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Last stop for stability

Family tragedy spurred senior Saladeem Dewberry's move from school to school in Florida before he finally settled in at Wesley Chapel.

Published February 5, 2006

Saladeem Dewberry fought for the opening tip-off with a heavy heart.

This one was for his dad.

Time passed so quickly since the news smacked him two years ago to the day.

He already had been through so much.

The cancer. The wreck. The mourning.

Dewberry only talks about his heartache through screaming dunks and angry blocks.

Sorrow aided his climb atop Pasco County's basketball ranks.

On Jan. 31, 2004, Dewberry's father, Nathaniel Johnson, died in a car accident. This was just months after Dewberry lost his mother, Darlene, to breast cancer.

What ensued was a series of moves from his North Carolina home to four Florida schools in less than three years.

Now a senior, Dewberry has found Wesley Chapel is just as good as home.

"I feel in my mind everything happens for a reason," Dewberry said. "I don't know the reason my parents died.

"My whole plan in life is to teach others what I've been taught. Don't take anything for granted. It can be here one day and the next day it's gone."

Hoop dreams

Dewberry was born in Daytona and moved to Calypso, N.C., when he was in third grade.

He grew up within 100 miles of Tobacco Road in a town he said felt and looked like Dade City.

This was basketball country and it was oozing with competition. A game between high schools never ended in the gymnasium. The loser always wanted a grudge match at the park.

Pride was the prize.

"All the older cats used to crank up their cars and watch us play ball," Dewberry said. "No matter how cold it was, we were out there."

But his first taste of organized ball was delayed until sixth grade when he joined a recreational league.

He had an affinity for basketball. He was entranced by Michael Jordan and often attempted to emulate his moves at the playground.

Dewberry played everything from power forward to center during an undefeated run to the championship game. A loss in the final left him hungry.

"We were playing older dudes," Dewberry said. "I swear they cheated. Some dudes were like 15 and 17. We were 12 and 13."

Poor grades benched Dewberry in seventh and eighth grade. He prefered to hang around older kids who had no interest in school. Basketball was his homework.

"That's all we did in Carolina," Dewberry said. "Snow didn't matter. We'd shovel it off and everybody would go play ball. We would skip school sometimes just to go play ball.

"Competition was crazy."

Tragedy strikes twice

North Duplin (N.C.) High athletic director Ken Avent fondly remembered the star basketball player who started as a freshman. He also recalled the tragic events that forced him to leave.

"There was nothing left for him here," Avent said. "He basically was homeless."

His mother missed most of that season as she was in and out of the hospital. Breast cancer was stealing her life.

Dewberry recalled that his last visit was delayed by a wrong turn.

"We were supposed to make a right turn and we accidentally made a left turn," Dewberry said. "We were 10 minutes off track."

The family arrived and searched for Darlene. They asked two nurses. The nurses looked at each other, then at the family.

"They didn't tell you?" one nurse asked. "Tell me what?" Dewberry asked. "Your mom died 10 minutes ago."

Dewberry looked at the door of his mother's room. The name tag already had been removed. He spotted it in a garbage can and picked it up.

"I put it in my pocket and walked in," Dewberry said. "I saw her eyes rolled back in her head."

The scars of his mother's death were still raw when word of a second tragedy reached him on Jan. 31, 2004.

Dewberry was practicing his shot in North Duplin's gymnasium when he was summoned to the office.

"I wondered what I did this time," Dewberry said. "I was thinking of a lie to try to get out of it right then. They were just looking at me."

School officials told Dewberry his father had been in a car accident, the late-mode Honda slammed in the side by a Ford F-250 with horses in tow.

The cars slid across the wet pavement several hundred yards before stopping.

"The steering wheel was pressed against his chest," Dewberry said. "They couldn't send a chopper because it was drizzling. He was still holding on, still breathing. The doctor told my sister that he was the hardest fighter we've ever had.

"It was just drizzling rain. I don't understand why they couldn't get a helicopter to come out."

No place like home

Dewberry was at a difficult crossroads as a tenth-grader.

Stunned by the sudden loss of his father and still mourning his mother, Dewberry wanted to escape North Carolina.

Instead of staying with his father's girlfriend, Clara Williams, Dewberry opted to live with his sister, Betty White, in Florida.

They moved to Lakeland. Dewberry enrolled briefly at Lakeland Kathleen, but never played for the basketball team.

He grew homesick and was given two more moving options - West Palm Beach or North Carolina.

He and White returned to North Carolina where Dewberry played his sophomore ball. Everything seemed fine until a summer vacation stop in Orlando.

White said they were moving again.

"She couldn't deal with the country life no more," Dewberry said. "I tried to debate with her. I wanted to go back home. But I had to make a better decision for me."

But Upper Duplin wasn't the type of program Dewberry felt could gain him exposure for a shot at the next level.

They returned to Florida. Next stop, Orlando Boone.

Dewberry was there one week before they got the itch to move once more - West Palm Beach or Jacksonville.

White had a job offer in Jacksonville, so he enrolled at Jacksonville Raines.

"We played in front of packed-out crowds like Duke and Carolina playing," Dewberry said. "I felt I was good enough to play but not getting the spot. Some games I would start and some games I wouldn't. My grades were getting bad. I was depressed."

Jacksonville wasn't working so there was one final move - West Palm or Tampa. Dewberry knew a little about the Tampa area and was growning concerned about his grades.

He said he was a member of Florida Elite, an AAU basketball team, since ninth grade. Dewberry learned of Wesley Chapel through Conrad Foss, who runs Florida Elite.

"Him and my sister talked," Dewberry said. "The whole academic thing was important. The ball doesn't bounce forever. I had to learn something else besides basketball."

The frequent moves raised eyebrows around the state. Web sites buzzed with comments wondering why Dewberry was jumping from school to school so often.

"It kind of upset me," White said. "The statement on the computer was, "Where is he now? Where is he going to go? Saladeem has been to more schools than an ATM machine.' "

Wesley Chapel coach Doug Greseth also is aware of the perception of Dewberry's moves.

"I never saw the kid, never taught the kid, talked to Saladeem until I saw him in the lobby of our school," Greseth said. "That's the absolute truth. I understand what people can say and what perceptions are. That's the absolute truth.

"This is my 17th year coaching boys basketball and I've never gotten one transfer like Saladeem."

Dewberry has given Wesley Chapel (21-4) the type of boost that could lead to a state title. He's averaging 20.6. points per game, 11.4 rebounds and four blocks.

He also was named the Florida Athletic Coaches Association Class 4A, District 8 Player of the Year.

"I was always taught not to cling on to things because they might be here one day and gone the next," Dewberry said. "In my situation I'm always moving."

Contact Izzy Gould at 813 909-4612 or

[Last modified February 5, 2006, 01:22:20]

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