Growing up fast
You wouldn't know it by Devonta Pollard's play, but he's had a really rough 21 months
Last weekend at the Tournament of Champions, Devonta Pollard led his Southern Phenoms AAU team to the championship. From a basketball standpoint, it might have been his biggest shining moment in what is going to be an outstanding career. However, when you consider the lifetime's worth of disappointments the 16-year-old from DeKalb, Miss., has already gone through, that moment is even more special.
Seared into Pollard's mind are images of losing his father in 2009 and then, two months ago, losing his home.
It was April 27 and Pollard was sleeping in the comfort of his own bed. When he lay down, he had no idea it would be the last time he tucked himself in, pulled up the covers and turned off the lights in that room.
"It was about 2:30 a.m.," Pollard said. "My mom usually gets up to go to the bathroom. She smelled some smoke and there was a little blaze. She came and woke me up; we got out of the house and moved our vehicles. By the time we got the water hose and moved our vehicles it had blazed up."
Candace Andrews, the team mom for the Southern Phenoms, recalls that night and its aftermath.
"When my phone rang with [Jessie Pollard] crying, saying, 'My house is in flames but Tay and I made it out,' I thought I was having a bad dream," said Andrews. "I'm just so grateful they were OK."
During the night, lightning struck Pollard's home, destroying the house and everything in it. Now living with his aunt, Pollard, the young man who has the basketball world at his fingertips, no longer has a permanent place to call home.
"We lost everything. All the trophies, all the pictures. We lost everything," he said.
Unfortunately for Pollard, this isn't the first time tragedy struck during his high school years. On Aug. 21, 2009, Pollard lost his father to cancer.
"They lost their home [to the fire] which contained all their pictures and personal memorabilia of Devonta's dad," Andrews said. "All this and he isn't 17 yet."
Pollard, a reserved young man whose game is much louder than the volume with which he speaks, has handled everything with grace. To watch him on the court, one would have no idea of the personal struggles he's faced and the ones he's dealing with. From his father to his home, he's lived a lifetime worth of setbacks in just two years.
"[My dad] was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It's been a rough stretch, but I just pray every morning, get up and go on," Pollard said.
To make it, on and off the court, he relies on the counsel of two people -- his mother and Darryl Carter, an assistant coach on Kemper High School's basketball team and the head football coach.
Jessie Pollard was the No. 4 pick of the Chicago Hustle, a former women's professional basketball team. She's also an alum of Kemper, where Devonta goes. She is her son's biggest fan and most ardent supporter. She's vocal in a supportive way and you always know where she is in the gym, partly because she's 6-foot-2, but mainly because she has a booming voice.
For Devonta, Carter fills a dual role -- one that he's been missing since his father passed away.
"When he got here, we just kind of bonded," Devonta Pollard said of Carter. "He's my brother-slash-daddy."
"Carter calls me his momma and he's like a big brother to Tay," Jessie Pollard said. "He loves basketball and football. [Carter is] always working out and Tay's always in there with him. It's a good match."
Carter was at the TOC on Saturday, sporting a big smile of his own. He'll be smiling even bigger come August when football season begins. Devonta decided he's going to give the gridiron another try this season.
Given the circumstances surrounding his family life and the recent tragedy involving his home, recruiting and a college choice are buried on Pollard's to-do list. Basketball is his outlet, and there will come a time when picking a college will be a priority, but right now picking a place to live trumps everything.
Mississippi State, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, LSU, Kentucky and NC State will make plays for his services. Duke began calling this week once the buzz from his weekend MVP performance made its way back to Blue Devils headquarters.
On July 7, one day before college recruiters hit the pavement in search of their next big signee, Pollard turns 17. He has a promising future ahead of him, but in a sense, he's lived a life already that belies his age.
Dave Telep is the senior basketball recruiting analyst for ESPN.com. His college basketball scouting service is used by more than 225 colleges and numerous NBA teams. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't forget to follow him on Twitter.