Damonte Dodd and family

Damonte Dodd, back right, is pictured in this Christmas Day photo with the family of Natasha Wright, standing in front of him, a special education math teacher at Queen Anne's County High who became like a surrogate mother to him. (family photo, Baltimore Sun / February 21, 2014)

COLLEGE PARK — There's an innocence about Maryland freshman basketball player Damonte Dodd. Everything seems new and promising to the 6-foot-10, 250-pound center, without boundaries or baggage or bravado.

Put Dodd into the cauldron of blue-faced students and blue-chip talent that is Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, and he reacts as if he's back on the Eastern Shore, just playing ball.

“He acted like he was at the park, not playing on national TV against Duke,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said a couple of days after Dodd helped the Terps nearly beat the then-No. 8 Blue Devils in Durham, N.C.

Said Dodd: “It was just another basketball game, when I'm home or away, I've always been told to go out there, mute out the crowd and play like you're [going] one-on-one.”

Dodd is still far from being a college basketball star, but he's finally starting to make an impact with the Terps because of one tangible skill — his ability to block and alter shots near, at or above the rim.

After playing in a crucial, seven-minute stretch of the second half in Maryland's 69-67 loss at Duke on Feb. 15 and 11 more minutes in Tuesday's 71-60 home win over Wake Forest, Dodd could be the first big man off the bench when the Terps take on top-ranked Syracuse at Comcast Center on Monday night.

Turgeon recalls the first time he saw Dodd play, just a little more than two years ago. Dodd was a senior at Queen Anne's County High in Centreville and was on the verge of signing with Morgan State.

“They were trying to get him [signed] early,” Turgeon said. “He was starting to blow up then. Georgetown had gotten in the week before us. When we offered him a scholarship, everybody was like, ‘Who's this guy?'”

After a year in prep school and three months spent mostly toward the end of the bench, Dodd has taken over the backup center role behind sophomore Charles Mitchell, who has started the past five games. Sophomore Shaquille Cleare, the highest-rated prospect in a 2012 recruiting class, has played just three minutes in each of the past two games.

“The reason Damonte has a chance is God-given,” Turgeon said. “He's 6-10, 6-11, long, 250 [pounds], he really runs well, great feet. But he's also a great kid. The fun thing about coaching him is that there's no ego. He wasn't one of those guys who was given shoes when he was in sixth grade and has had everyone telling him how great he was.”

Said Dodd: “Coming in I didn't have a lot of hype. It's easier, because I know what I have to do. It's not a lot of pressure just to go out there and do it.”

‘He was blessed'

The reason Dodd even has a chance at this level has a lot to do with a number of people on the Eastern Shore whom he now considers family. Dodd has limited contact with his biological mother, who still lives in the area, and no contact with his biological father.

Michael and Angela Anderson, whom Dodd considers his parents, have raised the 19-year-old nearly since birth. The Andersons, who have six children and stepchildren of their own, came into Dodd's life when his biological mother asked them to care for her son for a little while when he was just two days old.

Angela Anderson said she thought she was helping “a friend,” and figured that meant a couple of weeks.

“It didn't happen that way,” she said.

After a year, the Andersons began the process of becoming his legal guardians. Michael Anderson said he didn't let his new youngest child stray too much.

“I made sure that he was staying away from all the kids who were doing drugs and all that kind of stuff,” Michael Anderson said Saturday. “I kept my eye on him always. I had people around here who know me and watched him. I don't stand for a lot of junk. He didn't give me a lot of problems, but I stayed on him.”

Natasha Wright, who also would become an instrumental figure in Dodd's life, gives a lot of credit to the Andersons.

“Definitely he was blessed. They provided him with a roof over his head, took care of his needs, kept him in church every Sunday,” Wright said. “They did a great job. When you meet him for the first time, you'd never know he's been through some of the things he's been though.”

Wright, a special education math teacher at a local middle school and track coach at Queen Anne's County High, has known Dodd since he and Wright's middle daughter, Donyae, were in elementary school together. The relationship between Dodd and Wright grew when he attended the middle school where she still teaches.

By then, Dodd was living with the Andersons, whom his mother entrusted to raise her youngest child from the time he was a toddler to give him a more stable environment.

Wright said that most in the small rural community knew of Dodd's situation and took part in helping to raise him.

“People from the church, teachers in school, other families,” she said. “This is a case of it taking a village [to raise a child].”

Said former Queen Anne's High boys basketball coach Dale Becraft: “[Dodd's] extended family was more involved in his life than his [biological] parents. I wouldn't say it was unstable; it was very different. But he's always been a high-character kid, a church kid … very friendly.”

