Thanks to Strong Women in His Life, Kansas' Devonte' Graham Becoming a Star

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagMarch 24, 2016

When she walked into the Fox & Hound Sports Tavern to watch a Kansas basketball game earlier this season, Dewanna King had an easy time deciding where to sit.

Cheering from a corner of the Raleigh, North Carolina, restaurant was a cluster of fans decked out in Jayhawks T-shirts and hats. Some of the women wore crimson and blue face paint and ribbons, and a few of the men used KU koozies. Sure, these may have been strangers, King thought.

But as fellow Kansas supporters, they felt like family.

Shortly after tipoff, Jayhawks guard Devonte' Graham swished a three-pointer, and King jumped out of her seat and clapped wildly.

"That's my son!" she yelled, and the man sitting next to her seemed puzzled. King is only 35—and she appears even younger.

"You don't look like you should have a 21-year-old," the man said.

King shrugged her shoulders.

"You're right," she said. "I probably shouldn't."

It's truly an unlikely success story. And an inspiring one, too.

King was barely 14 and had just finished the eighth grade when she became pregnant with Devonte'. A child raising a child, she'd be taught how to change diapers before she even finished puberty or learned to drive. Daunting as the scenario may have been, King refused to let it overwhelm her.

She worked two jobs, graduated high school and went to college, all while providing food, clothes and, most important, a mother's love to her son. This week, Dewanna will drive 563 miles from her native Raleigh to Louisville, Kentucky, to watch Devonte' and the Jayhawks in the Sweet 16.

"I don't hide from what happened," Dewanna said. "I don't run from it or lie about it. It wasn't an ideal situation, but I'm proud of how things turned out. I'm a stronger person because of it."

Devonte' is, too.

When No. 1 seed Kansas takes the court against fifth-seeded Maryland on Thursday, the Jayhawks will look to Graham to lead them. Forward Perry Ellis may be a more consistent scorer, point guard Frank Mason III is better at getting into the lane and high-flyer Wayne Selden operates with a little more flash.

"But no one," Kansas head coach Bill Self said, "gives us energy like Devonte'. His personality ignites us."

Indeed, whether he's flailing his arms toward the crowd after making a three-pointerpleading for it to get louder—or encouraging a struggling teammate during a quick, dead-ball huddle, Graham has become the face of the nation's top team.

That's not to say Graham's contributions are limited to vocal and emotional leadership. It's actually quite the opposite, as the sophomore combo guard was named Most Outstanding Player at the Big 12 tournament earlier this month. He also helped key Kansas' 12th straight conference regular-season championship by scoring 27 points in a pivotal road win against Oklahoma and Buddy Hield.

Still, as much as Graham continues to improve on the court, it's his intangibles—his upbeat spirit—that spark the Jayhawks the most.

"I'm always going to have a smile on my face," Graham said. "I don't like being around negative energy, negative vibes. That's just how I was raised. I'm grateful to even be out there playing the game I love, so appreciative of this opportunity."

Especially since it's an opportunity Graham may never have realized if not for his mom.

When Dewanna King walked into her doctor's office in December 1995, the 14-year-old didn't know she was pregnant. Throughout the previous month, she'd experienced some unfamiliar sensations in her body, but, other than a few pounds, Dewanna—who described herself as a "petite tomboy"—hadn't gained significant weight.

"I think I was just in denial," King said in a recent interview with B/R.   

Moments later, though, the situation became a reality for Dewanna when the doctor informed her and her mother, Doris, that not only was she carrying a child, but she was seven months along in her pregnancy.

For the first and only time, Dewanna heard her mother curse.

"I was just so scared," Dewanna said. "It was a fear of the unknown, I guess.

"My mom was like, 'We're having this baby. We're going to get through this.' But all I could think was, 'How am I going to make it?'"

Unlike many teenage parents, Dewanna said she was fortunate to have a strong family support system that was led by her mother, who made a change in her own life to help Devonte' before he was even born.

For a few years prior to Devonte's birth, Dewanna said, Doris was involved in an abusive relationship while the family lived in Raeford, North Carolina. Two weeks before Dewanna's due date—with a police officer standing guard outside—Doris and her daughters hastily packed their belongings, crammed them into a U-Haul and fled 92 miles to Raleigh.

"My mom didn't want me to raise a baby in that environment," Dewanna said. "In a way, you could say Devonte' saved us. If I wouldn't have gotten pregnant, my mom still might be getting beaten. Who knows if she'd even be alive?"

