Putting the Past Behind Him Deontae Hawkins is farther away from his turbulent Dayton neighborhood than he's ever been, but he's playing basketball for all those left behind.

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eontae Hawkins’ hand is quivering in the bowels of Conte Forum. He’s showing me the contact info for his brother, Derek, the man who would best know why he’s emotional right now. It’s not always easy for the 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from Illinois State to talk about home, especially here. The picturesque autumn suburbs of Chestnut Hill are a world away from his neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio.

Many of his close friends have found themselves locked up in Terre Haute Federal Prison. Others have been killed. Hawkins himself has dealt with his own issues off the court, but you wouldn’t be able to tell in a casual encounter. Deontae, who introduces himself as Teddy, has the kind of charisma you’d expect from a man who led his high school basketball team to its first undefeated season in school history, capped off by a state championship.

It’s clear, though, that this season isn’t about the past—it’s about the future, and how Hawkins fills a vital hole for Boston College men’s basketball this year. The program hasn’t had an effective stretch four since Jared Dudley. One look at his hairline today will prove just how long ago that was.

Enter Hawkins, a giant, jump-shooting, sweet-talkin’ power forward that just might be the best graduate transfer yet for an Eagles squad suffering from annual frontcourt deficiencies.

Last year, Hawkins shot 45.1 percent on catch-and-shoot chances, and his effective field goal rate—adjusted for the value of a 3-pointer—was 65.6 percent. On unguarded catch-and-shoots, that number soared to 96.8 percent, third in all of Division I. He figures to fit into the offense perfectly with point guard Ky Bowman, who shot over 50 percent from the field as a ball-handler in pick-and-roll action.

With Bowman and Preseason All-ACC Second Team shooting guard Jerome Robinson, BC has the best backcourt in the top conference in the country. Even in just a few months with the team, Hawkins has seen the benefits of playing alongside the duo in the head coach Jim Christian’s fast-paced system.

“At any given time, they can get you an open shot,” Hawkins said. “And you’ll be so open that you don’t know what to do with it, like, damn.”

Luckily, in the first scrimmage of the year, Hawkins knew exactly what to do with it. With Robinson holding the ball patiently on the perimeter, the 220-pound big man cut backdoor to the hoop, elevating for an emphatic alley-oop dunk on the lob. For the 100 or so fans in Conte Forum, it was a glimpse of things to come.

For Hawkins, it marked the beginning of a season that he prays isn’t his last.

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ad, bad, bad. That’s how Hawkins describes his neighborhood just southeast of downtown Dayton, the eighth-most dangerous city in Ohio. Raised primarily by his grandmother while his mom worked two jobs to support the family, he lived with his siblings and cousins in a small apartment that crammed 10 people into just three rooms. If the kids behaved, they were allowed to play outside and sleep in their bunk beds. If one of them broke the rules, they were kept inside and forced to stay in grandma’s room that night. Between the crowded living space and the danger of the surrounding streets, it didn’t take long for Hawkins and his brothers to find a haven on the court.

“All we had was the Boys and Girls Club,” Hawkins said. “I just used that to stay out of trouble and play basketball there.”

One day, when a younger, chubbier Hawkins was hanging with his buddies, one of them mentioned how he looked like a Teddy Graham. Little Teddy, he called him. The nickname stuck.

Everywhere he went, he followed his big brother, Derek, who earned the nickname “Big Teddy.” But by the time Hawkins hit eighth grade, though, he had to drop the “Little” from his moniker due to a massive growth spurt. He passed up Big Teddy, shooting up to 6-foot-5 as a freshman and growing another inch in each year of high school after that. Basketball, he soon realized, was his ticket out of Dayton.

“The school side of it, it’s not my repertoire,” Hawkins said. “So I had to go take some different routes to get where I’m at right now.”

His height, which he considers a “blessing” as a product of 6-foot-1 and 5-foot-11 parents, turned him into a superstar on Dayton Dunbar High School’s varsity team. He won a state championship as a sophomore before leading the Wolverines to their first-ever undefeated season (28-0) and an Ohio Division II title as a senior. Hawkins, ranked as the fourth-best prospect in the state by ESPN, committed to Wichita State for the following year. He was on top of the world.

But Hawkins never played a minute for the Shockers.

His college career got off to a rocky start when he failed to qualify academically as a freshman at Wichita State, leading him to enroll in prep school for a year at Quakerdale Promise Academy. After committing to Illinois State in the fall, Hawkins stirred up controversy over a Missouri Valley Conference rule that forces intra-league transfers to sit out two years.

The Redbirds petitioned for a waiver, claiming he should be exempt because he never actually enrolled at Wichita State or took classes there. But the Shockers refused to waive the transfer, so ISU offered up a clever compromise: What if, instead of sitting out the entire second year, Hawkins just sat out against Wichita State? MVC commissioner Doug Elgin, along with a small committee, heard from both sides and accepted the solution.

Naturally, coaches around the league were outraged.

“You’re telling me that he’s gonna get 30 points on me one night, and the next night he plays Wichita State, and he’s not gonna play against them? We got a problem,” Southern Illinois head coach Barry Hinson said.

Though Hawkins didn’t exactly put up 30 points when he finally made his collegiate debut for the Redbirds in 2014, he nonetheless posed a serious problem for opposing defenses. He showed a blend of perimeter and post potential, using his 6-foot-8 frame to feast on smaller defenders down low. By the end of the season, he had earned 18 starts, averaging 7.4 points per game and helping ISU earn a berth in the NIT Tournament.

