DeShun Patterson has always risen to new heights, both literally and figuratively.
As a hooper who was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Patterson has spent the early part of his life wowing packed gymnasiums with gravity-defying dunks that have made even the most casual basketball fans yearn for a rewind button.
These days, Patterson is best remembered for his stint as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters, which is perhaps superseded only by his impressive showing at an NCAA-sponsored dunk contest in 2018 that had NBA legend Nate Robinson in awe of his superhuman athletic ability.
But to get to where he is now, Patterson had to overcome a litany of obstacles in his personal life that threatened to derail his promising basketball career.
The pitfalls started back in high school.
Patterson began his freshman year at Jefferson High School, but by his senior season he had transferred to Bloomington Kennedy in hopes that doing so would elevate his chances at securing a D-1 basketball scholarship.
“It didn’t go as I wanted it to,” Patterson says of his high school career. “I didn’t like it too much. I felt like I was always one of the better guys on the team, but the coaches didn’t like the way I played.”
This included a few coaching staffs who advised Patterson not to play above the rim.
“I had a few coaches who used to tell me not to dunk,” he recalls, adding that he was never given an explanation regarding these instructions.
It was hindrances like these that played a role in Patterson not ending up at a D-1 basketball program, even though just a few years earlier he appeared destined to play on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“In high school I had been receiving D-1 recruitment letters since freshman year,” he mentions, but as Patterson’s playing time failed to increase throughout the course of his high school career, the once constant attention he drew from major universities slowly dwindled.
Compounding matters, Patterson’s academic status was also suffering, which worried schools who otherwise still would have offered him a scholarship.
“Toward the end of junior year and into senior year I didn’t have the grades or the GPA. I didn’t take school seriously until senior year, which was bad on my part,” Patterson admits.
“That meant I had to go to a JUCO [junior college].”
This resulted in Patterson leaving the Twin Cities and heading north to Brainerd, a small town with roughly 13,000 residents.
Despite the change in environment, Patterson was able to embrace his time away from Minneapolis and develop as a young man.
“Coach really looked out for me,” Patterson says of Jim Russell, a 21-year vet who has guided Central Lakes to the JUCO national tournament on multiple occasions.
“Being there was difficult at first,” Patterson adds. “I still had the mindset that I should be at a high-level school or mid-major. Brainerd is a small town, but it allowed me to get my stuff together and I am appreciative of the chance that I did have.”
In his first season there, Patterson and Central Lakes experienced moderate success.
“We didn’t make it to the national tournament, but we were ranked, and that meant a lot to us,” he says.
The summer before his second season at Central Lakes, Patterson took the next step in his career, maturing into a more well-rounded person and basketball player.
This evolution earned him captaincy of the team, a role he took pride in, even as Coach Russell asked his star player to come off the bench.
“Coach told me he did that because even though I was one of the better players, I was mentally stronger than some of the other guys and he needed that spark from me off the bench. It was cool because I still made all-conference and was MVP of the team,” Patterson says, adding that even today Central Lakes continues to have a profound impact on him.
“I still talk to a lot of my teammates from there. That was six years ago, but we’re still friends today, and that’s one memory I can cherish for the rest of my life.”
Following his time at Central Lakes, Patterson needed to find a new school to call home for the last two years of his collegiate career.
He originally had planned on trying to break into college basketball’s preeminent league, but due to a bylaw in NCAA rules, Patterson couldn’t enroll at a D-1 university.
As a result, he began fielding offers from several D-2 schools, including a few in Kansas.
Patterson initially had formed a relationship with one of the assistant coaches at Tabor College, but that same coach also told Patterson that he was likely to take another job at a different school within the conference.
“He ended up getting a job at another school and then recruited me to come to that school. We had talked about me going there, and they had a lot of nice facilities, but this would have been his first year there,” Patterson mentions.
“For my last two years, I didn’t want to be part of a rebuilding effort. I wanted to go to a school where we would have a chance to win and make it to the national tournament.”
In turn, Patterson had decided that Kansas Wesleyan University would be the best fit for the next phase of his career, but securing a spot at that school also proved problematic.
“The coach and I had been talking for a few weeks. I told him I was ready to sign, but he didn’t call or text me, so I called one of my close friends at Tabor and told him that I needed to get this burden [deciding where to play] off my chest,” says Patterson.
Two days later, Tabor sent Patterson a letter of intent and soon he was packing his bags and readying for a new season with the Coyotes.
“My first year at Tabor, they expected me to play right away. They had me in the starting lineup,” says Patterson.
But a week before the regular season was set to tip off, Patterson was once again ruled academically ineligible. This meant that he wasn’t able to play during the first half of the season.
The setback also resulted in Patterson having to adopt a new role on the team when he returned.
“When I started to play, I didn’t play a lot,” he says, but as Patterson continued to develop, things turned around, for both him and the team.
“We ended up winning the conference and clinching our spot in the national tournament. We made the Elite Eight, and I had a big role in that.”
