Mar 13, 2012

The Big Dance

You still can’t dance. But you’re going dancing. Congrats.


That was my text message to Demetrius Walker on Saturday night, after New Mexico defeated San Diego State to win the Mountain West Conference Tournament. In the celebratory aftermath, Demetrius and teammate Jamal Fenton did a dance, something they call “Cookin,” which I won’t even try to describe. You can watch it here:


While watching Demetrius do that silly dance it hit me: Demetrius is going to play in the NCAA Tournament. The Lobos have had a bid to the so-called Big Dance sewn up for weeks, but it hadn’t settled in that the kid I have known since he was 10 years old would be playing on basketball’s biggest stage. Watching him dance with a huge smile on his face brought it home. There were many days when I’ve wondered whether Demetrius would even make it through a college season without transferring, and now he is vital cog on a top 25 team that has a chance to win a game or two in the tournament. It is amazing.


He is not the first kid from Play Their Hearts Out to participate in March Madness. Justin Hawkins played in the last two NCAA tournaments with UNLV and he and the Runnin’ Rebels are back. They take on Colorado in Albuquerque on Thursday. But because Demetrius’ future has always been so fragile, seeing him reach this point feels more monumental.


The Lobos play Long Beach State in Portland on Thursday. If you watch that game, you are likely to see a totally different Demetrius that the one who played most of the season for New Mexico. He’s confident but restrained, dedicated on defense, a team player. After the San Diego State victory, when I asked him how he felt about where he was in his life, he said: “I really feel like I have found my place.”


It’s the perfect way to describe what has happened. Demetrius has developed into a key sixth man for New Mexico, something I didn’t see coming. Early in the season, you he was too focused on his offense. He’d enter a game and immediately look to get his shot, which often led to several low percentage attempts and a quick hook from coach Steve Alford. About midway through the season, he was unhappy and he told me so, but he didn’t look for an exit like he had so many times in the past. He kept working, and in the past few weeks everything clicked. He learned how to play defense at the Division I level, and he stopped looking for any shot and instead took (almost) only good shots. He found his role: Defend well, make your free throws, take the offense that comes to you. This may seem rudimentary, but remember Demetrius’ history and the lack of coaching he received for much of his career.


In the quarterfinals of the MWC Tournament against Air Force, he scored 19 points on 5 of 6 shooting. In the semifinals, he scored 14, making 3 of 7 shots from the field and all six of his free throw attempts in a huge victory over UNLV. I can’t remember a single shot of his from those games that made my cringe. It was Demetrius’ play in the final, however, that signaled to me that he might be on his way to becoming a good college player.


Coming off two good performances, I worried that the old Demetrius might surface, the one hell bent on getting his shots. But after he missed his first three attempts against San Diego State, he didn’t start jacking. He took only one shot the rest of the way as his teammates were hot and he deferred to them. He came in late and made 7 of 8 free throws to help ice the game, and finished with seven points. It was an important contribution in an important game. He wasn’t the star, but that was okay. He was content being something else: Part of a team.


I worry that the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament might lead him to revert to his old ways, I worry that a tough loss will send him reeling a bit, and I worry about the unknown, because with Demetrius that is a requirement. Stuff happens. But for the next few days, I am going to just enjoy watching him play, enjoy that he’s found his place.


* * *

I will be in Albuquerque covering the games from that site for Sports Illustrated. As a bonus, I get to watch Justin in person. Carmen Hawkins will be there and I’m going to coax her into attending a PTHO reading/signing/ discussion on Wednesday night at Bookworks. It starts at 7 pm and the address is: 4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW.


I hope to see PTHO readers and Rebels and Lobos fans.


* * *

Demetrius and Justin aren’t the only PTHO kids in the tournament. Kendall Williams, Demetrius’ teammates, is another, and there is Justin Cobbs at Cal. Gary Franklin Jr. plays for Baylor, and I will get to see him in Albuquerque as well. Make sure to check them out and root hard.