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Who’s Michael Jordan? Inside the hoops education of Philly’s Donta Scott

Once a shy kid coping with a learning disability, Scott found an outlet in basketball that helped him flourish.

Donta Scott averaged 11 points and 5.9 rebounds per game for Maryland last season.
Donta Scott averaged 11 points and 5.9 rebounds per game for Maryland last season.Read moreJulio Cortez / AP

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The waters already had risen. Donta Scott didn’t get the news right away. Scott’s mother doesn’t like bothering him with stuff — Stay focused on what you’re doing down there — even after the remnants of Hurricane Ida had poured into their rowhouse in Norristown, filled the basement where Donta kept sneakers and other reminders of a basketball career that now has him starting for a third straight season for the Maryland Terrapins.

“She didn’t let me know until a day or two later that they had to get out in boats,” Scott said, sitting after practice one day in College Park. “The basement was flooded, and the first floor, almost up to the second floor. My grandmom lived on the first floor.”

And the memories …

“The memories went out the window,’’ Scott said, “when I was just concerned about my family.”

Those memories, still right there, though. Scott actually has a little book of his own coming out, titled Wired Differently, about the importance of fighting for educational help, especially those with learning disabilities. Maybe read the title another way, too. Scott will say basketball saved him, except that suggests basketball was the active agent and Scott a passive recipient.

“I’ve been doing this so long, there have been so many great stories,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. “But this is one of the all-time great stories. Where he is now, and hopefully where he can end up.”

There were a number of Big Ten coaches who didn’t think this 6-foot-7 player from Imhotep Charter and the Philly Pride travel team program, while an obvious competitor, was quite a fit for their league.

“I didn’t like him,” Turgeon said. “I didn’t like him sophomore year. Then he hurt his knee or something. His people kept calling. ‘All right, I’ll keep watching, but I don’t see it yet.’ Then I was watching the summer before his senior year — one possession, he guarded like five guys. He still wasn’t a great shooter, but he had great size. OK, I’m all in.”

How about this combo: Scott, at basically the same height, went from playing point guard as a senior at powerhouse Imhotep to starting center two years later on a Power 5 team that reached the NCAA Tournament.

Playing Scott at center, having to guard the likes of Kofi Cockburn, that was unfair to him, Turgeon says right away, sitting in his office. “He’s a guard.” And Maryland has filled its holes, allowing Scott to play a more natural inside-out position. In reality, at 6-foot-7, he’s neither a point guard nor a center. “He’ll be a wing at the next level,” Turgeon said.

Converting skeptics is a Scott specialty. He includes himself in the group of initial skeptics.

“Oh, I’m into basketball now,” he said.

‘Didn’t talk at all’

Basketball used to mean zero to him.

“I was just quiet,” Scott said. “Some people would even say I was mute. Didn’t talk at all. … I would sit in my house, lay on the floor and look at the ceiling, think to myself. I didn’t do nothing. No after-school activities. I didn’t go outside. Just lay on the floor in my room and look at the ceiling.”

Resentment built up, he said. He’s honest about where it came from. At a young age, his father would come around, Scott said, but “as it went on, he didn’t come around. I would always be that angry kid. Just absorbing all that and holding it in, not talking about it. It was a lot of stuff that I just locked up.”

He was a little on the chubby side, Scott said, but it was his mother, Sandra, who would tell him, “I’m going to get you into basketball.”

First, an uncle started working with him. Then a man who really changed his life, maybe second on Scott’s list right after his mother. Howard Hudson was a travel-team coach. He’d stay with an age group over the years until through high school. “I was starting over, the young age group. Nine- and 10-year-olds,” Hudson said.

Someone brought Scott into the gym.

“Donta was so bad at basketball,” Hudson said. “He was just standing there. Someone said, ‘You can take him.’ He didn’t know anything about basketball at all. He didn’t have sneakers, had Nike boots. When we used to go to games, kids would tease him, show him pictures of Michael Jordan. He’d say, ‘Who’s that?’”

Hudson went to a 25-dollar store in Chester, got Scott some proper basketball shoes. Hudson’s cousin, Zain Shaw, was a Chester High great who went on to play at West Virginia. He got in the gym with Scott.

“He played in the Chester Biddy League,” Hudson said. “They all laughed at him. I put him in the game, he ran up the court, ran back to me, ‘You want me to play offense or defense?’”

Hudson teases Scott about it all now since NBA scouts will be evaluating where one of the more complete two-way players in college hoops might fit into their league.

“Coach Howard got me working just every day, no days off, no matter what,” Scott said.

Delgreco Wilson collaborated with Scott and Hudson on the book, aiming to be published this month by Wilson’s Black Cager Press. Wilson remembers Hudson telling him when Scott was in maybe seventh grade: “Del, he’s the one.”

The two men said they tried to find a school that had specialists working on learning disabilities. Wilson said Scott had been found to have a general reading disability that, to him, was as much a “life disability” that had put Scott some years behind on the reading level. “No foundation,” is the way Wilson put it.

Scott’s problems had been spotted earlier, going from home in West Philly to a school in the Northeast.

“Really strong sports but really strong special ed,” Wilson said of Imhotep.

Fatts Russell already was the star point guard at Imhotep, a couple of years ahead of Scott.

“Our coach told us we had a new freshman who was one of the top players in the country,” Russell said. “He walks in, he was all awkward. You could tell he wasn’t grown into his body yet. He comes in just shooting half-court shots — he’s chucking it up. I was trying to work out. He was kind of disrupting the workout.”

You sure that’s the guy? That kind of thing?

“Yeah, that’s what it was,” Russell said.

