I t’s a hot Wednesday afternoon in the beginning of July. The temperature reads 84, but it feels hotter. In the Carney-Nadeau gym, a collection of teams hone their skills for the upcoming season. Summer team camps don’t draw much of a crowd, and other than the players awaiting their upcoming games, you won’t need more than 10 fingers to count the remaining spectators. They are parents and grandparents mostly, mixed in with the kids who are stretching, drinking Gatorade and sometimes napping in preparation for their next game.
There are 15 teams playing in the tournament, and Ishpeming isn’t one of them.
That’s important, because at the end of the court, sitting in a folding chair next to a white fan and a basketball is Darius Yohe. He graduated from Ishpeming this past May, and his attendance at the camp doesn’t make much sense. His alma mater isn’t playing, so he doesn’t have former teammates to cheer for. He’s finished with high school, so no reason to scout Ishpeming’s competition — yet there he is.
Sure, his older brother Dondre is reffing, but that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason for a teenager to drive two hours only to sit in a hot gym on a day when he could be enjoying the freedoms of summer.
Between plays, Darius jokes with his brother, their faces constantly stretched into wide smiles. When there’s a break in the action he gets up from his chair and shoots. Sometimes, when he misses a shot, Darius critiques himself out loud for the whole gym to hear: “You’ve got to get more arc on that,” he says more than once when a ball nicks off the rim.
He seems to have friends on every team. He cheers for good plays and leaps out of his chair for great ones. He makes small talk on the sidelines while teams get ready for their games and even shares back-and-forth comments with guys as they play.
It doesn’t take more than a few moments of observation to understand: This is Yohe enjoying his summer.
“Dondre asked me to come, so I figured I might as well spend the day watching basketball,” he said.
Charles Belt was first introduced to Darius Yohe when the Ishpeming grad was just a tag-along with his brother. Dondre worked out at the Northern Michigan gym facilities, and Belt was an assistant coach for the NMU men’s basketball team at the time.
When Belt started at NMU, Yohe would have been 12, and tiny. It’s no wonder Belt referred to him as a “little squirt.”
He was nowhere near the long, lean 6-9 athlete he is now. In fact, when Yohe finished eighth grade, he worried he would never grow — he was 5-4 at the time.
Still, Belt committed the 12-year-old to memory.
“You always keep an eye on the local kids, as a coach,” Belt said. “And then next thing you know he was 6-1, then 6-4, then 6-6.”
Last season, NMU was recruiting Hart Holmgren from Ishpeming when Yohe was a junior. After years of seeing him in the gym and around town, Belt finally got a good look at him.
“That was the first time I thought, ‘I think Darius Yohe has a chance to be a college basketball player at a scholarship level,’ ” Belt said.
And the coach mentally upgraded Yohe from “little squirt” to “player to watch.”
By the time senior year came around, Yohe had added three more inches to his elongated frame, and he had his heart set on playing basketball at NMU. It just made sense. With Holmgren, his former teammate already there, and his good friend Reece Castor of Gladstone committed to the Wildcats, Yohe was ready to play for his hometown team.
But the setbacks started before his senior season even began.
When Ishpeming attended a summer team camp at NMU, Yohe had less than 10 minutes of court time before rising up for what should have been a monster dunk. Instead, he got pushed in the back and landed on the base of the moveable basketball hoop.
“I basically Paul George-d my ankle,” he said, referring to a 2014 leg injury George sustained when going up for a block in a Team USA Blue vs. White game.
The injury was gruesome, devastating and uncharted. Yohe had broken bones in his arms before, and the recovery, he said, was easy. This was anything but easy.
Physical therapy was challenging, and Yohe spent most of the season trying to get back to what he was when he went up for that dunk, rather than the injured player who landed.
Throughout Ishpeming’s season, Yohe would disappear for periods of time. Sometimes minutes, sometimes halves. He could be seen either on the bench or off to the side taking off his shoe and attempting to massage the injured ankle.
To make matters worse, the Hematites were struggling — big time. They finished the season with a 6-13 record and lost to Gwinn in the first round of districts.
Yohe has always been competitive, and he even remembers attempting to destroy his classmates in third grade math by finishing his timetables before anyone else.
Every athlete hates to lose, and if you’re not competitive, you’re probably not very good. But, there is a line. And last year, Yohe was so far over the line he knew he would have to change some things going into his senior year.
“My junior year, whenever we lost I would get so mad. I would get so mad that I wouldn’t talk to anyone,” he said. “This year I knew we would have a little bit of a down year, but I thought we were going to beat the teams we should have beat. But there are some things that you just have to get over. I had to grow up from junior year and I feel like I am in a mature point in my life.”
Still, whenever the Hematites lost, Yohe would shoulder the blame.
“I always blame things on myself when we don’t do well,” he said. “Everyone else does their job. And I have to do mine.”
Of course, that’s not entirely true. Darius Yohe was not responsible for his team’s 6-13 season, but his competitiveness often made him feel that way.
