Texas' Damion James driving against Oregon in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 26. Texas won 70-57.
(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Damion James' season superlatives
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AUSTIN, Texas – Shortly after tipoff at the University of Texas, a black Ford Expedition with an "I'm a Longhorns Dad" sticker pulls into the parking lot at the Frank Erwin Center.
The doors open, and the parents of Texas forward and NBA prospect Damion James hustle through the parking lot, into the arena and down the stairway leading to their seats in the 15th row.
From the court, James catches their eye and smiles. Just as Katrina Williams and Jerry Bell dote on their son, James wants his parents to know he's proud of them, too. Despite an eight-hour, round-trip drive, they've made every Texas home game this season.
Not long ago, they wouldn't have been at any.
"I wake up every day and thank God they're back in my life," James says. "It's a blessing to have them here."
Especially since James knows what it feels like when they aren't.
Katrina, who had Damion when she was 16, went to jail for assault during James' junior year of high school. That was around the same time James first met Jerry, who had spent nearly five years in the federal penitentiary on drug charges.
Not that James knew it.
Wanting her son to have a male role model while Jerry was incarcerated, Katrina lied to Damion and told him that a different man was his father. She revealed the truth after Jerry was released from jail and moved back to Nacogdoches, Texas.
"I didn't know who my daddy was until I was 17," James says. "One day [Jerry] was over in the projects playing ball, and my mom said, 'You know who that is, right? That man right there … he's your daddy.' I was like, 'For real? That's crazy.' "
Damion's last name actually comes from the person he thought was his dad.
"I feel guilty," Jerry says. "When it comes to raising a kid, you can't do it a whole lot worse than we did it."
Which is why – as they attempt to make up for lost time – Jerry and Katrina sometimes are baffled at how well things have turned out for James, a junior who some scouts say will be a top-10 pick in this summer's NBA draft.
“The only person who deserves credit for where Damion is today is Damion himself. Coaches talk all the time to kids from rough backgrounds about what's right and wrong, but Damion was different than most of those kids. Damion listened.”
– Robert Lucero, James' assistant coach in high school.
Somehow James never succumbed to the violence and gang activity that surround his Nacogdoches neighborhood, where bullets have punctured the speed limit sign near his apartment. As a teenager James says he saw his uncles and grandfather carrying wads of $100 bills they obtained from selling drugs, but he never thought about taking part.
Instead, when he wasn't living in his grandmother's trailer or at his mom's apartment, James surrounded himself with the friends, teammates and coaches that, to this day, receive credit for guiding James through a rocky childhood.
"That's the only thing that bothers me," says Robert Lucero, a former assistant at Nacogdoches High School. "People always say that, if it weren't for this person or that person, Damion never would've made it.
"The only person who deserves credit for where Damion is today is Damion himself. Coaches talk all the time to kids from rough backgrounds about what's right and wrong, but Damion was different than most of those kids.
Not long ago, James returned to Nacogdoches to visit his mother for the weekend. When he woke up around 5 a.m. to go to the restroom, he stumbled upon Katrina getting ready to go to work at Sonic.
"I looked at myself in the mirror," James says, "and I said to myself, 'Damion, you've got to go get some shots up today, because you don't want to see your mom living like this anymore.' "
Damion James has helped Texas claim a share of the past two Big 12 titles.
(AP Photo/Ty Russell)
Even during Katrina's legal troubles, James has always stood by his mother. One friend jokes that, "in Damion's eyes, the woman can do no wrong."
Katrina was 15 when she got pregnant with Damion, her first of six children. She says she tried her best to raise him on her own, but because she was young and wanted to continue school, Damion ended up staying next door with his grandmother.
"I was still going over to bathe him every night and to feed him," Katrina says, "but in a way, we were growing up together."
"I was a bad parent," Katrina says. "I could've done better. I didn't spend as much time with my kids as I should have. I didn't take them to the park and things like that. I wasn't financially able. You can't take them to Waterworld and Six Flags when you can't afford it."
