Up Close and Personal: Meet the Players Who Are Known as Giant Slayers

These players made NJIT a "force to be reckoned with."

In the wake of the Michigan win, thousands of stories were written about the Men's Basketball Team. But none of them focused -- up close and personal -- on the players. So here are a few profiles of the young men who, by slaying a behemoth of basketball, put NJIT on the media map.

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Daquan Holiday is a big man with a soft voice and a quiet demeanor. A 6-foot-8 power forward, he cuts a menacing figure on the court. He’s a senior and a team captain who rebounds with abandon and, for his size, has a feathery shot.

He grew up in Brooklyn, in Canarsie and started playing basketball in tenth grade. These days, most boys begin playing much earlier. But he honed his skills on the blacktop courts of Canarsie – a gritty neighborhood rife with basketball talent. 

Like any family, his had its ups and downs. His parents separated when he was a boy; his brothers got into trouble with the law and spent time in prison. And that is why when Daquan was 13, his father moved the family to Allentown, Penn. He wanted his sons off the streets and in safe, good schools. It worked. Daquan enrolled in the public high school and did well in his classes and on the court.

Upon graduation, he considered various colleges but chose NJIT because of its high academic standing. It was also located halfway between New York City, where his mother lives, and Allentown, his father’s town. He wanted his parents to be able to drive to his games and watch him play, which they have been doing, especially during this season of magical winning.

“The season has been amazing and a bit overwhelming,” says Daquan. “My parents and brothers come to the games and they are always texting me and calling me. My mom’s friends hear NJIT on the news and call her and say, ‘NJIT -- isn’t that the school where your son plays?’ It makes her proud, and me proud.”

Daquan majors in communication and has done an internship at NBA Entertainment, where he developed promotional videos for the NBA. He also worked as a teacher’s assistant for an NJIT summer class -- the Capital One Summer Student Banker Program -- that teaches minority students about business. After he graduates in May, he said he’ll consider playing pro basketball abroad. Or if not that, he’d like to work in public relations for Marvel Comics, a life-long passion of his. One of his tattoos bears the logo of the X-Men, the heroically mutant cartoon characters.

“My brothers are doing well now; my family is good and we are all happy,” says Daquan, softly and with a smile.

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Winfield Willis is, by basketball standards, a small man -- a six-foot-tall senior guard who is lithe and sinewy. He majors in international business but he also loves art, music and traveling. Last summer, the team played a tournament in Europe, in Belgium, France and Holland. It was the first time Winfield was out of the country and he soaked up foreign languages and the high culture of old Europe. In Amsterdam, he visited the Van Gogh Museum and fell in love with Van Gogh’s masterpieces. In Paris, he visited the Louvre, and was fascinated by the Greek statues, the classic paintings and especially by the gilded furnishings of Napoleon’s palace. A lot of people see basketball players through the stigmatic prism of a negative stereotype, says Winfield.

“We look fierce when we are on court but that’s just our on-court personalities,” he adds. “Some people are afraid of us but we are really friendly and love being a part of the community. NJIT is a small campus and we are right in the mix of everyday life.”

Winfield is mature for his age, and much of that has to do, he says, with his being a father. He has a two-year-old son, Winfield Willis III. His wife and son live in Pennsylvania and if they can’t make the games they watch them on television. Whenever Winfield has the ball, his son is given to shouting at the screen, “Daddy, Daddy.”

But “Daddy” is not sure he wants his son to play basketball.  Playing a sport can be all consuming, says Winfield, and now that he sees how much life has to offer – music, art, reading, languages and travel – he is ambivalent about introducing his son to the game he loves.

“But I wouldn’t be surprised if one day he starts to play basketball,” says Winfield, with a wistful glint in his eye and a smile broadening across his face.  

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Ky Howard is neither big nor small. He’s in between – a six-foot, four-inch guard who can shoot and dribble, rebound and assist.  He has basketball in his genetic makeup: his father, Maurice Howard, played in the NBA for the New Orleans Jazz and for the Cleveland Cavaliers. His brother, Ashley, played for Drexel until his career was truncated by a heart condition. Ashley now coaches at Villanova.

