They all call him unselfish, one by one, almost as if prodding him to reverse course.
Shoot the ball more, they implore — coach, mom and dad. Take it to the rack.
But Davonte Eason is naturally giving, a smooth four, all talent and potential, an untapped resource. For a coach like Matt Vargas, and a school like Tohono-O’odham Community College in Sells, he’s a blue-chipper: half-Navajo, with a heart for the community and a relatively clean canvas after four head coaches in four years.
He’s averaging 11.1 points as a freshman for the Jegos, and that’s with plenty of room to grow, his coach believes.
Some games, he’ll score 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting, or 24 like he did early this year, and 16 or 14 regularly. Others, he’ll score five points on five attempts, disappearing into the flow of a game.
If only he’d be more selfish.
But it’s not in him.
How could it be?
As much as this is a story about Davonte Eason and his hoop dreams, it is a story about Devon Eason and his forgotten ones.
The rearview mirror can look mighty small if you let it. But Devon Eason has put his basketball past behind him, or most of it.
Google the name, and you’re in for a quick reminder.
Eason was rated one of the top juniors in the country in 1994. He scored more than 1,600 career points for Rincon High School. Averaged better than 20 points per game as a senior. In Tucson, which has produced scarce Division I basketball talent, he’s a name.
And he was headed that way.
First, though, a stint at Northland Pioneer College in Holbrook, to shore up his academics.
It was there he met Ramona Thompson, a member of the women’s basketball team. He was a finesse two-guard with a shot; she was a 5-7 power forward who could rebound with the best of them. They started dating, and it got serious. On July 20, 1996, Davonte came along.
Devon was at a crossroads. The dream before was as simple as 1-2-3: JC, four-year college, NBA. He’d been watching UNLV for years — this was right after the Runnin’ Rebels best run — and Michael Jordan, too. That was his hero, and this was the path, until things changed.
He made a decision. Instead of being a stop-and-pop shooter, he’d just be Pop. He’d seen too many friends ignore their responsibility, and with two stable parents who’ve been together for decades, he had good role models. Out with the high tops, in with the pacifiers.
Dick Vitale has a name for the best young players in the country — “Diaper Dandies” — and that’s exactly what Devon became.
He says now it wasn’t a tortuous decision, but he’s played the mind game sometimes.
“It affected him in more ways than he’s really even able to digest,” Ramona said. “I know he knows he could’ve gone on to the next level, whether it was overseas — maybe not the NBA. He definitely had the talent, he was well-known. But I think he had his mind made up that most importantly, he wanted to be a father to Davonte. It was a little of both, an easy decision and a hard decision. You’re always going to ask yourself, ‘What if?’”
At this point, we know the story can veer one of two ways. Devon could have taken the very basketball he gave up and put it in little Davonte’s crib, asking him to take up dribbling while his mouth still was.
Instead, Devon and Ramona made a conscious decision not to flood their son’s athletic engine.
Davonte didn’t even start playing basketball until junior high, didn’t start club ball until eighth grade. He had the size and the raw ability, but he’d need a coach to teach him the fundamentals. Devon had work — he works for KE&G Construction while Ramona works in the Pima College Police Department — and more importantly, he didn’t want to be the only voice in his son’s head.
“I didn’t want to force anything on them, for them to have to live up to what I was,” Devon said. “The way the game is going, it’s a lot more difficult now. It’s not the same as when I was playing. I didn’t want them to compare themselves to me.”
Devon hoped Davonte would get the same kind of coaching he did at Rincon under long-time coach Rich Utter, but it wasn’t to be. Davonte transferred from Sahuaro High School to Tucson High after his freshman year. There were issues with teachers and an altercation at a local McDonald’s with another group — a misunderstanding over a girl led another boy to pull a gun on Davonte and his teammates. While Davonte was quickly promoted to the Tucson varsity team, he ended up playing for three different head coaches.
That’s how Davonte ended up at TOCC, with Vargas.