As Damion grew up, he said he noticed as many of his family members began driving nicer cars and eating better meals for dinner. He said he used to ask his uncles if he could tag along with them to their jobs each night, but they always laughed and told him to stay home.
"In one day," James says, "they could make as much as a guy with a 9-to-5 [job] could make in two weeks.
"As I got older, I knew my grandfather was selling, too. We were starting to have more food on the table, and he and my uncles were starting to have newer cars with fresh paint jobs and new rims and a nice system.
“As I got older, I knew my grandfather was selling, too. We were starting to have more food on the table, and he and my uncles were starting to have newer cars with fresh paint jobs and new rims and a nice system. But now when I go home, my uncles have been in jail. They all say, 'See why we would never let you go out with us?'”
– Damion James on family’s involvement with drugs.
"But now when I go home, my uncles have been in jail. They all say, 'See why we would never let you go out with us?' "
When things weren't going well for James at home, he wasn't afraid to turn to others for guidance. Often, James found himself spending weekends – and sometimes entire weeks – at the home of Galeon and Lydia Skillern, whose son, Jamarcus, had been James' best friend since little league.
Hanging on a wall near the Skillerns' kitchen is a framed copy of the "Prayer of Thanks" along with a picture of family members holding hands with their heads bowed. It's the kind of decoration that gives the home a safe, comforting feel that James had never known.
Eventually, the rules Galeon Skillern had for his own sons applied to Damion, too. When Damion was heard cussing during a summer league baseball practice, he was greeted at the house with a whipping from "Blue Baby" – aka Galeon's leather belt.
"At that time, I think Damion saw the kind of figures I had in my life, and he wanted the same kind of thing for himself," Jamarcus said.
"He still comes by to see my parents almost every time he comes home. The reason he appreciates them so much is because they took him in before he was a big name, before anyone knew he had the talent to go this far."
Another person who took an interest in James was Lucero, the assistant at Nacogdoches. James was a freshman the first time the two met. Lucero said he remembers the holes in James' tank top and sweat pants – and the "goofy smile" on his face.
"He had this rough, unstable background," Lucero said. "But you'd have never known it from looking at his face. Every time you saw the kid, he was smiling and laughing and having a good time. He's the exact same way today."
James made the varsity basketball team as a freshman, and Lucero was nice enough to give him rides home to his grandmother's trailer after practice. Usually the two would stop for dinner at Taco Bell, where they'd talk about James' past – and his future. In the summers, James traveled to the Dallas area to play AAU ball and to help Lucero's father work on a loading dock in nearby Haltom.
As James blossomed into one of the most sought-after basketball prospects in the nation, he began to lean on Lucero during the recruiting process. James initially committed to Oklahoma, but things fell through when coach Kelvin Sampson left to take the Indiana job.
Lucero said he'll never forget the day Sampson – considered a role model by James – announced he was leaving.
"I went and pulled Damion out of class and told him the news," Lucero said. "He just broke down and started crying. He had asked [Sampson] a few weeks earlier if there was any chance of it happening, and Sampson had said no.
"Damion didn't have too many male figures in his life that he trusted, so that just crushed him. I told him Sampson wanted him to call him, and he said, 'No. I don't want to talk.' Then he went back into class."
He set the single-season rebounding record as a sophomore and helped Texas claim a share of the past two Big 12 titles. Still, ask Rick Barnes about Damion James, and the first thing he mentions is his hygiene.
"He takes four showers a day, demands that we have hand towels in the showers and brushes his teeth more than anyone I know," Barnes says. "He's the cleanest kid I've ever been around."
Texas coach Rick Barnes on Damion James: "He's the salt of the earth, and I love him to death."
(AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
As he talks, Barnes can't help but laugh. He loves telling funny stories about James and giving him the business. Barnes isn't the type to name favorites, but if he were, you can bet James would be near the top of his list.
"I think everyone feels that way about Damion," says former Texas star Kevin Durant, who now plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder. "From the day he got to Texas as a freshman, he was the player who was always calling guys to go to the movies or to go to dinner. He wanted the team to be a family – a family. It was something that was very important to him."
