The ball bounced high off the back of the rim.
Below, amid the usual mayhem of bodies colliding to gain position, elbows flying and outstretched hands fighting each other off, Deshawn Delaney rose up.
On this early October afternoon practice, the 6-foot-5 University of New Mexico senior guard floated through the chaos well above his teammates, even eight inches taller than he, to grab the offensive rebound.
Then, with his feet returning to the floor below long enough only to briefly satisfy gravity, he was gone again. Delaney instantly sprung back toward the sky, navigating his way through the big-bodied turmoil around him to throw down a seemingly effortless dunk.
When it was over, as several of the nine new players on the Lobos roster were trying not to get caught with raised eyebrows and dropped jaws, there was no reaction from Delaney.
No trash talk. No yell. No chest thump.
For the 22-year-old from one of the country’s most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods, delicately navigating his way through trouble and rising above the challenges around him is nothing new.
And while the young father would much rather remain out of the spotlight, quietly using basketball as his tool to rescue his 4-year-old son back in Chicago from the same environment he was brought up in, Delaney might not have that luxury much longer.
In the absence of departed stars Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow, the high-flying, athletic former junior college All-American who started 23 games for the Lobos last season will shoulder a much larger burden of responsibility this season – if the team is to fulfill its promise of competing for another Mountain West Conference championship.
“Everyone out there in Albuquerque is getting ready to see a lot more of a real special kid this season,” said Johnnail Evans, Delaney’s former high school coach and mentor who has coached several NBA players in his 34 years of coaching.
“I guarantee you that they’re going to like what they see. Deshawn can play the game with anyone. People are about to see something real special.”
The Altgeld Gardens projects, a 190-acre Chicago Housing Authority development on the city’s south side, is surrounded by landfills and factories and known for gang violence, frequent shootings and an abnormally high occurrence of cancer among its residents.
It’s also produced plenty of NBA basketball talent through the years, including the likes of former UTEP star Tim Hardaway.
But violence and murder far outweigh the basketball successes as the stories of Altgeld Gardens. Delaney, by his count, had “at least 10” of his friends – not merely acquaintances or classmates – shot and killed on the same streets he walked to school each morning.
“Basically everyday you have to wake up and pray to God happy you’re alive,” Delaney said. “In my neighborhood, not everybody gets to see tomorrow.”
It’s a world his mother wishes he never had to be a part of and one to which Delaney hopes never to return.
“Yeah, I worried a lot about him because of the violence we have here – the gang banging,” said his mom, Tracy Brooks. “It’s everywhere. I just prayed. I would always tell him, ‘If you hear gunshots, just hit the floor. Don’t run. Hit the floor.’ ”
The guidance of his mother, who says Delaney gets his shyness from her, is what the Lobo senior says helped survive his surroundings more than anything else.
“I grew up without a father,” Delaney said. “My mom (Tracy Brooks) raised me on her own. She taught me everything I know. She taught me to be a man.”
Delaney, the only one of six siblings to get a high school diploma (his youngest sister is still in high school), stayed out of major trouble. But he wasn’t exactly headed up a path of overcoming his surroundings, either. On the brink of failing out of Carver Military Academy as a junior in 2010, where “me and school didn’t exactly get along,” Delaney said, he found out he and his girlfriend were expecting a child.
The thought of his son growing up in the same environment he endured was enough to change everything.
Delaney went to Evans, saying he wanted to do whatever it took to be there for his son. Evans, once a teen father himself while growing up in Altgeld Gardens and playing basketball at Carver, gave Delaney a harsh piece of advice on what it might take.
“It was imperative that he got away,” Evans said. “If he wouldn’t have gotten away, Deshawn probably would have got involved – got caught up in the system out here. He’s too good of a person, too good of a ballplayer to get caught up in that situation.”
For Deshawn Delaney to be there for his son, he first had to leave him.
Back to school
The plan started not with basketball, but schoolwork.
“Those were the things I had to get him to understand,” said Evans, who went so far as to drag Delaney out of bed some mornings to get him to school. “I had to go an extra mile as far as pushing him to get him to understand this is the right way to go.”
While Brooks, a single mother, often worked multiple jobs to keep her family afloat, Evans did what he could to make sure Delaney kept his focus on not only graduating from high school, but going away to college.
Delaney averaged 25 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots per game as a senior at Carver. He became a high school graduate, but concerns about his academics kept him off the recruiting radars of larger schools.
With the support of his girlfriend, the mother of Deshawn Jr., Delaney decided to attend Vincennes University in Indiana where he was a two-time junior college All-American.
“It was very hard not seeing him every day. Still is,” Delaney said of his son. “But this is my way of feeding him and providing for him. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Delaney declined to discuss his current relationship status with the mother of his son for this article.
