There was once a point when Mike Ojinnaka thought his son was going to give up basketball.
Demonte, a junior at James H. Blake High School, took his anger with him to the court. The struggle and the emotions that piled up to new and higher heights each day had to be vented somewhere. The joy that Mike once saw his son play the game with, the son that used to watch his dad run the playground courts and say, “If dad can do it, I can do it,” was gone.
“It was a struggle,” Mike said.
But then, in January 2012, one day before his mother, Sharon Moore, was set to turn 46, everything changed. Moore had finally lost her bout with breast cancer.
The following night, rival Springbrook was in town. Demonte played.
“It just kind of put everything in a different perspective,” Mike said. “She loved watching him play basketball and he thought that the best way to honor her memories is to take this basketball to another level, just to honor her memories.
“It’s kind of like when Brett Favre’s father passed away and he threw five or six touchdowns in that next game.”
From there, the basketball court became Demonte’s sanctuary, the way it once was.
Ever since he was 9, Sharon would drop him off at the East County Community Center. There, Demonte’s love for the game was born, and it was there that he groomed his natural talent into a possible future.
“He thinks the game from a mental standpoint,” said James Lee, a former director of the East County Community Center and now the director and the 17-U coach of the Mid Atlantic Select AAU team, which Demonte will play for next year. “He tries to make the right basketball plays, he tries to set people up. It’s not all about scoring for him. He plays the right way, he understands the game.”
There is a tattoo on Demonte’s arm of an angel holding a basketball. There is another on his chest, with wings and a crown. A ribbon wraps around the crown with his mother’s name scrawled onto it. It’s a mark of his relationship with his mother. It’s a mark of a renewed dedication to basketball.
“My mom always told me, ‘No matter what happens, stay focused on what’s important,’” Demonte said. “I know she’s looking down on me.”
He didn’t get bumped up to varsity until the end of his sophomore year — Lee thinks the promotion should have come sooner — but it was after the final buzzer sounded that Demonte began relentlessly training, practicing and improving his game any way he could.
Mike had always told him to work on his weaknesses. At the time, Demonte’s was defense.
So he ran hills in the summer heat, did countless defensive slides on the concrete and watched tapes of Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon to study their footwork.
“When [Sharon] passed away, he knew his mom wasn’t going to be suffering no more, and it’s motivation for him,” Lee said. “He can set out and accomplish the goals he set for himself.”
His most obvious improvement, namely because you can see it on the stat line, has been his offense. Through the first nine games of the season, in which Blake went 6-3, Demonte finished in double-figures in all of them.
“He’s matured over the last couple years,” Lee said. “Basketball-wise, he’s starting to understand the type of player he is on the court.”
He says he models his play to that of Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose and Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving and Lee has drawn comparisons to former Col. Zadok Magruder standout Garland Owens.
The comparison is lofty. Owens has committed to play for Boston College and is currently at Massanutten Military Academy along with other high profile recruits like Damonte Dodd, who will be playing at the University of Maryland next year.
“He’s got a strong body, a great athlete,” Lee said. “But Monte’s more skilled. He’s really worked at it. What we’re seeing now is he’s really starting to turn the corner. He definitely has a chance to play Division-I basketball, definitely.”
At 6-foot-4, Demonte is an oversized guard yet is the second-tallest player on his team, behind only 6-foot-6 forward Thomas Stanton. Blake coach Marcus Wiggins hasn’t had much of a choice but to implement a five-guard offense with Demonte rotating through every possible position on the court.
“It helps me because I got to learn all the positions,” Demonte said. “I get to use all my talent on the floor.”
His numbers aren’t flashy, but are as consistent as tomorrow’s sunrise. His season-high is 21 points, but “we’re just kind of waiting for him to explode,” Wiggins said. “We’re not going to rush it, but it’s going to come.”
Said Mike: “One of these nights, he’s going to go for 40. I tell him, ‘One of these nights, when you got the green light and the basket looks like an ocean, don’t stop. You’re going to have your night, it’s going to come.”
And so Mike will watch his son play as he always has. One of these nights, maybe Demonte will go for 40 like his father seems so sure of, but there’s one thing that will never be in doubt again: His passion.
“He’s not doing this just for him. He’s doing this for his mom too,” Lee said.