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Archive for Saturday, July 22, 2000

Stevenson follows dad’s dream to NBA

July 22, 2000

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— DeShawn Stevenson, who went straight from high school to the NBA, is chasing a goal his dad never reached.

The life ambition of his father, Darryl C. Stevenson, a standout in basketball and football, remains forever frozen on a page of his 1980 class yearbook: "Pro player."

For Darryl Stevenson, the dream was derailed by mental illness and a life of crime that would see him dying in prison, where he was serving time for murdering his own mother.

A generation later, DeShawn impressed scouts at the same school where his father had played, in this tiny unincorporated farm town south of Fresno. On July 14, he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth up to $2.67 million.

Elusive and reserved, DeShawn wouldn't talk about his father at the Jazz summer camp in Utah. Tainted by questions about a surprising jump in his SAT scores and a draft-day high school brawl, he has avoided reporters.

"I really can't say nothing about him," the 19-year-old said. "I never knew him."

Others, however, were not so hesitant.

Darryl Stevenson was a "raw talent" with a lot of potential but not a good student, said John Pestorich, his former coach and now principal at Washington Union High School.

The father, a rugged rebounder with a decent inside shot, never saw the scouts. He couldn't refine his game in the clinics and summer leagues where his son stood out.

"Those weren't available to Darryl," said Pestorich. "Darryl was a way-above-average player but he never had the opportunity to have the exposure or experience."

Three weeks before graduation, Darryl Stevenson dropped out of school. He found work as a maintenance man. Darryl DeShawn Stevenson was born on April 3, 1981.

By all accounts, Darryl played no role in rearing his son. DeShawn's mother, Genice Popps, raised him alone.

"His mom has been his mother and father until (his stepfather) came into the picture," said Vonn Webb, DeShawn's coach since seventh grade.

DeShawn's parents never married, although when the boy was 3, his father signed a court order agreeing he had a duty to support his son. Being unemployed, in and out of psychiatric hospitals and facing criminal charges at the time, it's unlikely he ever made any payments.

A year after DeShawn's birth, Darryl Stevenson was hospitalized for threatening family members, allegedly attacking his brother with a butcher knife.

Two months after being released from a Fresno County mental health facility, Darryl Stevenson held up a gas station with an accomplice who held a knife to a woman's throat.

His mother, Clara Stevenson, begged a judge to reduce the bail for the youngest of her seven kids, saying he was sorry and had made a mistake.

"I just don't think that it would be done again. I really don't," she said.

She told doctors that Darryl, at about the age of 18, had said to her, "Something is wrong with me, mother." He complained of hallucinations and began displaying destructive behavior, at one point smashing his trophies.

Darryl was found incompetent to stand trial and wound up in Atascadero State Hospital. Psychiatrists diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic.

"He continues to hold grandiose beliefs such as being selected for a professional football contract," a doctor noted.

He eventually was placed on probation, but arrested again for kidnapping a woman in 1985 and jailed in April 1986.

His mother was there to bring him home when he was paroled in October 1992.

Eight months later, on July 3, 1993, as the two argued over money, Darryl Stevenson strangled her. Police caught him the next day, high on cocaine, cruising in her car.

Stevenson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1995. He was given the maximum punishment 15 years to life in prison.

DeShawn, meanwhile, was blossoming as standout basketball player.

When Webb went to coach at Washington Union, DeShawn, who lives in Fresno, established residency in Easton with godparents so he could play at the same school where his father played.

"I don't know if there's a coincidence or any tie to the school emotionally, but I'd say it was mostly due to coach Webb," Pestorich said.

He played varsity as a freshman and traveled in a summer league.

College recruiters came to the farm town to see him play. In his junior year, DeShawn led the Division III team to a state championship.

After the 6-foot-5 shooting guard committed to play for Kansas, coach Roy Williams called him his most gifted recruit ever.

DeShawn averaged 30.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists a game his senior year. He led the West to a 146-120 win in the McDonald's All- America high school game in March with a game-high 25 points. He also won the slam-dunk crown.

DeShawn flirted with skipping college and declaring his eligibility to go pro, a decision that upset his mother.

"This is dividing my family apart," Genice Popps told The Fresno Bee in May. "This is reality that something like this can come between a son and his mother. It's sad."

Others, including Webb, thought he should go pro.

"It's all about money once you get to that level," Webb said. "If someone's going to pick you in the first round, that's a no-brainer."

DeShawn spent weeks taking an SAT prep class and working with a private tutor before he went to Kansas.

The Jayhawks lost their future star when a surprisingly impressive jump in his SAT score caught the attention of the Educational Testing Service, which "red-flagged" it, making him temporarily ineligible to play.

DeShawn could have appealed and explained how he had managed to improve his score from 450 as a sophomore to 1,150 as a senior. Or he could have retaken it in hopes of scoring the NCAA minimum of 820.

Instead, DeShawn decided to go pro.

The Jazz picked him in the first round of last month's NBA draft, 23rd overall.

But his celebration was short-lived.

That night, Stevenson was signing autographs as a spectator at a high school all-star game when a melee broke out and he reportedly threw punches. He said he was jumped from behind.

Prosecutors haven't decided whether to pursue charges against him.

On the advice of his lawyer, agent and former coach, Stevenson is not talking. He has refused to speak to the police.

"I really can't say nothing about that," he said Monday. "I hired a lawyer to handle all that stuff."

In his middle-class neighborhood of tract homes dominated by groomed lawns, palm trees and basketball hoops DeShawn is regarded as a celebrity, but still plays ball with the kids.

Neighbor Jackie Livaudais describes him as a "very good kid," a "very nice boy" and "very polite."

On a recent afternoon, the doors to the Washington Union gymnasium were open and DeShawn was schooling former teammates and eager youngsters in one-on-one matches of a game called "cutthroat."

Each time he scored, a player would leave the floor and another would try to dethrone him.

"Somebody's got to do something because no one has a hand in his face," Webb yelled. "No one's making him work."

DeShawn was in his element, dribbling behind his back and teasing challenger David James, a tenacious 12-year-old who is a foot shorter.

"I've known him for so long and he went to the NBA, and that's what I want to do, just like him," James said.

As Stevenson enters the NBA, he carries with him not just the hopes and dreams of his community, but of his father.

Darryl Stevenson died in Corcoran State Prison of lung cancer at age 36 last year. Tattooed on his chest was one word: "DeShawn."

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