Deonte Burton didn’t smile anymore.
During his sophomore basketball season at Marquette in fall 2014, options weighed on his mind.
Just four years earlier, Deonte’s mother, Barbara Malone, discovered she had breast cancer. After a lengthy fight, the cancer started to recede in 2012, but it returned in early 2014. By fall, the prognosis was bleak. She had about a month to live.
Deonte contemplated giving up basketball, the game he once loved. He hadn’t found joy in it for a couple of years. He was sleepwalking.
“It was like going to sleep, waking up and doing something, but you can’t really remember what you did,” Deonte said. “It was like basketball wasn’t basketball anymore.”
He called his older sister, Nicole Grafton. She could tell he was hurting. He was talking nonsense, she remembered. He wanted to quit basketball, get a regular job and live at home. He just couldn’t play basketball anymore.
“I could get a raise and find a good job,” he told her.
“Mama doesn’t want you to stop,” Nicole replied. “Remember what she told you. She always wants you to continue.”
So he did.
A powerful woman
Deonte hardly got a break.
Growing up in north Milwaukee as the youngest of seven children — six boys and one girl — he routinely found himself on the receiving end of jokes. It was partly his fault, Nicole remembered, because he used to fall asleep before anyone else.
“He was an easy target,” Nicole said.
One night, Deonte was jolted awake by his siblings.
“Deonte, mama wants you. Hurry up!” they shouted. Deonte sprinted into the kitchen to his mother’s side.
“What are you doing? What is that on your face?” Barbara said as she started to laugh. Deonte’s face was covered in makeup, and his lips were outlined by red lipstick.
It didn’t compare to the redness that filled his cheeks with embarrassment. His siblings laughed as he tried to wipe it away.
Barbara was certainly the playful type. She used to dress Deonte like two of his older brothers, Omar and Demario, so they almost looked like triplets. She never missed an opportunity to crack a joke. But she was also a powerful woman, which was directly reflective of her appearance. Her wavy — sometimes straightened — burgundy hair just reached the top of her broad shoulders. She was heavyset, but she was also tall, almost 6 feet.
“She could do anything a man could do,” Nicole said.
She was flamboyant and opinionated. Whenever Deonte took the court in high school, he expected to hear her voice rise above the crowd. It would’ve been hard to tell she didn’t know much about basketball while she barked suggestions onto the hardwood.
“I warned some of my teammates, ‘You’re going to hear my mother. She’s pretty loud,’” Deonte said through a chuckle.
She also was giving. North Milwaukee was much like other inner cities, where drugs and violence roamed the streets. But Barbara welcomed rather than turned away. Deonte’s house boasted five bedrooms and a basement for the kids to play in. Compared to the rest of the block, the house was almost like a mansion. Barbara treated it as such.
When Deonte was little, the house was dubbed the “Red Cross House” because Barbara never turned away a person in need. If one of Deonte’s siblings had a friend in need — whether it be a place to stay, some clothes or food — Barbara opened her doors.
Sometimes, Nicole would take exception to her mother’s generosity.
“Why are you always giving them our clothes and all your stuff?” Nicole would ask.
“Just be quiet. They need this,” Barbara would respond.
The other children didn’t dare question it.
A chunky kid no more
Everybody told Deonte he was chunky when he was a kid.
“My family said it was just baby fat,” Deonte said with a laugh.
That size lent itself to a career in football. But in the sixth grade, Deonte was about to give up football, the sport he predominantly played until that point, and stick with basketball, a sport he had played since he was a kid.
“He was always playing basketball, even as a kid,” said Deonte’s father, Charles Burton, who separated with Barbara when Deonte was 11. “He always had a basketball in his hand.”
Deonte’s family was a sports family, but it didn’t focus on one. Most of Deonte’s older brothers boxed and played football, although they still played pickup basketball at nearby parks and gyms. While the family was full of pranksters, there was more than enough competitive spirit to go around. Deonte, Omar and Demario played pickup basketball, and it tested Deonte. Omar was faster and taller than Deonte. Demario was a better defender.
It wasn’t until middle school that the rest of the family realized how good Deonte was at basketball. Barbara and Charles didn’t attend Deonte’s games when he was a youngster because of his team’s frequent travel and their own financial troubles.
Barbara didn’t even realize how good Deonte was at first. She knew her children were gifted at sports, so it didn’t faze her when she heard a few people buzz about Deonte’s skills.
Deonte’s basketball career and national exposure didn’t take off until his freshman year at Milwaukee-Vincent High School. People in malls approached Barbara and Nicole to laud them for Deonte’s skills. The only problem was Barbara had hardly seen him play.
“She was like, ‘We should be going to some of those games,’” Nicole said. “And I was like, ‘I’ve been telling you that, duh.’”
