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Damion's neighborhood was rough. "Drugs, fighting, violence, dogfighting—I was around all that stuff 24/7," he says. Both his parents had trouble with the law: In the '90s Bell spent five years in prison for cocaine trafficking, and when Damion was 17, his mom spent three months in jail for assault. Yet James expresses nothing but love for and gratitude to his parents, who remain good friends and make the eight-hour round-trip together to Austin for his home games. "My mama is my Number 1," he says. He packs a picture of himself and Katrina in his suitcase for road trips.
James is convinced that he would be selling drugs like many of his friends and relatives if not for Nacogdoches High basketball coach Mark Richardson and assistant Robert Lucero. "They changed my life," he says. "They pushed me on the court and in the classroom, told me I could be a success. If I wanted to go out with the fellas and chase girls, they wouldn't let me."
During summers Damion worked at Lucero's father's trucking company in Dallas so he could make money to cover AAU traveling expenses. "The hardness you'd think Damion would have from growing up where he did isn't there," says Richardson, now the coach at Rider High in Wichita Falls, Texas. "That allowed basketball to do a lot for him. He had to trust that we knew what we were talking about when we said, This chemistry class is important."
James next put his trust in Sampson—"I think Coach Sampson might have reminded Damion of me," says Richardson—and committed to Oklahoma in early April 2005. James called and texted Reynolds urging him to do the same.
"I felt so good being with Coach Sampson and the players and staff," says Reynolds. "I thought everything was going to work out." Then, on media day at the McDonald's All-American game in San Diego on March 28, 2006, he heard that Sampson was leaving for Indiana. Neither Reynolds nor James, who was in English class when he got word, wanted to speak to Sampson. Both wanted to cry. Neither of them felt a connection with new Sooners coach Jeff Capel, so the school released them from their letters of intent, and they frantically looked for other schools.
With Hall's help, Reynolds zeroed in on Villanova, a program that fulfilled several of his requirements: strong academics, a guard tradition and an available scholarship. Coach Jay Wright had seen Reynolds play after he committed to Oklahoma and had been impressed by what he calls Reynolds's "assassin's mentality." But the two didn't know each other. "It was like an arranged marriage," says Hall. "We didn't know if it would work out."
On a team loaded with kids from Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., Reynolds stood out. He had come in with rock-star hype, unusual for a Wildcats recruit, yet he was humble. He didn't drink or smoke. He still went to church and Bible study without fail, and he hung on the coach's every word.
"I think guys on the team were like, C'mon, is this guy for real? How can anybody be this good of a kid?" says Wright, who couldn't believe it either. "It was confusing, really. Off the court he was so genuine, but on it he would do anything within the rules to win. He was crafty, tricky and as nasty as they come."
If Wright didn't understand Reynolds, the feeling was mutual. Reynolds did everything his coach asked, but, says Wright, "I could tell he didn't trust me." Wright didn't have the time to chat for hours the way Hall did, so Reynolds wasn't building the kind of relationship he needed. "It was hard for me, and I didn't let myself open up," says Reynolds. "I wasn't all in."
You wouldn't have known it watching him on the court. Again and again Reynolds delivered exactly what his team needed. Freshman year: He scored 40 points against Connecticut in a game Villanova had to win to stay alive for the NCAA tournament. Sophomore year: After the Wildcats fell behind Clemson by 18 in the first half in an NCAA first-round game, Reynolds hit three threes to open the second half and went on to score 21 points in a 75--69 upset. Junior year: He dashed through traffic for a layup with .5 seconds remaining to beat Pitt 78--76 and send Villanova to the Final Four for the first time since its championship season of 1985.