Going into the next season, expectations were high for the Coyotes. Patterson was reinserted into the starting lineup and quickly established himself as one of the leaders on the team, but the team wasn’t able to recapture the same magic from the last year.
“Our season was up and down. We would win and then we would lose. People were bumping heads and we didn’t make the national tournament,” says Patterson.
While the Coyotes didn’t experience the same success as the previous season, Patterson showed out, averaging double digits in scoring and accumulating a variety of highlight-reel dunks that landed him a spot in the aforementioned NCAA slam dunk contest down in San Antonio.
“That was one of the greatest experiences of my life, especially me being the only NAIA player there among all the D-1 athletes and getting to showcase my athleticism on ESPN,” he says.
Patterson performed well at the dunk contest, in one sequence mesmerizing the 3,800-person contingent on hand with a windmill dunk that registered a perfect score.
After that now-viral throwdown, former NBA phenom Nate Robinson, a player who Patterson admired while growing up, came up to shake his hand.
“That was cool. In the moment, I didn’t realize what was going on because I was so hyped, but then he came over and shook my hand,” Patterson says.
“I didn’t realize what happened until everything was over. It was surreal, thinking about how many kids wanted to be there and be able to do something like that.”
A few weeks after the NCAA dunk contest in San Antonio, Patterson received a call from the Harlem Globetrotters, who upon seeing a number of his highlights on Instagram, invited him to work out with other prospective players.
“They flew me out with a few other guys who they were interested in. We had a workout and then afterward they wanted to see what kind of person I was and what type of things I wanted to do in life.”
Being able to display his talents in that setting was an incredible opportunity for Patterson, but it was also only the beginning of his journey with the world-famous sports entity.
A few weeks after he returned home, the Harlem Globetrotters offered Patterson a contract.
“I ended up signing, and then we had training camp a month later for about a week. After that, we hit the road,” he says.
Of course, Patterson was ecstatic about being a member of the Harlem Globetrotters and being able to play basketball at the professional level, but being a part of the team also presented a distinctive set of challenges.
“I have been to a lot of places because of basketball, but I wasn’t used to traveling like that. We were constantly on the go from one city to the next,” Patterson says.
“A lot of people don’t realize that we are practicing and playing every day. We’re also playing competitively. Obviously, we do interact with the crowd and it’s staged, but we are also actually playing for real.”
Ultimately, Patterson found his experience with the Harlem Globetrotters to be rewarding, citing the uniqueness of the job and the reality that not many people get the chance to play for such a renowned organization.
“I would definitely be interested in doing it again,” he says. “I love doing stuff like that for the kids, putting a smile on people’s faces, and just seeing how happy individuals and families are when you make their day. Being able to do that is a blessing.”
While Patterson is extremely grateful for everything that he was afforded during his tenure with the Harlem Globetrotters, he also acknowledges that there is still so much more that he wants to accomplish in the game of basketball.
“I’m still at the age where I’m super competitive and I still want to try to make it to the league [NBA] or even go play overseas. I’ve played against some of the best people and I’ve always done well,” he says.
“I just need the right person to see me and also be in the right place at the right time.”
Before COVID-19 reshaped the entire basketball landscape, Patterson was playing professionally in Mexico.
As things slowly returned to normal and basketball organizations once again sent scouts out on the recruiting trail, Patterson was invited to a combine event in Arizona.
“I did really well down there, and I’ve just been trying to use that film and get it sent out to coaches. I’ve been talking to some agents and trying to see what teams are looking for, but more than anything, I’m just waiting for someone to take a chance on me,” he says.
Patterson is mindful enough to recognize that his career as a professional basketball player may slowly be coming to an end, and while he has every intention of continuing to pursue a playing career, he also has prepared for a reality that doesn’t involve him donning a uniform.
“I’ve asked myself whether I want to give basketball up or if I want to keep playing. I want to keep playing, but I want to be smart about it too. I don’t want to be in my thirties and still waiting for a call,” he acknowledges.
“If it doesn’t work out in the next couple years, then I’ll hang it up, and I can live with that.”
Having already earned a business and sports management major degree from Tabor, it’s likely that Patterson will always stay involved in basketball because, quite frankly, to do anything else would go against what Patterson has spent his entire life working toward.
“A lot of people don’t fully know who I am. Much of the basketball stuff that I did, I did on my own. My mom was there, but she didn’t know anything about basketball. She was just happy to see her son out there playing.”
“One day I would like to open up my own facility and give back to the community. There are a lot of things I want to do. I want to do basketball training, maybe coach a little bit, but really I want to focus on mentoring kids and give them the opportunities that I didn’t have.”
Whether Patterson ultimately finds himself suiting up for another professional team in the coming years remains to be seen, but either way, there is no denying that already he has left an indelible mark on the game of basketball.
And if ever we need a reminder of just how far Patterson has come since his early playing days in Minneapolis, here is a reminder:
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