By Ryan Raffensperger
There was no surprise video. No Instagram or Twitter public relations blitz.
There was a reason to celebrate, but the pomp and fanfare that has come with many recent walk-ons to scholarship announcements was not a part of the process. The outcome was the same, just without all the pomp and exposure. Mount St. Mary's head coach Dan Engelstad awarded sophomore guard Damian Chong Qui a scholarship this offseason after a freshman season that saw Chong Qui emerge as another successful undersized guard for the Mount.
"It wasn't a big scene, we didn't put it on social media. He just earned it. We knew that we had to give him one because he does everything right and embodies what we are about in our program," said Engelstad.
As a walk-on during his freshman campaign, Chong Qui took over the point guard duties just eight games into his career and started each of the final 24 games. The Mount recorded all nine of its wins during that stretch. As the season wore on Chong Qui's play continued to strengthen, and he averaged 8.4 points, 4.4 assists, and 3.5 rebounds in Northeast Conference play. His 2.3 assist to turnover ratio was 13th nationally among freshman.
"It was a great feeling," Chong Qui said of receiving the scholarship. "Because I knew exactly how much I had been through to get to that point."
The obstacles and setbacks and Chong Qui's reaction to them is what sets him apart from others. At just 5 feet 8 inches, Chong Qui continues the tradition of small guards that excel at Mount St. Mary's. But basketball is still a big man's game. Consequently, his lack of size has led to many always questioning whether the guard could compete at the next level. Chong Qui knew from a young age he'd have to set himself apart. His work ethic and his unwavering desire to get better have helped him achieve that type of success.
But the size and other on-court obstacles only begin to tell the story.
"Adversity introduces a man to himself" – Albert Einstein.
At the age of four, Chong Qui's mother Lisa Brown was shot and killed. His father Edward Chong Qui was all of a sudden a single parent. Trying to adapt to the situation, the father moved to Trinidad with his son for a year. When he decided to move back to the States, his family on the island wanted him to leave Damian there.
"After Damian's Mother passed away, it was just me full-time," said the elder Chong Qui. "The bond between us was strengthened. They (my family) wanted me to leave him with them in Trinidad, but I knew I couldn't separate like that."
So father and son returned to the Baltimore area. Edward was playing basketball in numerous leagues in and around the city, and when he went to the gym, Damian went with him. From all accounts, Damian loved it. And that is where his love and his passion for the game grew from. The youngster was always willing to put in the extra work, always wanting to get better.
"Every chance we got, he was in the gym, getting shots up before practice. Taking more shots after practice," Edward said of Damian's developmental years. "He's always been one of the smallest players, so we trained him to play like he was small. I didn't force him, he wanted to be there all the time. He wasn't as athletic, but he was a student of the game."
Those early years helped develop Damian's game, helped shape him into the floor leader that he is today. The times also deepened the relationship between father and son.
"What a father means to his son growing up, will become what a son means to his father growing old."
All of that changed with Edward's injury. When Damian was 12, his father was shot seven times, resulting in paralysis. All of a sudden, the father who had cared for Damian needed special care.
"That changed my life a lot. Quick," Damian recalled of the time. "I had to mature, grow up much faster than an average kid would."
"Literally how you would take care of a child, it's what I was doing for my father. It was really the complete switching of roles. I think me doing that made me mature and made me the way I am. I think it made our bond that much stronger."
Damian had help from a family that he calls "extremely supportive" and a step-mother who is an "extraordinary woman," but much of the time was spent with just Damian and his father. Still, he recalls how the first two years were "tough." The apartment they lived in was not handicap accessible, and Damian recalls carrying his father up flights of stairs.
But still, Damian wanted to play basketball. Time in the gym gave him some solace, a time to temporarily put aside the issues. With his father unable to continue to work out with Damian in the gym, many of the elder Chong Qui's former teammates and friends within the game took over that role.
Former Towson guard Kurk Lee was a big part of that. Charles "Choo" Smith of Harlem Globetrotters fame was always around.
Gerald Brown, a two-time All-MAAC guard while at Loyola, was also part of that group that helped guide Chong Qui to be the player he is today.
"Life doesn't get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient"– Steve Maraboli
Brown is also part of the latest set of tragedies to afflict the younger Chong Qui's life. An offseason spent working on getting better with his teammates at the Mount, was also full of another round of tragic events. On June 7, Brown was shot and killed in Baltimore. The death came nearly a year, 359 days, after the death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair.
McNair and Chong Qui had grown up playing against each other on the basketball court before McNair turned his focus to football. But the pair remained close as they both attended The McDonogh School in Owings Mills.
Then again in August of this year, Chong Qui's uncle, Terrance Whiters, was shot in Baltimore and died 14 days later.
"I've lost a lot, so many people that are close to me, people that I value, people that I'm with daily," Chong Qui said.
"I tell my team I love them a lot. Because I think that when you lose so much, you value more of what you have and the people in your life. That's why I love this team so much. I've made a lot of relationships on this team. I love them, and I tell them that all the time. This is my second family. I consider everybody on this team, my brother."
Engelstad knows that Chong Qui has become a leader. But he also knows how important the impact his teammates have had on Chong Qui. "He's endured some pretty tough stuff here of late, and I've told him just how inspired I am by him. He'll have one of these heartaches, one of these setbacks in life, and how he handles it is becoming closer to his teammates and leaning on them.
"He keeps that smile on his face, and he finds the basketball court as a place of comfort. We are trying to promote a basketball family. And he's somebody that during tough times has really leaned on it and the guys have leaned on him," said Engelstad.
The Mount wants last year's finish and all the hard work and effort to translate into additional success on the court. Engelstad and his staff know that Chong Qui will play a vital role in that and are looking for increased vocal communication on the floor from the sophomore.
"We are asking him to get outside his comfort zone a little bit," Engelstad said. "That's something that we are talking about, especially at that point guard position. You have to be able to demand, you have to be able to put guys in the right spots and be the most vocal guy on defense. We are really challenging him."
Fellow sophomore Dee Barnes insists that his roommate on campus isn't quiet. Barnes went through a typical freshman season averaging 5.8 points and 1.6 rebounds with trips in and out of the lineup. He admitted that Chong Qui's encouragement kept him going forward.
"He's like a mentor, a big brother," Barnes says. "He's always in my ear, helping to make me better. He's just always telling me not to give up, to keep pushing and to keep working. You guys see him as a quiet guy. But I see him as this loud and funny guy, who doesn't like to be alone. Then, you see him take care of his father, that's really special."
Special is the type of season that Chong Qui would like for his newest family this year the Mount. A trip back to the postseason is something that this young group of Mountaineers wants to achieve.
One thing is sure, Edward Chong Qui is going to cherish every moment.
"He worked very hard to get to play Division 1 basketball," said Edward. "I just look forward to every time he steps on the court."