The life of Auburn Riverside's Derek Brown has changed for the better because of a coach's determination to exert the same positive influence he received years before.
Derek Brown quietly walked into Auburn Riverside’s gym last summer preceded by a swirl of hype.
Friends and basketball players who knew Derek had slipped first-year Riverside coach Jason Brown reports on the high school team’s new transfer. He attacks the basket like a madman. He can shoot. He’s going to take somebody’s spot.
“Of course,” Jason says now, “you always have to take that with a grain of salt.”
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Jason had yet to see the mysterious transfer who spent much of the previous year on Beamer’s bench. All he knew was hearsay: Derek could play and his mom died the year before, leaving him to move in with his sister in the Riverside boundary.
Derek, a 5-foot-11 junior, stepped into Riverside’s gym for the first time during a scrimmage in the summer. Jason approached Derek in the corner and stuck out his hand.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked.
“Yeah, I do,” Derek said.
“I do too. And I believe everything happens for a reason, and it’s not by accident that we’re meeting each other today. I heard about your mom.”
Derek looked up from tying his shoes.
“How did she pass away?” Jason said.
And Derek told him, on the first day they met, that his mom died from a drug overdose during his freshman year.
Jason went home and prayed for his newest player.
A coach’s influence
Before he went to bed that summer night, Jason Brown asked God a question.
How will you use me to influence or be there for Derek?
He’s still searching for the answer, but he believes he’s in this situation for a reason. He believes history may be repeating itself. And he believes, most important, in a coach’s influence because he lived it.
Twenty years ago, Jason was the high-school basketball player without direction. His mom battled drug problems, and his life teetered on a fence. It wasn’t hard for those who knew him to picture him in prison.
He harbored an anger that often erupted in fights, including one before an important game late in the season that cost him from playing on his Senior Night. At home, he didn’t get along with his mom or her boyfriends.
Once, after he found white powder under his mom’s bed, he hid the drugs. She told him to leave. He was in seventh grade and bounced between friends willing to take him in. When he returned to his mom’s shortly before his sophomore year at Jefferson, old wounds hadn’t healed.
Not long after he moved back in, his mom kicked him out again, this time for good.
Jason showed up to a football game in street clothes that night and explained to his coach why he wasn’t in pads. Sean O’Laughlin, another player on the team, invited Jason to stay at his parents’ house.
And that’s when his life slowly gained shape.
In the O’Laughlins, Jason found everything that had been missing. When he was sick, Mrs. O’Laughlin rubbed his back and made soup. When he was old enough, Mr. O’Laughlin taught him how to change spark plugs.
He ate sit-down dinners. He traveled with the O’Laughlins to the Rose Bowl and observed how a family lived together. His angels, he calls them.
“My wife asked me, ‘How did you know how to treat a woman?’ ” Jason says. “It’s because I watched the O’Laughlins.”
During those years, another man entered Jason’s life. His name was David Hunter, and he coached basketball at Jefferson. Jason averaged more than 20 points as a senior, but Hunter took him under his wing for another reason.
Without any kids of his own, Hunter saw Jason’s unstable upbringing and offered guidance. It was Hunter who gave Jason rides, who invited him to church for the first time and who made Jason want to coach and teach.
“I needed a son,” Hunter said, “and he needed a father.”
Years later, in his math classes, Hunter used Jason as a success story for students coming from similar backgrounds. Jason, in turn, wants his five kids to call the 61-year-old retiree Grandpa Hunter.
“This is about carrying on Mr. Hunter’s legacy,” Jason says. “God put me and Mr. Hunter together, and I’m starting to see at the beginning of this relationship with Derek that God is putting me and him together.”
“Pain that he’s hiding”
Derek never played well when his mom came to games.
“She would try to coach me,” he says, smiling. “It’s funny because I just couldn’t do it.”
Derek’s history with his mom, Talitha Bible, is equally complicated.
He was a part of child-protective services after he and his mom were involved in an altercation, yet he says they were best friends. His coaches talk about how often he smiles, yet he also has an explosive fuse. He’s a child from a troubled background, yet he doesn’t see that background as particularly troubling.
“When you look deep in his eyes,” Jason says, “you can see there’s pain that he’s hiding.”
On the basketball court, Derek quickly hinted at a promising future. He made varsity as a freshman at Beamer and scored 19 points in a three-point loss against Puyallup in 2011.
At home, Derek and his five brothers and sisters knew their mom had demons. They could tell when she was “on one” and didn’t always listen. “When she was like that,” he says, “we took her as a joke.”
Growing up, Derek watched a classmate lose his mom and prepared for how he would react if the same happened to him. “I was just trying to think ahead,” he says now.
One night in January 2011, Derek picked up his older sister, Shatoya, from work and decided to sleep at her apartment. The next morning, he awoke to yelling. He thought Shatoya was arguing with her boyfriend. Then Derek heard someone mention his mom and jumped out of bed.
By the time they arrived at her house, the ambulance was already there. Derek and his siblings watched as paramedics wheeled their mom out in a body bag. It was Jan. 20, 2011. Talitha D. Bible was 43.
Derek still isn’t sure what prescription drugs were found beside her bed.
“Could have scored 60″
Derek is an unabashed gunner, with a quick trigger. He’s averaging 21.9 points this season, good enough for top 10 in the area.
But in his biggest game, against Kentridge in early December, Derek started modestly. He tried to get his teammates involved more than he created for himself. He had 12 points at halftime.
Late in the game, he erupted. He hit four three-pointers in the fourth quarter. He attacked the basket. His only flaw, other than some turnovers, came at the free-throw line, where he went 11 for 18.
“Really,” Jason says, “he could have scored 60.”
He settled for 49. After the game, he thought about his mom and all the points he scored. He remembered seeing Chris Paul score 61 points as a high-school senior in honor of his grandfather, who was murdered at age 61. Derek wondered if he could do something similar for his mom, who died at 43.
“That just happened to be the game,” he said.
The same night, after his team’s eight-point defeat, Derek called Jason, as he does after every loss. The two are still navigating their relationship, but progress has been made.
Before this season, Shatoya told Derek he couldn’t play basketball anymore. He and his brother got in a fight, and Derek was acting out at home. So Shatoya called Jason.
“Coach Brown,” she said, “we’re having a family meeting so everyone can get out what they’re feeling.”
In Shatoya’s eyes, Derek’s behavior started improving. Now, Jason is pushing hard to get Derek noticed by college recruiters. Derek wants to make it desperately. Has to, he says.
At his mother’s funeral two years ago, Derek looked down at the casket, at his mom beneath him, and made a promise he’s trying hard to keep.
“I’m going to make it, Mom.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org