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March 8, 2011

Devon Peterson fought his way to K-State

The matter-of-fact nature he uses to describe it surprises some and is probably capable of offending others, but that's not his intent.

"I've seen it a lot, but it never really affected me like it did the first time," Devon Peterson said, still wiping away sweat beads after an afternoon workout on the Bramlage Coliseum floor. But he isn't talking about a YouTube-worthy trick shot or reliving a mind-bending movie. Today's topic is heavier than that.

The Kansas State junior doesn't suppress memories. He was 16 years old the first time he witnessed a shooting, and if you're willing to listen, he's willing to tell the tale. The story is smooth, as there's not a single grain of sugar sticking to its surface as it spills from his mouth.

"It was real gruesome," he says, "The guy's arm got shot off right as I was coming around the corner. I saw a lot of stuff like that in my neighborhood, but the others didn't stick with me like that."

It's not as if he's bragging or using the anecdote as a chest-thumping device. He's not interested in that at all. As a matter of fact, he'd like to clear some things up on that front. Peterson isn't the package the label stuck to his forehead says he is and he'd like to make that known.

A product of Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, a crime-riddled area that served as the backdrop for a three-day race riot in 1991, Peterson wants you to peek behind the curtain. He wants you to see him, not a geographical background or the story of a basketball player who struggled academically at a pair of community colleges during a three-year odyssey that ended in Manhattan, Kan.

A tough kid from a tough area? He's certainly that, but he's no stereotype. He's a fan of Pablo Picasso's work and a regular at New York City's fashion week. He owns every episode of the 90s sitcom Martin on DVD and does a near-perfect impression of the show's title character. Peterson spends his down time trying to draw laughs, not protruding some tired, tough-guy facade.

"I think people judge me for my past of getting here and relate that to thinking I'm a bad kid or something like that," says Peterson, now wearing a gray polo sweatshirt over his workout attire. "That's not me. Everybody has obstacles in their lives they have to go through. Getting to K-State was mine."

Peterson's story isn't a Brady Bunch episode, but it's not Boys in the Hood, either. It doesn't fit a mold or some made-for-television script. Instead, the trials and triumphs are uniquely his own.

* * *

Flip on ESPN's Through the Fire, the documentary of Sebastian Telifair's jump from Lincoln High to the NBA, and a scrawny, 15-year-old Peterson, a teammate of the film's star, can be picked out in the background. He displays a laugh and a youthful smile in every instance, not suspecting in the slightest that he'd be fighting his own battles with misconceptions years later.

"I never had a single problem with Devon -- not once," said Robert Starkman, who coached Peterson during his 2007-08 freshman campaign at Florida's Broward Community College. "He's never been in trouble. He's just a really nice kid that caught some bad advice."

It's not as if Starkman has reason to heap on the praise. The veteran coach hasn't heard from his former player since he left Broward for Cloud County Community College, a Kansas school just miles from Manhattan, a place at which he never played a game. The split wasn't totally amicable, and, at times, it's obvious.

"He's still alive?" jokes Starkman, a bellowing, profane man who turns sarcastic when Peterson becomes the topic.

You won't find a staggering epiphany here. Instead, it seems the situation dictated the path. Kevin Muff, who had Peterson in a class he taught at Cloud, calls the junior a "capable student," and wonders aloud how it took so long for him to push his way onto the campus of a major Division-I college. Others, including Starkman, think they have it pegged.

"Devon was listening to the wrong people," he said. "They told him he needed to leave us after a year and go to (Cloud County). I know Frank Martin had nothing to do with it, though. He should have just stayed here and received his two-year degree. He just got some bad advice from people back in Brooklyn."

Already committed to K-State and proudly holding a full scholarship offer, Peterson struggled mathematically at his second junior college while spending weekends sleeping on a gray couch inside a Manhattan apartment belonging to Jacob Pullen, Curtis Kelly, Dominique Sutton and Jamar Samuels. When he failed to fulfill his math requirement, however, he said goodbye to his school, vacated his weekend home and jumped a plane back to Brooklyn.

Peterson, who also failed to qualify academically out of high school, had come so close only to see the reset button pressed on the final level. The scholarship offer had been yanked, but a few years of tuition hadn't killed his spirit. Instead, it paused and punched through the dirt under which it once seemed buried.

