Hampton's triumphant return to Cal

Devanei Hampton sits at home with her 19-month-old son, Marcus, juggling a phone call and keeping a watchful eye on her toddler, who is watching Elmo on TV while pressing buttons on a nearby Xbox controller. Hold on for a minute, she says, making sure he's not getting into any trouble.

"He's a handful," Hampton says. "He definitely keeps me on my toes."

Hampton seems far from her college days at Cal. Being a mom to an active, sometimes mischievous little boy might as well be a million miles from when she was one of the most physical, aggressive basketball talents in the country, not to mention a headstrong kid who struggled to stay on the same page as her coach and on a path to graduation. But Hampton really isn't very far at all.

At 27, Hampton has returned to Cal, back in the halls on the Berkeley campus, finishing a degree in social work that she didn't complete during her playing career. And she's back in the women's basketball program, serving as an undergraduate student coach, learning to break down film, working with post players at practice and sitting on the bench during home games.

"I am soaking it all in right now," Hampton said. "And I love it."

Hampton is home. Not only because she's back in Berkeley, but just a few miles away from her hometown of Oakland. And she has brought her family with her: her son, his father, Marcus Sr., and the baby girl that is on the way in a matter of weeks.

In her four years as a player (2005 to 2009), Hampton carved out a career as one of the program's most decorated players. A 6-foot-4 post with strength and quickness, she was as dominant as any post player in the country when Hampton was at her best. Cal's first conference player of the year (2007), she led Cal to four straight NCAA tournament appearances. She finished her career ranked eighth in school history in scoring (1,588 points), fifth in rebounds (876) and eighth in blocked shots (78).

"She's a legendary figure here, she's larger than life to them. She has a presence when she walks in, and this reputation. But she's done a good job of keeping that aura, but also becoming more human to them. She connects with them one-on-one." Lindsay Gottlieb on Devanei Hampton

Hampton arrived at Cal in 2005 with a group of players that redefined the entire program, including a Northern California trio -- Hampton, Alexis Gray-Lawson (also from Oakland) and Ashley Walker (Modesto). They had chosen to attend Berkeley together and immediately changed the Bears from a Pac-10 also-ran into a national power.

Current Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb was the lead assistant on Joanne Boyle's staff in Berkeley when the trio arrived. Hired after the three players were recruited by former coach Caren Horstmeyer, Boyle convinced them all to stay.

Gottlieb developed a special bond with Hampton, but it was hard-earned.

"Joanne used to call me the 'Dev Whisperer,'" Gottlieb said. "When I first met her, she probably looked at me like I was from outer space and I think I looked at her, petrified, thinking, 'Are these kids going to listen to me and respect me?'"

Trust has never come easy for Hampton, who grew up in some of East Oakland's toughest neighborhoods, and she always posed her share of challenges to those who cared about her. She missed two years of high school basketball because she was academically ineligible before leading Oakland Tech to the state title game in her final two prep seasons. During her freshman season at Cal, she was suspended before the Bears' game against Stanford for her involvement in a fight at a high school basketball game.

Hampton, who often butted heads with Boyle, admitted she was hard-headed and distrustful. "Joanne fought the hard battles with her," Gottlieb said.

"It was a long road," Hampton said. "Joanne used to call us 'kids' and I didn't see it then, but I see that now."

But Hampton found her way with Gottlieb. The young coach became a confidante and sounding board and the two became close, even after Gottlieb left to become head coach at UC Santa Barbara.

"The moment I knew I had her trust was when she had to have a surgery [at the end of her freshman season]," Gottlieb said. "I remember being there when she went in and she saw that I was there when she woke up and I helped her get home, and I knew we would have a good relationship after that. She was not going to trust anyone until they proved they deserved it."

But as Hampton matured during her time as an athlete in Berkeley, her academic life remained a constant struggle. Hampton admitted she was "not focused" on the college part of her college basketball career.

"I was looking at the short term," Hampton said. "I wanted to play in the WNBA, and we had a lot of financial difficulties and I knew I could go and play overseas and make some money for my family, and school just wasn't a priority for me. By the time I was a senior, I was basically relaxing and focusing on basketball."

