True To His Roots
Always in touch with his New Jersey origins, Dexter Strickland is aiming to return to the aggressive style of play that earned him accolades as a prep school standout.
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Mark Simpson-Vos
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins/Inside Carolina
f you really want to know Dexter Strickland, you need to know where he’s from.
And that takes a little explaining. Carolina’s media guide will tell you the 6-3, 180 pound sophomore was born in Newark. But Strickland’s official online bio says his hometown is Rahway. And if you listen to television commentators, there’s a good chance they’ll say he’s from Elizabeth, where he starred as a guard for St. Patrick’s High School.
The only way to be sure you’re right is to enlarge your view.
New Jersey. The Garden State. That’s the place Strickland proudly calls home. But if you’re familiar with the geography of the state’s urban northeast, where the Jersey Turnpike tangles with expressways and New York City beckons just a river away, you know the gardens are hard to find—unless you’re seeing bridges and refineries blooming from the asphalt.
Dexter Strickland’s New Jersey is not the leafy suburban one Carolina fans joke about as the breeding ground for Duke students. And the Jersey you’ve seen on MTV recently is miles away.
“’Jersey Shore’ is nothing like where I’m from,” Strickland said flatly. “Where I’m from, it’s the city.”
Strickland takes off the Yankees cap he wears into the interview and sets it down next to him. He explains that all the cities listed in his various bios are home in one way or another. After his birth, Strickland’s parents took their son home from Newark to Rahway, a few miles south, where they raised him with his older sister. But Strickland’s parents separated when he was three. His father, Dexter L., moved a few miles up Route 9 to Linden, into a home he shared with his parents and several other relatives. The younger Dexter—Terrez, they called him, using his middle name—remained in Rahway with his mother, Sheronne.
His neighborhood in Rahway, Strickland says, was a pretty nice place to live. But it couldn’t keep him out of trouble.
“I was a bad kid,” Strickland acknowledged. “Not a bad kid like getting into gangs and stuff, but just being young and immature and choosing the wrong things. I’d act up in school, get detentions. One year I got suspended, like, 11 times. I was about to get kicked out of school…. My mother couldn’t handle me.”
Sheronne Strickland decided that if her son was going to learn how to be a man, he was going to need a firmer hand. “So I moved in with my dad,” Strickland said.
Once in Linden, Strickland changed schools and found a fresh start. He also found an extended family ready to get a wayward pre-teen back on track. The scene Strickland describes sounds like something out of an earlier generation. “My dad was still living with his mother, my grandmother,” he explained. “So it was me, my father, my grandmother, my grandfather, my aunt, my uncle, and their two kids—my cousins. We all grew up together in that one house.”
Though he missed his mother and older sister, his cousins were like surrogate siblings. Meanwhile, four adults were able to play something like zone defense on three energetic children, keeping them on track in school and safe from the tough streets outside.
But those streets were never far away.
“The neighborhood was pretty rough,” Strickland recalled. “I’ll tell you a story. One day, I was playing a game with my cousins. And I heard gunshots—four gunshots. We paused the game and ran to the window, and the guy from across the street came running into the backyard, yelling for help, bleeding. He runs into my grandmother’s back yard, and I’m watching him run. He tries to knock on the door, calling for help. And my grandfather yells, ‘Don’t open that door!’ I had to be about 10 or 11, and I was scared out of my mind, crying. The guy kept knocking, trying to open the door, yelling, blood everywhere. He passes out on my grandfather’s car. Blood everywhere.”
While Strickland’s family kept up the protective wall to hold that harrowing scene at bay, they also called for help. “The guy, he lived,” Strickland said. “My grandmother showed me in the paper the next day that he’d lived. But just seeing that…it gives you a sense of where I grew up…. Elizabeth, where my school was—people up the street, there was poverty everywhere. People selling drugs. It’s horrible. We just tried to stay away from that.”
Strickland says the first credit for keeping him away from the temptations of the neighborhood goes to his father. “My dad did a great job teaching me how to separate myself from that lifestyle,” Strickland recalled. “He taught me how to be a man, how to tell right from wrong. If he hadn’t been there for me, I definitely wouldn’t be here.”
As a key source of discipline, the elder Strickland turned to a place he had found it himself as a young man—sports. Until eighth grade, his son had never played on an organized team, but he showed plenty of raw athleticism. So Dexter L. steered Terrez down the path he had followed, onto the football field, where Dexter L. had been a college standout.
As it turned out, Strickland’s first coach was the man who would become his stepfather, his mother’s husband—so even on the field he was never removed from his family’s watchful eye. Football didn’t stick, though. “I was hurt all the time,” he explained. “I was really skinny.”
So after the season ended, he shifted to the basketball court. There, something clicked. “I remember at the time we had a court back behind our apartment, and I’d be out there every day, just having fun…running up and down with my friends,” he said. “Ever since then, I’ve been successful. I just kept working at it, working at it.”
It didn’t take long for people to notice. On the highly competitive circuit around the New York metro area, Strickland’s quickness and penchant for attacking the basket off the dribble earned him a reputation as a high-major talent to watch. Though he was not from New York City itself, events like the Battle of the Bridge and the Nike Super Six allowed top New Jersey preps like Strickland to match up against elite guards from the five boroughs.
The games, Strickland recalls, were serious business.
“New York guards are tough,” Strickland said. “Guards that come from New York—Lance Stephenson, Kemba Walker—it’s hard to explain. They’re just very crafty with the ball, very skilled. But I used to go against the all those guys, and they’d be pretty good games.”
Though the matchups gave Strickland a healthy respect for the rich New York guard tradition, he speaks up for his home state. “They say guards from Jersey aren’t like the ones from New York—and I agree,” he continued. “But I didn’t grow up in New York. I grew up in New Jersey. I was born and raised in New Jersey. I’m proud to label myself a New Jersey guard.”
While that label might not have the same mythical reputation as an association with the Big Apple, in Strickland’s case, he didn’t need it. His game spoke for itself. And one summer afternoon, he discovered just how much.
“My mother was down at the computer, and she starts yelling, ‘Terrez! Come here!’” Strickland recalled. “She pulled up the rankings, and it said I was number one. And I was like, where did this come from? But from that moment, I realized I had to take the game more seriously. Because I had an opportunity. If I worked, I could make a better life for myself, for my family. I’m not poor. My family’s wasn’t poor. But I felt like if I continued to do what I was doing, worked hard at it, I could do more for the people I love.”
If you want to understand what drives Strickland today, that’s the essence. His Twitter account profile reads, “Just a boy from Jersey balling at UNC tryna do it BIG so my family won’t struggle.” Recognizing all his family had done to get him from childhood to the verge of adulthood, Strickland set out on the journey that ultimately led him to UNC.
He’s kept his family close every step of the way. When he was preparing to make his official visit to Carolina, his uncle rented an RV so that eight members of the family could see the campus as well. At the McDonalds All-American Game following Strickland’s senior year, 40 members of the family were in the stands.
“They all had a shirt with my picture on it,” Strickland said, smiling. “It said ‘D-Strick’ and it had a picture of me with my UNC hat—the one when I committed—and then it said “Family” at the bottom. And at Madison Square Garden [earlier this season], I had close to 40 friends and family there again. It motivates me to do even better.”