Stepping Up: Remembering Chocowinity’s hero on the hardwood

Published 10:13 am Saturday, February 17, 2018

I remember Day 1 on the job very well, walking into a gym that hadn’t been updated in what looked like half a century, not knowing anyone in the room, having never covered a basketball game before for any news outlet.

I was the Daily News’ sports editor for two years, but it only took me a couple of minutes into my first day to realize that Southside’s Donshae Miller was no ordinary high school basketball player. Taking everything into consideration — sifting through the basketball clichés, analyzing the nightly competition, while honoring the sheer 6-foot-9 force reigning in the north side of the county — I was willing to put my reputation on the line for the 5-foot-9 point guard from Chocowinity. Sure, a day into my job, it could have been a bit of naivety. Possibly, a result of never really being surrounded by good high school basketball growing up. Or, maybe it was an instant urge to break the big basketball story.

Frankly, it was the effortless way the junior point guard danced around the perimeter, the court vision, the way his emotions took shape on the hardwood. That night in early January, when Southside squared up with conference newcomer Bear Grass, he scored just 11 points, but there was something about his play that spoke to me, told me I was witnessing something special, a story that would develop over the next year and a half. And, believe it or not, the kid came through.

Donshae went on to average 20.5 points over the next 15 games to close out the season, including a 37-point performance against rival Northside on Jan. 24, 2014.  Simply put, it was the best high school basketball game I had ever witnessed, a back-and-forth affair that featured numerous lead changes, both teams feeding off the crowd’s energy. This was the Northside-Southside rivalry incarnate.

The Panthers’ defense was stifling, powered by a five-star center who would eventually make his way into the NBA, Edrice “Bam” Adebayo. And the supporting cast for Northside certainly had enough offensive fire power to control the perimeter and find their big man. It forced Donshae to manufacture offensive opportunities. And he did.

He drained threes, fired mid-range jumpers in traffic and consistently found his way to the hoop, drawing fouls and sinking acrobatic and-ones. Southside had talent at some key positions, but on this occasion, it was Donshae who singlehandedly kept his team in the game. Despite the point guard’s career-high points total, after an Adebayo missed free throw, Southside still found itself down 67-65 with 1.4 seconds left.

The ball was inbounded to Miller, who, in the final milliseconds, fired up a shot beyond the half-court line. The crowd, including myself, watched as the ball floated through the air, eventually coming down for a perfect swish. The Seahawks celebrated, but the referees eventually ruled that it was just ever-so slightly after the buzzer. It was the right call, but what a game it was.

Over my two years at the Daily News, there were football state championship games, women’s soccer state championship runs and softball playoff performances for the ages. But despite it all, my mind always comes back to that game four years ago. It was the emotional rollercoaster and sheer drive to win that made the spectacle so addicting. Sure, Adebayo was a force to be reckoned with and continues to be an elite talent, but Donshae was the underdog, an undersized guard looking to chisel his name into Beaufort County sports history.

Donshae was a lead-by-example kind of player. His postgame interviews were always well constructed, well-spoken and humble. Like a rehearsed collegiate player, he always credited his team and coaching staff, while deflecting questions about his personal performance. As a sports reporter, it was obnoxious. As a fan, it was refreshing.

Even when he had his occasional 10-point game, his presence on the floor was felt. He had a unique ability to make everyone else on the floor better, a trait ever-so rare at the high school level. His basketball intelligence was elite, seeing openings before they opened, conducting his team like a symphony in transition.

Yes, Bam Adebayo was the best player in the county, arguably state during those years, but Donshae was always the fan favorite, an undersized underdog of sorts. He was certainly my favorite player to watch at the time.

I didn’t know him off the court, so I can only judge his character of what I saw on the hardwood. No matter the in-game tension, there was nothing but sportsmanlike conduct and respect for the opponent, even when occasionally matched up against a chippy East Carteret team or a physical Pamlico County squad. The way he carried himself was a product of head coach Sean White’s tutelage, no doubt. And he made his school proud.

My thoughts and prayers are with his family, coach White and the entire Seahawk community.