A third-year starter who averages 14.1 points and eight rebounds, it's not as if things have always been rosy for James at Texas. There were times as a freshman when he probably didn't work as hard as he should've in practice, and last season a string of underwhelming performances caused Barnes to summon James for a pregame meeting before the Longhorns played Oklahoma.
Barnes said the conversation revealed that he'd been yelling too much at James during practice and using too much "colorful" language. James wasn't used to people raising their voice at him. Instead of responding favorably, he went into a shell.
"I'm not going to raise my voice to you anymore," Barnes says he told James. "When there's a problem we're going to talk, man to man."
The next day James approached Barnes and told him how much he appreciated the talk. There have been no problems since.
"He's the salt of the earth, and I love him to death," Barnes says. "I just want him to be everything I think he can be. Lord knows he's trying. I'll call him tonight, and he'll be in his room. He has a very simple life. He plays basketball and he sleeps."
And he sets an example.
Last season James was passing through the Longhorns' coaching offices when Barnes introduced him to a recruit. Barnes asked James to tell the recruit a little bit about Texas basketball.
Expecting him to only utter a sentence or two, Barnes was shocked when James talked for five minutes about how the program had strengthened his character, helped him in the classroom, enhanced his self-confidence and prepared him for the rest of his life. So moving was James' speech that assistant Chris Ogden had to leave the room after becoming teary-eyed.
"Considering where he came from and all he's been through, it was the most impressive thing I've seen since I've been coaching," Barnes says. "I wish we could've bottled it up and taken it into the homes of all our recruits."
As positive of an effect as he's had on his teammates, James has also done wonders for his family – namely Katrina and Jerry, who are not married but remain close friends.
Katrina says that seeing Damion accomplish so much motivates her to set a good example for her other children. Jerry, meanwhile, has started his own clothing line (Grinders Club Alumni) and music label (Pham Entertainment).
His main focus, though, is attending as many of James' games as he can. Over the past few years he's put more than 200,000 miles on his late-model Expedition on trips to Austin with Katrina and Damion's blue pit bull, Ross.
Sometimes during those four-hour drives down Highway 7, Jerry says he reflects on his life and the effects his actions had on so many.
He says he thinks about the people who became addicts and the families that were torn apart because of his drug sales. He remembers the month-long stretches he spent in the "hole" during prison because of his involvement in a race riot. Most of all, though, he laments the time he lost – the time he'll never get back – with James and his five other sons.
"I feel guilty about all of it," Jerry says. "I feel terrible. But there's nothing I can do now but move forward. I love my sons dearly, and I'm doing my best to prove that. In some ways I feel like my life is just now starting."
In some ways – at least when it comes to his family – Damion James' life is just now starting, too.
"This is the one thing he always wanted, the thing he always talked about," says Skillern, the childhood friend. "He's finally got a good situation with his mother and father, and he's not going to let it go."
On Wednesday, after the Longhorns return from Wisconsin and their game against the Badgers, James will head to Nacogdoches to spend Christmas with his family.
As is usually the case when he drives his gray Chevy Tahoe that he says his dad purchased for him through the Eastwood Terrace housing projects, James knows children probably will run from their apartments, surround his vehicle and beg for autographs and Texas gear.
He's a hero in Nacogdoches – the oldest town in Texas – and he loves it.
Greg Roberts won the 1978 Outland Trophy at Oklahoma and, more recently, Delvin James played professional baseball for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
But never has Nacogdoches boasted a sports figure as high profile as James, who could become a multimillionaire in the next six months should he choose to leave school early and enter the NBA draft.
From the folks who work at Pilgrim's Pride to the regular customers who visit Katrina each day at Sonic, the entire town is buzzing about James.
"Who knows?" James says. "Maybe one day I'll go back and there will be a big sign that says: 'Welcome to Nacogdoches – Home of Damion James.' Then I could say I really made something of myself."
James is missing the point.
He already has.