Twenty miles into the trip, perhaps from the strain caused by loading the U-Haul, Dewanna started experiencing contractions. Rather than stop in an unfamiliar town to seek medical attention, the family forged ahead to the hospital in Raleigh. Shortly after their arrival, on Feb. 21, 1995, Dewanna gave birth to Devonte'.

For the next five years, the family shared a room in the apartment of Doris' nephew, Joe. Each night, Dewanna curled up in a twin bed with Devonte', while Doris slept in another bed with her younger daughter, Mashonda.

Any thoughts Dewanna may have had about dropping out of school were short-lived thanks to Doris, who bought Dewanna a copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting and insisted she included it in her backpack each day along with her math, science and history textbooks. She made Dewanna get two jobs the summer after her freshman year—one at a bank, the other at a grocery store—to buy clothes and food for Devonte'.

Doris helped with her grandson while his mom was in class or at work, and she dropped him off each morning at daycare and tended to him while Dewanna completed her homework.

"Still," Dewanna said, "she didn't take all of the responsibility. She thought that, if she did a lot of stuff, it was like telling me I didn't have to.

"She was there every step of the way with me, making sure I did what I had to do. It became a way of life. If I didn't have that support and guidance, it'd have been easier to give up."

When Dewanna received her high school diploma on graduation day, four-year-old Devonte' held her hand and walked across the stage with her. A few years later, she earned a business administration degree from Shaw University and, by her early 20s, moved into her own apartment with Devonte' and his sister, Shamaria, who is seven years younger.

"People tell me it sounds like such a hard time," Dewanna said, "and it was definitely challenging. But it was a beautiful time, too. I had a beautiful little baby."

As Devonte' grew older, his mother's support never wavered. When gang violence and drugs began to infest his neighborhood—he once witnessed a shooting outside his community center—Dewanna moved the family to a new neighborhood.

When a recession affected her work as a nanny and finances, she scrambled a bit and relied on her mother in part to put food on the table for Devonte' and Shamaria. And when Devonte' began to excel on the basketball court—he started playing on an AAU travel team at age 10—Dewanna became his biggest cheerleader, rarely missing a game throughout his junior high and high school years.

"When it came to basketball, she always believed in me," said Devonte', who is not close with his father. "She always had my back."

Including one time when Devonte' needed his mom more than ever.

Devonte' Graham never dreamed of playing basketball for Appalachian State. But there was a time when he figured he couldn't do much better.

Time and time again during his sophomore and junior years of high school, Graham had standout performances for his AAU team (Garner Road) and his squad at Broughton High School. But Graham's lack of height—he didn't reach 6-feet tall until his senior year—caused local schools such as North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest to shy away.

Thus, with no other significant offers, Graham signed a national letter of intent with Appalachian State prior to his senior season.

"Within months," Dewanna said, "things changed."

During his final year of high school ball, Graham's game elevated to a new level. He averaged 15.7 points and 5.4 assists in leading Broughton to the state title game, and he also grew a few inches and now stood 6'2". As word began to trickle in that Graham had drawn praise from Division I coaches in Power Five conferences, Graham realized he'd made a mistake by signing with Appalachian State.

But when he asked the school to release him from his national letter of intent, Mountaineers head coach Jason Capel refused. And when Dewanna filed a formal appeal with the school, things got messy.

"[Capel] sent me a five-page letter that sent me over the top," she said. "I felt like he was questioning my character, like he was attacking my son.

"I went into mommy mode, protection mode. From that point on I was like, 'It's personal now. You may just have to go to [junior college] and transfer [to a Division I school] after two years, because there's no way you're going to Appalachian State.'"

Graham agreed.

Instead of going the junior college route, though, he enrolled at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire that has produced current NBA players such as Mitch McGary, Thomas Robinson and Will Barton.

Graham averaged 17 points in leading Brewster to the national prep championship in 2014, yet when college coaches made inquiries, they were informed that Appalachian State still hadn't released him.

"We said plenty of prayers and shed plenty of tears," Dewanna said. "I didn't have the money to hire a lawyer and fight it. It was a very stressful period."

But it all ended in April 2014, when new head coach Jim Fox granted Graham a release after Capel was fired in March. 

Almost immediately, Graham and his mom scheduled three visits during a seven-day period. Graham didn't feel comfortable at Virginia and, although he liked North Carolina State, he realized playing college ball in his hometown would present potential distractions.

