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The Image Lingers
DeShawn Stevenson saw his father just once: On TV, after Darryl Stevenson had strangled his own mother.

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 2009

FRESNO, Calif.

The boy was 12 when he was summoned toward the television in the living room, to the crime watch alert on the screen.

"You know how you always wondered what your father looks like?" his mother, Genice Popps, recalled telling him. "Well, that's him. Right there."

DeShawn Stevenson moved closer, toward the image of Darryl C. Stevenson. He looked for a resemblance, but the mug shot disappeared too quickly.

DeShawn didn't know the police had apprehended Darryl that day for strangling his own mother -- DeShawn's grandmother. But DeShawn says he did sense, even as a sixth-grader, that a TV image might be the closest he would ever come to meeting his biological father.

"That's how I first saw my dad," Stevenson said in late May, as the engine of his Range Rover idled in front of his mother and stepfather's house in Fresno's prosperous Fig Garden neighborhood. "I just remember it as sad. I never talked about it because I know a lot of NBA players that didn't grow up with their fathers. You hear so many crazy stories about how NBA players grew up sometimes. I just figured that's part of the reason we're here, that going through that prepared me for what was to come."

Once a schoolboy phenom who levitated above the rim while winning a national dunk contest and whose pre-NBA draft fame nearly rivaled that of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, Stevenson is now 27. He has overcome outsize expectations -- and a knee surgery that siphoned off much of his explosive athleticism -- to forge a career as a role player with the Washington Wizards.

The struggling shooting guard, in his ninth NBA season, voluntarily gave up his starting job -- and the league's second-longest streak for consecutive games started -- last month because he believed the Wizards would be better served with him coming off the bench. Conceding that he would have never thought of such a gesture as a rookie, Stevenson, who has missed the last 13 games because of a back injury, said, "Sometimes you have to swallow your pride for the good of the team."

It was merely the latest transition for Stevenson -- from a young knucklehead who was 19 when he came into the league to valued NBA citizen. It is a journey that only now has enabled him to talk openly for the first time about the tragedy involving his father, a man who once roamed the same Washington Union High School corridors as DeShawn in the small, unincorporated, central California farming community of Easton.

"It's part of my story," Stevenson said, a part hidden from the controversy and cocksure behavior that has marked his career, such as when he called James "overrated." The remark, which created a minor furor in the blogosphere and fueled passions during the first-round playoff series between the Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers last March, cast Stevenson as a mouthy antagonist with a chip on his shoulder, a label he understands and accepts.

"If you haven't met me, I might come across as being to myself. I might have swagger. I know I come off this way," Stevenson said. "But people who know me end up liking me. They find out I've been through a lot. And if anyone else had been through what I've been through, they wouldn't be where I'm at right now."

* * *

Stevenson's son, Londyn Tyler, was five days old last summer when Stevenson drove south on Highway 99 in Fresno, toward Easton and West Fresno, where he lived with his godmother for a time to establish residency so he could play at Washington Union. His longtime girlfriend, Ariane, who joked about Stevenson's "attitude" in high school, is also the mother of Skye Christian, his 3-year-old daughter. Stevenson has another son, DeShawn Jr., 6, from a previous relationship.

"I just want to be a good father, have fun with my kids, be around," he said. "Be an outlet, so they won't do the stupid stuff and make some of the mistakes I made in life."

* * *

Stevenson was a 6-foot-5 athletic godsend in high school. He could shoot the three-point bomb with aplomb, play defense and dunk on anybody. He won the slam-dunk contest and was the best player in the McDonald's all-American high school game in March 2000. But when the Educational Testing Service questioned the validity of the sudden jump in his SAT scores from a combined 450 as a sophomore to 1,150 as a senior -- essentially accusing Stevenson of having someone take the test for him -- his plans to play college basketball ended. Stevenson still maintains he took the test himself.

From the moment he was chosen 23rd in the 2000 NBA draft by the Utah Jazz, Stevenson floated between two disparate worlds.

The first was the NBA life he signed up for. The Jazz was a team of veterans led by Karl Malone and John Stockton, and whose coach, Jerry Sloan, gave rookies no quarter and little respect. The year after he broke the California state scoring record and became the first player west of the Mississippi to jump straight from high school to the pros, Stevenson averaged 2.2 points and 7.3 minutes per game.

The second was inhabited by the kids who had Stevenson's back growing up, who couldn't wait for their millionaire friend to return from his first NBA season so he could spread his wealth. They remembered where he came from, the gymnasium amid the fruit orchards where no one could guard DeShawn Stevenson of the Washington Union Panthers.

After his rookie season, he returned to Fresno and his old life -- a decision that nearly cost him his livelihood.

