The Best of D.J. Richardson, Part I
D.J. Richardson said on Friday that he had fulfilled a family dream by graduation from Illinois. A class act, D.J. was the subject of several in-depth pieces during his four-year stay at Illinois. Here's one from 2009:
By PAUL KLEE
PEORIA — This is where Shaun Livingston toyed with that one dude.
Remember that? The sky was gray and grumpy, just like today. The three concrete courts outside the George Washington Carver Center were drizzled wet, but not too wet, perfect for breaking ankles and making legends. Peoria's hoops hierarchy filled the aluminum bleachers.
"They were all here to see Shaun," D.J. Richardson says.
So was D.J. Shaun used to live across the street and five doors down from his own house. In the eighth-grade photo that hangs above his bed, D.J. is wearing a Livingston jersey. That was his guy.
The play that sticks with D.J., nearly a decade later, happened during a game of one-on-one. Shaun was putting on a show. He wrapped the ball behind a guy's back. The kid spun around, looking for the ball. Where'd it go? But all he saw was Livingston tossing it off the backboard and crushing a one-handed dunk.
"The crowd lost it," D.J. says. "If you're from Peoria you don't forget something like that."
Wearing an Illinois Basketball hoody, with an Illini-orange ballcap pulled straight, D.J. shoots a jumper toward one of the six baskets. The rim is tighter than the crispy-white Jordans on his feet, and the basketball caroms into a chain-link fence.
Four kids stop their own game to watch him dribble. Ten years from now, at least one will remember today, that one day when D.J. Richardson was here. Remember that?
"People in Peoria are always on the lookout for 'Who's next?' " says Jim Mattson, the longtime sports director at WHOI-TV.
Not much has changed on these courts outside the Carver Center, not since Shaun toyed with that one dude, not since Sergio returned with his fourth state title, not since Howard Nathan was burying 18-foot jumpers, indifferent to the April wind that blows down the hill.
Another Peoria kid is on his way to the big time. And the city is watching to see how this story ends.
Dietrich James Richardson Jr. ducks into the Carver gymnasium, noisy with games on a Saturday afternoon. He slaps hands with Steve Harvey, the center's director. Harvey is busy bouncing from the scorer's table to his back-room office. And you've stumped him.
"Best player to come through Carver?" he says. "Wow."
This is how you start an argument in Peoria.
"Howard Nathan, pound-for-pound, was the best player to come through here," Harvey concedes. "It was Howard and then everybody else."
"I would say the best player to come out of Peoria is Frank," Mattson says. "He was unbelievable."
"Frank Williams, Howard Nathan, Brandun Hughes, Sergio, Marcus Griffin, David Booth," says Jerry Hester, a proud native who became Illinois' team MVP in 1998. "I don't even know if I'd crack the starting five all-time at (Peoria) Manual."
"I would give it to A.J. Guyton," says D.J. Richardson Sr.
"That's like saying, 'Who's the best-looking woman in the world?'" says Illinois assistant Wayne McClain, who grew up playing at Carver and became a Peoria coaching legend with three state titles at Manual. "You can't."
The debate runs deep, in part because Carver has no high school or neighborhood allegiances, and its history overlaps several generations.
Here, rivals were teammates ("Those six hoops on that court is the backbone of Peoria," UI assistant and Peoria Central alum Jerrance Howard says). The famed and the failed did battle ("Some guys that didn't make it were better than the guys that did," Harvey says). Fathers (Wayne McClain, Larry "Snake" Howard, D.J. Richardson Sr.) and sons (Sergio, Jerrance, D.J. Jr.) repped their family names on these courts.
"This is like a mecca," Harvey says. "You look at all the top-notch basketball programs in the New York Citys and the Chicagos. Well, Carver is that. Every kid from Peoria that played NBA or in college, they came through Carver to play basketball."
"If you didn't play ball at Carver, you didn't play basketball in Peoria," says D.J. Richardson Sr.
On this particular Saturday, D.J. Sr. coaches a team of high schoolers as D.J. Jr. spins a ball in the bleachers, watching his dad. The younger D.J. is six weeks into his first semester as a future star at Illinois. The 6-foot-2 guard is one of four freshmen on the Illini roster, which will include at least one Peoria product for a 17th straight season.
For D.J., a trip to Peoria means a trip to Carver. He loves it here, and they love him here. This is where D.J.'s talents were born and, more important, where he sharpened a competitive edge that separates him from most college freshmen.
"They wouldn't call that foul when I was coming up," he says in response to a whistle.
On the far sideline, his father shakes his head at the call.
"I'm always hearing people in Peoria tell me, 'You're good, but you're not as good as your dad was,' " D.J. says.
"If they had NBA coming out of high school back then, I think I would have made it," his father says.
