By Dennis Bjerre Christiansen. DBCH@stiften.dk / stiften.dk / 14 November 2016
Translated into English by: Brit Sørensen (Original title: Bears-profil har mistet dem, der gjorde ham til en basketballspiller)
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell is leading the score charts for Bakken Bears this season. However, the energetic American never thought he would make a living out of playing basketball – the loss of three people very close to him changed that perception. Meet the man from Florida who makes crazy slam dunks and owns 40 pairs of shoes that he never wears.
It was early morning when DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell received the phone call. Between five and six a.m.
They asked him to gather his team mates in the dressing room as soon as possible.
None of them knew why. They thought one of the player might have disobeyed a rule, and now they all had to pay for it by doing sprints or push-ups.
However, when they turned up and the Illinois State Redbird basketball grounds, they could see by the look in head coach Dan Muller’s eyes that something was not right.
»There has been a plane crash,« he said.
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell glanced around to see who was there. One guy was missing. Associate head coach Torrey Ward.
Akoon-Purcell put his head down and stared at the floor.
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell is 23 years old and just finished college this summer.
His talent was not enough to get drafted for the NBA, so he looked to the other side of the Atlantic like so many others. A team in Aarhus was looking for an athletic small forward with a good score chart. And that is how he became a Bakken Bear.
And he has taken the Danish league by storm.
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell is leading the score chart of the Danish league with an average of more than 20 points per game, and recently he single-handedly picked up a defeated Bakken team by adding 36 points to the score chart against the Danish champions Horsens IC, whereby he nearly managed to turn the game upside-down towards the finish.
He has also been the Top Performer for his team in several Champions League games.
Torrey Ward got the chance to fly to Indianapolis in a small private jet, a Cessna 414 Twin-engine.
Along with six other guys, he was going there to watch the big college basketball final between Duke and Wisconsin at the enormous Lucas Oil Stadium.
They did make it there. Torrey Ward posted a collage of pictures on Twitter showing the grand stadium in Indianapolis and the small private jet.
»Not a bad ride to the game…« he wrote.
Ironically, this would be the last update ever by the 36-year-old.
The plane with seven people onboard was scheduled for landing around midnight on 7 April 2015. There was a thick fog, and somehow the plane crashed on to a field just a few miles from the Illinois airport.
No-one survived the crash.
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell usually sticks to himself whenever he is not on the basketball court.
Naturally, he does go out with his team mates once in a while, but he actually just prefers to stay at his apartment on Silkeborgvej in Århus, where he spends his time playing basketball games on his PlayStation.
That is a way for him to stay in touch with people at home that he is playing against.
Home is Florida. Orlando and surroundings.
In response to the question what it is like to live by himself in Denmark where the climate is a bit of a joke compared to the sunny state of Florida, he says:
»I went to college in Illinois, so I’m used to being away from home and the weather too.«
The state of Illinois is somewhat further to the north of the US compared to Florida, and it is mostly known for the ’the windy city’ – Chicago.
Torrey Ward was the players’ guy. As a former assistant and now associated coach, his task was to be the middleman between the young basketball players and the calmer head coach Dan Muller.
If DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell had a bad day at practice, or if he kept missing his shots, the coach might suddenly sing or dance to make everyone laugh.
»He was the most important part of our team. He was the coolest guy and a father figure to me. I always had my dad, but in college Torrey Ward was my dad. He helped me with everything I needed. And he motivated me when times were hard. He was the kind of guy who got along with everyone, and he was very close to me,« the Bakken Bears profile says.
Apparently, Torrey Ward knew everyone. Coaches and players in the tiers below college. He was constantly looking for new players.
He was also the one to talk Akoon-Purcell into moving to Illinois from Eastern Oklahoma State, where he attended college for the first two years, in spring 2014.
Ward was an upcoming coach that everyone believed would make it far in the world of basketball.
However, he passed away at the age of 36 leaving behind two sons from a previous marriage, his fiancé and their unborn child.
Audrey LaKendrick Ward was born three weeks after his father passed away.
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell brought his mum along when he arrived to Aarhus.
That may not be what you would normally associate with big muscles and the streetlike attitude which basketball is usually known for. But DeVaughn does not care about that. He is just happy that she now understands what he is talking about when he tells her about whatever is happening »over in Europe«.
And when asking around in the Bakken Bears dressing room about the forward’s personality, there is nodding. However, not all foreign players find it easy to blend into a rather integrated squad. It can be difficult.
»He’s a good guy who’s down to earth. He looks you in the eyes while you’re talking. You just sense that the people skills are there. He will be alright,« says Bakken captain Nicolai Iversen.
