Amid Super Bowls And Rose Bowl, A Budding Basketball Star Grows
Right up until a few years ago, DiJonai Carrington served as the public address announcer at her big sister's basketball games.
"At guard," she would begin, "a 5-6 senior ... No. 2l ... MY SISTER ... DiArra CARRINGTON!!!"
But faster than a fast break, DiJonai went from cute kid announcing games at San Diego's Horizon Christian Academy to star freshman at that same school.
Carrington, a 6-foot junior shooting guard/small forward, is the No. 34 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the 2016 class. She was named California Freshman of the Year in 2013, but a torn ACL knocked her out in July before her sophomore season.
Her surgeon said she would need six to nine months to recover. She had surgery on Aug. 13, 2013. Carrington -- determined to make it back as soon as possible -- circled Feb. 13, 2014, on her calendar and posted it on her bedroom wall.
Carrington reached her goal, and, on her fourth game back last season, enjoyed one of her greatest moments.
With the score tied and 20 seconds remaining in a playoff game against Ribet Academy (Los Angeles), Vickie Carrington -- DiJonai's mother and Horizon's head coach -- called timeout.
"My mom was setting up a different play, and I said, 'No, no, let's do this ...' " DiJonai said.
Elbert Kinnebrew, her AAU coach at Cal Sparks, was in the stands that night, sitting next to UCLA coach Cori Close.
Kinnebrew said the atmosphere in the Ribet gym was electric. Many of the school's football players were in attendance, and they had spent the entire game chanting "overrated" every time DiJonai touched the ball.
"They were banging on the metal siding of the walls," Kinnebrew said. "They were really loud in a very small gym, but DiJonai never talked back."
Coming out of the timeout, Kinnebrew said he was shocked to see the ball in the hands of the point guard on the left wing instead of giving it to Carrington, who was on the right side.
"With just a couple of seconds left, the point guard shoots the ball, and DiJonai comes flying from the right side, catches the ball in midair at rim level and finger-rolls it in with her right hand to win the game.
"I've never seen a girl do that."
It was all part of the plan, said Carrington, who had drawn up the alley-oop play to make it look as if the point guard was actually shooting the ball instead of passing.
Carrington finished with 22 points, 20 rebounds and 3 steals in a 55-53 win.
"It was great to have that 'I'm back' feeling," said Carrington, who estimated she was still only 70 percent recovered from knee surgery at that time. "I'm glad the play worked."
As for the rival fans, Carrington said she heard them just fine.
"But I couldn't care less," she said. "They could chant whatever they wanted. The best way to shut them up was by my actions."
A football family
Carrington, who will play for Horizon Christian Academy at the prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix next week, is not the only one in her family who has heard the roar of the crowd.
Her father, Darren Carrington, was an NFL defensive back with 22 career interceptions. He made it to two Super Bowls -- first with the Denver Broncos in the 1989-90 season and then with the San Diego Chargers in 1994-95 -- losing both to the San Francisco 49ers.
He met Vickie at Northern Arizona University, where he played football and she ran track as a sprinter. Their oldest daughter, DiArra, played college basketball at three schools, including New Orleans, and is now the junior varsity coach at Horizon.
The couple's second child, Darren Jr., is a 6-2 redshirt freshman wide receiver at Oregon. He had a breakout performance last week in the Pac-12 title game, catching seven passes for 126 yards and one TD in Oregon's 51-13 win over No. 7 Arizona.
Darren Sr., who is now a marriage and family pastor as well as Vickie's assistant coach at Horizon, DiJonai and the rest of the family are planning to be at the Rose Bowl next month when No. 2 Oregon takes on No. 3 Florida State in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
"The first couple of games this season, he didn't play very much," DiJonai said of her brother. "But he kept working. His success is a testament to his desire and dedication."
So who is the best athlete of the Carrington bunch?
"Wow, that's a tough one," Darren Sr., said. "I would have to say my son because he surfs, does snowboarding -- all sports. My oldest daughter set the direction. DiJonai has had the drive and the passion from the beginning -- no fear."
Add the quality of versatility as well to DiJonai. As a kid, she played tackle football against boys for three years.
On her very first play in Pop Warner, she got knocked out while fielding a punt.
"She got clocked," said Vickie, who had been nervous about allowing DiJonai to play. "I covered my eyes."
DiJonai, who went on to become her football team's MVP that season, said the play in question was not her fault.
"The kid in front of me was supposed to block, but he just stepped out of the way," DiJonai said. "I would have called a fair catch ... I got hit full force."
A hit on the court
Now, on the basketball court, it's Carrington who terrorizes opponents, including on defense.
"She has a wide stance," Kinnebrew said. "She extends her arms out to almost full horizontal, and when a player tries to dribble past her, she pokes it away, chases it down and gets a layup. It's unorthodox, but it works."
Kinnebrew said there are several reasons he thinks Carrington is a "can't miss" college prospect.
She can defend anyone from point guard to power forward. She's smart -- she had a 4.24 GPA last year and is interested in studying psychology or criminal justice.
And she is highly coachable. "DiJonai is receptive to anything that will make her better," Kinnebrew said. "Any college she goes to, she will elevate that program. I don't know how good she will end up, but she won't go to college and fail -- that won't happen."
She's already received home visits from coaches from schools such as Louisville, Texas A&M, UCLA and Southern Cal.
Because academics are so important to her, Stanford and Duke, which are both recruiting her, might be a good fit. Oregon, because her brother is there, also is in the running.
Even with all the coaches recruiting her, Carrington has gotten quite good at sifting through sales pitches and finding facts.
"A lot of schools say they have good academics, but I want to know what the players who went to their schools are doing for a living after graduation," she said. "Style of play is important, too. I want a team that runs and guns and pushes the ball to get fast-break points. I don't want a team that says: 'That's our goal.' I want one that is successful at that style."