A friend called one night and asked Stevenson to meet him at a hotel room, where he was told they would meet up with pretty women. "I was a kid, but I shouldn't have gone," he said. "I knew stories of other players who listen to their boys and end up in bad situations."

Within weeks, Stevenson was charged with statutory rape for having sex with a 14-year-old. The girl said Stevenson, who had just turned 20, and two former high school teammates took her and a 15-year-old girl to a motel with a bottle of brandy, got them drunk and had consensual sex. Stevenson did not dispute the consensual sex but contends that the girls brought their own alcohol.

After he learned the girl's age -- and before he was charged -- Stevenson says he sought out her mother to apologize. "I went to her mom's house and talked to her and told her that I didn't know her age," Stevenson said. "I told her I'm sorry that all this happened. . . . I told her she could do what she wanted to do, but I didn't rape your daughter."

Soon after the apology, the mother called Stevenson on his cellphone and secretly recorded the conversation, which led to his prosecution. Stevenson pleaded no contest. He originally faced up to three years in prison, but the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to 100 hours of community service, two years probation and a $1,100 fine.

"That started two years of people looking at me in a different way, not saying anything," Stevenson said. "I'm like, 'Damn, that's how it is?' You live and you learn. I'm so strong, I never even cried about it. I know what I did. I really didn't know how old she was. I feel bad about it, but I was a kid, hanging with people I shouldn't have been hanging with, making bad decisions."

Stevenson paused as he drove past Frank Gage Park, off Eighth and Enyo streets, in West Fresno, where he first learned to play the game.

"It's not like I want to be the bad guy," he said. "I know who I am. But if you want to perceive me like that, go ahead. I think the first couple years after the incident I tried to change everybody's mind. But people know who I am. And I'm nowhere near the negative part of that perception."

* * *

Stevenson and five Wizards teammates carried brand-new bikes with bows and other gift-wrapped presents into several sparsely furnished townhouses and apartment complexes during the team's annual holiday giveaway last month. Relatives and neighbors of the four single mothers and their children chosen to receive the gifts teared up, some mouthing the words "Praise the Lord" as the players ducked to enter the doorways.

During the tour of some of the District's most impoverished neighborhoods, Stevenson sat near the back of the charter bus, where the team's younger players unfolded their long limbs, draping legs and arms over one another's seats. Dominic McGuire, Nick Young, JaVale McGee, Oleksiy Pecherov and Andray Blatche acted like kids in a school bus -- mercilessly riding Blatche about his flatulence and providing background percussion for Young's homemade rap lyrics. Stevenson laughed before abruptly changing the conversation.

"Did you know your daddy?" he asked McGee, 19, who sat behind him.

"I didn't meet him until I was 11," McGee said.

McGuire, who like Young had grown up with his father, winced, feigned disgust and said, "Man, that's personal."

"What? I'm just askin'," Stevenson said. "Because I never met my daddy."

* * *

John Pestorich, Darryl Stevenson's former coach and Washington Union's principal during DeShawn's years at the school, said he remembered the elder Stevenson "as a guy who always had a smile on his face."

"There's not a single issue I could point to that would have foreshadowed what happened," said Pestorich, now the superintendent of the Washington Union school district. "The events of Darryl's life afterward didn't match my perception and relationship with him as I knew him in high school. I don't know what would have caused him to do that at the end."

Darryl was a star running back for the Panthers who fantasized about one day signing an NFL contract. He also was a guard in basketball -- a slightly sawed-off, thicker version of his son. "Just a bull of strength," Pestorich said. "A perimeter player who did all his damage on the inside."

DeShawn's father met Genice at Washington Union. She was 19 when she gave birth to Darryl DeShawn on April 3, 1981. Darryl dropped out three weeks shy of graduation and eventually found work as a maintenance man. He last saw his son six weeks after he was born, Genice said.

She recalled that was also the day she walked out on DeShawn's father for good. He had beaten her weeks earlier, she said. Family got involved and, after a brief return to the same violence, Genice finally realized, "Something could happen to me and I could die.

"The last time it happened, I knew I couldn't go back," she said. "When somebody 6-3 or 6-4 is hitting you . . . I just wasn't going to let it happen again."

Darryl's violent behavior was mirrored by a history of mental instability, Fresno County court records show. In 1983, two years after DeShawn was born, Darryl was institutionalized in a state facility for several months. Unemployed, he never made payments to Genice after signing a court order to financially support his son. He was also hospitalized for several stints at Valley Medical Center's Acute Psychiatric Unit in Fresno, according to court records.

After he held up a gas station with another man in 1984, his mother, Clara Washington, begged a judge to reduce bail for her youngest of seven children, saying her son was remorseful. "I just don't think that it would be done again," Clara said during the court hearing. "I really don't."