At the age of 11, DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell moved in with his grandparents who lived in Orlando, Florida, just like his parents.
He had recently taken up basketball, but had not yet discovered any particular talent for it. In fact he had started playing football – or soccer, as they call it is the US – and doing karate.
He now sees that his grandma and granddad were the ones who raised him. And they shared the responsibilities of his upbringing in a rather traditional manner.
While grandma Clair Akoon always made sure all grandkids were being fed and had clean clothes to wear, granddad Paul Akoon came along to all his grandchild’s basketball games.
»My grandma was my best friend. She was basically my mum. I could always call her up, and she would tell me things that I’m not even sure she shared with my dad. I was always told by others that I was here favourite, even though she had 18 grandchildren. But she was good to everyone, so maybe she just gave me a little extra.«
Michael Jordan played in Chicago for the main part of his career. He is considered the best in the history of basketball. On as well as off the court.
He won six championships with the Bulls, and ever since he has made a solid living from his brand Air Jordan, which is produced by Nike. The brand mainly makes basketball footwear.
Michael Jordan played in those shoes himself – and in many different editions during his career.
Now DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell is making his own little museum out of these shoes. He has 40 pairs of Jordans, in different editions and colours, in his collection.
»I hardly ever wear them. I will wear each pair of shoes only once or twice. I don’t want to ruin them, so I only wear them at special occasions. It’s a hobby for me to collect the retro edition of the pairs he wore during his career,« explains DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, who used to wear Jordan shoes on the court.
Though, you have to be a fast mover to get hold of some of the models, so the Bears player does not mind waiting in line during the early morning hours in front of the local Foot Locker shoe shop. The cheapest pair costed him 1.500 Danish kroner.
So far, the shoes are ’on display’ in a dresser at his mum’s place in Orlando…
»I didn’t bring them here, but I bought two pairs while since I came to Danmark. Though, I plan to ship them home.«
On 25 November, DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell is getting up early again, as the Air Jordan 3 ’True Blue’ is released – a shoe model worn by the superstar while playing for Washington Wizards.
Though he has only been a Bakken Bears player for a few months, we have already witnessed some spectacular dunks by DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, which have been eagerly shared through online highlight videos.
In his first ever Champions League game, his 360 degree dunk against CEZ Nymburk was nominated for Play of the Week.
He is indeed very lively on the floor. The American is very aggressive and likes to entertain.
However, sometimes it gets too much. As was the case in last week’s Champions League game in Slovenia where he missed the mark while trying to perform an extravagant slam dunk.
Quite the opposite happened two minutes later when Danish team mate Thomas Lærke smoothly dropped the ball into the basket with a simple layup.
It served as a message to the 23-year-old profile – deliberately or not – from Lærke; Entertaining is good, but points on the chart is what counts.
Shortly after DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell started college in Oklahoma, where he spent his sophomore years, his grandma passed away due to cancer.
He went back home for the funeral and did not want to go back to college. Though his parents talked him into it.
The following year, his grandad passed away – also due to cancer.
As DeVaughn moved to Illinois State after his sophomore years, de decided to use his full name, which he had not been using thus far. Now he used the name Akoon before Purcell to honour his grandparents.
Furthermore, he wore the number 44 on the back of his jersey, as he was the fourth grandchild, and she passed away on the fourth month (April).
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell never actually thought he would end up becoming a professionel basketball player.
Not until his senior highschool year, did he stand out on the court and received a scholarship.
The loss of his grandma motivated him to go all in on basketball. And with the loss of his coach Torrey Ward, he realised how suddenly life can be over.
»Those situations put me where I am today. Before that, I just played basketball to play. I didn’t take a big interest in school and stuff like that, but when my grandma passed away, I found the motivation to do something with my life.«
When DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell enters the floor wearing his Bakken Bears jersey, he also wears a tattoo with both his grandparents’ names on his one arm and the name of his deceased coach on the other.
Without these three people, he would have never ended up in Denmark.
Facts: DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell
• Date of birth: 5 June 1993 in Orlando, Florida, USA.
• Nationality: American, but plays on a Trinidad passport in Danmark due to the Danish quota regulations on US players.
• Height and weight: 198 cm and 90 kg.
• Club: Bakken Bears, since August 2016.
• Position: Small forward.
• Stats for this season:
• 11 games in Basketligaen (Danish basketball league) and Champions League: 18.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists
• 23 minuts per game.
• Career: 2014-16 Illinois State Redbirds (college), 2012-14 Eastern Oklahoma State College.
• Titles: Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the year (2015), All-Missouri Valley Conference Second Team (2016).