Shon Darby wheeled himself to his courtside seat at Cox Pavilion and waited patiently for NBA hopeful Quinn Cook to take the court with the New Orleans Pelicans’ summer league team.
He passed Cook the ball during warmups, cheered for New Orleans to beat the Atlanta Hawks, and gleefully posed for pictures with several Pelicans players after the July 9 game.
For the first — and perhaps only — time all year, Darby is at peace.
“This is the highlight of his life. He waits every year for this,” said Vanessa McConnell, Darby’s mother. “All in between the year, all he talks about is summer league.”
Darby, 23, was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, birth defects that have affected the development of his spinal cord and relegated him to a wheelchair for most of his life.
He has a hole in his spine and a surgically implanted shunt in his head to prevent harmful fluids from building up in his brain. He can walk short distances and doesn’t use his wheelchair at home, but long distances are a no-go and, in turn, he has never had the opportunity to play the sport he loves.
Passion for the game
His disabilities haven’t stopped him from indulging in his passion, and he’s found a safe haven at the NBA Summer League — an event he’s attended each of the past six years
“It’s kind of an escape,” Darby said. “I can really let it all go and be myself. I’m in my element.”
Darby has evolved into a staple at Cox Pavilion, and his jovial attitude is emblematic of the culture that summer league co-founder Warren LeGarie aims to create.
He attends all 11 days of the event, and is often featured on the video board singing and dancing to the rap songs played throughout games.
He enthusiastically greets the referees, coaches and players — many of whom he’s befriended — and makes a point to high-five every player and coach as they walk off the court.
McConnell makes sure Darby gets to the summer league by any means necessary, and has made financial sacrifices so her son can attend the games. Sometimes she’ll accompany him, and sometimes she’ll drop him off.
When arrives, he’s in good hands, and LeGarie and the summer league staff accommodate him as much as they can.
“We try to … give him as much access as we can where we don’t put his situation at jeopardy,” LeGarie said. “He’s part of the family here.”
Years of memories
Darby won’t hesitate to reach out to a player or coach for a picture or an autograph, either — no matter how big the name — and they treat him with the courtesy and respect he isn’t accustomed to receiving.
He flagged down Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd for some conversation and pictures last week, and chewed the fat with Dallas big man Nerlens Noel during a Mavericks game.
“(The players) remind me that ‘you are of importance.’ They look forward to seeing me,” Darby said. “They do look forward to the high-fives, the hugs. They don’t treat me no different.”
That, initially, was a little unusual for Darby, who said he was bullied for most of his childhood.
He worked his way through the Clark County public school system, graduated from Mojave High School and struggled for years to come to terms with his disability as he was subjected to hateful treatment from his peers.
“I let it affect me with the whole bullying (thing),” Darby said. “I’ve heard every name in the book. Back then, it hurt a lot.”
Darby has since become numb to the negativity. He said he’s made a concerted effort to love himself and pursue his passions: sports, music and the Las Vegas nightlife.
“This is not going to stop. I’m never going to wake up and be able to say ‘I’m not disabled anymore,’” Darby said. “This is something I’m going to take to my grave.
“Do I let it beat me or do I just deal with it? If I can’t love myself, I can’t expect the next person to.”
Darby co-operates a sports and entertainment website with McConnell, who founded it and was a credentialed media member at the NBA Summer League in 2012. He accompanied her to the games and fell in love with an atmosphere that grants unprecedented access to some of the biggest superstars in sports.
“You never know who is going to show up,” Darby said. “You never know who you’re going to get close to.”
That first year it was first-team All-NBA big man Anthony Davis.
Since then, Darby has met and taken pictures with Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green and DeMar DeRozan.
To name a few.
“His face is well known around the gym,” said Cook, whom Darby counts as one of his best basketball friends. “I always make it an obligation to go speak to him, show him love … He’s a great kid, great guy. He’s here, and he loves basketball. It’s great to have fans like that.”
Fan of the game
Darby is a die-hard college basketball fan, too, and tracks the careers of his favorite players before they arrive at the summer league. He knows who they are, where they played their college basketball and what type of impact they’re going to have on an NBA roster.
Cook said the players admire his due diligence and respect his passion. They’ll occasionally give him their gear, and Darby has a collection of game-worn shoes and jerseys he has accumulated through the summer league.
“He’s always positive. Always has good energy. That’s all you can ask for, man,” Cook said. “If I’m having a bad day — today, I was a little tired — I seen him and he gave me his love … He’s a great fan man, and I appreciate him.”
Of course, the summer league only lasts a couple of weeks and Darby has to find other ways to fill his time. He co-hosts a weekly radio show at UNLV with McConnell, helps with her website and enjoys spending time downtown or on the Strip.
He hopes to own a chain of nightclubs some day, but after seeing how NBA personnel treat him at the summer league, his mom has other ideas.
“I would love to get him a job somewhere in the NBA … I’m encouraging it,” McConnell said. “”The players. The referees. The staff. Everybody embraces him. I can’t explain it. It’s overwhelming. They take good care of him.”
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Darby’s Dream Team
Shon Darby’s five favorite NBA players:
1. Blake Griffin, Clippers
“I just like how he suffered an injury that could have derailed his career, but he came back even better.”
2. Devin Booker, Suns
“All of his doubters, he keeps proving them wrong every time he steps on the court.”
3. Marcus Smart, Celtics
“I like his humility, and I like his toughness on defense.”
4. Klay Thompson, Warriors
“Even though he’s that successful, he found his own way … he didn’t want the shine of his dad.”
5. Anthony Davis, Pelicans
“He’s a defensive monster. His defense is monstrous.”