Hawkins took the next step forward in what qualified academically as his junior year, pacing the Redbirds with 10.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest while continuing to extend his range behind the arc. His growth was tremendous—until he suffered a setback.

Last October, the 23-year-old was arrested on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol, illegal transportation of alcohol, and driving with a suspended license. In January, he was cited for driving with a suspended license and driving without insurance.

They weren’t his first disciplinary issues at ISU, either. During a team trip to Madrid his sophomore year, he was suspended and sent back home to Dayton for a violation of team rules. Still, by the time the regular season rolled around, his indefinite suspension was lifted and he was reinstated.

“People never thought I would have gotten a college degree if it was six, seven years ago. People would’ve been like, ‘He ain’t ever going to college and finishing, period.’” Deontae Hawkins

In his senior campaign, Hawkins broke out for 14 points and 6.5 boards per game on much-improved 44 percent shooting from deep. That made him one of only 26 players in Division I basketball to put up at least 13 points per game on fewer than 12 field goal attempts while also shooting above 40 percent on 3-pointers (minimum 150 attempts) and posting a PER above 22. Hawkins led ISU to the brink of the NCAA Tournament bubble before losing to No. 21 Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Tournament title game, keeping a trip to the Big Dance just out of grasp despite the team’s impressive 27-6 record.

After graduating from Illinois State with one more year of eligibility remaining, Hawkins figured it was time for a change of scenery. Most of his friends in the program had graduated and went on with their professional careers. So he decided to take an official visit to Chestnut Hill, a Mecca of sorts for graduate transfer bigs in recent years.

“I felt like it was home as soon as I got on campus,” Hawkins said. “The coaches and the couple of players that were here made me feel like this was the place to be.”

But as soon as he arrived back home in Dayton, he had people in his ear giving him second thoughts. Did I make my decision too quickly? A few weeks later, he reopened his commitment and scheduled four official visits.

At University of Pacific, he didn’t gel with the coaches. He visited New Mexico, where “they love their Lobos,” but he was reluctant to play for a team that he had just beat a year prior. He didn’t feel the love from Gonzaga, and while LSU was the most appealing of the four, he wasn’t crazy about the head coach. So after testing the waters, he once again settled on the Heights as his fifth-year destination.

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o really understand Teddy, you have to know who he’s playing for.

There’s his family, of course. His siblings and cousins, who sparked his love for sports from a young age. His mother, who he dreams of moving out to the suburbs one day. His grandmother, to whom he owes everything, and his grandfather, with whom he remembers cutting grass back when “two dollars was a lot of money.”

Then there are his friends, most of whom didn’t share his same luck. You can feel the fierce loyalty in his voice when he talks about them.

“Too many people don’t make it out,” Hawkins said. “All my friends—like my best friends—are in jail right now over some dumb stuff. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship and be blessed with the height that God gave me.”

There’s his buddy, Moon, who died on the way back from a nightclub on New Year’s Eve, when he was shot in the backseat by his friend. Derek, or “Big Teddy,” was sitting next to him, and one of the bullets grazed his pinky. There’s his boy, JC, who was left to bleed to death after suffering five gunshot wounds outside of a gas station in Dayton two years ago. Both names are immortalized in ink on Hawkins’ left shoulder and right ankle.

“There’s more, but those two are close, close, close,” Hawkins takes a deep breath, “like hang around with everyday type of friends.”

He carries these memories with him on the court, even as he physically drifts farther and farther away from home. Through all the twists and turns, he’s got an entire community riding with him.

“I ain’t gon’ lie,” Hawkins said. “It’s a lot of pressure.”

“He’s got a lot of people looking up to him right now,” Derek said. “I think he does have a weight on his shoulder, but at the end of the day, his life is his life.”

And even if Hawkins were to break his leg tomorrow and never play another basketball game again, he’d be far from a failure. After all, he’d still have his degree from ISU, and hopefully, a Master’s from BC, too—both of which are firsts in his family.

“People never thought I would have gotten a college degree if it was six, seven years ago,” Hawkins said with a chuckle. “People would’ve been like, ‘He ain’t ever going to college and finishing, period.’”

That’s not to say he’s satisfied in the slightest. Hawkins is always staying late after practice, putting in additional reps, thinking about his hometown all the while. When he’s done, he’ll often Facetime with Derek to catch a glimpse of the life he left behind.

“If I wasn’t to play basketball no more, this is what I’m going back to,” Hawkins says of Dayton. “So I just try to work my tail off every day, get some extra shots up and stuff so I can make a difference. Like when I do come back, it ain’t me being back to stay—it’s me coming back to visit, trying to get ‘em back up outta there.”

Now, he understands achieving that goal requires discipline on and off the court.

“I’m looking at it as a fresh start,” Hawkins reflects on it. “I know now to take an Uber if I do choose to drink—which I don’t, because that would be a setback. I tell everybody don’t drink and drive, just call an Uber. I ain’t trying to backtrack to that—just learn from it, and turn everybody else away from it.”

But while it may be a fresh start, Hawkins isn’t putting the past entirely behind him. He uses it as a reminder of who he’s fighting for and what he’s trying to avoid—where he came from and where he’s going.

“That’s really who I do it for,” Hawkins says, “the people who couldn’t make it out.”

Featured Image by Tiger Tao / Heights Staff

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About Riley Overend

Riley Overend is the Associate Sports Editor for the Heights. He hails from the Bay Area, and likes to think of himself as a Kanyesseur. You can follow him on Twitter at @RileyHeights.