FLINT, MI – Deondre Parks‘ road to Division I basketball was paved with challenges.
Then again, any of the nine Flint-area athletes playing at college basketball’s highest level could say the same thing.
Simply surviving and getting out of Flint can be a challenge some cannot overcome.
“I can say that I’m blessed to still be alive, to not have a record and to still be able to play ball and I plan on playing pro after this,” said Parks, who averages a team-high 17.3 points and five rebounds for South Dakota State University. “We had a couple of friends that were killed and locked up back in the day, but it made us realize that it was time to get out and start a new chapter to work on yourself.”
It’s an all-too-familiar refrain for Flint, beleaguered by recent news of lead in its water supply and a long-standing reputation for violence and drugs on the streets.
But Parks made it, as have eight others currently playing Division I basketball. And they hope they’ve laid a different path for other aspiring athletes in Flint to follow.
“We’ve been through hell and back so we’re not afraid of what’s in front of us in any sport,” said Parks, a 2011 Flint Northwestern graduate. “Flint is just tough and when we do get out we take advantage of it.
“We could care less about what somebody thinks about us, we just want to be successful in life.”
Who they are
Parks (South Dakota State), Anton Wilson (Detroit Mercy), Monte Morris (Iowa State), Kyle Kuzma (Utah), Jaire Grayer (George Mason), JaVontae Hawkins(Eastern Kentucky), Cam Morse (Youngstown State), Denzell Watts (University of Alabama at Birmingham) and JD Tisdale (Bowling Green) are Flint-area Division I men’s basketball players.
Morris’ Cyclones (No. 11) and Kuzma’s Utes (No. 24) are both in the latest AP Top 25 rankings.
Morris’ game-winner against Iowa on Dec. 10 made the highlight reel on national television. Over the weekend, Kuzma helped Utah upset No. 7 Duke with 21 points in a 77-75 overtime win at Madison Square Garden.
Parks, Hawkins, and Grayer have also Player of the Week honors for the Summit League, National Mid-Major and Atlantic 10 conferences.
Hawkins had 19 points, five assists and five rebounds against Kentucky on Dec. 9 at Rupp Arena.
“People thought Flint fell off after the Flintstones, the greats,” said Anton Wilson, a senior at Detroit Mercy. “We’re really showing that Flint never really fell off.
“We still got people coming up behind us like Miles (Bridges) and others trying to make their way into the Division I programs,” he said. “Just being a part of this and leaving my legacy in Flint is a great thing.”
How they got here
Parks, 23, took a non-traditional path to SDSU. The sharpshooter enjoyed an All-American career at Iowa Lakes Community College before signing his national letter of intent to become a Jackrabbit.
Like most of the other Flint players, Parks lost close friends to senseless violence and was exposed to other inner city challenges as a teenager but leaned on his family for support in the tough times. His mother always reminds him of how fortunate he is to pursue his passion.
That’s also where community leaders and organizations can play a role.
David Munerlyn’s Flint Affiliation (FA) AAU club is how many top players were introduced to basketball. He launched FA in 1992.
In addition to FA, community leaders like Robbie Brown teach basketball to kids through his Do The Right Thing program.
Flint PAL, Flint’s Finest, GAC Knights, Second Chance, and F.A.B.E are other options.
“They still have that hunger and that drive,” Munerlyn said. “They see some of the guys who have done and encouraging them to follow in their footsteps so that’s where it comes from.”
That’s why when Morris steps on the court for a prime time game at Iowa State, he realizes that he’s playing for something bigger than himself.
He has an entire city behind him.
“Whenever I’m on TV, it’s a lot of little kids and a lot of high school athletes that are back at home watching me,” Morris said. “I always want to give hope to them whether I’m playing good or bad that it could be you.”
A Flint brotherhood
In the offseason, Morris and many of the guys returned home for a couple months to train together.
They usually met at the Downtown YMCA or at Beecher High School for intense games.
Morris got the keys to the gym and would hit up everyone with a text message. Those sessions were beneficial because they all got a chance to pass on advice and compete on a high level in the summer.
During the season, they keep in contact through group messaging.
“I’m just happy that everybody isn’t doing their own thing and don’t mess with each other. We all show love,” Morris said. “We try to keep that Flintstone tradition alive.”
Kuzma stays updated on his fellow Flintstones through notifications on his phone. Whenever one of the other Flint players is on television he loves to brag about it to his teammates. If he can’t watch the game live then he’ll DVR it to catch it later. They also trash talk a little bit among each other in the group chat.
“We take a lot of pride in that,” Kuzma said. “That motivates us and keeps us on our toes to keep consistency within our games.”
The path out of Flint is not easy and is ripe with challenges. But it can also lead to opportunity.
Coming off back-to-back state titles and a Mr. Basketball trophy in 2013, Morris entered college as the most heralded of the bunch but is just one of the regular guys when he gets home. Nobody takes it easy on him.
He would often hear about how he had to go to prep school to be successful but still takes pride in the fact that he stayed at Beecher with Coach Mike Williams for all four years.
“This shows that you don’t have to go to a big-time prep school or anything to get noticed,” Morris said. “If you do things the right way and take care of your books then scouts will come find you.”