Scott grew up in Philadelphia, raised by a single mother and the youngest of nine siblings. While his mother worked long days, Scott stayed indoors and watched TV. His early years weren’t about sports. He didn’t idolize all of the professionals his city produced. He never dreamed that basketball would become his promising path, that he would become one of Maryland’s best players with perhaps an NBA future. As a child in his circumstances, Scott said, “You don’t expect too many good things to happen.”
Shortly after Scott started playing AAU basketball, he and his 10-year-old teammates had a hard time failing to recognize a picture of Michael Jordan. One of his former coaches jokes that Scott probably still can’t name 15 NBA players. Scott wasn’t very skilled. But he enjoyed the sport so the people around him now had a reward for dangling in front of him. Whenever he acted in school or his grades slipped, he had to watch exercises and games instead of participating.
“It burns him more than anything,” said Howard Hudson, Scott’s longtime AAU coach, because Scott – then and now – can’t sit still and always wants a ball in his hands.
Hudson saw immediate progress. Scott’s mother, Sandra Campbell, said her son did a “360 degree” round of school. But Scott still felt trapped in that angry mindset for much of middle school. He continued to develop as a player, with his skills becoming evident in eighth grade and others noticing his potential. Until then, he felt different too.
“It’s all changed,” said Scott. And everyone around him says that basketball changed it.
The sport helped Scott see the world – and his future – with a wider lens. He befriended and traveled the country to compete in high level tournaments. He visited new places while standing out in the square. Scott had an outlet for his energy. Basketball had given him something positive.
“I just realized that I was feeling better,” said Scott, “and that I can make something of it.”
At the end of December, the Terrapins hadn’t defeated an opponent at a major conference. Staff had to resolve the most pressing question of the season: How can a team survive the Big Ten schedule without a dominant big man on the post? During the trip to Wisconsin, Scott gave a straight answer. At 6-foot-7, the sophomore, who played point guard for a year in high school, battled veteran front-court players with a significant advantage of size. Compared to the Badgers, who were 6th at the time, Maryland used this smaller line-up more often than in previous games.
With the Terps up three points with about a minute to go, Scott drove through three Wisconsin defenders in the paint and jumped over them all to climax. Scott had played well late in the surprise, scoring 10 points in the second half. When asked where this team would be without Scott, Coach Mark Turgeon said, “I don’t know, man.”
The terps rely on these small constellations. It’s their best group of players who can fly around in defense and are difficult to guard. Scott didn’t come to Maryland to play at the center, Turgeon said, but he hasn’t complained. Despite having been inconsistent along the way to the Big Ten tournament, Scott has taken a big step from his first season. He leads the terps in three-point shooting (44 percent) and is third in the ranking (11.2 points per game). His teammates say he is a smart player and mentally strong.
“I would go to war with Donta personally any day,” said Senior Darryl Morsell. “If I ever have to step on a basketball court and Donta is someone I could pick up, I definitely will.”
Scott calls himself a thinker and observer. Sometimes when he talks about the next Terps game or a recent performance he gets caught up in thoughts that are different from basketball and point to bigger ideas. A few days after that street game in Wisconsin, while sharing his mentality as he faced the bigger strikers, Scott said, “Just fight. That’s all I’ve done all my life – fight, fight, fight. “
Scott explains what shaped this mindset and begins when he was 3 years old. While at home with his siblings, he wanted to visit friends nearby. When he was running across the street, he was hit by a car. Scott only remembers flashing lights, but his mother said her son sustained a head injury and had to be surgically removed. “They took me to the hospital,” said Scott. “And have only fought since then.”
Scott’s mother worked long hours as a medical assistant during Scott’s childhood, and he doesn’t have a great relationship with his father. (Three of his eight siblings are on his father’s side.) Scott noticed how hard his mother worked to care for her children, and that motivates him. Dwayne Campbell, now Scott’s stepfather, became involved when Scott was around 10 years old. Sandra’s face “lights up” when someone mentions her son, her husband said. Scott is the first of his siblings to attend a four year college and he thinks daily about how his future in basketball could change their lives.
“I think about it, not just for my family, but for myself,” said Scott. “This is my dream that I want to live and make something of it.”
When Scott joined Hudson’s AAU team, he was wearing Nike boots and his trainer stopped at a discount sneaker store so the 10-year-old had the right basketball shoes. As for his prowess on the pitch, “Oh, he was terrible,” Hudson says quickly. Hudson remembers early on that Scott checked into a game and asked his coach if he should play offensively or defensively. Scott said he tried to score on the wrong basket. But he also wanted to learn.
“That kid was never the chosen one,” said Delgreco Wilson, an academic advisor and mentor to Scott since seventh grade. “We have these children. … Donta was never that guy. He was always the other. “
Scott’s family moved to Norristown, a suburb of Philadelphia, shortly after he started playing organized basketball. He would be able to practice on his own on a 45-minute train ride into town. Scott then waited in a family dollar where one of his coaches met him.
During eighth grade, around the time Scott was realigning his mindset, he became aware of his development and potential. At Imhotep Charter, Scott started in three national title winning teams. Imhotep scored the Montverde Academy’s 55-game home winning streak in a tournament final. Scott, a sophomore, was the game MVP.
When Scott excelled in basketball, “he became someone,” said Wilson.
Scott was dying to please his coaches and he wasn’t fixated on scoring a goal. He understood all the ways he could affect a game – ricochets, passing, toughness. He grew up telling people he loved to defend, and in high school he loved blocking shots. The feeling of preventing someone from scoring, especially if that player was talking rubbish, makes them proud. Ultimately, it comes down to winning.
When Maryland started the season on a difficult stretch – just four wins in 13 conference games – Scott seemed miserable on the phone afterward, his high school coach Andre Noble said. Scott can sulk a bit because it bothers him so much. He was “extremely excited,” said Noble, during the five-game winning streak as a place in the NCAA tournament began to solidify, although Scott didn’t always have his best singles games.
Family members and other guests attended the Terrapins’ regular season finale on Sunday, the first time they were allowed to enter the Xfinity Center since last year. After the game, a deflating loss, Scott was predictably knocked out. When asked about the locker room after the game, he said, “Couldn’t explain it to you. It is a loss. It just feels like a loss. “That hasn’t changed.
But on the drive home to Philadelphia that night, Scott’s mother and his longtime AAU coach talked about how different Scott was when he was a troubled kid in elementary school. Now he’s keeping up with his college classes and his life is structured by basketball.
During AAU tournaments, when coaches asked their players to sit between games, Scott found a basketball and drifted into any seat, even if it was empty just for time out. If Noble drove him home from high school exercises and had to finish work before they left, he found Scott playing with a ball and dripping sweat while he waited. It always seemed pure, Noble said, because Scott still plays basketball like he was 12 years old. He still plays like someone who realized what he could become after finding a spark of joy.