Family first: De’Janae Boykin stars at C.H. Flowers to stick with legally blind brother

Video: Unlike many local prep prodigies, De’Janae Boykin transferred from a perennial private powerhouse in Riverdale Baptist to public shool C.H. Flowers to help her brother, Joshua, who is legally blind.

When De’Janae and Joshua Boykin run into each other in the halls of C.H. Flowers High School, they look like a pair of typical teenage siblings: the self-assured, star athlete older sister delivering a playful shove to her computer-programming, video-game playing younger brother.

But in reality, those meetings are decidedly atypical: De’Janae, a junior, is one of the area’s most coveted basketball talents, a member of USA Basketball’s U16 national team who received her first college scholarship offer in seventh grade and could have had her pick of any of the area’s private school basketball powerhouses. Instead, she chose Flowers and the occasional hallway meeting with Joshua, a sophomore, who is legally blind and asked his sister to join him at the family’s neighborhood public school before his freshman year.

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post) - De'Janae Boykin (right), one of the top high school juniors in the country, has a dance-off with teammate Sierra Eggleston during practice on January, 30 at C.H. Flowers.

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post) - De’Janae Boykin reacts after a teammate makes a free throw to conclude practice at C.H. Flowers.

So before her sophomore year, De’Janae left the nationally regarded program at Riverdale Baptist for Flowers, which had 20 total girls try out for basketball this season. “It was pretty simple,” De’Janae said. “When he asked me — that’s my brother. It’s family.”

According to their parents, Jeff and Sheila, De’Janae was always a step ahead in athletics, and always protective of Joshua, even though he is almost entirely self-sufficient.

“She might pick on him, but she won’t let anyone else,” Jeff said. “When they were kids playing outside, she wouldn’t let anyone touch Josh.”

De’Janae was almost always outside, playing everything from soccer to basketball to tennis. She didn’t pare down her athletic pursuits until middle school, but she knew as a 4-year-old that she might have something special on the hardwood.

“I was in a camp with girls my age and they decided to move me up,” De’Janae said. “I was like, ‘Wait, why am I going with the big girls? I don’t think I’m ready for this!’ ”

De’Janae continued to stand out against older competition through pre-teen camps, Boys and Girls club teams, and into the elite AAU circuit. When she was still in middle school, De’Janae was playing with the 16-year-old age group. Her team played a game against current University of Connecticut sophomore Breanna Stewart, who earned the Final Four’s most outstanding player honors last season.

“I didn’t know who I was playing against, I was just playing,” De’Janae said. She played well enough that day that Louisville gave the then-seventh-grader her first scholarship offer after the game.

Not long afterward, more offers rolled in. When she got her first letter of interest, the family was so excited they took a picture of De’Janae holding it. Within a week she’d received dozens more, and picture-taking was quickly abandoned. Now the letters fill mail bins in the Boykins’ Springdale living room. The letters from middle school alone push a five-inch binder beyond capacity.

De’Janae played her freshman year for Upper Marlboro’s Riverdale Baptist, which was ranked in ESPN’s top 10 that season. But when then-coach Diane Richardson left to be an assistant at NCAA program George Washington, De’Janae decided to explore her options. Though private schools wooed De’Janae , the family said she made the decision in a matter of minutes.

A year younger than his sister, Joshua was born prematurely at one pound, 10 ounces — “small enough to fit in my hand,” Jeff recalls. He was born with Retinopathy of Prematurity, which causes abnormal blood vessel growth over the retina and occurs most commonly in particularly small premature babies.

Joshua had three surgeries to save his vision before he turned a year old and relies predominantly on his right eye because vision in his left eye is blurred. He also suffers from Nystagmus, a disorder that causes his eyes to move back and forth involuntarily, making it hard to focus on one thing.

“When I got to kindergarten, kids would ask me why my eyes moved back and forth, asked me if I was cross-eyed,” Joshua said. “It was a little heart-breaking at times.”

But Joshua worked to make the most of his vision, learned to control his focus and hone his sight well enough to shoot hoops with friends and even play soccer for a year. With the exception of occasionally needing a friend to help him read something on the blackboard, Joshua can do, as he puts it, “almost anything a normal person can do.”

When his eye doctor suggested contact sports might be too dangerous, Joshua wasn’t devastated. He learned to edit video and picked up computer programming, all while dominating “all those shooting video games,” as De’Janae calls them, bitterly dismissive because of a disappointing head-to-head record against her brother.

Because of his trouble seeing distance, Joshua can’t follow the action at his sister’s games. He’s attended one of the Jaguars’ games this season, but keeps up best he can with the exploits of his 23-point, 17-rebound per game sister and No. 10 Flowers (12-1).

“I don’t get much joy out of watching basketball since I can’t really see what’s going on,” Joshua said. “But I’m happy for her, and it brings me joy she’s found her passion.”

Because Joshua is almost fully independent, the siblings agree he has hardly ever needed his sister. De’Janae says she’s never regretted the decision.

“If anything ever happened to him,” she said, “I’m right there.”

 
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