That kid who used to stare at the ceiling? He’d found an outlet. Philly Pride founder Kamal Yard remembers an out-of-town trip, sharing a room with several of the players. About 2 a.m., Yard woke up and looked over at Donta, away from his bed, working with a basketball in the dark room. Not dribbling it — that would make too much sound. Just ballhandling stuff.

The clouds began lifting. Imhotep’s coach, Andre Noble, is high on the list of people Scott learned to trust. Scott determined he’d think less about things he didn’t have in his life. That, he said, allowed him to let other people in who could help him.

‘These are my guys’

A ballplayer in need of some refining?

“These are my guys,” said Terps assistant Matt Brady, who has done previous stints at St. Joseph’s and La Salle, in addition to stints as head coach at Marist and James Madison. “These are the guys I’ve had an impact on, that are missing one skill set. If he could do this better, this one skill set, it unlocks great potential.”

Brady had been that guy at St. Joe’s for Delonte West, for instance. The Philly guys, Hudson and Wilson, were on Brady.

“Howard, while he was being recruited, asked all the time, ‘Can you change him? Can you change him?’” Brady said. “His freshman year, like a lot of guys, he was not interested in changing.”

That’s the norm, Brady said. Their skills got them to this level. Right away, you want me to change? Then players struggle a bit putting the ball in the basket as freshmen. They’re more open to it. There’s work involved.

“Donta ducked him for a long time,” Hudson said. “I’m on Matt, told him, ‘I sent him because you were there!’”

A total overhaul wasn’t required, more bringing Scott’s release point a bit lower.

“I’m a huge believer in low release point,” Brady said, which helps keep elbows from flying around, allowing for a more fluid and quicker release. You watch Scott taking three-pointers now, it’s all fluid. Scott had put in the work, first with Brady, then back home during the pandemic, getting into a gym with Hudson.

“At first, he was a jack of all trades, but he was a little bit careless with everything he did, whether it was dribbling or passing or shooting,” Turgeon said. “He’s tightened that up. He’s become a much more efficient kind of guy. He’s figured it out. His first year, he practiced [hard] like once every four days. Last year, he was about every other day.

“Now, if we practice five days in a week, sometimes he’s 5-for-5 now. That’s what I’ve been on him about the most. He’s matured. He came in shape. Normally in August, he’d go home and put on a few pounds. He came back the exact same weight he left at.”

From Scott’s perspective, it wasn’t always that he was floating.

“Sometimes they felt like I was just going through the flow,” Scott said. “It was probably just like my body was wearing down on me, guarding the bigs.”

Could Turgeon get many words out of Scott when he first showed up?

“No, but he was like a 4-year-old kid,” Turgeon said. “When he did speak, he told the truth. He would tell you some things you didn’t want to hear sometimes.”

And now …

“It’s amazing,” Turgeon said. “He’s taken all [the leadership] over and he says all the right things. And he goes at guys. ‘Hey, when Coach tells you to do something, you do it.’ … He’s got their respect. And he’s fully committed now. Because he’s fully committed, they listen.”

Mom saw it first

Scott dedicated his book to his mother.

“My mom always saw my potential,” he said right away after a Terps practice.

The book was designed to note that his problems are common ones, that 8% to 10% of students have some type of learning disability. The book was designed for that population.

“I realized that I am smart, but I receive and process information differently than many other people,” Scott wrote, explaining that he let go of his initial goal of playing in the Philadelphia Catholic League because his mentors focused on finding the school with the proper resources.

“In the classroom, I’m doing well,” Scott wrote. “Although it’s not easy, I am on pace to graduate on time. I’ve come to understand and appreciate the importance of intervention. I want young students that learn differently to do well and achieve academically with proper accommodations in place.”

The 32-page book, put together with Wilson and Hudson, lists what parents should look for in diagnosing disabilities, from difficulty understanding the concept of time to easily losing or misplacing homework.

The book makes it clear how successful Scott is at basketball, but the book isn’t really about the game at all.

‘He has a beard now’

Maryland was ranked 21st in the preseason Associated Press poll. That might put the Terrapins a little under the radar, with Scott and fellow starters Eric Ayala (from Wilmington) and Hakim Hart (from Roman Catholic High), and a couple of high-profile transfers. Russell, Scott’s old Imhotep point guard, came in from Rhode Island, and center Qudus Wahab transferred from Georgetown. Holes have been filled.

“He’s a grown man now,” Russell said of Scott. “He’s grown into his body. He has a beard now.”

He has a voice.

“It’s Donta’s voice now,” Turgeon said of that dynamic. “Four years ago was different.”

“I’m always the guy looking toward the next possible thing to make the team better,” Scott said. “Fatts said he sees that, that he’ll fill in where he’s needed.”

Late in the practice, Russell and Scott pressed an advantage on a fast break. It looked like two points, except Scott didn’t catch Russell’s bounce pass cleanly. Two points missed. The two Imhotep graduates got together.

“Basically, I was telling him — he knows I can jump,” Scott said. “He tried to give me, like, the quick bounce so I could [then] go up. I was telling him, if anybody has their hands down or on their sides — their hands not up trying to contest the shot — throw that to the rim and I’m going to go get it and I’m going to dunk it.”

And what was Russell saying?

“He was like, ‘It hit your hands, you’ve still got to catch it.’”

Two Philly guys, both allowed to be right, and to point that out. Scott doesn’t leave his home too far behind.

“Coming from Philly, you go to other places, you always have that idea of thinking quick on your feet,” Scott said. “And the toughness part.”

There’s another part, he added, how communities come together in times of need, like how a GoFundMe campaign for Scott’s family initiated by Maryland basketball set a goal of raising $50,000 and within days it reached $59,863.

He knows the waters will rise, and also that boats will show up. He’s prepared to be the guy driving the boat.