She confessed that she took basketball for granted, assumed that it would always be there for her. And school took a backseat. Hampton became the exception to the rule in the Cal program when she finished her eligibility but had not earned her degree.

Her professional basketball career, however, was painfully brief. She did not make a WNBA roster out of college and went overseas to play in Poland, where she lost 25 pounds and had renewed hope that she could have a long career.

The following summer, she was signed by the Seattle Storm, but did not make the roster out of training camp and went to Israel, where her injury-prone knees balked. She came home injured, needing surgery and unable to continue.

"At that point, I thought, 'What am I going to do now?'" Hampton said.

She returned home, reconnected with her boyfriend, Marcus, whom she had dated in high school, began taking classes at a community college, doing some volunteer coaching and working at a group home for boys in Marin County. At one point, she was working four jobs, trying to compensate for the money she had lost with the end of her playing career.

"I thought, 'This cannot be my life,'" Hampton said.

She applied for the NCAA degree completion scholarship program in 2011, but was denied. So for two years, she commuted hours every day between work and classes and then discovered she was pregnant with her son.

"That was my motivation to pick up speed," Hampton said. "I wanted to lay a foundation for him, that when you start something, you finish it. I always knew I wanted to finish at Cal. That was important to me."

Hampton left her job at the group home and told Gottlieb she wanted to apply again for the scholarship that would help her finish her degree. Gottlieb then got involved, pitching the idea of her being an undergraduate assistant, and she was granted admission to the program, which allows her to work with the team and take classes, her college costs covered.

Hampton needs two more classes to complete her bachelor's degree in social welfare.

But the next big surprise came just a few months ago when she discovered she was pregnant with her second child. Hampton was forced to reduce her course load to one class for this current semester and will take the final class over the summer after the baby is born in early spring. Still, she plans to participate in Berkeley's graduation ceremony in May.

"This is my passion. I've missed basketball. I feel like I have so much to offer these girls from my experiences. I see me in them a long time ago. It was only six years ago, but it feels like an entirely different time in my life." Devanei Hampton on becoming a coach

"It's going to be emotional for me and my family," Hampton said.

Her pregnancy also shifted her role with the basketball program.

"It changed what our year was going to be like," Gottlieb said.

"One of the cool things about being an undergraduate assistant is that you can be out on the court. It was one of the things I used to entice her to come back and do it. In that sense, it's a bit of a bummer. But she still does step out there and pass, and honestly, she's still quicker than most anybody on the floor."

Gottlieb said Hampton immediately had the attention of the Cal players.

"She's a legendary figure here, she's larger than life to them," Gottlieb said. "She has a presence when she walks in, and this reputation. But she's done a good job of keeping that aura, but also becoming more human to them. She connects with them one-on-one, but she will always be Devanei Hampton in their eyes."

Cal senior post Reshanda Gray remembers seeing Hampton play when she was a middle schooler but now finds them working together on the court and in the classroom; they're in social welfare class together.

"I give her a lot of credit," Gray said. "She is a tough woman and she knows how to deal with adversity. I see myself in her a lot. We are very similar players and it's been really nice to have her around to help me understand the game more."

Gottlieb said Hampton has been good for her, as well.

"She can say things to me that are really profound," Gottlieb said, "and it's good for me to remember what we went through with her because it helps me to be patient with our players."

Hampton is convinced she wants to pursue a career in coaching, and Gottlieb wants to help -- and for now that means Hampton completing her degree.

"It's clear this is her passion, but I told her, 'You can't do this unless you finish the degree,' and it's become a reality for her," Gottlieb said. "We went through a lot of hoops to make this happen for her and she's worked hard. She's doing really well in school. She comes into the office and she talks about her experiences in class with Reshanda and Brittany.

"At one point her mom called me to check up on how she's doing in school and I was happy to say, 'She's doing great.'"

Hampton, meanwhile, is learning something every day about being a coach.

"I'm getting different perspective and opinions and I can go in and ask questions," Hampton said. "I'm learning how to do a scouting report and how people put their own twists on things.

"This is my passion. I've missed basketball. I feel like I have so much to offer these girls from my experiences. I see me in them a long time ago. It was only six years ago, but it feels like an entirely different time in my life."