Rookie Dorian Finney-Smith quietly makes way for himself in Dallas
Forward's audition during Dirk Nowitzki's absence leaves impression, but journey to starting lineup was not an easy one
Ra-Shawn Finney was 18 years old when he was shot down late that night in Chesapeake, Va. He is survived by five siblings, including his twin, Da-Shawn, and yet the greatest impact may have been suffered by his quiet little brother Dorian Finney-Smith, for reasons their mother could not understand. Dorian, who has grown up to become a rookie forward for the Dallas Mavericks, was 15 on the night of the murder.
As the years wore on him, Dorian expressed no signs of torment.
“I never knew what was wrong,” says Desireé Finney of her youngest son. “He didn’t act like nothing was wrong, either.”
It is hard enough to become a player in the NBA – 450 jobs pursued by millions of young men around the world – and the violent death of his brother “Peanut,” as Ra-Shawn was known, made Dorian’s dream seem ever further away, and almost beyond his reach. And still, in reaching forth stubbornly, in spite of his hard memory, he was strengthened.
Eight years after his brother died, after playing for three coaches at two colleges, after going undrafted and barely surviving the Mavericks’ training camp, he has been starting in place of the injured Dirk Nowitzki. Dorian Finney-Smith has scored 36 points across three recent victories while defending all of the wing positions. He has emerged as a reliable source of promise in this losing season.
“He’s a guy that loves defense by nature,” says coach Rick Carlisle. “With young guys we don’t often see that.”
“In training camp, he was one of the guys fighting for the last spot, and he was always doing the work, always a positive attitude, a really even-keeled guy,” says Nowitzki. “I think those were the main reasons we chose him – his versatility on defense, his attitude and willing to work.”
“He’s a quiet unassuming guy, but on the court he’s fiery, he’s passionate,” says center Andrew Bogut. “And he never complains. A lot of these young kids these days come in with a lot of entitlement, but you never hear him say anything.”
The Mavs are beguiled by the maturity of this 23-year-old rookie who views himself within the larger context of his team’s needs. This comes as no surprise to his mother, the dominant person in his life. She recognizes the nature of her son’s perseverance, now that she knows what happened.
“Doe-Doe, ever since he was born, was the quiet one,” Desireé says of her Dorian. “Usually around the time of Peanut’s birthday, he’d go through this thing where he’ll be really quiet. But I didn’t know.”
Amidst tragedy, growth in game occurs
“I shut down and shut out a lot of people,” Dorian says. “I was already an introvert. But then I shut everybody out. I never opened up about it.”
Ra-Shawn was murdered on Sept. 13, 2008, and it was during the ensuing season that his little brother established his future.
“That was probably my breakthrough year, that year he passed,” Dorian says with a small laugh. “I can’t explain it. I grew physically that year, I grew taller. Basketball was my sanctuary place. When you play basketball, you have a free mind. I put it all into basketball, and I had my family to talk to. They always asked me, was I all right? I acted tough, like, you know, I’m good.”
But he wasn’t good.
He led I.C. Norcom High School of Portsmouth to state championships over his final two seasons and made the ACC All-Freshman Team while starting 30 games at Virginia Tech in 2011-12. But he was too young to know what was living inside him, to understand the memory that he was holding him hostage.
There was no father in the household when Dorian was growing up. Ra-Shawn had become the male leader, the one who was mature for an 18 year old.
“He had car insurance, life insurance, everything,” Desireé says of Ra-Shawn. “He was the only who had a job. He worked at Pizza Hut, and the money that I didn’t have, he would put the rest to it. He helped pay for the trips for basketball for the other kids, the sneaks. They were all playing.”
Desireé cleaned houses to support her family – still does – and when Peanut was killed, she had to make a hard choice on behalf of his brothers and sisters.
“I shut down and shut out a lot of people. I was already an introvert. But then I shut everybody out. I never opened up about it.”
Dorian Finney-Smith on his older brother’s murder
“Everything had to keep going,” she says. “It was hard, but I couldn’t let everybody fall. So I turned the negative into a positive by saying, ‘Everybody got to work harder now. We got to do this for Peanut’ – that was our oomph then. ‘We got our own angel. We know it’s going to be hard, but we ain’t never had it easy.’ Basketball, the sports, they took us away from everything.”
Her kids, including Dorian, who would have Ra-Shawn’s name tattooed across his chest, were able to hear their mother’s voice at their basketball games for better and for worse.
At 5-11 Desireé had been a good player herself before she became pregnant in high school.
“I used to be hard on them,” she says of her children. “I was a drill sergeant. I would be yelling at them for missing a layup, or free throws.”
Her voice carried throughout the small gyms.
“`How can you miss those free throws? Boy, you kidding me! They were free!”’ she recalls herself yelling. “Yeah, they didn’t want to hear my mouth.”
Dorian, who is 6-8 now, would sit with his mother at the basketball games of his older brothers. She nicknamed him Doe-Doe in celebration of his large round eyes.
“We would dissect the game,” she says. “People would be surprised by how much he knows. He knows that defense brings the offense, and he knows it’s a team. Can’t no one player do it by himself.”
Eventually basketball would help him to make sense of his own struggles, to realize he was not alone, that his teammates were there to help him so that he in turn could lift them up. As grateful as Desireé is for the basketball and baseball and football games of her children that helped them to survive those hard years, she also wishes that she could have found time for healing.
“They offered a counselor for all the kids,” Desireé says. “But I said no to the grieving counselor. I said, ‘We’re going to be all right. We’re going to do that together.’ After a while I said that I probably should have let him do that. I made the final decision for everybody without asking how they felt about it. But you never knew.”
