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The Daily Tar Heel

Diamond DeShields dares to dream

Diamond DeShields is a freshman guard from Norcross, Ga. She talked to our sports reporter about her upbringing, her parents’ influence on her athletic career, and what incident made her realize the importance of being a good person.

Diamond DeShields has enough dreams to fill a book, so she does.

Not long after the morning sunlight creeps into her bedroom, she snatches her “dream book” and writes. Dreams, nightmares, fragments of both — they all get chronicled. She can relive delight, and fright, with one flick of the page.

Some don’t need their own chapter. Some remain embedded in DeShields, immortalized by memory, fossilized by emotion.

Helping others makes her happy, gives her a degree of satisfaction that basketball will never reach. When asked why she feels this way, the incendiary guard of the North Carolina women’s basketball team recalls a real-life dream interwoven with a nightmare.

An aspiring basketball player getting to meet her idol, a women’s basketball star. The indifferent, I’m-too-good-for-this attitude of the idol, whose identity DeShields withheld out of respect. A crushed middle school girl from the Atlanta suburbs making an ironclad pact with herself.

“I just told myself…”

Her smile, enough to make a lighthouse squint, disappears. Her face dissolves into tears.

“…that if I’m in a position to be that good of a player…”

More tears.

“…that I wouldn’t do that to somebody else that looks up to me.”

An ode to her past, a splash of the present, a nod to the future. Dreams, nightmares, insecurities, sources of pride — they’re all a part of Diamond DeShields, a strand of DNA, inextricably one.

Human highlight reel

Basketball can make DeShields happy. UNC’s leading scorer can splice two defenders, perform pirouettes on her way to the basket, make passes that some point guards would never dare try to make. When she makes a routine play by her standards, a highlight reel, “did-you-see-that?!” play by layman’s standards, DeShields, 18, simply smiles, a cheek-to-cheek glow that lifts her 6-foot-1-inch body off the hard court.

“It can make me very happy,” DeShields said of basketball, “but it can also make me really mad.”

Such as now, for instance. DeShields, outfitted in a Tar Heels tracksuit and sweatpants, kneads her non-shooting left hand after a Friday practice. She broke several bones in her hand Dec. 21, a result of a hard foul and collision during the game against High Point.

She sat out one game and returned with the aid of a brace.

The sport, of course, has given DeShields ample happiness. She won multiple world championships on U.S. national teams. She won three state titles at Georgia’s Norcross High School. She won the 2013 Naismith Award as the nation’s top high school player of the year. Along the way, she has stupefied coaches and players with her ability, at once supernatural and dumbfounding.

Angie Hembree, who coached DeShields at Norcross and once coached Maya Moore when she was in high school, said DeShields outpaced Moore, a star at Connecticut and the 2011 No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA, in athleticism. Both players could dunk as high school freshmen.

“I would say, athletically, she’s right there with the best of the best,” Hembree said.

Allisha Gray, a freshman guard, has seen it, too, ever since she met DeShields on their seventh-grade AAU team and became best friends with the smiling girl who reached out to her shy teammate.

“A girl who can grab the rim with ease and dunk? That’s weird,” Gray said. “I’ve never seen that before. That’s just stupid athletic ability.”

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It could, in Gray’s words, get even more stupid. So long as her health and enviable skills remain loyal to DeShields, she wants to be “the best basketball player ever.”

But she has little interest in the trappings of fame. DeShields likes to stay in her room with Gray, her roommate, and play “Call of Duty” or “NBA2K14.” She keeps a bookshelf in her room and keeps it full. Her Bible sits nearby. If she has to shop, she does so online.

“The things I like and the things that I don’t like are pretty unconventional for a basketball player of my caliber,” DeShields said.

It’s true. After all, rarely does a basketball prodigy fall out of love with the sport.

Not her first love

Diamond DeShields grew up playing baseball. She owes more than nostalgia to the sport: Her name, her parents say, comes from her father’s baseball career. Delino DeShields played 13 years in the majors , and the Houston Astros drafted his son, Delino, Jr., 8th overall in the 2010 MLB draft.

DeShields wanted to follow in her brother and father’s footsteps. She didn’t play her first game of organized basketball until sixth grade.

With her dad and mom, Tisha, an All-America runner at Tennessee , DeShields had a lethal brew of athletic genes and a lust for winning. In middle school, she ran track and played tennis, softball and football. The middle school coach asked her to play quarterback. Even bowling and golf came naturally.

Basketball didn’t, at least in terms of enjoyment. DeShields hated it, hated it so much that she quit, hated it so much that she threw down her AAU jersey and vowed never to play again.

“My team was terrible,” DeShields said. “I do not like losing. I don’t like losing at all.”

DeShields played well, but her teammates became an albatross around her neck. She couldn’t do everything by herself in a team sport, she said. It was time to find something in which she could carry her own weight without worrying about somebody else’s.

“So I quit, and I played tennis and I was like, ‘You know, I can win this by myself.’ And then I started losing in tennis,” DeShields said, laughing. “All the pressure was on me.”

That, of course, neglects the ease with which she took to tennis. DeShields went to Florida to train with Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena. She was good, damn good, and thinks she could play professionally now if she had stuck with it. A tennis racket sits in her Carmichael Arena locker, should the urge to hit a few balls strike.

Dream on

DeShields has never wanted to be like somebody else. Not even her parents. Not even herself.

When she burst onto the national high school basketball scene during her freshman year, interviewers would quickly invoke her parents. How fortunate to have such advantageous genes, they’d say. DeShields preferred her hard work to speak for itself.

Analysts compare DeShields to Moore and another college basketball and WNBA star, Candace Parker. That’s all, DeShields said. A comparison, not some sort of lifelong membership to an exclusive club.

“They’re great in their own right, and I want to be great in my own right,” DeShields said. “I don’t want to be like them.”

And then there’s herself. Respectful, Gray said, a great motivator, a sisterly friend. A hard worker, coach Andrew Calder said, always the first one at practice, taking shots by herself. A leader, Hembree said, a good-as-gold role model. “There’s no doubt that I love that child,” she said.

Be warned, DeShields said — she laments what she calls her “own issues,” namely putting pressure on herself in matters big and small. DeShields and her teammates went bowling recently, a time to decompress.

DeShields fumed during most of the outing, livid with herself for a subpar performance on the lanes. When girls tell her that they want to be her, they want to be just like Diamond DeShields, DeShields smiles outwardly and cringes inwardly.

“I wouldn’t want anybody to be like me, but they don’t know my issues,” DeShields said.

“I wouldn’t want someone to be out with their team just really getting mad over something that small. I just tell anybody to be themselves.”

Perhaps she told that to her middle school self — to be like you, not like the standoffish idol standing before you. Perhaps that’s why DeShields grew up to be nothing like her former hero.

As part of a local charity organization, she grew up devoting hours on Thanksgiving to preparing and distributing meals to the homeless. She helped arrange the purchase of school supplies for underprivileged students. When her 9-year-old sister needs Division I assistance at practice, DeShields shows up as a guest coach.

“It’s just good to help people and know that people want your help,” DeShields said.

The WNBA? It’s a goal, DeShields said. But injury — the unforeseen — can derail that in an instant. Her dream?

Living comfortably, happily. Having her family close by. To be loved, to have somebody to love. To work in science or technology for the betterment of society, to make people’s lives easier.

“What I try to do in life is bigger than basketball, and I try not to be so focused on basketball that I lose sight of everything else that’s surrounding me that’s important,” she said.

It could be that the most important thing happened last night, during her sleep. An inspiration, a message, a calling.

DeShields keeps her pen close by, the empty pages in her dream book even closer.