Just like in third grade when he wanted to be first in every timetable, Yohe didn’t want to win six of 19 games; he wanted to win 19 of 19, and then even more in the postseason.
As a junior Yohe might not have gotten over it, but now, as a high-school graduate, he seems content with how things turned out. Not happy, but just at peace.
And ready for the next step.
Following the Paul George-esque injury, Yohe spent countless hours working his leg back to top form. He was scared to dunk, afraid he was going to get hurt again.
In Ishpeming’s 59-55 district opening loss to Gwinn, Yohe re-broke his ankle and had to start the process all over again.
That was at the end of February. He finished physical therapy in May, and now, Yohe thinks he is almost back to top form.
So there’s one setback taken care of.
The second came when NMU, the school he had dreamed of playing at, experienced a drastic coaching shift.
Former head coach Bill Sall left at the end of the 2018-19 season to coach at Calvin College, his alma mater. From there the rest of the staff fractured off and Belt ended up at William Woods in Missouri, while Yohe, despite the changes, was thinking of walking on at NMU.
But he was convinced otherwise.
Belt knew right away he wanted to recruit Yohe.
“There aren’t many 6-9 guys that are athletic out there in the world,” Belt said. “But more importantly, when you are building a program, you want the right people. He and his family, they check all the boxes.”
Belt was sold on Darius, so now, he had to sell the prospect on himself.
He did it by being honest and upfront. He never plans it, but Belt has always ended up with recruits from single-parent homes. He came from one, but he doesn’t use that background as a recruiting tool. He just connects organically with players who share his background, and that happened with Darius too.
Belt understands the bond Yohe has with his mother. He understands that Darius and Dondre are inseparable. He understands why Darius would want to stay close to home, and he also understands that he shouldn’t.
“Getting away is going to be good for him,” Belt said. “Because Darius isn’t bold. He isn’t a put-your-foot down kind of kid. And that can allow distractions to get in the way.”
And Darius Yohe has one glaring flaw: He’s too nice.
Some coaches promise playing time, touches or certain success, but Belt promised something else. He promised that if Darius chose William Woods, he would teach him grit and toughness. He would teach him to leave his nice demeanor on the sidelines and replace it with the kind of swagger it takes to follow up a dunk with a pound to the chest and a deafening scream. That’s what Belt wants for him.
And it turns out, Yohe wants it too, because after the home visit, he became Belt’s first signee at William Woods.
Belt is confident Yohe will develop as a basketball player. He has too much natural talent and athleticism. And now, he’s confident Yohe will develop that grit, too.
“Moving 13 hours is probably the most stick-your-flag-down move he has made in his life,” Belt said. “That is a gritty move. We are headed down the right path. As a coach that is exciting. It shows he is willing to take a risk for something he desperately wants. He wants to be a good player. He wants to come back home and be able to say, ‘I am one of those guys in that lore of UP guys who were able to be successful playing college basketball.’
“I want him to be able to come back after he graduates and say, ‘This is my hardware; these are my accolades. What did you do?’ ”
Waking on at NMU seems like it would be the risk, but for Yohe, that would be the safe move. At NMU, he has his friends, his mom, the community he grew up in, and his brother/ best friend to catch him if he falls.
At William Woods he has a full-scholarship — everything except books, he says — but he also has 13 hours and a whole lot of unknowns between him and his family.
Leaving Dondre will be the most challenging part. He’s a year older than Darius, but the two might as well be twins.
“We are inseparable,” Darius said. “You rarely see Dondre alone, unless he is working.”
When they are together the Yohe brothers are usually playing basketball or video games. Sometimes they play Assassins Creed or Watchdogs, because “Dondre likes the stories,” Darius says, but usually they chose NBA 2K.
Dondre is better at 2K, but Darius holds the crown in real basketball.
At least, that’s what Darius says.
“Dondre,” he shouts as his brother is in the middle of reffing a game. “Who is better at basketball, me or you?”
Dondre points to himself at first, but then Darius hits him with the facts: “The last time we played one-on-one I beat you 11-4 and then 11-2.”
Then, Darius suggests they play 2K when they get home. He wants to beat his brother at that, too.
Every player has an origin story, the first time they realized basketball was the game for them. And Darius is no different. His starts on a wrestling mat (that part is a little different).
He doesn’t know how he got involved with wrestling as a first-grader, and he can’t even remember if he liked it or not. But he does remember winning — he finished his lone season with an 8-1 record — and he remembers getting in trouble.
In the middle of wrestling meets Yohe would drive his coach crazy by running off in his wrestling uniform to practice basketball with his brother and their friends.
Watching Yohe shoot around in the Carney gym, it is easy to see that happy kid sprinting off to play basketball. Despite being 6-9, he still looks little when he smiles. But there is something else there too, something that even Belt missed.
Yohe’s first gritty move wasn’t deciding to move 13 hours from home to play for an unestablished basketball program. It was running off a wrestling mat and silently declaring that no matter what he was wearing or what he was doing in that moment, Darius Yohe was a basketball player, and no matter what was in his way, he always would be.
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