Growing up in a basketball family was at times stressful, says Ky. When he was a boy, his father and brother pushed him to excel. But his mother, an easygoing woman who loves to laugh, was always there to temper the household’s testosterone.

“My mom always tells the story of how when she was a girl she tried out for her school’s volleyball team,” says Ky. “But the coach kicked her out of the gym for laughing – my mom always laughs. I have her demeanor.”

His parents were both serious, however, about one thing: education. And before he could go out and play basketball, the young Ky had to finish his homework.

“I’d come home and sit at the dining room table in silence and do my homework,” recalls Ky. “Then I’d go out and play. My parents always said that ‘education comes first in our household.’”

Ky is a business major who is interested in entrepreneurship and marketing. After college, he plans to work either in management or start his own business. Like his mother, he has a sanguine disposition and is optimistic about his future. His mother, however, recently had her optimistic nature tested: She was diagnosed with breast cancer. But she didn’t let the diagnosis drag her down. Rather, she went for treatment and is now healthy. 

“My mother looks at life differently now,” says Ky. “As long as you are healthy,” she says, “you should be happy.”

When Ky was younger, his parents separated and his mother was then a single mom who struggled financially. Her optimism was again tested. But they got through it -- together.

“My parents always say that family comes first -- above everything else,” says Ky. “So even though we had some rough times, there was always light at the end of the tunnel.”

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Terrence Smith might be the best player on the team, a 6-foot-6-inch power forward who holds a Division I ranking for field-goal percentage. But he hasn’t played this year. He has been hamstrung by a fractured bone in his foot. Had he been in the line-up, the team could have reached even greater heights, possibly beating Marquette and Villanova. Rather, Terrence has been relegated to the bench, where he acts as a kind of unofficial coach, helping his teammates stay focused. 

“It’s great to see my guys playing so well this year and I always encourage them,” he says. “But other than that being injured just sucks.”

As a junior, though, he’s looking forward to next season, when most of the players on this season’s team will return. Terrence grew up in Fort Lauderdale, in a large extended family whose elders kept him in line. He not only had grandparents to discipline him but also great grandparents to lend a hand or, in some instances, a belt.

“I had my great grandmother on me when I was a boy,” says Terrence. “She was an old Bible Belt lady with a belt, so I couldn’t get away with much.”

The leather-like discipline, in the end, helped Terrence: He won a scholarship to NJIT, where his team is now on a nationally-recognized roll. After he finishes his studies, he’d like either to play overseas or start a business with one of his teammates: Ky Howard.

“Ky and I have an idea to start a recreation center and lounge for children, one that also could be used for in the evenings also for adults,” says Terrence. “So whether I play ball or go into business, I’ll be good.”

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Before coming to NJIT, Tim Coleman played high school ball for St. Anthony’s in Jersey City, a team that routinely ranks first in the nation. Coleman is a 6-foot-5-inch forward who had a career high 23 points in the team’s recent game against New Hampshire. Last year he was injured but this year he is healthy -- and on fire.

He was born in Newark but his family moved to Union. His mother still works in Newark She’s a nurse at Beth Israel Hospital, where she works the night shift. She works long exhausting shifts, but whenever she can she drives to see her son play. 

Tim's parents also separated and his family struggled financially, too. It was a blessing when he won a scholarship to NJIT. And given the team’s recent success, he thinks he now has a chance to play either in the NBA or abroad. Academically, he likes psychology and would be content after he graduates to work in the field. Meanwhile, he is just happy being at NJIT. He loves his major and loves his sport and loves his team.

“My team is great and playing doesn’t feel like work; it feels like fun,” he says. “We have great times together – in the locker room we are a bunch of clowns – and I know my teammates will always be there for me. We have had a great year and I’m confident we will soon be part of a conference. And this year we let it be known that NJIT is a force to be reckoned with.”

By Robert Florida (robert.florida@njit.edu)