NEW YORK — The apartment upstairs, padlocked. Isiah Deas had been home alone when they came to evict his family, whose finances had gone downhill after his mother left.
The basketball court out the back door in Brooklyn’s Starrett City, that was his home court. He and his father had painted the lines, Deas said, put up new rims. For the La Salle University senior, ready to start his last season playing for the Explorers, this spot, where he had honed his game all those hours, became something far more. Many nights before he got to La Salle, Deas said the court was home.
“I would get a hoodie …”
Deas mimicked putting the hoodie up over his head.
“Basketball behind my head …”
The ball as his pillow.
“Just go to sleep,’’ Deas said.
Deas suggested that he felt safe there, even overnight. Anywhere outside his neighborhood, he could get hurt.
This was the summer before his senior year of high school and through his senior year into the next summer.
“I spent a lot of nights there. A lot,” Deas said, sitting inside La Salle’s Tom Gola Arena, a couple of hours from where he grew up on Brooklyn’s eastern edge, close to the Belt Parkway before it swings into Queens.
As Deas told it, the episodes piled up, some of them painful, like his first visit to La Salle, showing up hungry in a very literal sense: “I didn’t eat at all [that morning]. Me and my father, no food.”
La Salle coach Ashley Howard, who took over as coach last season, quickly learned the story.
“One thing about Isiah, he’s honest,’’ Howard said. “We talked about his upbringing, his family dynamic.”
Deas, known at La Salle for his sharp brain, considered graduating after last season and moving on as a graduate transfer, but decided to stick things out at 20th and Olney. He’s had all sorts of ups and downs in his career, but his ability has always gotten him playing time.
“We talked about the same things you can use as an excuse, you can use as motivation,’’ Howard said. “I want his upbringing to be something he can look back and see how far he’s come, and overcome.”
When Deas, 21, tells his tale, he starts at the beginning.
“Born in Brooklyn,’’ Deas said. “Been there all my life. I guess you could say an average kid. The oldest of three.”
Before high school, basketball was more of a hobby, he said. “Something to do when there was nothing to do.”
His mother worked at a bank, his father as a janitor at a hospital. His parents were married more than 20 years, he said. “It was just a beautiful vibe, day in, day out, game nights, movie nights, Sunday night dinners,’’ Deas said.
Going into high school at Bishop Loughlin, Deas said trying out for basketball was more of the same. Something to do. Maybe get in shape a little. The honor roll wasn’t foreign to him. He made the freshman basketball team but had no real confidence — it all being new to him, the organized part of the game.
“I was average,’’ Deas said. “Just an OK shooter, made a smart play here and there, nothing too fancy or athletic.”
Sophomore year, similar scenario, making the junior varsity. That’s when he first sensed something was wrong at home, he said. His mother would make trips to Virginia to visit her sister. “Then a weekend would turn into a week,’’ Deas said. “You noticed these things, but being a kid at that age, it’s really hard to put two and two together.”
Deas played travel-team basketball that summer, so the game was getting more important to him.
“That summer, that’s when we first had like definite news, my mom’s, she’s departed, moved to Virginia,’’ Deas said. “It kind of rocked my whole world. I always took pride in being a two-parent family. In that area of Brooklyn, that’s rare. I always had pride in being that one family that people still had faith in. Once that happened, I kind of just felt more as a statistic than anything. … I didn’t know who to blame. I just needed answers.”
Did he act out?
“Honestly, no,’’ Deas said. “I didn’t act out as I thought I would. On those AAU trips, I was just so hurt and confused.”
He paints a picture: going into a bathroom before a game, locking the stall, letting the tears out for 10 or 15 minutes, getting all the emotions out — “then just go play basketball.”
Hoops became a mental tool, Deas said, “my solace.”
Soon enough, there was little solace. Rent became an issue. Deas said his father took extra shifts at work, but it wasn’t enough. “He tried,’’ Deas said. “Double, triple overtime.”
Deas dropped out of Loughlin. In his mind, he wasn’t done with school, but there were bigger issues.
“I told my father, ‘Yo, I’ll just be the mother, so to speak, while you work double and triple overtimes," he recalled. "So I would get up, get my brother and sister ready for school, walk them to their respective schools, go back home. I kind of always told myself I was guardian of the home.”
He remembers taking a nap one day.
“They came in, broke the chain, broke the lock,’’ Deas said. Told his family was being evicted, Deas remembers saying that he didn’t know what that was, that they’d have to explain it. A woman told him of the process of falling behind on rent. He wasn’t going to leave until his father got home, he said, but was told that wouldn’t be possible.
“What she allowed me to do was get a shopping cart and get as much stuff into the shopping cart as I could,’’ Deas said. “I grabbed everything in sight. Clothes, electronics, toothbrushes. I had a mountain of clothes. Carted it out.”
He went upstairs to a family friend, who contacted his father.
“I didn’t know what to do,’’ Deas said. “No plan, no nothing.”
His brother and sister eventually went to Virginia to stay with their mother, but Deas said he didn’t want anything to do with that.