Clara also told the judge that at about the age of 18, Darryl had said to her, "Something is wrong with me, mother," according to a 2000 Associated Press story on his son's pending entry into the NBA draft. He reportedly smashed his basketball trophies and said he hallucinated. Sent to a Fresno County hospital, he received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, according to court records.

He was released from the hospital in 1984 and placed on probation, the court records show. But by 1985 he had been arrested and jailed for kidnapping a woman. Paroled in the fall of 1992, his mother was there to pick him up on his release day.

Less than a year later, on July 3, 1993, Darryl strangled his mother in her home in a dispute over money. The police report said he might have killed his mother with a chokehold during the argument. He was arrested after firing a handgun into the air as he drove her car later that day, his system flush with crack cocaine, according to the report.

He was sent to Atascadero State Hospital to determine whether he was competent to stand trial. Doctors there reported that he "demonstrated a thought disorder too profound to allow for a mental status evaluation." A judge ruled him incompetent in September 1993, and he was sent to Napa State Hospital. Two years later, in 1995, Darryl pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was given the maximum punishment of 15 years to life in prison.

Except for that brief glimpse of Darryl on the TV set during the police crime alert, Stevenson -- who at the time was emerging as one of the top youth basketball talents in central California -- was kept in the dark about what his father had done.

"I know everyone should have a father figure growing up," said Von Webb, who coached Stevenson from seventh grade to his senior year in high school and who is now an assistant coach at the University of California, Riverside. "But when you learn about what happened, the best thing about his dad was probably that he was never in DeShawn's life."

* * *

Play was going back and forth at Ayer Elementary's outdoor basketball court in southeast Fresno in the spring of 1994. Kids were exchanging buckets and words in a heated pickup game when a boy who would later become DeShawn Stevenson's high school teammate turned to him and said, "That's why your father killed your grandmother."

Stevenson froze, stunned by the words. "I didn't say nothin' back," he recalled. "What could I say?"

Then he ran home to find out the truth.

He had accompanied his mother and stepfather to the viewing of Clara Washington's body; he remembered staying in the back of the funeral parlor, afraid to approach the open casket. But he did not know the nature of her death and who had killed her -- until now, nearly a year later, when his seventh-grade classmate blurted it out on a basketball court.

"Yeah, it did happen," Genice remembered telling her son after he reached home. "The people who told you that, DeShawn, their parents told them that and they were wrong for doing so. But, yes, that's what happened to your grandmother."

Both say that to this day, that is the extent of their conversation about DeShawn's father.

"We never talked about it again," Stevenson said. "Ever."

"I would never tell him anything about [Darryl] that were things that I felt; I didn't want to poison that relationship," Genice said. "But up until today, there's never been anything that DeShawn wanted to ask about him that I wouldn't tell him."

What she never disclosed to her son, however, was that his father had sent numerous letters to him from prison. Instead of showing them to him, she asked a brother-in-law who worked as a correctional officer to implore Darryl to stop writing.

Shielding him from his father, Genice said, was part of her goal as a mother, which was for "DeShawn to never become a statistic."

* * *

Stevenson's Range Rover rumbled past the plum orchards off California Avenue, past the high school where he once worked his game and dreamed his NBA dream. He pulled up near the Phase2 barbershop on Elm Street, where his mother met Terry Popps, his future stepfather, nearly 20 years ago while DeShawn and Terry were getting haircuts.

Terry Popps and Genice have been together since DeShawn was 10 and have a 9-year-old son, Tyler, DeShawn's little brother.

Stevenson was in a reflective mood, prompted by the trip back home. He said he had not thought too much about his father over the years, so it was perhaps not a surprise that he never knew the extent of Darryl's mental illness.

He shook his head in disbelief. "Yeah, but to kill your own mother?" he finally said after a pause. "That's, like, pretty off. Even if you didn't know her -- you just met and you had no feelings. But obviously they were close because he was living with her. That makes it even more . . . I don't know."

Darryl Stevenson died of lung cancer in Corcoran State Prison in 1999 at the age of 36, the year before DeShawn was drafted into the NBA. He died with another secret that, although it was mentioned deep in the court records, Stevenson had been unaware of until now.

His father had a single word tattooed on his chest:

"DeShawn."

"I don't know how to feel about that," Stevenson said. "I haven't seen a picture of him to this day. It's not like I ever missed him because I never knew him."

Asked if he regretted never having spoken to his father, Stevenson slowly nodded.

"Everybody wants to meet their dad," he said. "You know he did bad things, and he was crazy doing what he did. But I still wished I would have met him."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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