The story doesn’t begin on Saturday night. It doesn’t end there, either. But it’s where we have to start.
Saturday night, in a darkened gym on the darkest night he had ever known, the boy shot jumpers for hours. First his coach found him. Then the assistant coach came at midnight. All they could do was rebound for him. Rebound and let the healing take its course.
On a Friday night, before I ever knew who Jerrin Donley was, Deshler High School won a tough game against neighboring Brooks High School. Both teams were middling squads, jockeying for position in the end of year tournaments that would invariably sort everything out. Donley, the Tigers’ do-everything junior, chipped in 14 points as Deshler ground out an eight-point win.
As the team prepared to load the buses and return to Tuscumbia, Ala., the quaint town made famous as Helen Keller‘s birthplace, a horrible secret was passed to the head coach. Donley’s mother, who had skipped the game due to feeling ill, had been rushed to the emergency room. She had suffered a heart attack at the front desk and passed away. Now it was time for someone to tell the son.
The next evening, as the walls of his aunt’s home closed in around him like trapping defenders, the 5-11 guard slipped out and made his way to the school gym. They’ll say later that he would have shot forever that night.
He tells me during our interview, “It hurts the most when I’m by myself.”
*** *** ***
To understand Jerrin Donley, you have to start in 2009. His father lives up North and is not a part of his life. His mother, while supportive, is struggling with personal demons that carry her in and out of her son’s orbit. Jerrin lives with his aunt, and the boy is starting to pick up a few demons of his own. He gets into trouble – nothing horrible, but the kind of trouble that separates a player from the game. He winds up in a boot camp-style school, away from home and away from basketball. They tell him he’ll have to do a year.
There, in the pitch black dorm room, the kid has a breakdown. His Bible is laid out on the bed. He’s talking to God, repeating the same phrase over and over again: “What are my plans?”
“Yeah, it scared me,” Donley tells me now. “But I’m glad. I wouldn’t be right here talking to you if that didn’t happen.”
*** *** ***
In 2010, Christmas came in March for Jerrin. He was granted an early release from his boot camp and allowed to return to Deshler. He moved back in with his aunt and began to ease into life in the small town again.
His coach says that the odds weren’t good for him. That most kids who went through something like that would come back bitter or angry. However, something was different with Jerrin. He went out of his way to avoid the old ghosts. He was practicing hoops with a fury. He was changing.
*** *** ***
I drive to Tuscumbia on a Wednesday to interview Jerrin. Since his mother’s death, the team has lost a crucial game, one that could have avoided them the matchup that no one wants: Butler High School in Huntsville. Butler is 27-2, a juggernaut in just about every way that matters. But Deshler has lost, and Butler is who they must face.
It is a beautiful spring day on the school’s campus. A cool wind is moving through the Tennessee Valley, giving things a sort of dreamy feel. Fresh-faced teenagers bounce along the sidewalks, headed to and from their classes, most of them smiling for no reason at all.
I find the basketball coach, and Jerrin is not far away. He is wiry and lean, an unassuming boy with sleepy eyes. He carries himself with a sort of uneasiness that’s hard to describe. It’s almost like hurt wrapped up in innocence. When he speaks, the words come carefully.
The coach excuses himself, as there is a film session on Butler to prepare. I ask Jerrin to show me around, and he almost smiles, but not quite. He leads me into one of the buildings and walks me to his locker, where a small piece of paper hangs on the door. Number one.