It was Monday, March 12, 2018. I was in a hotel in Dallas, lying in bed when my phone rang at exactly 8:23 AM. My agent was on the line, yelling before I could even say hello.
“Damion, wake up man! I need you to get to Atlanta, son! You have your 10-day! They are arranging your flight right now!”
Then he just hung up. But it didn’t matter. That’s all he had to say. He knew I’d been waiting for that exact call for almost two years.
Right away, I wanted to call each of my family members and I wanted to thank them for their two years of support and believing in me when I told them this was only the beginning. I wanted to call Sydel, my fiancée, and I just wanted to take a minute and think about the things that I’ve gone through on the basketball court — the injuries and unforeseen circumstances I’ve faced — that have shaped so much of my life off the court.
Then my phone buzzed again. My agent sent me a screenshot of my itinerary. I had to be in Atlanta by six that night.
I had a game the next day. I’d have to do my reflecting on the drive to the airport.
November 27, 2013 — my junior year at Drexel. We were playing Arizona at Madison Square Garden. And we were just a small mid-major school playing the No. 1 team in the nation at the time. The whole team was buzzing before tipoff. And it was a helluva game — we were up until about 10 minutes left.
I was making a move to the basket when I felt a snap in my right knee.
I had to have surgery to repair my ACL. It was my first time ever having surgery, and the first time I’d ever had a season cut short. Throughout the whole process, there was always this uncertainty. Would I be able to get back to the player I was? The doubts would keep me up at night. For months it would be impossible to tell. I just had to be patient.
February 21, 2015 — Redshirt junior year at Drexel. We were playing at Northeastern. There were only a couple of games left until the conference tournament. A little over halfway through the the game I was driving to the hoop and somebody swatted the back of my hand when I was going up for a layup.
I ended up finishing the game with 30 points, but couldn’t stop thinking about my hand. The hurt wouldn’t go away. The trainer decided he wanted to do an X-ray.
I found out that I’d broken my shooting hand, and I needed another surgery. My faith in God never wavered, I figured that he had something bigger set out for me. And after coming back from that first ACL injury, I knew that I’d be able to work my way back.
Again, it was just going to take some time.
February 5, 2016 — I transferred to Louisville for my final eligible year of college basketball. Playing in front of 22,000 people every single home game was truly an amazing experience. Besides winning, my main goal was to stay healthy for an entire season and play in the NCAA tournament. And until February 5, everything was looking like it would work out. We had beaten No. 1 ranked UNC just three days earlier — a marquee win for us, and everyone was predicting a great seeding heading into the tournament.
Then on February 5, the university decided it was best for a self-imposed postseason ban. No snap. No swipe. No surgery. But just like that, my dream of playing in the tournament was dead.
And this time there were no more chances left.
December 23, 2016 — After going undrafted, I went to training camp with the Boston Celtics and signed with their D-League team, the Maine Red Claws.
Every single person in the D-League is there for the same reason. Everyone is chasing that dream to make it to the NBA. It’s an intense, cutthroat place to play. But I loved the grind. I worked out there every single day, and I think I demonstrated that on the court. I was playing some of the best basketball of my life in early December, and then:
It happened two days before Christmas. One week before 10-day contracts start up in the NBA. In the closing seconds before halftime, I tore my left ACL.
I was done. Again.
This time around, though, I knew everything I had to do. I knew every part of the mental challenge, the physical pain, the crutches, the therapy — they were all the same challenges from three years earlier. That didn’t mean that it was easier than before, but at least I knew I was more prepared. I knew God was testing my faith, and if this was something that I really wanted, I had to prove it. You tend to find out who is truly there for you when you go through a tough time. My family was completely supportive throughout this entire period, and so was Sydel and her family.
Other guys I had just played against weeks before were suddenly signing contracts and getting their opportunities to join NBA teams, while I was sitting at home, working as hard as I could to heal and get back on the court.
I still believed my chance would come. I told myself that all I had to do was not give up.
Once I was fully healthy, I played my next season in Santa Cruz, ready to prove myself all over again, one game at a time.
Playing basketball and waiting for the phone to ring.
Before I got on the plane to Atlanta, I called my mother. She’s a nurse, and had to take the call in the hallway, thinking I had some kind of serious emergency.
Listening to my mother cry that day, after I told her I got a contract with the Hawks and she realized that my dream of playing in the NBA was about to come true — it was something special. It’s such a strong feeling of relief after so many years of uncertainty.
After my mom, I called Sydel, and she was ecstatic for me, ready for me to embark on my new journey, seeing when she would be able to take off work to come to a game. Both my mom and Sydel have always believed in my ability, and they always told me it would just be a matter of hard work and perfect timing. And they were right.
The thing was, I couldn’t even think about any of it for too long, because I still had my first NBA game the very next day.
March 13, 2018 — I landed in Atlanta around six o’clock the night before, and I had to wake up around seven the next day to get over to the gym, officially sign my contract, then get ready for film/pregame prep with the coaches to go over some of the plays and through shootaround with the team.
I couldn’t take my pregame nap, I was running so many scenarios through my head of what was about to happen. I kept reminding myself that it’s just basketball, and all I had to do was go out and play hard. Everything else would take care of itself.
Approaching game time, I settled into my locker and just waited. The national anthem, starting lineups, then tipoff. First quarter goes by, and I’m waiting on the bench, cheering my teammates on, and staying locked into our game plan.
Coach Bud called my name for the first time in the second quarter. I’m finally checked into my first NBA game. And I was healthy. As soon as I stepped onto the court all my nervousness was gone. I had arrived, and I was going to enjoy every second of it.
It’s fun to look back and reflect a little sometimes — those moments, both good and bad, that make life worth living — but I’m not trying to get too wrapped up in the past. I had the opportunity to play in fifteen games for Atlanta last season. Of course I’ll always remember my first time checking in, my first points, the first time my mom and Sydel got to see my play, my first win. But I’m the kind of person that’s not going to be satisfied with just fifteen games. In the end, these memories are just reminders for what it took to get here and why it’s important to keep going.
The season ended on a strong note, we had a couple of good wins and Atlanta signed me to a contract for the rest of the season. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I am thankful that they believed in me to give me a chance. It’s funny how we look back on our lives and think about what makes us who we are. The ability to be resilient, persevere through the tough times, and believe in yourself. My mother always told me, since I was a young child, “God has a plan for you, he has a plan for your life.”
I’ve got a wedding coming up. A new basketball season is only a few months away. I know there’s a lot of work to be done. And I’m excited. It hasn’t been exactly what I planned, but it has worked out so far. I just really want to play basketball now. I want to start next season on an NBA roster and I want to win games.
But right now I just really want to play basketball.
My story is one that should inspire. I want whoever reads this to understand that it is not all about the beginning — about how things start off for you. The ride, the journey, is what is most important. You can apply all the trials and tribulations to anybody in life. This is where the small victories come into play. The war is never ending, but living your story, overcoming obstacles, is what will determine how your war has ended. Stay true to yourself and those around you, believe in yourself and your abilities.
One broken hand
One postseason ban
Two torn ACLs
Two years in the G-League
And it still only takes one phone call.
I promise that this is only the beginning for me. Stay true. No white flags. It’s the small victories that will win the war.