Pain can only be held so long
“The difficult part for anyone is making the decision that they want to overcome a hardship,” says Don Kalkstein, the Mavericks’ director of sports psychology. “I think that is really the toughest decision, No. 1. And then No. 2, having access to somebody, a professional, who can help them overcome that, and trusting the management techniques or styles or ways to handle situations or issues.”
It is one of the clichés of storytelling that a tragedy can drive an athlete to success. The cliché goes only so far.
“Often people will use incidents like that, really horrific situations, as motivators,” Kalkstein says. “Those normally work for a very short time. But then a lot of times it becomes a limitation. Now they have to overcome the obstacle. And so understanding and working through it becomes the even bigger and stronger motivation for them to continue to do whatever it is that they do.”
Peanut, so nicknamed because he was 5-9, was an inspiration to his younger brother in spirit. He had caught six passes for his high school football game on the day of his death.
“He had that drive,” Dorian says. “I wanted that drive that he had. Even when practice was over he was always asking for more. He played football and he ran cross-country just because he loved the work. And that’s me now. I love the work. I try not to take the easy way, because the brain always want to take the easy way. I just try not to cheat the system.”
Mike Procopio, the Mavericks’ director of player development, views Dorian Finney-Smith as a Michael Cooper in the making. His stats of 5.2 points and 33.8% shooting from the 3-point line are impressive in the context of his backstory. Last month, for lack of better options, Carlisle plugged Dorian into the second quarter against Milwaukee. He stayed on the court for 32 minutes, and his defensive stop of Giannis Antetokounmpo at the end of regulation enabled the Mavericks to win their first game of the season in overtime.
“Talk about being ready,” says Mavericks guard Harrison Barnes. “
“It’s been my experience working with different athletes who had to overcome specific obstacles in their lives, that when they are in this pressure, anxiety-induced situation, that for them it’s not as important as the things that they’ve had to deal with in their own lives,” Kalkstein says. “And so they are allowed to – not to be cliché – perform in the present. Instead of thinking about wow, who am I guarding?”
But then, Dorian never would have been able to guard the Greek Freak if not for his recovery from the worst night of his young life.
“I can’t even imagine,” Kalkstein says. “The analogy would be a compressed air tank filling up, filling up, filling up. At some point it’s just going to blow. And then having the ability to hit the release valve and getting the pressure back down to a manageable zone. That I can understand.”
Breakthrough with Billy Donovan
After Virginia Tech fired coach Seth Greenberg in 2012, Dorian transferred to Florida in order to play for coach Billy Donovan, who had recruited him in high school. Dorian was forced to sit out the first year. He found himself trusting Donovan and others around the program.
“I let it out in my sophomore year,” he says. “We had a professional therapist at Florida who helped me get through it.”
There was a team meeting. He was sobbing as he explained what had happened.
“I talked to my team,” he says. “I had never told anyone before. I told them how that night went. I told them what happened that night. I seen my brother get shot. I stood on top of him.”
He had been there. He had watched the argument developing at the early-morning party when 18-year-old Peanut yelled at Dorian to go wait in the car. But Dorian had stayed. He had been there when 23-year-old Jarrel Eldridge revealed his gun and shot Ra-Shawn Finney seven times in the arm, shoulder and chest. Eldridge pleaded to a 27-year sentence in prison for second-degree murder. His victim died after two weeks in hospital.
“I didn’t even know,” Desireé says. “I didn’t know he seen my son get killed. I knew he was with him, it was the first time he let his little brother hang with him, but I didn’t know he seen it. He never told me. Never told me.”
Dorian remembers the stunned empathy of his teammates as he let go of his memory. From their reactions he recognized the weight of his burden.
“Just to see how happy I am all the time, I’m always smiling,” he says. “You wouldn’t know I went through something like that.”
He went through it for his mother. She had been there for him, always, and in the years after he was trying to be there for her.
“It was because of me,” Desireé says. “Not wanting to tell me.”
He did not want to add to the weight of her heart.
“It wouldn’t have,” she says.
It could not have.
A brighter future
When Desireé came to visit her son in Dallas earlier this month, she stocked up for him at Kroger and Target: bed linens, towels, all of the necessities. Then she went to see him play, and she realized his dream had come true because she was no longer telling him what to do.
“It was totally different,” she explains over the phone from Dallas. “It was like a kind of pressure …”
The pressure that he was feeling was shared by her. That was why she wasn’t yelling at him to make his free throws and layups. He was grown up.
A recent Sunday afternoon finds Desireé in the kitchen with Dorian. She is talking on her cell while making dinner.
“Dorian just had another baby, a son,” she is explaining over the phone. “Now we got Dorian II.”
Dorian also has a daughter, Sinai, who is 6. Desireé sees her own history repeating itself.
“I have five grandkids,” Desireé says. “My daughter had her baby when she was a freshman in college.”
Dorian can be heard in the background, arguing about the timing.
“Freshman? She was a sophomore,” Dorian can be heard saying to his mother.
“How much do you want to bet?” Desireé says. “I’ll bet you. Bet you five dollars.”
Relationships change. Desireé is in the kitchen making a dinner of fried pork chops, baked chicken, macaroni and cheese, string beans and stuffing, as she talks on the phone and glances up to her son.
The two-bedroom apartment that he is renting, a short way from the arena, is smelling deliciously familiar. Nothing is easy, and her son has grown up to be her friend. Life is beautiful.
Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.
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