Deonte wasn’t a fan of his parents attending his games at first. He struggled while they were in attendance. Eventually, Deonte warmed up to it. Barbara quickly became Deonte’s biggest fan. She brought food and drinks to Deonte’s team, and her encouraging — and sometimes critical — voice frequently ricocheted off the high school gym walls.
Deonte’s basketball career took off at that time. After an impressive year at Milwaukee-Vincent on the varsity team, Deonte was looking for other opportunities. He wanted a bigger challenge and transferred to Brewster Academy, a private school in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, for his sophomore year.
The school had a knack for producing NBA players and housed former Cyclone Melvin Ejim. Deonte played with eight future Division I players while he averaged 6 points per game in that season. During that sophomore season, Barbara discovered a lump in her breast. It turned out to be breast cancer.
Deonte couldn’t live more than 1,000 miles away from Barbara, not while the the rest of his family was at home taking care of her. So he returned home for his junior season and attended Milwaukee-Vincent for his last two years of high school.
His college basketball stock rose.
Deonte averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds and helped his team finish 17-7 overall in his junior year.
In his senior season, Deonte impressed even more. He earned third team all-state honors by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a McDonald’s All-American nomination by putting up 17.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.
Scholarship offers started to pour in during his first two years of high school. He received offers from Iowa State and Marquette in his freshman season in high school. Clemson, Illinois and Maryland also expressed interest.
But the offer from Marquette gained his attention. At the beginning of his junior season, Barbara was in a full fight with cancer. Marquette, located in Milwaukee, was just a short bus ride away from home. He could be closer to his mother while playing basketball at a Division I program.
He took his official visit to Marquette at the beginning of his junior year. It only took him a day to decide. He verbally committed on Sept. 9, 2011.
That chunky kid had grown into his size. He stood at about 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds — a body perfect for his original sport — and his “baby fat” had given way to muscle. He was now a nationally renowned big man.
Barbara hardly got sick. So when the family found out she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, there was more than shock. It was disbelief.
Deonte’s reaction was to take to the computer. He spent late nights researching anything he could about the sickness: treatments, prognoses and other stories. At first, the research gave him some kind of comfort that he couldn’t get anywhere else — even from his own family.
“I didn’t know how to react,” Deonte said. “I really dived into understanding.”
His understanding was that it could be beat. He didn’t spend his days moping or worried about the future. He looked ahead with optimism.
“It’s not always a death sentence,” he said.
Deonte returned home and to Vincent for his junior season to take care of his mother. While Deonte and his family continued to look after her, Barbara was struggling. She wouldn’t allow her children to be pessimistic, though. She didn’t allow them to cry when she was around. She only allowed good thoughts.
But the cancer was taking its toll. She struggled to get through chemotherapy. She still attended Deonte’s games, but not with the same regularity and certainly without the same enthusiasm.
Barbara’s struggles reached rock bottom during Deonte’s junior season of high school.
She tried to take her own life.
Deonte doesn’t remember how he heard the news; he only remembers rushing to the hospital to be by his mother’s side. Stuffed with tubes and plugged to wires, Barbara couldn’t speak. She communicated with a white board. The dry erase marker served as her voice, and her persona still shined through. She still cracked jokes. She still didn’t let her children cry.
That was her lowest point, Deonte remembered.
But Deonte was still conscious of the “ravenous wolves,” even at Iowa State.
Because of NCAA transfer rules, Deonte was forced to sit out for the second half of the 2014-15 season and the beginning of the 2015-16 season.
There was a new coach, Steve Prohm, roaming the halls at the Sukup Basketball Complex. Deonte still had his guard up. It wasn’t until Deonte started playing again that he really started to connect with his teammates.
Deonte became eligible to play for Iowa State in December 2015, but he never found his groove on the court. He averaged 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds while averaging 18.8 minutes per game.
Now, almost a year and a half after Deonte transferred to Iowa State, he feels comfortable around his teammates. It happened during the summer, when Deonte spent countless hours in the gym alongside fellow senior Naz Mitrou-Long and other teammates.
“He’ll be the first one to say that he’s as close to us as any team that he’s been on,” Mitrou-Long said. “I feel that way. He opens up about jokes. He’s our brother. We’re his brothers. We’ve grown together.”
Deonte and his family are still as close as ever. The first time they visited him in Ames, the hotel they stayed at put them all in separate rooms. It left the family uncomfortable. They had all been through so much and were so close that sleeping in separate bedrooms was almost unbearable.
So the next time the family came to Ames, they set up air mattresses around Deonte’s apartment and slept right next to one another.
“It was like a campsite,” Nicole said.
He felt right at home.
It was as if a weight was lifted off his shoulders. He could play basketball, care-free and surrounded by “brothers.” He no longer had to worry about his mother’s sickness. She was in a better place.
Now Deonte smiles again.