Derrick Mercer Authors His Own Success Story at American University

American guard Derrick Mercer has emerged as the Eagles' iron man, never missing a game in his career and starting all but two while playing 40 or more minutes in 11 games.
American guard Derrick Mercer has emerged as the Eagles' iron man, never missing a game in his career and starting all but two while playing 40 or more minutes in 11 games. (Leah L. Jones - For TWP)
By Mike Wise
Friday, March 13, 2009

Two-thirds of the way through "The Miracle of St. Anthony," Adrian Wojnarowski's 2005 page-turner chronicling the heart and hope behind Bob Hurley Sr.'s prep dynasty in Jersey City, readers meet the proverbial father living vicariously through his son.

Only this dad cares little that his progeny might someday ball for a Division I program on national television. What Derrick Mercer Sr. really wants is for his son to use the game as a means to an educational end, so much so he begins to cry on page 271 after hearing of that first college scholarship offer. "Stop lying, stop lying," he says, almost in disbelief.

Here's what happened to that kid after the epilogue:

He conquered his nerves at the free throw line to send American University to the NCAA tournament for the first time in its 41-year Division I history last spring. He was named the Patriot League's player of the year last week.

Over four years, he became the Eagles' iron man, never missing a game in his college career and starting all but two. Including overtimes, he's played 40 or more minutes in 11 games this season.

And for all the hubbub surrounding the Washington area's college basketball elite, if more bedlam ensues at Bender Arena this afternoon in the Patriot League tournament title game against Holy Cross, Derrick Mercer Jr. will have competed in the NCAA tournament as many times as Jeff Green and D.J. Strawberry.

The only player in the nation listed at 5 feet 9 yet secure enough to admit he's actually 5-7, Mercer was literally overlooked for four years. Beneath the trees, a small sapling supported unconditionally by two parents -- home and road, his father missed three AU games all season -- grew stout and strong into a senior.

Derrick Jr. emerged from those pages as the Diminutive Point Guard Who Could, a microcosm of the Little D-I School That Did. And though a return trip to the NCAA tournament would be sweet, the real payoff for his old man comes in May.

"That's all I still care about, him graduating, him getting a degree," Derrick Sr. said by telephone from New Jersey. "He'll be the first from his family to graduate college -- how amazing is that?"

Fairly, when you consider Derrick Jr. and his little sister grew up not being able to walk to the corner store "without stepping around dealers leaning into the rolled-down windows of stopped cars," according to Wojnarowski's book. When you consider the overtime Derrick Sr. worked as a school security guard to pay the St. Anthony tuition and ensure his son attended the right summer camps. When you consider Derrick Sr. once had the same dream die at Middlesex Community College.

"By me doing what he could have done, it made him happy," Derrick Jr. said earlier this week as he walked across a grassy pitch at AU, leading a visitor from the school's basketball office toward a deli and then a vacant classroom. He cut quite a portrait in his basketball warmups and wire-rimmed spectacles, nodding at a few students who recognized the biggest little man on campus.

"I had a cousin at a [junior college] in Arizona and another who played football at Pittsburgh, but they never got through college," Derrick Jr. said. "They didn't follow through. So for me to be the first, I mean, it means a lot."

"You hear stories -- not just in my area but also across the country -- of kids who can't go to school because they don't have the grades. That became the most important thing to me."

We should mention his game, how he maneuvers his tree-trunk frame around and over much taller defenders, how even on his worst nights Mercer is AU's glue, an on-floor extension of his coach, Jeff Jones, Ralph Sampson's old point guard at Virginia.

He wants to go pro, because Spud Webb, Muggsy Bogues and now Nate Robinson have broken the mighty-mite barrier. Proving the little man can indeed dream, he also wants to dunk in a game before his college career ends.

The moment you want to tell Derrick Jr. to embrace reality, the people around him remind you that his father was told not to send his stumpy kid to St. Anthony, the cradle of point guards, because he was too short and not good enough to ever get off the bench -- the same kid laughed at on Stevens Avenue in Jersey City because he said he was going to star at a Division I school.

"The numbers say no, but I learned a long time ago you don't doubt Derrick," Jones said as his senior swished a deep three-pointer in the background during practice Wednesday. "If you're going to dream, dream big. I can't fault a kid for wanting that. And if that doesn't work out, he'll have been a solid student and grown so much as a person."

Whatever happens against Holy Cross today, Mercer will earn an audio production degree from AU's College of Arts and Sciences on May 9. Like going to the NCAA tournament, it was almost a day that never came.

Homesick, cash-strapped, uncomfortable in a leafy, quiet environment that bore no resemblance to Jersey City, Mercer said he almost transferred after his freshman year at AU. Especially after he became a teenage parent with his high school girlfriend, whom he no longer dates. Bob Hurley Sr. actually helped him round up a few interested schools, La Salle being the most prominent.

"My family, you wouldn't say we were wealthy people," he said. "I felt like I needed to support my son, be closer to home. I just didn't feel right down here. But then the guys really made me comfortable and my parents really helped out. I decided to stay. To this day, if I don't have the money my father buys clothes for my son."

Julius Isaiah, who often makes the trip south with his grandparents to see his father play, turns 3 years old March 21. Derrick Jr. says he's tall for his age. "A little muscular, too," he adds, smiling proudly.

"Hopefully he'll keep growing and he won't be short like his dad."

Coming from the kid who got the education and fulfilled the dream his father had, who was always more about heart than height, it shouldn't matter one bit how tall Julius Mercer grows up to be.

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