Jaylen Brantley walked slowly out of Maryland men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon’s office Oct. 19, 2014, and to the middle of the Xfinity Center court for the final step of his official visit.
Brantley had attended “Midnight Madness” to start the weekend. He had also watched Maryland football’s homecoming win over Iowa.
But Sunday morning, Brantley was the focal point as Maryland’s staff, and his mom and uncle waited for an announcement.
Cornelio Cayode remembers his nephew declaring “I’ll be in College Park.” Angela Cayode remembers her son saying he wanted to be a part of the Maryland family. Assistant coach Dustin Clark remembers the tears, the smiles and the back slaps from his fellow coaches upon securing an important piece of the 2015 recruiting class.
ABOVE: Brantley had a long journey to the Terps’ starting lineup. (Sammi Silber/The Diamondback)
They all remember the hugs.
“It was a real good moment, man,” his uncle said. “I remember him and Turgeon embracing, and the rest is where we’re at today.”
Today, the No. 24 Terps are primed for a third straight NCAA tournament. Today, Brantley is a crucial reserve, a co-captain and a pending summer graduate. Today, he’s still noticed for igniting the Running Man Challenge, landing him and guard Jared Nickens on The Ellen Show and at the ESPYs.
But today doesn’t shed light on Brantley’s demoralizing road to playing high-level Division I basketball. It overlooks his two high schools, a prep school, a failed attempt to play at Marshall and a junior-college stint. It passes on his childhood friend’s tragic death.
“It’s a journey,” Brantley said. “[My mom] just always tells me to never give up and just fight throughout adversity.”
ABOVE: Brantley and his mother at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports after he won his second national championship with Boston Amateur Basketball Club in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Caianne Cayode.)
In August of 2012, after Brantley finished his second year at Wilbraham & Monson Academy, the high school’s officials asked to meet with him and his mother to discuss an urgent matter.
Brantley didn’t know what to expect. He shined for the basketball team as a junior, averaging more than 20 points against heightened competition. The coach had scheduled tougher opponents, expecting two future NBA players to join the program, though neither enrolled. Still, Brantley’s production helped the team win 23 of its 30 games.
But this meeting wasn’t about his on-court play. Instead, Brantley said it was the lowest moment of his life.
“First thing they say is that I should take Jaylen to get his GED,” his mom said. “And I’m like ‘What?’”
“That I should go take Jaylen to get his GED,” she recalled the advisers repeating. “That he’s not going to qualify to play basketball.”
Brantley was two classes short of the 16 core classes he needed for Division I athletics eligibility, they explained. He had retaken an English class at Wilbraham & Monson after passing it at Central High School, where he spent his first two years. He also took a non-core math course.
The NCAA requires athletes to complete their core curriculum in the first four years, and Brantley — who was a sophomore twice — came up short.
Wilbraham & Monson officials, knowing he wouldn’t be academically eligible to play Division I basketball, told Brantley he was not welcome back next school year.
“I stayed in my room probably for a week,” Brantley said. “I just didn’t know what I was going to do.”
About 14 years old, Brantley had started with an elite AAU program in Boston, about 100 miles from his Springfield, Massachusetts, hometown. He led the Boston Amateur Basketball Club to two national championships, the second one coming in 2011. Also that year, Brantley earned his first scholarship offer from Louisville after his team won the Elite Youth Basketball League title. On a team with three future NBA players, Brantley scored 24 points in the championship game.
ABOVE: Brantley playing for Wilbraham & Monson, where he averaged more than 20 points a game. (File photo/The Diamondback.)
By the end of his junior year at Wilbraham & Monson, the four-star guard said he had about 20 Division I offers.
But as Brantley walked out of the meeting that day, none of those accomplishments held much importance. On the car ride home, he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his face and bawled.
ABOVE: Brantley struggled as he bounced from school to school, working to become eligible to play Division 1. (Photo courtesy of @Jaybrant2 on Twitter.)
Several college coaches watched Brantley’s first tournament with the Notre Dame Preparatory School to start the 2012-13 season.
His uncle and mother sat behind a few Georgia Tech scouts while Brantley competed for his third school team in four years. His AAU coach had urged him to enroll at the Fitchburg, Massachusetts, private school to finish his degree.
The Yellow Jackets had recruited him before, but this time, they didn’t recognize him. Brantley had grown out his hair and beard in what his mother called a “no-shave November but for months.” She said he looked like a caveman.
“They were like ‘Oh my goodness. That’s Jaylen Brantley,’” she said. “They had no clue who he was. No clue. No clue. That’s how depressed he was.”
After leaving Wilbraham & Monson, she said she had never seen her son cry so hard for so long. At one point, she said, he was suicidal. She even started bringing Brantley for her visits as a home care nurse, leaving him in the car to “make sure that he was alive.”
She often received phone calls from Notre Dame Prep coaches, asking why he wasn’t happy and didn’t smile. At Odessa, the Texas junior college Brantley attended two years later, his coaches did the same.
“I’m just like ‘I don’t know what to tell you guys,’” she said. “There would be sparks of happiness, but he wasn’t the same kid anymore.”
“Dead man walking,” his uncle said. “Simple.”
After finishing at Notre Dame Prep, Brantley wasn’t eligible to play Division I because he still didn’t meet the core academic requirements. He planned to enroll at a program but sit out a year before his four years of eligibility began.
