Desert Christian Academy in Bermuda Dunes is a very small school with some very big people.
On the basketball court, success (which has been ample), has found traction in equal parts height and heart.
Fronted by head coach and athletic director Matt Garrison, the boys’ basketball team at Desert Christian Academy (DCA) glided into this year’s playoffs on the heels of a spotless mark in the Victory League, a second consecutive conference crown, an 11-game win streak and an 18-5 seasonal mark which included wins over Desert Valley League teams Xavier Prep and Shadow Hills.
And the fuel behind this fire?
Surely, it must be one of the five Conquerors who averages at least eight points a game. Certainly, it must Garrison, who came to DCA with a decade’s worth of pro basketball experience both overseas and domestically. Indeed, it must be 6-foot-5 senior standout Ananias Bullock, who authored a seasonal line of 16.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
The soul of a team built for a deep CIF run is senior forward Will Whitaker, a kid who has made six baskets this season and drives the home crowd into a frenzy each time he enters a game.
Cut from the tenor of Chauncey Gardiner and the tone of Rudy, Whitaker is not particularly good at basketball. Instead, he’s good at life.
“I think I’m a really hard worker, and I try my best all the time,” Whitaker told me before the Conquerors’ penultimate game of the regular season. “I want to learn and get better and see how I can improve my game. To have a good mindset, to have a good heart; that’s what has helped me.”
Upon arriving at DCA three years ago, Garrison, fresh off traveling the globe playing professional hoops, eyed a then-sophomore Whitaker with skepticism.
“I’m coming from a lens of basketball that is very narrow: This is how basketball looks, this is the box basketball fits into my life, it’s very important to me that’s it’s done one way,” Garrison recalls. “I show up here, and Will walks on the floor, and he don’t fit nothing. They tell me, ‘Well, it’s Will.’ And I think, ‘He’s gonna’ come out here, get hurt, get embarrassed or hurt somebody else. I don’t want him out here.'”
But Will Whitaker has a way of winning people over. And as Garrison sought an identity for his program, he soon saw the intangible value Whitaker brought to the DCA basketball culture.
“I talk to him five minutes, and he oozes passion for basketball. And I’m like, ‘I can’t cut this kid, so, maybe I’ll make him a manager,'” continues Garrison of the 2014-15 season. “But then I thought, ‘Let’s see what he can do.’ And he runs harder than anyone, doing everything I ask him to do, he’s hard on himself, he’s committed, he’s the first one at practice, he’s so excited to see me and the guys every day. He has more passion than half the dudes out there with serious talent – and we need that.”
You’ll please suffer the word play, but Whitaker has truly willed his way to this stage in life.
Will is . . . different, and that’s a word that may have, for some, a negative connotation; but that couldn’t be further from the case with this young man. The kid exudes an innocence, an earnestness, and a genuine kindness which we so rarely encounter in adult, or even young adult society.
Even for those who know him best, Whitaker almost belies description. As those around him simply say, “It’s just . . . Will.”
Even he can’t quite identify the communal bedlam that results in his on court appearances.
“Sometimes I ask myself that question, too,” smiles Whitaker. “I just go out and get to know people better and develop relationship with so many different people. I’m not that good at basketball, but they just cheer me on, like I’m their boy.”
Growing up, it became apparent to his parents that Whitaker was a unique soul.
“I’m a big believer that we’re all ‘different,’ and, yeah, Will learns differently,” says his mother, Lydia Whitaker, a K-12 art teacher at Desert Christian.
Acknowledging that her son can be sometimes slow with decision making and occasionally struggles with nuances of conversation, Lydia has seen Will grow from a kid who required constant tutoring in grade school to a young man with a 3.8 GPA and confirmed plans to attend the University of Arizona in the fall.
On the court, the mother has seen her son’s infectious influence spread.
“I think maybe he gives people hope,” says Lydia. “Here’s a kid who isn’t the star athlete of the team, but works incredibly hard at everything he does and it’s fun, it’s fun to root for him. And it’s extraordinary what happens when he gets in the game.”
At the age of 11, Whitaker lost his father suddenly, which prompted the family’s move to the Coachella Valley, where Lydia and her two children moved right next door to her parents. A day before school started this year, Will’s grandfather passed.
“I think the three of us, despite what we’ve walked through, we try and choose happy every day,” Lydia says. “We’ve seen so much sadness. I’ve done a lot of hard. I don’t want to do hard anymore.”
As Desert Christian endeavors the playoffs, the Conquerors will go as far as their solid cache of senior floor leaders can take them.
But seasons end at some stage for every team. The seeds of valuable sporting lessons, however, live, and hopefully grow, forever. Take the case of DCA starting guard Kelvin Wong, who opted to give his starting spot to Whitaker in the Conquerors’ regular season, Senior Night finale.
“Because it would make his night, and just be the best feeling in the world for him,” says Wong. “I’m willing to give it up for him.”
From the bench, the head coach sees Whitaker as being responsible for augmenting his once-narrow basketball lens.
“Will has forced me to say to myself, ‘Pump the brakes on basketball, bro,’ and think, ‘What do I value?'” says Garrison. “Because this is really about kids’ hearts, minds and shaping them for a future that has nothing to do with basketball. He’s forced me to be a better coach.”
Remember, friends: Heroes don’t always look the part.
“When you look on the court, he doesn’t fit the basketball mold,” Garrison says. “But he’s the lifeblood of this team. Our starting point guard, Derick Rodriguez, calls Will, ‘The heart of this team.’ He’s changed us, made us love life and look at life through his eyes.”
On the night in question when I met pre-game with all the above parties, DCA handled league opponent Palm Valley with ease, cruising to a 92-25 win. For his part, Whitaker saw ample floor time and, as advertised, drew raucous roars each time he checked in and palpable fan requests to “Shoot!” each time he touched the ball.
And shoot he did, his rainbow arc missing once, then again, and another time or two as he played most of the second and fourth quarters.
With 30 seconds left in the night and DCA on a fast break, Bullock drove the ball into the lane and with an easy 4-footer in his path at the close of a blowout, he stopped and surveyed the floor, clearly looking for Whitaker, whom he found darting down court.
Stopping and popping from the left elbow, his shot rose high into the waning moments of the night, and one could almost feel the eyes of every fan and teammate following the shot’s path.
And when it bounded off the backboard and went in, I’ll admit, something found my throat, and whatever it is that Will Whitaker does to people found me for that moment, and I understood.
“Did I do a good job?” Will Whitaker had asked me at the close of our interview three hours prior.
Yeah, Will, you did great.
Judd Spicer is a freelance columnist for The Desert Sun. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch them play
What: CIF Division 5A quarterfinal
Who: Providence (Santa Barbara) at Desert Christian Academy
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday