hospital, I forgave him. That's how I was brought up, you know? He didn't mean to do this. He snapped. And even though he has to face the consequences, I gotta forgive him. It's the right thing to do."
Ask Deejay today about the scar on his face, and he might tell you how he got it, if he believes you really care.
"I just think of it as a birthmark, like it was nothing," he says. "It doesn't bother me anymore."
His mother smiles at him. "I don't see the scar," she says. "He has these deep eyes, and they're focused, so I don't notice the scar. I just look at his face and I see this incredible kid."
Treena now raises five kids on her own. She hears gunshots outside her window every other night. Ask her what she sees when she looks in the mirror?
Martin Khodabakhshian is a senior producer for "E:60." You can e-mail him at Martin.A.Khodabakhshian@espn.com.
Editor's note: After this story was produced, Deejay Brown changed schools. He now attends The Master's School, a Christian college preparatory school in West Simsbury, Conn. Deejay receives some financial aid to attend, but it's uncertain whether his family will be able to afford to keep him there. A fund is in the works under his name. For more information, contact the school at email@example.com.