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Thursday, August 13, 2020

Men's Basketball

Pollard ready to bring his all for the Cougars


WEB-Justin-Tijerina-IMG_3561

Junior forward Devonta Pollard has come a long way to where he is now, but has made a huge impact for the Cougars scoring 54 points in the team’s four showings.  |  Justin Tijerina/The Cougar

Devonta Pollard sits in an empty Hofheinz Pavilion after practice, watching teammates and coaches make their way to the locker room one-by-one. The newest star of the Cougar basketball team may be over 500 miles from his hometown of Porterville, Mississippi, but he feels most at home on the court.

“Basketball is where I lose myself, but it’s also where I find myself,” he says with a soft-spoken Mississippi drawl. “It’s a place where I can focus on me and the things I want to accomplish in life.”

Devonta’s to-do list is impressively ambitious. Right now he’s focused on good grades, getting better on the basketball court and winning games. In the long run he hopes to add “first-round NBA draft pick” to his already extensive basketball resume. But each of his goals takes him back to where he started, to the person who taught him to play the game: his mother.

“I’m focused on this season, but at the end of the day I want to put myself in position to be drafted in the first round,” he said. “And then I want to get my mom from where she is and take her home… to her own house.”

Currently, “where she is” is the federal prison. In February, Devonta’s mother, Jessie Pollard, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for a kidnapping that spiraled out of control. It started as a dispute over foreclosed land between his mother and a cousin. It ended with his mother kidnapping the cousin’s child. The child was dropped off the next day unharmed.

Devonta was charged with a role in the crime and had to testify against his mother to prove his innocence. The judge agreed to drop the charges against him in exchange for his testimony, as long as Devonta manages to keep his nose clean for the next two years. He doesn’t remember parts of that day in court because it was “a lot to handle.”

The former McDonald’s All-American was a high school superstar in Mississippi, but struggled during his freshman season at Alabama. His on-the-court struggles and off-the-court legal problems made the decision to transfer back home to East Mississippi Community College easy.

“I knew I couldn’t go straight to another Division-1 school because of what had happened,” he says. “I would’ve had to sit out, and I couldn’t imagine being away from the game for a year… I had to keep playing.

Devonta chose a community college close to home because he wasn’t ready to leave his family. It was an up-and-down year. He struggled emotionally without his mother, whom he also calls his “best friend,” but he persisted. He kept going to classes and working on his game, once again finding himself through basketball. He waited. Then one day, he got a call from new UH head coach Kelvin Sampson.

“The main reason I signed with UH was how close I grew to Coach Sampson,” Devonta said. “He doesn’t just treat you like a basketball player; he treats you like a human being.”

Sampson faced an uphill battle of his own after being hired by UH in April. Several of the team’s best players transferred away after last season, and he had to recruit eight new faces before the school year. Devonta, he said, is “truly unique.”

“He’s a great kid,” Sampson said. “Having a dynamic guy like Devonta allows you put the ball in his hands and let him close out games. He can score from anywhere.”

Sampson knew nothing of Devonta’s past when he started recruiting him. But Sampson said that his off-the-court woes had no impact on the decision.

“I started coaching to help kids like Devonta, and you can’t lose sight of that,” Sampson said.

Sampson is also starting over. He resigned as head coach of Indiana in 2008 due to recruiting violations. A stint as an assistant in the NBA followed, including a 3-year-run working for the Houston Rockets. According to Pollard, coach Sampson seems to hit the ground running.

“Everybody believes in what Coach is selling,” Devonta said. “I can talk to the staff about anything, even if it’s an off-the-court issue. They treat you like family, and you don’t find that everywhere.”

It didn’t take Pollard long to make a name for himself at UH. In his first official game back, Devonta led a thrilling comeback against Murray State. The Cougars went into halftime with a four-point deficit, the same number of points Devonta had individually. But he rallied in the second half to finish with 19 points and five rebounds. The Cougars won 77-74.

“I wasn’t playing that game for the individual stats. I’m not the type of guy that wants all the fame,” Pollard said. “I just really hate to lose.”

When he walked onto the court at Murray State, he says, the reality of his journey “became real.” The bright lights became brighter, the fans in the stands sounded louder and the game jersey on his chest felt heavier. He was “overwhelmed,” he said. At halftime he snapped out of it. Once again, he found himself through basketball.

Off the court, Devonta comes off as soft-spoken and courteous. On the court, said teammate Danrad Knowles, Devonta pumps up his teammates and acts as a team leader.

“You know a lot of people think he’s a quiet guy, but when you get to know him he’s really loud,” Knowles said. “He’s a great player.”

Devonta was also named AAC conference player of the week for his performance against Murray State. Sampson recalls asking him about the honor, only to realize that Devonta hadn’t heard about it.

“He didn’t even know, but that’s the kind of kid he is,” Sampson said. “First thing he said was ‘I wish I could tell my mom about this,’ But she was out of phone minutes for the month. So I called him into my office and we wrote up a letter and sent it to her.”

While Devonta’s mother remains close to his heart and in his thoughts, he is building a new life at Houston. Porterville is an eight-hour drive, and he says the distance makes him focus on bettering himself every day, as both a player and a person.

“I want to start over,” he said. “And I don’t just mean with basketball. I want to start over in life.”

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