May 31, 2016
Derrick Taylor, the Taft High coach, was at an AAU tournament when his son called.
Bryce Dejean-Jones had been the kid in Taylor’s 1988 Altima, riding to school each morning and back to Inglewood each night, for two years. After that, Dejean-Jones had gone to three colleges and had played well for the New Orleans Pelicans, as an undrafted rookie.
He constantly talked about The League. “There was no question in his mind he was going to be there,” Taylor said.
Now Taylor was hearing that Dejean-Jones was dead, shot in Dallas, after he broke down a door to an apartment he thought contained his girlfriend and his son, who was observing his first birthday. He was one floor below where he should have been. The resident had a gun. Dejean-Jones died through mistaken identity. He had lived through it for years.
“I was paralyzed,” Taylor said Sunday night. “I still am. I’m sitting here not knowing what to do.”
So many cruelties when a 23-year-old dies, especially when he is finally in gear and driving toward his ambition. Taylor and Bob Cantu, the USC assistant who recruited Dejean-Jones, knew about the stumbles, mostly self-inflicted, that caused the trips from USC to UNLV to Iowa State. They don’t know what happened and they aren’t blind to Dejean-Jones’ big, aggressive personality. But they say it wasn’t really him.
“I never saw that explosive side,” Taylor said. “I never had a problem with him. He was a good guy. He was terrific with young kids. He was smart and he cared about people.
“But I guarantee you one thing. He didn’t think anybody on the court was better than him. He wanted the big shot and he would take on anybody to get it.”
“He wanted to win every drill,” said Cantu, now an assistant coach at UTEP. “No matter what we did, he wanted to be great. I don’t think people realize how tough it is to go to three schools and really only play two seasons in college and still get to the pros. And then he’d transferred in high school (from View Park to Taft) and back, then he had to sit out his junior year.”
“So he hadn’t played much. But we were excited. His dad had run track at USC and was always a fan. We signed Bryce before that senior year. We knew we had something.”
Dejean-Jones was the City Section Player of the Year. He was a senior when DeAndre Daniels (UConn) and Spencer Dinwiddie (Colorado) were juniors. Three NBA players, but Dejean-Jones was Option 1, although he admitted that he and Daniels “fought over the ball” when the season began. He beat Leuzinger in the state quarterfinals, on a step-back 22-footer at the horn.
Dejean-Jones was a Call of Duty fan. At Chipotle he’d order burritos so big they had to be double-wrapped. At a Valley All-Star Game that summer, he entered the dunk contest and won it because he leaped over his mom, Francesca, and slammed it. “She was standing,” Taylor said. “And she’s about 5-foot-10.”
Dejean-Jones didn’t make it through his freshman year with USC coach Kevin O’Neill. He was upset that Jio Fortan had become the point guard, and he later disclosed that he’d gotten in a fight with teammate Garrett Jackson.
He went to UNLV and played two years and in two NCAA tournaments After losses he would shoot jumpers late into the night. At Wyoming he went 9-for-17 as the fans booed, and he yelled back, “They can’t (deleted) guard me!”
But he left the locker room angrily after a loss to San Diego State, and he was suspended for the regular-season finale, and he later told Iowa reporters that a teammate had threatened to shoot him. “I’m supposed to stay there and walk into an ambush?” he said.
Dejean-Jones’ final chapter was a grad-senior season at Iowa State, where he fit into a crew of fellow transfers and won the Big 12 Tournament. No one drafted him. But he was good for New Orleans’ Summer League team, and he was good with the Idaho Stampede in the D-League.
When Tyreke Evans was hurt, the Pelicans brought him in. Dejean-Jones shot 37 percent from the 3-point line and averaged nearly 20 minutes in 13 starts. He signed a conditional three-year contract, scored 17 with nine rebounds against the hometown Lakers.
He was the sum of all of his warring parts, but for a few months he was who he always wanted to be, his identity unmistaken. Then Dejean-Jones made one more mistake. It brought him death by metaphor.
We are not all forgiven equally.