DeShawn Freeman ready to rise

DeShawn Freeman, seen here in a 2011 file photo as a sophomore at Northern Nash (Rocky Mount, N.C.), pays tribute to his older brother Gregory, who was killed in April, before every game. Telegram photo / Alan Campbell

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. -- There's no real conclusion to the DeShawn Freeman story.

No ending that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. No climax that ties it all together.

Freeman is a 6-foot-7, 18-year-old basketball player who's in process. It's a process that's slowly but surely removing the gray cloud that's hovered over him for the last six months and restoring the shine to a once bright basketball career.

That's why it almost seems kismet that the prominent sign at the entrance of his hometown reads: "Rocky Mount: The City on the Rise" since its biggest star has similar plans for ascension.

"These last six months have been rough," said Freeman, a rising senior forward at Rocky Mount Prep. "But I've got to keep moving forward. I've got to keep pushing. It's not just for me; it's for my mom. My family. It hasn't been easy."

That's an understatement.

Back in mid-January, during a homecoming game against Christian Faith Center Academy (Creedmoor, N.C.), Freeman snagged a rebound during the third quarter and came down awkwardly; tearing the meniscus in his right knee.

"I knew right away that something was wrong," Freeman said. "I just knew. I felt a whole lot of pressure on my knee. I knew it wasn't good."

Freeman underwent successful surgery to repair the tear, but not even the doctor's reassurances that a three-month hiatus would bring him back to 100 percent eased his fears about a full recovery.

"Shawn loves basketball," his mother Renee said. "So I know that not being able to play was scary."

It's relative.

Freeman had never missed significant time away from basketball, and his whole on-court persona is built around speed and explosion. Two attributes that don't go well with a bum knee.

An Amar'e Stoudemire clone, Freeman built his reputation around the violent manner in which he throws down dunks and the ferocity he uses to swat shots and rebound.

At the time of his season-ending injury, Freeman was averaging 20 points and eight rebounds a game.

"When we played them DeShawn had at least seven dunks," said former CFCA Coach Kendrick Williams. "I was so impressed with his athleticism and skill and his ability to get out in transition. He's just relentless."

The youngest of five brothers, Freeman didn't have to look far for positive reinforcement and encouragement, while he waited for his knee to heal, especially from his brother Gregory, who had the "proud older brother" role down cold.

"He was always bragging on me to everyone," Freeman recalled. "He would always tell me that I was about to blow up and things like that. I loved it. He would get me hype. He'd make me believe in myself even more."

Freeman talked to Gregory about the importance of this AAU season, and the need for him to be seen by coaches.

"He would always say, 'Do your thing, so you and mom can get outta here,'" Freeman said. "He never doubted that I would make it big. Rocky Mount has gotten bad, and he didn't want me getting caught up in anything. He wanted me to get out."

Gregory never got the chance.

On April 9, he was shot and killed while sitting in a parked car.

Naturally, Freeman is visibly shaken by the subject matter. He gazes outside of the bay windows of the coffee shop inside of Golden East Crossing Mall and shakes his head. It's still hard for him to imagine that his brother is gone.

He studies the tattoo of praying hands outlined by the words "In Memory of Gregory Freeman" on his right forearm, then randomly recalls a picture of him and his brother that he's been trying to get his hands on "since forever."

"It was after the homecoming game," Freeman said matter-of-factly. "He was there, and someone snapped a quick picture of us. I've been looking for it. I've got to find out who took that pic. It's just crazy, the whole situation. I'm staying strong though."

That's no surprise to Freeman's NC Red Storm AAU coach Greg Crosby.

"It's because of where he's from," Crosby said. "Being from Rocky Mount, you've almost got to be mentally tough. He's dealing with a lot, but he's a strong kid. We just try and be there. His focus is the biggest difference I've seen. He's so much more focused on the court."

So focused that he played the weekend after the family buried Gregory. It was the first time since his injury, and he averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds a game at the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions in Atlanta.

Before every game, Freeman rubbed the tattoo on his right forearm.

"I just thought about my brother and my injury and everything that had happened," Freeman said. "I put all my emotions into playing now. My brother would be proud of how I played."

He'd be even more proud of the college interest Freeman's picked up despite playing in just a handful of tournaments.

Radford, UNC Wilmington, N.C. State, High Point, South Carolina, Elon and Georgia have all expressed interest in Freeman.

"I'm in a good place," Freeman said. "I'm more focused on doing better in school going forward, I'm feeling back to 100 percent and I know that my brother will always be with me. I don't really have any limits on what I can accomplish."

That's why there's no real conclusion to the DeShawn Freeman story.

"My story's just beginning," he said.