"When we got to Kansas," Dewanna said, "I had a list of questions [for Self] folded up in my back pocket. I never had to take them out. He answered every one of them before I could even ask.

"Everyone we met just seemed so genuine. It just felt right."

In the Jayhawks' favor was the fact that junior point guard Naadir Tharpe had just quit the team. Though Kansas would return Frank Mason, who had just finished his freshman season, Self told Graham he wanted to play two point guards at the same time.

Graham signed a letter of intent with the Jayhawks and prepared to move to Lawrence that summer.

There was only one issue: Kansas was in, well…Kansas. Dewanna said she was in tears when she took Devonte' to the airport that summer.

"I'd had him my whole life," Dewanna said. "I used to tell him that he'd always be my baby. But when I dropped him off that day, I felt like he wasn't my baby anymore. I knew he'd come back a grown man."

During his first season at Kansas, Devonte' received a call from his mom almost every day. But after a year, Dewanna grew more and more at ease with her son being away, so to give him his space, she limited herself to a few calls per week.

It's been comforting, she said, to watch Devonte's progress on the court. He averaged 17.8 minutes and started sporadically during a freshman season that ended with a team-high 17-point effort in a second-round loss to Wichita State in the NCAA tournament.

Now a full-time starter, Graham's minutes (32.4) have nearly doubled. He ranks fourth on the team in scoring with 11.4 points per game and also averages 3.8 assists. And Graham has saved some of his top performances for the most pivotal games. He averaged 24.5 points in two victories over Oklahoma and tied a career high with 27 points in a win over West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament title game.

With Mason also enjoying a banner season (12.8 points, 4.6 assists), Kansas' backcourt is generally regarded as one of the nation's best. The Jayhawks enter the Sweet 16 boasting 16 straight victories.

"Frank and Devonte' are like salt and pepper," KU assistant coach Jerrance Howard said. "Frank is a hard-nosed guy that puts his head down and gets to the basket. Devonte' is a better shooter and passer. They have different personalities and different games—but they go so well together."

As good as he's been when the ball is in play, Graham also makes an impact when it's not. Jayhawks staff members say his charismatic, radiant personality has been vital during a season in which Self, following a three-game road losing streak in January, criticized his squad for a lack of energy.

"We're a different team when Devonte' plays with energy and personality," assistant coach Norm Roberts said. "He lights up a locker room. Just by smiling and raising his arms, he can change the vibe on the court.

"He's the most popular guy on campus. Everyone loves him. Foreign students, local kids, band members, athletes in other sports…it doesn't matter. He engages everyone. I can't remember a day since Devonte' has been here when he whined or had a bad attitude."

The Jayhawks have even developed a nickname for their combo guard.

"Swaggy Devonte'," Howard said, chuckling. "He definitely has swagger. He'll walk around campus wearing different-colored flip-flops or on his hoverboard. He's got the wild hair, and he and freshman forward Carlton [Bragg Jr.] are always dancing in the locker room. You definitely know when he's around."

During the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Jayhawks volleyball coach Ray Bechard approached Dewanna in the stands and told her how much he appreciated Devonte' attending each of his team's games that fall. The gesture was just one of many that have reassured Dewanna—who often is asked by strangers if she's Devonte's twin sister—that her son is making the family proud.

"I'm just enjoying every moment of it," Graham said. "My mom told me to always be appreciative of every opportunity I get and of the people in my circle. I'm definitely appreciative of what I have here."

Perhaps that's why, after arriving on Kansas' campus, Graham had the words "Forever Grateful" tattooed across his chest. The phrase, he said, is an ode to so many things.

He's grateful for the coaches who took a chance on him at Kansas, grateful for his grandmother and aunt, who helped raise him; and his little sister, who inspires him.

Most of all, Graham said, he's grateful for Dewanna, who has been inundated with praise since sharing her story last week with the Kansas City Star. A few days later, the same article was picked up by the Raleigh News and Observer, her hometown newspaper.

"My wife read it and called me in tears," Howard said. "It just really showed you how strong of a person Dewanna is. So many girls that age would've had an abortion or given the baby up for adoption or been an absentee mother. But Dewanna didn't run from the situation.

"She embraced it."

The more Dewanna hears and reads those types of comments, the more proud she becomes.

Devonte', she said, isn't the only person in the relationship who learned something during the past 21 years.

"Not many mothers can say they grew up with their sons," Dewanna said. "But that's what happened with Devonte' and I. We literally grew up together.

"He's done as much for me as I've done for him."


Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.


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