His wanted to attend UMass Amherst, about 28 miles north of his home, but his mother said no. The school’s proximity bothered her. As her son focused on school, she didn’t want his friends distracting him.
Brantley instead went to Marshall in Huntington, West Virginia, more than 11 hours away.
His mom struggled to hold back tears as she remembered Brantley signing his National Letter of Intent. If he were a high-profile recruit, signing day would have involved cameras and interviews.
That wasn’t the case. Marshall faxed over the paperwork as Brantley and his mom sat in the kitchen. He signed the forms while she snapped a few pictures, but the moment held little significance.
After all, he couldn’t be around the team yet.
“Our lives were in limbo for three years,” his mother said. “Whatever Jaylen’s dreams were were my dreams, and that’s just what it is. Jaylen’s dream was to play basketball in college … and Jaylen’s dream was put on pause, so everybody’s life was put on pause.”
ABOVE: After a year of not playing at Marshall, Brantley joined Odessa’s squad. (Photo courtesy of @Jaybrant2 on Twitter.)
Around 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 19, 2014, Brantley sat in a College Park hotel room as his friends texted and called to see if he was OK.
“What are you guys talking about?” Brantley responded.
“There was a big car accident,” his friends replied, “and like a lot of your friends were in it.”
About two hours earlier, four of his buddies drove around Springfield when 21-year-old Daquan Warrick lost control and crashed into a utility pole. Warrick, who was under the influence, lived. So did Brantley’s two other friends.
But, Tayquan Goodman, Brantley’s teammate when he attended Central, didn’t survive. The crash’s impact ejected him out of the front passenger seat, and the car landed on him, said Assistant District Attorney Robert A. Schmidt. He had several head lacerations, Schmidt said, and died at the scene. He was 22.
Goodman’s death came when Brantley’s life had direction.
He managed not playing competitive basketball at Marshall. Then, when the program fired Tom Herrion, the coach Brantley had committed to, he spurned his mother’s junior college concerns and transferred to Odessa.
Now, hours before he was set to pledge to Maryland, cementing his path toward a lifelong desire, Brantley yearned to go home.
“I was just really heartbroken,” Brantley said. “He was one of those I called my brothers — I grew up with him my whole life — so I just felt like that was really a dark place for me.”
Brantley broke down in his mother’s room, crying and screaming, as she and his uncle tried to calm him.
Despite Brantley wanting to see his friends back home, his uncle emphasized finishing the visit. Brantley owed it to Maryland’s staff, regardless of whether he planned to commit.
Clark woke up at 5 a.m. and called the family after seeing Brantley’s tweet about the tragedy. He talked with Brantley’s mother first before speaking to Brantley, who promised the assistant he’d see him the next morning.
“Instead of the visit being about Jaylen and picking the school,” Clark said, “I think Jaylen wanted to continue with the visit and make this decision to honor his friend.”
Before that special meeting at center court came more tears, this time in Turgeon’s office. But as the group walked toward the main floor, Brantley composed himself before sharing hugs of excitement and relief with his relatives and new Terps family.
He returned to Odessa a few days later and became one of the team’s best players. In 29 games, he averaged 14.3 points and 3.7 assists.
But before busting onto the junior college scene, Brantley and his mother returned to Springfield.
He needed a few more hugs.
“When you are Jaylen’s brother, that is very, very special to him,” his mom said. “Tayquan being his brother and him dying really, really hurt him. I knew at that moment that he had to go home and hug his other brothers.”
ABOVE: Even though Brantley didn’t get to start right away for the Terps, he’s grown to be the team’s most significant bench contributor. (Sammi Silber/The Diamondback)
Brantley had been the star of every team he played for before the 2015-16 season, but he spent most of that first Maryland campaign battling for a rotation spot. Maryland had five NBA prospects, so Brantley played about eight minutes per game.
For Brantley, that wasn’t good enough.
“Riding that pine — that’s what changed him,” his mother said. “That would change any baller. Riding that pine.”
So, he adjusted his work ethic. He improved his shot — he’s hitting about 38 percent from beyond the arc —and defense, an area Turgeon admits the 5-foot-11 junior has “outdone himself” for an undersized guard in a power conference.
Brantley now believes he belongs.
Entering Maryland’s home tilt with Ohio State on Feb. 11, though, Brantley felt he was losing his offensive rhythm. He’d played at least 16 minutes in each of the previous three games but scored a combined six points. He expressed his concerns to his uncle, who said the two talk on the phone at least four times a week.
He told Brantley to trust the skills and experience he developed on his way to performing for a team battling for a Big Ten title.
With his uncle’s advice in mind, Brantley scored 11 points in 20 minutes, leading a bench charge that outscored Ohio State’s reserves, 33-0. Maryland won by nine.
Brantley’s become the most significant bench contributor for the nation’s No. 24 team. At 23, he’s accomplishing what he intended as a young teenager on the travel basketball circuit — before the academic issues, before the transfers and before the personal tragedy.
Whenever his confidence wanes, Brantley’s uncle references LeBron James’ road to becoming one of the best NBA players of all time.
“I’m from Akron, Ohio,” James often says. “I’m not supposed to be here.”
His uncle then tweaks it to fit Brantley’s arduous journey.
“You’re Jaylen Brantley,” he reminds his nephew. “You’re from Springfield, Massachusetts. You’re not supposed to be there.”
“But you are,” he adds, “so take full advantage of where you are right now.”