CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Pancreatic cancer claimed his father two years ago. His mother still wonders if her son might need therapy to get over the loss.
Then two months ago, the same tornado system that ripped through Tuscaloosa, Ala., sparked a fire that burned his rural Mississippi home to the ground.
If Kentucky Coach John Calipari ever writes a sequel to his book Bounce Back, a self-help guide to overcoming adversity, he might consider a chapter on basketball prospect Devonta Pollard.
Pollard, a 6-foot-8, 205-pound forward, spoke in a quiet voice at the NBA Players Association-sponsored Top 100 Camp here this week. He politely peppered his responses with "yes, sir" and "no, sir" as reporters gently probed his pain.
Never miss a local story.
Speaking of his father's death, Pollard said, "At first, it took me through a stage of depression. Because I was a young boy, and a man, my father, was always there for me. That hurt me."
Ervin Pollard, 52, died on Aug. 21, 2009. His wife, Jessie Mae Pollard, remembers the date.
"It's still wearing," she said. "We may need to get therapy. That's one reason I follow Devonta everywhere. I go to try to keep my mind clear."
Jessie Mae described her husband as a family man. Generous and supportive. He even agreed to let Jessie Mae name their son Devonta (pronounced Duh-vont-tay), the name of Jessie Mae's first boyfriend.
"You would have to have known his dad," she said when asked about her son's reaction to the loss. "Very few times do we end up with (a father) who is active with school work, works to take care of the family and is a deacon in the church. God gave us something. Everything we did was a threesome."
His father was not a standout basketball player. Pollard gets his basketball genes from Jessie Mae, who was good enough to draw recruiting interest from a young Tennessee coach named Pat Head, then decided to play closer to home at Delta State. "One of the biggest mistakes I made," she said.
When the Chicago Hustle of the Women's Professional Basketball League went out of business in 1981, Jessie Mae put down the basketball, returned home and married Ervin.
The family settled in Porterville, Miss., a no-stoplight town so small that even Mississippians can't be counted on to know of its existence.
"Usually people don't know where that is," Pollard said. "So I'm like, I'll say I'm from 30 miles south of Meridian."
Ervin taught his son to persevere.
"He always called me 'Big Pappa,'" Pollard said. "I don't know why.
"He'd say, 'C'mon, Big Pappa. Don't give up now.' He knew I didn't like to mess up. I'd get down on myself."
Now, Pollard uses the memory of his father as motivation.
"If I'm not having a good game, I think of him and ask myself, 'What would he do? What would he say?'" Pollard said. "He never liked me to quit."
Jessie Mae also remembers the date of the tornado system: The night of April 27/early morning of April 28. Her sister had died earlier that evening. About 2 a.m., she and Devonta smelled smoke. By the time 911 responders arrived, it was too late to save the house.
First, mother and son moved in with family. Now they live in an apartment in Meridian.
The recruiting process does not pause because of difficult times. Pollard, who Rivals.com rates as the sixth-best player in the class of 2012, has received offers from Mississippi State, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Duke, N.C. State, Georgetown and LSU. Duke is said to be making a concerted effort for Pollard, an honor student with a 3.09 grade point average.
After playing this spring in an event in the Raleigh-Durham area, Pollard met with North Carolina Coach Roy Williams.
Pollard almost missed the Top 100 Camp. He slightly sprained an ankle in a 7-on-7 football camp at Mississippi State. "The Mississippi State coaches went crazy when they saw him playing (wide receiver)," said Jessie Mae, who told the State coaches that football was something to "pass the time."
Basketball is her son's sport and, perhaps, a chance to live the NBA dream.
"It's paying off," Jessie Mae said of the college opportunities at hand. "I hope it pays off."