Riley Demps was born to play basketball, even though it seems like he was born NOT to.
Basketball is in his DNA. It’s why he refused to allow an injury he suffered in the first minutes of his now-16-year-old life to sidetrack him from playing the sport that runs deep in his family’s blood.
Demps, the son of New Orleans Pelicans general manager Dell Demps, suffered a brachial plexus injury during birth. The injury caused his right shoulder to be weaker than the left, changing Riley’s life before it ever really began.
Well, at least it probably SHOULD have changed his life. He didn’t let it.
Instead, it pushed him to where he is now, a starting sophomore guard at Isidore Newman School. He’s averaging a team-best 14.2 points for the Greenies.
“It’s all I’ve ever known, so there was no reason to use it as an excuse,” Demps said. “I’ve always felt that the only thing you can control is your preparation. So I always make sure that I am more than well-prepared. When I’m in the gym, I just know I have to work harder than everybody else.”
His parents made sure of that.
“We never treated him like he was any different,” said Anita, Riley’s mom. “We never made any special accommodations for him. And Riley doesn’t want you to make any. I don’t think Riley would be Riley if this hadn’t happened.”
His father, along with older brothers Tre (who plays at Northwestern) and Jordan, didn’t have any pity on Riley, either.
“They never let me win,” Riley said. “They never gave me any mercy. That let me know there are no gimmes. I knew then that, if I wanted to win, I had to really grind.”
Anita Demps said Riley is the most competitive of the three sons. Dell noticed that competitive nature when Riley was around 5 years old.
Riley’s team had just lost in the championship game at a camp that day. His teammates went swimming afterward.
Riley was under the bleachers crying.
Recalling that moment made Dell laugh, but there have also been more emotional moments. For Dell, it was the first time Riley dribbled behind his back with his right hand.
“Tears came down his face, and I’m sitting in the gym, both of us crying because it was the first time he was able to do that,” Dell recalled.
It was a monumental moment for Riley, coming shortly after a casting procedure helped straighten his arm.
“My arm was always too bent to get the ball around my back,” he recalled. “I was freaking out when I was able to do it. That was a great moment.”
For Anita, the moment she most remembers is the first time her son dribbled to his right, going against the scouting report that said her youngest son couldn’t go that way.
“I got chills because, for so long, he didn’t trust it,” she said.
Anita and Dell even came up with a hand gesture they would use while sitting in the stands. It was simply a reminder for Riley to “trust your right.”
He did. And now he trusts every aspect of his game.
There aren’t many kinks in Riley’s basketball repertoire, as he showed Tuesday in Newman’s romp over St. Charles. He finished with 16 points to go with three steals, three assists and two rebounds. He hit all four of his 3-point attempts. Playing on the varsity team as a freshman last year, he scored a career-high 27 against De La Salle.
“The only thing he can’t do is dunk with his right hand,” Newman coach Jimmy Tillette said. “That’s about it. But he can finish with his right. He can play. And I’m not saying he can play, considering his arm. He can play — period.”
Opposing coaches, from high school to AAU ball, agreed.
“He has a motor that won’t quit,” said Randall Campbell, who has coached against Riley in AAU basketball. “He has a desire that he isn’t going to let that stop him from playing the game he loves. I’d love to have a kid with a heart like that.”
Country Day coach Mike McGuire has seen first-hand how dangerous Riley is on the court. McGuire, like Riley, is a left-hander.
“From one lefty to another, you know he is probably going left, but he still beats you,” McGuire said. “It’s like a Manu Ginobili thing. You know he’s going to probably go left, but you can’t stop it. But the main thing about Riley is that he is a dead-eye shooter. He must work hours and hours because he knows how to put the ball in the hole.”
Riley would be proud to hear the comparison to Ginobili, the San Antonio Spurs veteran guard. He patterns his game after Ginobili and teammate Tony Parker, whom he grew up watching during his father’s stint as the Spurs’ director of pro player personnel.
“Both of them are strong-arm dominant, and they rarely use their off-hand,” Riley said about his childhood heroes. “But they will use their offhand when they have to.”
Riley’s goal is to play college basketball.
“A little of that is wanting to prove people wrong and make a statement,” he said. “But it’s really just for me, because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
His high school coach — a former college coach — likes his chances.
“He can play somewhere for sure,” Tillette said. “It’s too early to say where he’ll shake out, but having coached in college for 25 years, I think for sure at some level he can do that.
“Riley isn’t amazing because he’s overcome adversity. He’s amazing because of who he is. I have a feeling, whatever Riley wants to do, he will do it.”
Riley said he notices the occasional stares from opposing players and fans, but he isn’t fazed by them. He knows there are those who want to ask him why his right arm looks different than his left but are too afraid to ask.
And for those who are bold enough to ask, he makes sure to have a little fun with them.
His answers vary. Sometimes he’ll say he got into a fight with a bear in the woods. Other times he’ll say he was attacked by a shark while surfing.
To help sell the story, he’ll show the scars on his shoulder.
But those scars actually are from one of two surgeries he has undergone to help give him normal range of motion. Those scars serve as a daily reminder of how far he has come.
He gets another reminder once a year when he goes to Shriners Hospital for Children, where his progress is monitored. While there, he sees all the other children with the same injury he has who aren’t able to do the things he does.
Riley embraces it all.
“It’s all I know,” he said. “This is part of my life. It’s just what it is. But you have to have an end goal. I’ve always had my eyes on the prize, and I’m not going to let anything get in my way. I’ve had surgeries and casts.
“Yeah, it’s hard sometimes, but there’s no reason to make excuses.”