There's that edge again. It's a confidence as common in Peoria ballers as the hesitation dribble: I'm better than you. You could see it when Howard Nathan "would win every single game he played" on the Carver courts, Jerrance Howard says. You can see it before games, when players give their foes a little pat on the backside, "Just to let them know you're here," McClain says. You could see it three weeks ago, when D.J. Richardson, just a freshman, won the Illini's mile run with a blistering time of 5:08.
"I couldn't keep up with his second wind," says UI senior Bubba Chisholm, who finished second.
"I was sick or I would've broken 5," says D.J. Not only that, but he learned in August he has asthma.
And you know D.J.'s from Peoria because of how he won: Every time he passed the Illinois coaches on the track, he threw them a military salute with his right hand. Just to let them know he's here.
"That's Peoria, man!" McClain says. "That's like the boxer that goes to the end of the round in the 14th round. And then he doesn't sit in his corner. He's standing there looking at you, saluting you, saying, 'That's all you got?' That's what I want. I want my guys standing over there, spitting out their water, saying, 'Bring on the 15th round!' "
"It's a swagger, a toughness," says Hester, who started the Peoria-to-Champaign pipeline as an Illinois freshman in 1993-94. "You've got to have it or you get run out of the gym."
Much of D.J.'s toughness comes from his roots, from watching those who came before him. It comes from, Remember that? Remember how Shaun Livingston brought the crowd to its feet? Remember how Jamar Smith would whip him in games of one-on-one?
"He'd beat me and then push me to the ground and make me get up on my own. Later on I was one of the first guys he'd pick," D.J. says. "That's how it is. Jamar is the toughest player I've ever guarded. Tougher than John Wall (a star freshman at Kentucky), tougher than Avery (Bradley, a star freshman at Texas). He used to kill me."
When D.J. was a kid, he wanted to be like Shaun; then he wanted to be like Jamar. That's how it goes here. The next star has to one-up the last star. Remember that?
"And I bet you Shaun Livingston can tell you things that Frank Williams did, because I've heard him say it," McClain says. "And Frank Williams is going to tell you things that Howard Nathan did. Everybody takes a little more from the previous guy — and then strives to be better. They have to be better than the last guy."
Each played at Carver, at one time or another. But only one has his jersey hanging in the front hallway at Carver. It's D.J.'s jersey, No. 32.
"After Shaun won his second (state) title, I asked him if he could sign one of his shoes so we could put it up. We never got it," Harvey says. "Then I asked D.J. for a shoe. He brought two shoes and a jersey."
D.J. stops and stares at his jersey, on the way in and on the way out.
"When you separate yourself from the others and you go to college," McClain says, "I think your whole thing is to uphold all of those that came before him."
"I feel like he's got a chance to be — and I'm going off on a limb here — but I feel like he's got a chance to be one of the greatest guards to ever come through Illinois," says Howard, the UI assistant. "He's a different breed."
Leaning forward on the living room couch, Brendetta Richardson puts one hand on her son's knee. The other hand flips through a scrapbook.
"He used to play with that little doll. What was it called?" she says. "Buzz Lightyear. That's what it was. He loved that Buzz Lightyear doll."
"I still watch Tom and Jerry cartoons," he says quietly.
Discipline was important in the Richardson home, and D.J. learned right from wrong at a young age. One day his mom heard a strange sound thumping against the door of D.J.'s bedroom. She stormed in to find clothes hangers bent out of shape and socks in his hand.
"I thought him and his brother (Terrance) were just messing around. Then I saw they were making the hangers into hoops and hanging them on the door," she says. "They were balling up socks and shooting them at the hangers. D.J. was 3."
"She's telling him to go put it away. Then he'd go and find it and do it again," Dad says. "I would tell her, 'Let him go. He's just being a boy.' "
D.J. got in a fight once, when he was 9. He came home in tears.
"I said, 'Why are you crying?' " Mom recalls. "His brother goes, 'And he won the fight!' "
"I don't like fighting," he explains. "That wasn't my thing. I've never been in a gang. I don't use drugs. That's only going to keep me from where I want to be."
Instead, "All he ever wanted to do was play basketball," his father says. That explains why, to this day, the 18-year-old doesn't own a driver's license.
"Driver's ed was always during P.E., and I never wanted to stop playing five-on-five in P.E. to go to driver's ed. So I never got a license."
Instead, his grandfather, James Smith, often drives him back and forth from Peoria to his Illinois dorm room. "If D.J.'s playing a game in a state even touching Illinois, his granddad will be there," says one of his cousins, Matt Flemming.
It's all about family for D.J. On this Saturday he spends 90 minutes at Champs Sports in Northwoods Mall, because that's where his cousins work. He rummages through the children's section, hunting a Christmas gift for his baby nephew.
"I want to get him a onesie," he says. "In orange and blue."
Family is the reason D.J.'s move to a Las Vegas-area prep school was so difficult. With grades and test scores that would have prevented him from playing as a freshman at Illinois, D.J. transferred out of Peoria Central prior to his senior year.
