Devonte’ Graham tugs down at his blue practice jersey, running his fingers across the words that have helped shape his life.
On a Wednesday in early March, the Kansas sophomore guard leans forward in the front row of the Jayhawks’ film room, explaining why two words — “Forever grateful” — are tattooed across his chest.
Only a sophomore, Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham has taken on a leadership role this season. “I didn’t think I had that kind of impact on the team,” he said. “But I came to realize quick that nobody else really had the voice to do it. I’m one of the few that can really do it naturally.”
“Sometimes, you’ve just got to look at it from a different perspective,” Devonte’ says, “and just realize how blessed you are to be in a situation.”
Never miss a local story.
While growing up in North Carolina, Graham would sometimes pout, wondering why he couldn’t go somewhere or asking why he had to clean his room. His mother, Dewanna King, would always give the same response: “You’re being ungrateful.”
Devonte’ soon learned she was right. And he certainly has a lot to appreciate now.
Heading into the NCAA tournament, Devonte’, who attended Broughton, is a starting guard on the nation’s top-ranked team, playing as well as anyone on the roster after picking up Big 12 Tournament MVP honors.
Dewanna also is thankful that Devonte’ came into her life.
At the time, she was 14 years old.
The instructions to 14-year-old Dewanna and 12-year-old Mashonda were direct: Go to the Raeford school bus stop like any other day, then return home when their stepfather’s car pulled out of the driveway.
It was a Tuesday — Feb. 21, 1995 — and the sisters did just as they were told. Their mother, Doris, was dropped off by a friend at a U-Haul station, and she returned with a truck and also a sheriff’s escort.
With Dewanna’s due date two weeks away, Doris had decided to remove herself and her children from what she had considered an unfit environment. The three grabbed most of their belongings — clothes and bags, but no furniture — and loaded them up before setting off for Raleigh, where most of Doris’ family lived.
They’d made it fewer than 20 miles — almost to Fayetteville — when Dewanna started feeling the pain. She didn’t know what contractions felt like, but she knew this ache in her stomach was not going away.
She told her mother, who panicked. She turned to her daughter while steering the U-Haul.
“I can pull over and go to the hospital.”
Dewanna knew the problem with that. If they decided to go to the Fayetteville hospital, they wouldn’t be getting far enough away from the situation they were trying to escape.
“No,” she told her mother, “we’ve got to go back to Raleigh.”
For 70 miles, it was agony for Dewanna, and when Doris pulled the U-Haul into the Raleigh hospital, workers had to wheel her daughter up to the room because she couldn’t walk.
A few hours later, Dewanna gave birth to a 7-pound, 9-ounce son.
Dewanna King says she had been in denial.
Two months earlier, she had noticed changes in her body, but as a thin tomboy, she quickly dismissed any thoughts that left her uncomfortable.
“I didn’t know for sure,” she said.
That changed shortly after visiting her grandmother in Raleigh. Jewell Cozart called her daughter-in-law Doris to tell her that she believed that Dewanna was pregnant.
Dewanna had never in her life heard her mother curse until the next day when the doctor confirmed the news. But that didn’t compare to what was going on in her own mind.
“I was honestly scared,” Dewanna said. “When we first found out I was pregnant, we didn’t know exactly how far along I was and everything that was going on. So the conversation was more or less, ‘Do you keep the baby or do you not keep the baby?’ You have a 14-year-old with a baby. You don’t know how you’re going to take care of a baby at 14.”
The next visit to the doctor made the family’s decision clear. She was already seven months pregnant.
“At 14, my mom was the decision-maker, and she said, ‘We’re going to have a baby,’ ” Dewanna said. “ ‘We’re going to get through this.’ ”
After arriving in Raleigh with only the U-Haul, Doris and her children moved in with her nephew Joe, who offered to take them in at Dover Apartments. The four stayed in one bedroom with two twin beds, Doris and Mashonda sharing one and Dewanna and baby Devonte’ in the other.
“You would probably think they were bad times, but they weren’t. It was a beautiful time,” Dewanna said. “I had a new baby, a healthy baby, and we were happy.”
Doris, meanwhile, remained strict with Dewanna. Every morning, Dewanna would wake up early to get Devonte’ dressed and his bag packed for day care before making it to the bus stop to attend high school. Doris would take Devonte’ to day care and pick him up, but he remained Dewanna’s responsibility outside of that.
If Dewanna wanted to go to the mall with her sister, she’d have to take the stroller down the apartment’s flight of stairs, then make the four-block walk to the city bus stop.
Doris also signed up her daughter for two different teen-mother classes — one in school and one at a local YMCA — where she learned about nutritious foods for the baby and the best locations to pick up Pampers coupons.
“I was forced to do it and probably hated my mom at the time for making me go,” Dewanna said, “but when you look back on it, you get to appreciate her for making you do this, because you’re realizing how valuable it becomes later.”
Dewanna continued to work. She graduated from high school — 4-year-old Devonte’ walked across the stage with her — and later Shaw University with a business administration degree. She also was able to get her own apartment a few years after high school before moving to a house in the Southgate community, just one street away from her mother.
Even that had its challenges, though. Once, when at the local community center with his sister Shamaria after school, Devonte’ says he watched through glass windows as a man was shot at, bullets pelting the walls of the building.
Before he moved from that neighborhood — where red flags of Bloods gang members flew and kids smoked in the street — Devonte’ had already figured out that his escape was basketball.
And the first break he received came from a coach who couldn’t ignore the 10-year-old’s talent.