As Dodd became more serious about basketball, Wright started being something of a surrogate mother herself. She took him to his Amateur Athletic Union games when he and her daughter played for the same Salisbury-based club, the Lakers. She eventually began to oversee his academic progress at the high school as well as the recruiting process.

“One day he started calling me Mom, and it's been Mom ever since,” said Wright, who considers herself Dodd's unofficial guardian.

Said Dodd: “Everyone else on the team called her ‘Mom,' so I did, too.”

When the Andersons moved to nearby Chestertown as Dodd was finishing up his senior year at Queen Anne's and didn't have the transportation to take him to school, Dodd moved in with Wright and her three daughters, whom he considers his sisters.

“My mom and dad [the Andersons] knew that I was playing basketball, but they were more serious about education,” said Dodd, who has at least one biological sibling.

‘6-10 guy on the drums'

By the time he moved in with Wright, Dodd was on his way to Maryland, part of a recruiting class that consisted of Cleare, Mitchell, forward Jake Layman and guard Seth Allen. Still needing to get the necessary ACT score to qualify academically, Dodd spent last year at Massanutten Academy, a prep school in rural Woodstock, Va.

Playing on a team that included a number of high-profile Division I prospects, Dodd grew “leaps and bounds skill-wise,” former Massanutten coach Chad Myers says.

“As for as his athletic ability, he was very high when I got him,” said Myers, who now works for a New Jersey-based company that runs elite-level high school basketball camps. “He could really move, he could run the floor, he could affect the game in a number of ways. He didn't really know how to play yet. He got better every single day.”

And Dodd played a mean drums, something he has been doing since he said Michael Anderson taught him how to play when he was about 5 years old. As a child, Dodd would play the drums for the church's gospel singing group to which Michael Anderson belonged.

At Massanutten, Dodd used his musical talents as a way to break social barriers.

“It's a military school, so he'd play the drums when we'd be marching and that kind of stuff,” Myers said. “We had a 5-foot-2 gal on the drums and a 6-10 guy on the drums. It was great. He'd just fit right in with the kids, and everybody on campus loved him. It can be a small school, and it can be intimidating to young kids seeing this 6-10 kid going to an [Atlantic Coast Conference school]. They could be scared of him. But he'd help all the seventh- and eighth-graders. He's such a great kid. Everyone jokes that if they had a daughter, they'd probably let him date her.”

Said Dodd: “When I was there, I tried to get involved in different things to keep my spirits up. There were a lot of kids there with behavioral problems, and I tried to be a mentor to them. They tried to get a lot of people to come out for the band. They looked up to [the basketball team]. I said, ‘If I go out for the band, other kids would come because they wouldn't think it was a nerdy thing.'”

Dodd said the year he spent at the small military school helped him grow on and off the court.

“Basketball-wise, it helped a lot, but mentally it helped a lot because you're away from the family, you're staying with other people, plus it was a military school,” he said after practice Thursday at Comcast Center. “You had to dress up every day, do the military rules. It was different. It got me prepared mentally and physically.”

‘In the right spot'

Dodd said he didn't have lofty goals when he got to Maryland, though he casually mentioned to Wright once that he expected to go to the NBA after one year “because that's what I thought everyone did.”

Dodd said last week that he expects to stay a Terp a lot longer.

“My [overall] expectations haven't changed,” he said. “I was hoping to come here and make an impact as much as I could, if it was in practice in making the guys better or any way I could.”

For most of the season, his playing time has been sporadic. Sometimes he'd go several games without getting onto the court. His appearance at Duke came after not playing in the previous three games, and Turgeon said at one point recently that he didn't see that changing.

“I wouldn't say I got frustrated. I got confused [about my role] sometimes,” Dodd said. “A lot of freshmen come in and don't play at all their first year.”

Now it appears he will get a chance to be part of Turgeon's regular rotation and continue to grow.

“[Turgeon] just wants consistency and someone who can protect the rim [defensively],” Dodd said.

It's something Maryland has lacked since 7-1 center Alex Len left for the NBA last spring after his sophomore year. Turgeon expects Dodd and 7-11/2 signee Trayvon Reed, who is likely to arrive next season, to share that role.

“I'm just proud of Damonte, because he hasn't hung his head,” Turgeon said. “He continues to work, paid his dues, continues to get better and now we all as a coaching staff, we feel comfortable that on the defensive end, he's probably going to be in the right spot. And that's a good feeling.”

Turgeon is not alone in seeing Dodd's progress on and off the court.

“I'm very proud of him,” Angela Anderson said. “Very proud.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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