"His mom cried for two weeks," D.J. Sr. says. "And I don't fly, so I couldn't go see him."
The first time D.J. took the ACT, in Peoria, he scored a 12.
"He had a good breakfast that morning. He got a lot of rest the night before. Then he didn't do well," Brendetta says. "He said, 'Mom, I tried hard.' And I believe him. I know he did. He always tries hard."
This wasn't a dumb jock treating school as a necessary evil. D.J. had perfect attendance for two years at Sterling Middle School, for example. But while at Findlay he was diagnosed with a learning disability. The discovery allowed D.J. to retake the ACT with no time limit. He scored a 19 and ensured his eligibility at Illinois.
His mom cried then, too.
"When I got that test score, that was one of the proudest days of my life," D.J. says.
"Just like D.J., I was as good at playing basketball as anybody in Peoria. I was into basketball, but I was mostly into the street. The street got me," D.J. Sr. says. "That's why education is so important. That's what I tell D.J. today, 'Education takes you a long way. Sports is No. 2, education is No. 1.' "
D.J.'s teams at Sterling Middle School went 31-1 and won a city championship. That's when whispers circulated about a 5-foot-4 whiz that might be the next.
"He was always asking me to come pick him up so he could go to the gym," says D.J.'s middle school coach, Tony Gillespie.
"He was a little skinny wimpy little thing," McClain says. "But you could tell he could play. That special kid, you can always see him right away."
"There's been high expectations in Peoria since he was 14," Mattson says.
On Friday, Illinois hosts Illini Madness — the first day of official practices for the 2009-10 season — and already there's a buzz about D.J. in the Illinois basketball offices.
Last week coach Bruce Weber marveled at how D.J. scored the final three buckets during a three-on-three drill, even as his winded opponents tugged at their shorts. Never in his six seasons as Illinois coach has Weber been more certain a freshman will succeed. The 185-pound playmaker is savvy enough to man either guard spot, even if his ballhandling needs work. It says here he will follow Dee Brown as a four-year starter at Illinois.
"People ask me all the time for a highlight reel of D.J. But it's different with D.J.," says Mattson, a sportscaster in Peoria since 1987. "He doesn't have the highlight passes of Frank, the charisma of Sergio. He's kind of old school. He does the little things you might not put on a highlight reel.
"The first time you see him, you might walk away and say, 'That kid's going to U of I?' And then you see him four or five more times and you know why. The more you see him, the more you appreciate him."
Sunshine burns through the clouds as D.J. leaves the Carver Center. He's off to make the rounds in Peoria. Riding shotgun down University Street, he points to Mad Studios, the tattoo parlor where he got his first tattoo, a basketball burning with flames. He wants a fourth tattoo — "Scripture from the Bible" — but only where it's not visible.
"I have to stay professional if basketball doesn't work out," he says.
He strolls into Champs Sports to try on the new LeBrons and rap with his cousins. The principal at Peoria Central, his former school, walks by and pats D.J. on the shoulder.
"Good seeing you, D.J.," says Randy Simmons. "Good luck, we'll be following you."
Brendetta Richardson meets D.J. at the mall and asks, "Who's all coming for lunch?" D.J.'s mom still calls him "Doon," his childhood nickname, and it's not hard to envision a packed Assembly Hall bellowing "Dooooon!" during pregame introductions. There will be opportunities. He figures to be a four-year starter.
Then it's back home, five doors down from where Shaun lived, where D.J. and best friend Mike Gills compare their crossover dribble under the 11-foot rim in D.J.'s backyard.
"I measured it," he confirms.
"When he blows up at U of I, make sure to tell everyone this is where I taught him everything he knows," Mike jokes. "Remember that."
He always does.
"I tell him: Never be a follower, always be a leader," D.J. Sr. says. "Don't ever be second, try to be first."
But first he had to follow those in Peoria who came before him. And the city is watching to see how this story ends.
Down the pipe
The Peoria pipeline is for real. The Illini roster has included at least one Peoria product in the past 16 seasons — and figures to continue at least through D.J. Richardson's senior season in 2013-14:
1993-94 — Jerry Hester (Manual)
1994-95 — Hester
1995-96 — Hester
1996-97 — Hester
1997-98 — Hester, Sergio McClain (Manual)
1998-99 — McClain, Frank Williams (Manual)
1999-00 — McClain, Williams, Marcus Griffin (Manual), Jerrance Howard (Central)
2000-01 — McClain, Williams, Griffin, Howard
2001-02 — Howard, Williams
2002-03 — Howard
2003-04 — Howard, Brian Randle (Notre Dame)
2004-05 — Randle
2005-06 — Randle, Jamar Smith (Richwoods)
2006-07 — Randle, Smith
2007-08 — Randle, Smith, Bill Cole (Richwoods)
2008-09 — Cole
2009-10 — Cole, D.J. Richardson (Central/Findlay Prep)