Still just a boy, Darrion Strong packed his bags. He was heading north – about seven hours north from Chicago to a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. Basketball was in his blood, and it was finally starting to bubble to the surface as an eighth-grader.
He had lived with his mother and his grandmother all his life, but they didn’t know much about the technical side of the sport. His father did. Adrian Moore, Strong’s dad, played at Iowa State and was an all-stater out of Chicago as a senior in high school.
Strong left the two women who raised him, bound for a journey that would not always be easy but ultimately ended with his commitment to the University of Oklahoma last Monday. The road left him with a sense that he needed to prove himself.
“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder,” said Strong, who picked Oklahoma over Iowa State, his father’s alma mater. “Some people doubted me for a long time. I just worked hard. . . . I just came in with that mentality and a chip on my shoulder. I’ve got something to prove. That’s all on my mind.
“That’s still on my mind today, even after the commitment and all the big schools. I’m still hungry to try and get to that next, next level.”
By the time Strong left Chicago, he was already playing at an elite level. His mother and father agreed that it would be best for their son to make the move, escaping the inner city and trying to develop into an elite basketball talent.
Strong made the varsity team as a ninth-grader at Tartan High School in Minnesota under coach Mark Klingsporn. He received an offer from Boise State as a sophomore.
He kept improving, waking his brother at 6 a.m. to go to the gym. When his brother declined, Strong went to his father, who eagerly jumped out of bed to help his son.
“He’s just that hungry to be good,” said Moore, who trained with his son every offseason during the past seven years.
Strong, who was Tartan’s leading scorer as a sophomore and junior, was ready to verbally commit to either Marquette or Miami when his academics started to suffer. His GPA fell, and he was one point shy of a qualifying ACT score.
Strong went to Quakerdale Prep School in Iowa, where he could concentrate more on his academics. But Strong didn’t qualify academically for an immediate jump to the NCAA and looked to a junior college.
Every year, Quakerdale Prep plays an exhibition against Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College – Strong’s chance for an audition.
When long-time Coffeyville coach Jay Herkelman first saw Strong, he wasn’t sold on the guard.
Eventually convinced by his assistant coaches and other coaches he spoke with who had seen the young point guard, Herkelman took Strong in and soon found out the kind of elite scorer Strong could be.
Strong modeled his game after Chicago Bulls superstar Derrick Rose, and Moore jokingly said that Strong, who shot 42 percent from behind the 3-point line, is more like “D-Rose with a jump shot.”
A little more than a year later, Strong would be a JuCo All-American after averaging 21.3 points and 2.2 assists per game as a freshman.
Strong took to Herkelman’s coaching, flourished in Coffeyville’s offensive system and seemingly never left the gym.
“When you have a player of his caliber and he’s the hardest-working guy on your team, that’s always good for your team,” Herkelman said of Strong, who enrolled a semester early at Coffeyville and started working out immediately. “He doesn’t lack for work ethic, that’s for sure. . . . He wants to be really good. He is good, but he wants to be even better.”
Moore doesn’t have to guess where his son might be when Strong is at school. Even at 10 or 11 o’clock at night, Strong is in the gym.
“He lives in that gym,” Moore said.
On his official visit to Oklahoma less than a month ago, Strong found a common bond. Before he left the campus, he already felt like his future teammates were his brothers. They checked in on him even after he headed back to Coffeyville, giving Strong a place that felt like home. Strong said he never wanted to leave.
“You’ve gotta get great,” Strong said. “That’s what I learned from Buddy. You just want to be great. . . . You just have to take one step at a time. Just being in the gym and working on your craft and getting better really helps.”
Moore wasn’t all that shocked when his son chose Oklahoma over his alma mater. He wasn’t heartbroken, either.
His heart was filled.
The first time Moore knew his son could be special was when Strong was in eighth grade. Strong scored 36 points in a game. Moore still has the video.
It didn’t matter which school the coachable, laid-back kid picked. Moore saw the whole process: From an 11-year-old full of potential in a brand-new city to an eager new Sooner, bound for the Big 12.
“I’m so proud of this young man, not only because he’s my son but there were people in Minnesota that were doubting his skill level,” Moore said. “When his academics needed a little work, he never quit. He didn’t ever quit.
“Now, he’s reaping the benefits: Going to a top-10 university with great coaches and great players around him. It’s an unbelievable success story.”