At first, his father still had his car, but that didn’t last. “Once we lost the car, it got kind of hard,’’ Deas said. The friend upstairs let them stay some nights. “All the love in her heart, but she had her own thing going on.”
So that bench …
“If you come out of my building, you literally walk right out to the court,’’ Deas said.
Basketball wasn’t the first thing on Deas’ mind.
“Might have been in the worst shape of my life,’’ he said. “Just not eating. You didn’t know where you were going to get your meals from. You might scrum up some change, 50 cents, get you a little honey muffin from the corner market. A good friend of mine, he owned a fish spot not too far from there. You tried to get in there. You don’t want to be that guy, always in there asking for food. It was always hard.”
He had friends from the neighborhood, he said, but they were mostly older guys he worked out with. Switching schools to Jefferson High, where there was all sorts of basketball talent, he often felt like a transient, a ghost.
“I lost contact with the world,’’ Deas said. “Wasn’t on social media. It was almost like, if you saw me — ‘What’s up?’ That’s it.”
He thought about basketball as a way out, but didn’t have a transcript that could get him eligible for college ball. He can remember thinking, I can play.
“You’ve got to understand, I was always upset at the universities,’’ Deas said.
AAU summers had come to feel like a song and dance to him, colleges dangling interest, no follow through, that transcript maybe a bigger issue than he cared to admit. He’d gotten good grades. But there were holes.
“I started to lose confidence,’’ Deas said, thinking 9 to 5 would be his path.
Losing confidence wasn’t the same as giving up. His pops had a slogan Isiah subscribed to: We’ll see ‘em in the long run.
“Basically, just run the race at your own pace,’’ Deas said.
After Jefferson, there was another AAU summer. A coach asked if he wanted to play in a showcase event. The event is listed in his La Salle bio: Earned MVP honors at Fourth Annual Unsigned Hype Senior Showcase in New York, scoring 23 points. A coach asked about playing at a prep school in New Jersey, Coastal Academy. Deas wasn’t sure of the finances at first, but it ended up working out.
“Beautiful opportunity,’’ Deas said.
He’d thought he was headed for a junior college in Texas, Deas said, when he got the word that La Salle was interested. An assistant would be at a game.
“If they’re there, whoop de doo,’’ Deas remembered thinking. “If not …”
The assistant got there.
“Seeing a coach there, it kind of gave me confidence,’’ Deas said.
If you want to say it all worked out in the end, Deas does not try to wrap a bow around the whole thing.
“I was a little timid almost,’’ Deas said of when he first got to La Salle. “First time been around this much people, actual adults trying to establish their lives. The campus vibe was confusing to me. From the racial aspect, I come from a predominantly black neighborhood. Learning how to interact with all those people without saying the wrong thing, it was a lot.”
His Explorers career has had up and downs, starts and then hitting the bench, bursts of top-level talent, but not always sustained productivity. Last season, the 6-foot-5 guard started 22 games and was second on the team in scoring with 11.9 points a game.
“One of the biggest things we talk to Isiah about is learning to be part of something bigger than yourself,’’ Howard said. “Because when you go through what he’s gone through in life, you become very protective of your own agenda and your own life.”
Howard considers Deas a survivor. But that term suggests the struggle it took to get where he is. “You really can’t depend on anybody,’’ Howard said.
Deas believes he has people he can depend on, and can depend on him. He can name them, and there are symbols in his life that reflect the bond. He wears a rosary around his neck.
“All four of us wear these around our neck every single day,’’ Deas said, referring also to his father, brother and sister, the rosaries given to them by his grandmother.
Even during La Salle games, Deas said. Just beforehand, he’ll say a little prayer, take it off, stick it in his sock, where it stays for the game. “As soon as the game’s over, I put it right back on, act like nothing even happened.”
They’d gotten back into the apartment, so life has returned to some normalcy. But those socks he puts the rosary in, Deas said, he wears them inside out. His brother had started that, for no real reason. Isiah picked up on it, “to stay connected. … Just to show how much I appreciate them.”
His sister is a high school graduate now, his brother trying out for the varsity basketball team at a Brooklyn high school, his father still at the hospital, but also helping coach girls’ high school ball.
“I’ll do anything for them, anything, to my dying breath,’’ Deas said.
His brother will always look, Deas said, when La Salle is on TV: “All right, inside-out socks.”
Deas will look back sometimes on the whole saga.
“I don’t really look at the moments of triumph,’’ he said. “I always look at the lowest of lows. I kind of always remember how I was feeling at those times; that always keeps me motivated. We’re way, way better, have running water, roof over our heads, the family somewhat together.”
His major is integrated science, business and technology. Deas said he has loved it, didn’t know it existed until orientation. He has loved the science part, “getting down to the nitty gritty.” The future, he doesn’t know. Keep playing basketball, maybe overseas?
"Absolutely,'' Deas said. “This game, it saved my life. ... I could have turned to gang violence. I could have died out there.”