Prior to being expelled from the team and subsequently the school for stealing Coach’s cell phone, deleting all of his contacts to conceal the stolen item, then turning around and selling said stolen phone to another player, Delonta was a college basketball teammate of mine.
Delonta was no taller than 5’6″ with shoes. He was, by all means, an unlikely candidate for the sport, particularly on a roster of towering trees on the hardwood. However, Delonta had freakish athletic ability evident in his lateral quickness, vertical jump, and uncanny ability to create sufficient space between him and the defender, which allowed him ample time to get off the open shot. He was a sharp shooter who lived mostly behind the 3-point arc, but once inside the paint lived predominantly above the rim gliding by and above defenders over a foot taller.
He had a shiny head that he shaved regularly, a bright smile, and hands the size of our starting center, Stanford, who was well aware of Delonta’s pilfering past and prior misdemeanor convictions.
“Keep a close eye,” Stanford had said when Delonta appeared through the double-doors on the first day of tryouts.
After Delonta made the roster and our first away game scheduled, I was in Coach’s office shooting the breeze about our potential for the season when Stanford moseyed in through the door. He folded his giant body into the lone chair beside me in Coach’s office. He slouched a bit, positioned his elbow on his knee, and propped his face in his hand.
“Coach,” Stanford said, “I don’t care if the locker room door is bolted shut with a logging chain and a 5-inch thick padlock, I’m not leaving my shit in the open for sticky fingers to snatch. I’m telling you Coach, your golden boy is a thief and will pick the pocket of more than just the opposing player.”
Coach was The Redeemer in a way. He was all about second chances. No one was flawed in his opinion, only misguided, and could be put back on the straight and narrow with the proper mentor—someone who could identify the struggles of the individual and help them overcome it. One way of doing that was to be part of a team, an interconnected group of individuals whose success depended on the whole of the team and not on one individual. It was a way for a kid turned sour to turn good again. He could play basketball as well as earn his degree, and with an education came a better future and more open doors.
“I’ll pay close attention,” Coach responded, trying to appease Stanford. “But give him a chance, will you? People change.”
Stanford rose, sort of shook his head a little and unwillingly agreed to give Delonta the benefit of the doubt—for Coach’s sake.
For the short time I knew Delonta, he was a likeable guy and could tell a story with the best of them. On our third road trip that season, Stanford sat in the back of the bus with his headphones in, nodding along to the music in his ears. His left leg was stretched out and straightened in the aisle.
The entirety of the team went through their pre-game road rituals.
Jerel began freestyling.
“I like that,” Chris said in response to Jerel’s freestyle before beginning his own.
Then Buck jumped in.
Keshawn Pickens sat beside me and Bird Owen and Palmer to the right of us.
My ritual consisted of reading Larry Bird’s autobiography, Drive, every road trip—a habit that, more than anything, grew out of superstition.
“I think you’d appreciate this,” Coach had said to me, handing me the book prior to one of our away games.
That night I went out and scored 19 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, and dished out eight assists in a win. Therefore, as a rule of superstition, it became a necessity to read Drive every trip while twiddling a crumpled Dennis Rodman trading card between my fingers for hours on end as I read.
Delonta initiated his road ritual that day, a ritual that would only last approximately two more games before being banished from the basketball team for good.
“I have a story,” Delonta began. He licked his lips and rubbed his thumb against his heavy eyebrow, a habit of his that accompanied the onset of a brief narrative.
“When I was in first grade, I was a good speller,” he started. “So I’m standing up there in front of the school in the auditorium. The year-end Spelling Bee. The Big Finale. It’s just me and another kid. We’re the only two left. Everybody else has been knocked out. Kids sitting down, still crying ’cause they missed a word ten minutes ago. One boy had to be picked up and carried offstage by two people because he was so upset he lost. Me and this other kid are going back and forth; the judges trying to make one of us slip up. My moms is in the front row, smiling. Proud of me.”
“‘Bicycle,’ the judge says.”
“‘B-I-C-Y-C-L-E,’ I respond. My moms gives a big thumbs up.”
“‘Hydrant,’ another judge follows.”
“‘H-Y-D-R-A-N-T,’ the other boy spells.”
“We’re neck and neck. It goes on like this for a solid two-three minutes. Neither of us falters.”
Delonta pauses. Jerel has stopped freestlying, as have Chris and Buck. All eyes are on Delonta except Stanford. He’s still in the back of the bus. Sleeping. Leg stretched out.
“Then the judge says, ‘Crayon.’ My smile gets this big.”
Delonta smiles from ear to ear.
“You stupid,” Bird says to him, laughing.
“So I’m thinking, ‘I got this Bee.’ This kid doesn’t have a chance. I’m taking home the gold today. ‘Crayon,’ I respond. ‘C-R-A-,'”
Delonta pauses again.
“I’m picturing my crayons in my hand, coloring. My favorite color green. I’m smiling. I’m gonna win the Spelling Bee. My moms is smiling. Everybody in the auditorium has their attention focused on me. The principal is looking at me. My teacher.”
“‘I’m sorry, Delonta,’ the judge says. ‘That is incorrect.'”
“‘C-R-A-Y-O-L-A,’ I spell out again.”
“‘I’m sorry, Delonta.’ He looks at the other kid as if to give him a chance to spell it.”
“‘Crayon. C-R-A-Y-O-L-A. Crayon,’ I say, crying. My moms is up from her seat, walking hurriedly toward the steps to the stage. The principal is nodding his head at the assistant principal. The auditorium is in complete silence. The kid who had been crying for ten minutes because he spelled a word wrong ten minutes ago has stopped crying. He’s looking at me.”
“‘That’s how they spell it on the box,’ I say to the judge.’That’s how they spell it on the box!'”
“At this point, my mom has whisked me from the stage and taken me behind the curtain. Her hand is over my mouth. My feet are dragging the ground.”
“‘Crayon,’ I hear the other kid say, ‘C-R-A-Y-O-N, Crayon.'”
“I’m throwing a temper tantrum, protesting to my mom and telling her they are cheating. My mom is whipping my ass behind the curtain. And everybody’s clapping for the other kid who just won the spelling bee.”
Less than a month after telling this story, Delonta was expelled from the team after Coach’s cell phone went missing and was traced to another player on the team who it had been sold to. Whether or not Delonta’s failed attempt at winning the coveted Spelling Bee championship in 1st grade after being robbed of the crown on account of corporate branding and product monopolization was the result of his descent into a life of crime and kleptomania is anyone’s guess.
Nevertheless, his theft did result in his banishment from the basketball team for good; and though Delonta may have been a kleptomaniac, it was never suspected he was a pathological liar and had made up the Spelling Bee story. Stanford would later transfer on scholarship to an apprentice school in Norfolk and be zapped by a high voltage of electricity while working as an apprentice in the shipyard. He would be okay.