Saturday, September 19, 2015
Ole Miss Commit Fitzpatrick Playing For Late Coach
It doesn't matter the brand, style, or the color.
Each and every pair of sneakers Donte Fitzpatrick laces up has "DM" or "Desmond Merriweather" etched on them in clear, black lettering.
Merriweather, the late Memphis grass-roots hoops pioneer, was instrumental in cultivating Fitzpatrick's double duty acumen throughout his prep career.
Merriweather died in early February, following a lengthy battle with colon cancer. He was only 41.
An innate competitor and high-adrenaline defensive pest, Fitzpatrick hates nothing more than losing.
An agonizing loss can linger within Fitzpatrick, breaking into his solitary dreams.
Eventually, a hard-to-swallow loss will create a mountain of motivation in the wiry 6-foot-5, 183-pound guard.
The loss of Merriweather--who Fitzpatrick regarded as a father figure--has been by far his toughest to stomach.
"I was just so hurt after he passed," said Fitzpatrick, who averaged 25 points and six assists at Southwind HS (TN), en route to choosing Ole Miss over Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and hometown Memphis.
"Those were tough times. But I knew he was going to heaven, so I just had to face the fact."
In Fitzpatrick, his mentor's lasting legacy lives on and on.
A defensive tactician, Merriweather enforced furious wall-to-wall pressure to the point of exhaustion.
Fitzpatrick, whom Merriweather coached at Lester Middle School and advised throughout his high school and AAU career, bought in.
Remembering Merriweather's constant guidance and relentless urging, Fitzpatrick relishes his niche as a stout on-the-ball defender.
Fitzpatrick has fond recollections of Merriweather getting on him thoroughly.
With his coach constantly challenging him to negate the opponent's primary scorer, the lockup role has become second nature to Fitzpatrick.
"All he preached was defense, defense, defense, all game long," said Fitzpatrick.
"We never did 2-3, we were pressing throughout the whole game. We weren't risking anything on 'D.'"
Fitzpatrick keeps memories of Merriweather intact everyday, gazing at photos.
He's got another motivational source in former NBA All-Star Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway.
Hardaway is both Fitzpatrick's Godfather and an all-purpose reminder of Memphis' past basketball glory.
Forever embedded in Orlando Magic lore, "Penny" constantly holds Fitzpatrick to a high standard.
Hardaway coached Fitzpatrick on his Team Penny AAU team, solidifying the backcourt with bouncy, high-scoring guard KeVaugn Allen (Florida).
The team possessed additional star power in Memphis-bound K.J. and Dedric Lawson.
The Lawson brothers supplied athleticism and versatility at the wing and power forward positions, respectively.
Merriweather was a close friend of Hardaway.
He ultimately helped persuade Hardaway to pursue coaching.
Both men formed an unwavering support system for Fitzpatrick, a score-first combo guard.
At Ole Miss, he'll anticipate a facilitating role.
"Penny preaches going hard on every possession," Fitzpatrick said.
"I listen to everything he has to say because he played in the pro leagues and had a great career."
In a current-day world where on-court rivals buddy up through AAU and social media, Hardaway delivers another potent message to Fitzpatrick.
"He always tells me that on the floor, you ain't making no friends. You're trying to get somewhere. You're trying to get to the league eventually."
Merriweather always emphasized an assassin's instinct, demanding Fitzpatrick sustain four quarters of focus.
From Hardaway, Fitzpatrick hears much of the same.
If he's not playing up to par, if he goes quiet during certain stretches Fitzpatrick will earn an earful.
"No question, (Hardaway) wants me to be great," said the post-grad, he of the 6-foot-10 wingspan.
'He knows when I can be better. He made it to the league, so he just wants me to do the same thing."
Before he arrives at Ole Miss in December, Fitzpatrick will tune up his game at Elev8 Sports Institute in Delray Beach, Fla.
He'll need to reach a qualifying ACT score while taking college courses and gaining credits.
For the four-month period that he has him, Elev8 head coach Chad Myers anticipates a level of leadership and unbridled energy on both ends of the floor.
"He makes other guys around him better," Myers said.
"He's actually really strong, deceptively strong. He can get to the rim and really finish. He's an elite-level defender. I think, down the road, he'll have a chance to make money playing basketball."
Just like his Godfather. Just how his late and legendary coach, Desmond Merriweather, would envision it.