After picking up the burgers from Red Robin, Clarence Coleman made the 20-minute trek across town with his two children to Roberts Park, a gym on the outskirts of downtown Raleigh.
The AAU coach needed a point guard for his son’s team. And after asking around, a recreation center employee had left him with one name: Devonte’ Graham.
After taking his seat on the metal bleachers, Clarence quickly found No. 4. It was still the first quarter when Devonte’ took a pass on the left side, dribbled a few times, then laid the ball off the glass and in over a defender … with his left hand.
“I said, ‘You know what? Where’s his mom?’ ” Clarence said. “That’s literally how it happened.”
When Clarence found Dewanna, he talked up the merits of the AAU program Garner Road. He had previously coached John Wall, and now his team — which included his son, current North Carolina starter Justin Coleman — was interested in making Devonte’ its next point guard.
Devonte’ spent the next eight years with the same AAU program while turning into one of the best point guards in the country, according to Clarence.
That didn’t always mean college coaches were taking notice.
Devonte’, who wore size 14 shoes, remained 5-foot-3 entering high school. After reading an article about NBA point guard Chris Paul praying for height, Clarence told Devonte’ he might consider doing the same.
Although Devonte’ was often overlooked by major programs because of his size — he eventually made it to 6 feet by his senior year — Broughton High coach Jeff Ferrell knew that he had a special player.
Devonte’ wouldn’t start plays offensively until every player was in the correct spot, and many times he’d direct them where they were supposed to be. He also was the rare player who Jeff told to be more selfish, saying that the guard was deferring too often and not relying on his own talent.
That type of me-second mentality might have hurt him on the AAU circuit. Jeff would often talk to Devonte’ when he was at a tournament in Las Vegas or Georgia, asking him how he’d played before seeing if college coaches had expressed interest. Usually, they hadn’t.
It led to a decision late in his junior year. Devonte’ only had offers from small schools, with Appalachian State threatening to give his potential scholarship to another player if he didn’t take it.
Devonte’ says that put some additional pressure on him, but it wasn’t the main reason he signed with the Mountaineers.
“I felt like I wouldn’t be able to get anything better,” he said.
Then Devonte’ emerged during his senior year. He played well in the school’s holiday tournament in December, then led Broughton to the state championship game.
Devonte’ quickly realized his mistake. He asked Appalachian State to release him from his letter-of-intent, but coach Jason Capel refused when he believed other schools were tampering.
After high school, Devonte’ headed to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire in hopes Appalachian State would change its mind.
“We prayed, we cried,” Dewanna said. “Most of all, it was like, ‘Whatever you want to do, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to stick by you, and we’re going to tough it out.’ ”
After Devonte’s one season at Brewster — where he grew 2 inches to 6-foot-2 — Appalachian State fired Capel and hired Jim Fox. On April 9, 2014, the coach announced he was going to release Devonte’ from his letter-of-intent.
One month later, Devonte’ signed with KU.
The one piece of advice that would alter the course of the Jayhawks’ 2015-2016 season was delivered during a January meeting before the team faced Big 12 rival Texas.
Bill Self’s message to Devonte’ was simple: “Don’t be afraid of your own voice.”
“I know the things to say. It’s just sometimes, I won’t say it,” Devonte’ said. “I’ve been trying to do a better job of that.”
Teammates say that in the last two months, he has.
Now, if Frank Mason misses a boxout in practice that leads to an offensive rebound, Devonte’ will speak up. That’s not something he was comfortable with early in the season, especially on a team with veterans like Frank, Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis.
“At the time, I didn’t think that I was that strong of a leader. I didn’t think I had that kind of impact on the team,” Devonte’ said. “But I came to realize quick that nobody else really had the voice to do it. I’m one of the few that can really do it naturally.”
As KU heads into the NCAA tournament with the highest of expectations, it’ll be relying heavily on its emerging guard.
Devonte’ averaged 21 points, six assists and four steals during the Jayhawks’ three-game run to the Big 12 Tournament championship, and his 46 percent three-point accuracy in conference play was best among league players with at least 50 attempts.
“He’s been as valuable as any player we’ve had,” his coach said.
While KU’s coaches have reason to be thankful for Devonte’, the guard also feels grateful to have the opportunity he does. That traces mostly back to his mother.
“I couldn’t imagine having a kid now,” he said. “I’m 21. I know seven years ago, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to have a child and raise a child the way she did.”
The support remains today from the person who is often mistaken as his twin sister when the two are out shopping.
Dewanna and mother Doris were behind KU’s bench for the Big 12 Tournament, with Dewanna wearing her son’s No. 4 World University Games jersey during the Jayhawks’ victory over West Virginia in the title game Saturday.
About an hour after the game had ended, in Section 108 of the Sprint Center, Devonte’ made his way back out to talk to his mom again. He brought his MVP trophy — it was heavier than she thought — and she jokingly offered to take it back to Raleigh with her. Devonte’ laughed and said he would keep this one for himself.
When it came time to get back on the bus, he gave his mom one final hug. She could feel the tears welling up when she told him goodbye. She had a flight back to Raleigh the next day.
“It’s hard,” Dewanna said. “It’s hard probably because I’ve had him my whole life. I know how important I am to him, but I think he knows he’s just as important to me.”
Dewanna didn’t know when she was going to see her son again. She told him that he had to keep winning, because she likely wouldn’t be able to afford the expected trips to Des Moines, Iowa, and beyond.
There was one exception, though. Win enough games, and the NCAA helps cover a family’s expenses for travel.
After making his way back to the bus, Devonte’ Graham sent his mom one final text.
“Don’t cry,” it said. “I’ll see you at the Final Four.”