“I just want my son to be coached right,” Devon said. “He has the talent, but you have to put it in him. The one-on-one time. Vargas, he has that, and he’s on him all the time, and I like that.”
Vargas, in turn, wanted Eason after discovering him at the Native American Basketball Invitational.
In Vargas’ orbit, Eason is a can’t-miss kid.
Tohono O’odham Community College reeling in a Native American power forward with natural athleticism is like Harvard signing a point guard who has handles on both the ball and Chemistry 161: Statistical Thermodynamics.
“How important is it to find someone who’s not only good but also Native? Let me say, we’ve hit the goldmine with him,” Vargas said. “The beauty of getting him, having him be so driven, successful on the court and classroom — it’s a golden nugget.”
Davonte, in turn, has mined his opportunity at TOCC and come up with a future. He’d love to pursue basketball at the next level, but more and more, he seems himself coming back to the O’odham nation, bringing with him an education and eyeballs. He wants to host a basketball camp, wants to help convince other Native American players that college, and basketball, could be in their future.
“I can really see myself coming back, I can actually see myself coming back after I graduate,” Davonte said. “That’s one of the first things I want to do. I want to let people know anything is possible.”
This is music to Ramona’s ears. Ramona grew up on a reservation 60 miles east of Flagstaff, where the nearest store was a 15-mile drive away. She had no running water, no electricity. Ramona woke up and rode the bus 40 miles one way for boarding school. High school was a 55-mile trip, one way.
She speaks Navajo to her sons — particularly when they’ve done something to upset her — and she often laments to her sons that they should appreciate their modern lives, as they’ve only known city life.
That makes Davonte’s decision to attend TOCC even more significant.
“Kids on the rez, they don’t want to go rez-to-rez, and here’s a city kid who’s Native, who’s like, ‘I’ll go,’ and he comes to the rez?” Vargas said. “Because he’s willing to trust, he’s been to California, Utah, Boston, Providence, he’s playing in a great conference, played seven ranked teams this year. What a great experience, all because he’s willing.”
Ramona, who is Navajo, says that the Tohono-O’odham community has embraced her family and her son, and that is no surprise to Vargas.
“The community really appreciates and understands it,” he said. “Whether you’re black, white, brown or purple, whether you’re Navajo, Choctaw, T-O or Apache, if you’re a Jego, you’re a Jego, and that’s the mentality of everybody out there.”
There is no flood of memories when Ramona and Devon attend a Jegos game. They travel to most of them, and this is not an attempt to reclaim faded glory, but pure celebration of their offspring.
And yet, every so often, she sees it.
“I pointed it out his sophomore year: ‘Devon, he plays just like you!’ ” Ramona said. “‘He even looks just like you!’ His dad didn’t see it. I told him, I see you in him. He’s got that twinkle in his eye. They have that natural talent.”
It doesn’t stop with Davonte, you see. There is Deondre, a senior at Tucson High who is averaging almost 20 points per game. Dwayne, 16, is coming down the pike.
The talent pool is deep in this family.
Of course it is, the progeny of Devon Eason.
But wait! It’s not just Devon. Don’t forget, Ramona played a mean power forward in her day.
“I watched her play two times,” Devon said. “Every time we had a game, they had a game. When she played, she’s kinda short, but she was playing the four. She was dirty! She could get rebounds, and that surprised me. I’d never seen a girl really play like that.”
“I was definitely a power forward,” Ramona adds. “I threw my elbows, I boxed out. My husband would always tell the boys, ‘Your mom is a better rebounder than you guys are!’ He’s there to back up my story.”
They’ve got their own starting five here, now that all the boys are playing, and growing.
“We go at it here at the house,” Devon said. “But even if they win, they still get teaching. There is always someone else getting better. Their friends are like, ‘You gonna get yelled at?’ But I love the game. I respect it so much. With these kids, they don’t understand, if you’re gonna play this game, you gotta play it to the fullest. If you cheat it, it’s going to cheat you. I’m just so in love with the game.”
Still, after all these years. Even after giving it up two decades ago.
There was something he loved more, it turned out.