By Mike Wise
Thursday, March 8, 2007
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.
He spoke a few feet from his seat in Comcast Center on Senior Day Sunday after Maryland polished off North Carolina State and D.J. had Ginsu-ed the Wolfpack defense with slashing drives through the lane.
"I was the phenom," Darryl said. "The black Ted Williams, they used to call me. D.J. took a different road, which has been great for his maturity, so he can really understand life. It was the wisest decision he ever made. He learned a great deal of discipline."
He complimented Gary Williams's tutelage of his son.
"D.J. has done a great job with a lot of things," Williams said. "He's created his own niche as a college basketball player. You can always tell the young kids, the 8-, 9-year-olds, who their favorite player is. The mail we get, it's all about D.J. They just like him, the way he plays."
Darryl added: "The fans here fell in love with him as a person, more than anything. They love the effort and the hustle and he really lays it out."
He was asked whether his personal journey would have been different had he taken a more gradual path to stardom, like his son.
"We could say, we could say, we could say," Darryl said. "But you got to remember: I didn't play at Maryland. I played in New York. There I was, 21 years old, thrown into the firepan in New York City."
Darryl and D.J. talk almost every day now, the son says. D.J. has good memories -- of being a Yankees bat boy, the son of one of the modern game's great power hitters. They balance out the pain of his father's self-destruction.
"Growing up as a kid, that's your father going through a lot of troubles and you can't really do anything about it," D.J. said. "It hurts to see that. But it made me grow up fast. It made me realize there are things in life you can't do. It just made me be a better person for right now.
"I'm pretty glad my College Park experience was a little less crazy than New York with a lot of money at 19 years old. This has allowed me to grow up. I'm going to definitely use the tools I've gained in college in life."
D.J. said he felt as if things had come full circle last Sunday, seeing his mother, father, grandmother and family sitting together in his last college home game -- "just like old times, when I was back in California and everybody got to see me," he said.
His father gave him an emotional embrace before the game. Afterward, when asked if he was surprised his son was able to rebound from a surgically reconstructed knee two years ago to become an NBA prospect, to handle the mantle of leadership and, essentially, help turn Maryland's sagging fortunes around, D.J.'s father didn't hesitate.
"It doesn't surprise me, because his last name is Strawberry," he said.