UD's Dillard overcomes obstacles, excels on court

There are different kinds of losses.

There’s the embarrassing kind the University of Dayton men’s basketball team suffered Wednesday night when they were uncharacteristically blown out by Buffalo at UD Arena.

And then there’s the kind that leaves you with a pair of eyes crying teardrops into a rose that’s tattooed onto your upper arm. One where you’ve filled a notebook with poems trying to write away the longing and hurt. One where you think all you have left is a fading photograph of a 19-year-old girl that you keep on the desk in your Stewart Street apartment.

The girl in the picture is Latinga Daniels, the mother of Dayton Flyers starting point guard Kevin Dillard. It was taken two years before she gave birth to him and less than four years before she suddenly died — at age 23 — from a hereditary heart ailment.

As he sat in the Kennedy Union Food Court after class the other day, Dillard quietly admitted he remembers nothing of his mother and said that photo is the only thing he really has of her.

Dillard’s dad, Kevin Sr. — who raised his son as a single parent — knows better.

“His mother was quite a basketball player,” Kevin Sr., a former college basketball player, high school coach and now an NCAA Division I women’s basketball referee, said Friday afternoon.

“She was 6-foot-1 and a big scorer at Gage Park High in Chicago,” he said as he drove from a game in Chicago to one in Green Bay. “I was still playing ball in rec leagues when we met.

“She was the one who always initiated going to the gym and oh, was she competitive. She didn’t like to lose. And if she did lose, you had to play her again until she won.”

“Kevin doesn’t realize how much he’s just like her.

“In fact, she’s the one who first put a basketball in his hands.”

Finding his way

“They told her she’d be at risk if she gave birth to me, but she didn’t listen,” Dillard said. “She just didn’t want to get rid of me.”

But then, when her son was just 18 months old, she did die.

“In the beginning, it probably was harder on me than him,” Kevin Sr. said. “I took four months off to grieve and during that time — and many times after — our families stepped in to help. You know the old saying about how it takes a village to raise a child? Well, Kevin is that village child.”

Much of the time, though, it was just him and his son, but Kevin Sr. claims the challenge wasn’t as overwhelming as it might seem: “From the onset, it wasn’t like I had a tiny child to raise. When his mother passed, he was walking and starting to talk and he even was potty trained.”

Where the boy really showed himself to be a fast learner was on the basketball court.

“When I went back to my old school (Bremen High) to coach, he’d come along to practice,” Kevin Sr. said. “He could handle the ball right off and was running the three-man weave when he was 4 or 5. By the time he was 6, he could handle the five-man weave.”

While the gym was an oasis, Dillard said there were “obstacles” in everyday life.

“When my dad worked construction, I spent a lot of time alone at home. And while my dad did teach me how to be a man, I think I missed out on things a mother can give you — all that advice, that motherly love. And when all the other kids talked about their mothers, I never had those same stories.”

Dillard said it wasn’t until he was a junior at Homewood-Flossmoor High School that his dad got married to Chimille Perkins, a teacher at his school. By then he was a prep standout who ended up being named Illinois Mr. Basketball, a mantle previously worn by such hoop luminaries as Kevin Garnett, Dee Brown and Eddy Curry.

During his junior year, he had signed with Southern Illinois University, but once he got there he began to suspect he’d picked the wrong school. He claims he had been told the Salukis would play an up-tempo game, but said coach Chris Lowery was more into walking the ball up the court and grinding down the shot clock on each possession.

Even so, Dillard flourished. He led the team in scoring and assists his first year and was named the Missouri Valley Conference’s Freshman of the Year.

“I knew a lot of guys think about transferring after their first year, so I thought maybe I was just young and didn’t see the whole picture, so I decided to come back a second season,” he said.

But the feelings intensified, and he said other guys who had been recruited with him felt the same.

“We all kind of felt that for the places we wanted to go in life, this wasn’t a good first step for us.”

Still he performed, and in his sophomore year, he not only led the team in scoring again, but led the league in assists.

But by the end of that year, he and the other three guys in his 2008 recruiting class all had left the program.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “At the time I had a girlfriend there, my best friend was there and all my teammates were like brothers. But I wasn’t happy.”

Once he had his release, he drew varying degrees of interest from programs like Alabama, Nebraska, Boston College, Xavier and Dayton. Most of the other schools either signed other players first or had no open scholarships, but UD’s Brian Gregory remained a committed suitor.

“When I got here, I had a chance to get together with the guys on the team and see what they were like off the court, and I had a sitdown with BG and I learned more about the school, and I felt really good about the place,” he said. “And it’s turned out to be everything I’d hoped it would be.”

A new coach

That’s not to say there weren’t challenges.

First there was all the preseason excitement last year about freshman point guard Juwan Staten, who was one of the highest-ranked recruits the program had ever signed.

Meanwhile, Dillard was pushed further into the background because he had to sit out a year to meet NCAA transfer requirements.

“Last year was rough for him,” Kevin Sr. said. “There were times I was as much of a counselor and a psychologist as I was a dad.”

Another release for Dillard was his poetry.

“I first tried writing poems when I was a junior in high school — just as a way of relieving stress or putting down things that bothered me — and when I’d finish, I always felt better about myself,” he said. “Pretty soon I was doing it regularly.

“And I think if you read my poems you actually get to know the real me. A lot of people only see me as a basketball player. But there’s a lot more to me than that. There’s a Kevin Dillard outside of a Dayton basketball uniform.”

The one in the uniform has handled challenges pretty well, too.

“As for playing time with Juwan here, we were never worried,” Kevin Sr. said. “Kevin knew what his abilities were, and Coach Gregory did, too. A player like Kevin you just can’t keep off the court. And truthfully, if Staten hadn’t transferred, I think he’d be the one worrying about his minutes.”

Not long after Staten announced he was leaving, Gregory informed the school he was leaving for Georgia Tech.

“That morning he told us, I was shocked,” Dillard said. “Coach Gregory and his staff transformed me into a different person, and I really expected to move forward with them.

“But since I had felt I was an outsider looking in a lot of the time, now that I was finally part of the team for real, I felt I could speak out. And I told the guys, ‘No matter who UD brings in to lead us, we’re going to stick together and be successful.’ ”

In new coach Archie Miller, Dillard said the team has someone who “has enhanced our skills and believes in us. He’s given us confidence. He’s given a lot of guys here a new life.”

And no one more so than Dillard.

When the Flyers stunned everyone — beating Wake Forest, Fairfield and Minnesota — to win the Old Spice Classic in Florida last week, Dillard was named MVP of the tournament. He scored 46 points in three games, and in the title game against the Gophers had 19 points, 10 assists, seven steals and three blocked shots.

Going into today’s game at Murray State, he leads the team in scoring (13.1 ppg), assists, steals, blocked shots and minutes.

“He’s a bonafide, legitimate point guard who could play anywhere in the country,” Miller said. “Although he’s quiet, he’s really bought into the program, and he’s become our leader.”

As for the Flyers’ stumble against Buffalo, Dillard said “We’re all kind of shocked, but we’ll regroup and move on.”

And you get the feeling, of all the players on the team, he certainly is capable of doing just that.

As those tattooed teardrops, the poems and that lone desktop photo attest, he has endured greater losses.

There is a lot more to him than just that guy you see in a Dayton uniform.

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