He committed to UNM shortly after Craig Neal was named head coach in the spring of 2013, though getting to Albuquerque wasn’t easy.
While his new Lobo teammates were arriving on campus in June 2013, Delaney was stuck in Indiana, scrambling to finish coursework to be accepted at UNM. As those Lobos boarded a flight to Australia for a three-game exhibition tour of bonding and learning the team’s system, Delaney was finishing up term papers and tests.
“It was a big struggle,” Delaney recalls. “I was stressing hard about not being able to ever get here, thinking I wasn’t going to make it.”
And when he finally did finish at Vincennes, he realized a new set of struggles awaited in Albuquerque.
Delaney had been a starter on every basketball team he can remember playing on. Not only that, he was the guy plays were drawn up for and the offense was centered around.
When he arrived at UNM, none of that happened.
“What hurt him a lot was not being here in the summer,” Neal said. “It wasn’t just that he got a late start learning the system, all the plays, where to be on defense. He just wasn’t in great shape. He wasn’t ready.”
Instead, sophomore Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas was named the fifth starter on a UNM squad led by four other returning veteran starters who grabbed all the attention.
What was only supposed to be a matter of time stretched into a few games of Delaney sitting on the bench.
Then a few more.
Ten games into last season, Delaney not only wasn’t a starter, he wasn’t even playing many minutes in a reserve role (he averaged just 10 minutes per game off the bench).
“I was depressed when I wasn’t playing, but it wasn’t nobody’s fault but mine,” Delaney said. “I was coming to a new system. I was lost. I had to pay the price for that.”
Neal said he told Delaney to be patient, that “his time was coming.” And the first-year coach said he appreciated Delaney never allowing his frustrations to show in practice or affect the team.
But it wasn’t always easy for Delaney.
“I talked to him every day about it,” Evans said. “He wasn’t used to sitting on the bench. It was almost to the point where he was thinking about transferring, leaving, coming back home. I told him to just be patient. It’s going to come.”
Between Neal, Evans and even Thomas, who often worked with him to get him up to speed while knowing they were battling for the same starting position, Delaney stuck it out.
On Dec. 21 in Las Vegas, Nev., Delaney was inserted into the starting lineup against Marquette. He scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Lobos’ MGM Showcase win. With the exception of Senior Night later in the season, when he stepped aside for four-year walk-on Chris Perez, Delaney never relinquished his starting role again.
And while things were starting to fall into place on the court, the guy who said he and school never really got along found himself embracing the support resources the athletic department offers.
At season’s end, Delaney was named to the Mountain West Conference’s All-Academic team.
Entering his senior season, Delaney knows he is now being looked at as a leader, albeit a quiet one. He’s fast. He can jump like few others can. He’s a high-level perimeter defender. He has steadily improved his jump shot.
And with a run-and-gun offense no longer geared toward taking advantage of big men like Kirk and Bairstow in the middle, some think Delaney could elevate his game to all-league consideration.
But his expectations don’t deal with personal accolades.
“We’re the champs,” he said. (UNM won the MWC Tournament championship in March.) “We’re going to come out and play like champs and defend our title and then hopefully get far in the NCAA Tournament. We’re still trying to go farther.”
Neal says Delaney can “be one of the best offensive rebounding guards in the country” and will have every opportunity to showcase his skills this season.
“We’ll need him to,” Neal said.
Point of no return
When his swan song in college basketball is complete next spring, Delaney hopes a professional playing opportunity presents itself. But if it doesn’t, with degree in hand, he still plans to use basketball to finish the journey he started in 2010.
“I want to be a coach one day,” Delaney said. “I want to coach my son, one day like Craig Neal is with Cullen Neal. I want that.
“I love seeing it. Everyday I tell Cullen he’s blessed to have that – to have a father like that. Not too many people have a dad like that. He’s got support. His dad cares about him. Even when his dad gets on him, I tell him to just take it. If he didn’t care about you, there’d be none of that.”
Frequent Facetime video calls back home and all-too-infrequent visits aren’t enough for Delaney. He longs for the day he gets to be with his son all the time, safe and together.
“Hopefully I don’t go back to Chicago, ever,” Delaney said. “I just want to move my mom and my son out of there.”
Brooks said she’s proud to see her son getting so close to accomplishing his goals. And although it was kids like Delaney who Evans said “kept me going” through the years coaching in the inner city of Chicago, he has no great desire to see his former star.
“I’m excited that he’s not around,” Evans said. “I miss him, but I’m so happy that he’s away from this. If he gets a chance to go to the next level and take his mother and his son and go do his thing and get them away from this environment, I would love to not ever see him around here again.”