Terps' Strawberry Grows Into His Own
When you think struggle in college basketball, you think knee injury, sophomore year. Or that sick feeling on Selection Sunday when you don't hear your team's name, two years running. Struggle is some fool on the Internet, a little more than a month ago, saying your four years didn't amount to much.
D.J. Strawberry dealt with all that to arrive at the ACC tournament with his team in Tampa today, the rejuvenated symbol of Maryland's wild, five-week renaissance.
It's no coincidence. He overcame; Gary Williams's program overcame.
Yet none of that adversity -- not the blown-out knee, settling for the National Invitation Tournament or the perception that his senior class couldn't cut it -- amounted to his most formidable obstacle. They had nothing on Strawberry's real hurdle, the express reason he chose to play 3,000 miles away from his Southern California roots.
"I just wanted to come here and be known for me -- not Darryl Strawberry's son," he said Tuesday afternoon outside the Terrapins' locker room. "I figured I had to distance myself at first in order for that to happen. If he was around, there would have been more attention on him than me. I had to be able to be my own person."
Dad obliged, coming around College Park sparingly at first and always asking whether D.J. was all right with his presence. By then, Darryl wasn't the Darryl of Gotham tabloid mythology -- the Met phenom with the monster swing, the old Yankee with the monster demons. He was in recovery for cocaine addiction, taking his sobriety and his freedom one day at a time. His son had begrudgingly allowed him back in his life after all the destruction Darryl caused D.J., his mother and their family. Dad, in turn, gave D.J. the best advice of all.
"He tells me, 'Don't follow in my footsteps. Don't go the road I went down,' " the son said. Darryl told D.J. that if he had any questions about anything, go ahead, ask. Darryl's rise. His fall. His recovery. Anything.
D.J.'s mother Lisa Watkins, Darryl's ex-wife, encouraged him to change his name in his mid-teens, making sure the announcers for D.J.'s high school games understood he would no longer be referred to as Darryl Strawberry Jr. The chants his father heard during a career that included 335 home runs and four World Series -- "Daaaa-ryl Daaaa-ryl" -- subsided. Eventually, they died.
"The worst thing about being Darryl Strawberry's son is carrying the name around," D.J. said in a very revealing ESPN Magazine article when he was just 17. "D.J. got me away from Darryl, made me separate -- made me my own person."
D.J. fit. D.J. worked. No more cringing when the teacher called his name in class. When he gave up baseball, the athletic comparisons died too. By the time he transferred to powerhouse Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., for his junior year, he was halfway to forging his own identity. They shared a name and the same facial features, including that koala-bear smile and an expansive nose. But that was it.
The son was a tremendous athlete, but he was not on the same wunderkind path as his father. D.J.'s senior year included a made-for-ESPN game against LeBron James's traveling circus of a high school team.
LeBron "kind of reminds me of what I was coming out of high school," Darryl said.