"He's fought and fought and fought to continue to chase a dream," Martin said of Peterson, who eventually passed his final junior college class from behind a computer in his New York home. "Scholarship or no scholarship, it was a dream of his three years ago to play for us here at Kansas State. He wouldn't give up on that dream."

Starkman has seen this phenomenon before, as Peterson has always responded to doubt. Tell him he can't extinguish the sun, and you'd best prepare for darkness.

"I only yelled at him one time," said Starkman, who was once forced to fire an assistant coach for testing the limits of what Peterson could take without complaint. "I'll never forget it, though. I screamed at him at halftime of a game once because I didn't think he was into it. Man, you should have seen the way he turned it on after that. He was going at it. He just didn't care. He was going to the basket non-stop."

* * *

There's no scholarship here, just a smile as big as any crowd Peterson has played in front of during his first season as a Wildcat. After a nearly three-year hiatus, the unabashed joy from his documentary cameo and the days before his junior college odyssey has returned. You can gather all of it with a single glance.

Proudly sporting Nike practice gear and holding a basketball just yards away from the hardwood on which he now practices every day, Peterson flashes the perfect teeth that have become a familiar sight in and around the arena this season. The slab of concrete on which he now stands forces them into view.

"A lot of doors were closing on me for a while," said Peterson, who once claimed scholarship offers from Xavier, K-State, Seton Hall, St. John's and Hofstra. "Frank gave me a second chance, and I'm thankful for that every day. This is where I have brothers. This is where I'm happy. This is where I'm home."

He's played in just 14 games this season, and even in those, his minutes have been limited. Still, none of that matters for now. Even if there's plenty of work left to do, the practice jersey draped on his back signifies victory over the most trying stretch of his life.

"When he decides he's getting in the paint, there's not much you can do but hope the ref calls an offensive foul," Pullen said, offering a description of his teammate's game. The senior guard isn't speaking metaphorically, but he might as well be.

Understand that Peterson isn't supposed to be doing interviews. He isn't supposed to be in the building. And he certainly isn't supposed to be taking a break from laughing with his All-American teammate to apologize for dodging questions about his eligibly nearly two years ago.

"Sorry for ignoring your calls," he says to a reporter. His words, though seemingly genuine, are unprecedented enough to elicit chuckles from those within an earshot, but to him, this is no laughing matter.

"I'm not that type of person to just brush people off," he added. "At that point in my life, I was just really stressing over the situation. I had to get myself back together mentally before I could talk to people about the situation. It was a hard time for me."

Peterson, who wasn't cleared to enroll at K-State until just weeks before the season tipped off, doesn't blame anybody for writing him off. The fact that his own coaches didn't have a jersey ready for him upon his arrival illustrates the widespread doubt, and the 10-or-so games he played with a blank nameplate says more than any number of words. In his eyes, though, the incomplete garment acted as a size 44 told-ya-so.

"People back home were always talking about Dev," said University of Miami guard Malcolm Grant, who grew up just a block away from Peterson in Crown Heights. "They all said he was just going to end up like everybody else in the neighborhood, not going to school or making anything of himself."

* * *

A math class kept Peterson on the outside looking in during the final leg of his fight to qualify, but these days there are things that boggle his mind in a way an augmented matrix never could.

When Freddy Asprilla and Wally Judge quit Martin's squad midseason, Peterson's reaction was that of a layman feasting his eyes on the product of some cutting-edge breeding experiment.

"I really didn't understand why something like that could happen," he said. "I'm too focused as a person to ever quit on anything I've worked so hard to get to. I guess that's why I never understood it."

It's hard to blame him. Peterson's metaphorical nails are still scratched and his unblemished teeth are sore from the fight it took to get to today, so he's never been able to understand how somebody, let alone a pair of somebodys, could walk away from the program he spent three years smashing his way into.

You'd have to smoke Peterson out of the Wildcats' locker room with tear gas, and even then, you get the feeling he'd show back up, ball in hand, within the hour.

"Dev has always had a lot of doubters," Grant said. "He's always wanted to prove them wrong. What a lot of them don't know is that Dev's an animal. When I first got a call from someone back home that said 'Dev's on TV,' I turned to the channel right then. I knew he'd made it -- I knew he'd won."


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