Dawud Drew runs light as air. Or so it seemed in practice at CCBC-Dundalk this week.
Racing through drills in preparation for tonight's Region 20, National Junior College Athletic Association Division II basketball tournament opener, the sophomore shooting guard literally skipped across the floor as if supported by wings.
Considering the road Drew traveled to Dundalk, it's not an illogical conclusion to draw.
On the surface, he is remarkable for a 32-point scoring average that leads all junior-college divisions this season and is percentage points ahead of the overall NCAA leader.
But to those who know Drew's bitter background and the hardships he was forced to endure growing up in Jersey City, N.J., he is an endless source of inspiration.
"The staff at Dundalk, everybody kind of embraced what he was about when he came here," said CCBC-Dundalk coach Ed Torres. "People got to really like him as a person."
What those people see is a person hardened by the deaths of his mother and stepfather six months apart in 1995, then softened by the nurturing care of an aunt who raised him in the aftermath.
The second oldest of eight siblings, Drew, 22, caromed to the streets of Jersey City - if not despair - after losing his parents. When he lost his birth father four years later, he dropped out of St. Peter's College, where he hoped to play basketball, and virtually disappeared from sight.
Then, miraculously, a friend took him to a 2001 tryout at CCBC-Dundalk, where he impressed Torres enough to get an invitation to join the Lions, and a whole new life opened before him.
The transformation turned Drew, known affectionately as "Wu" to his friends, into a team leader, one of the most popular athletes on campus and one of the most dangerous scoring threats in JuCo ranks.
"I'm a totally different person now," he said. "I try to look on the bright side of everything. I try to bring everybody around me up."
"He's the funniest person I've met," said teammate Valdez Preston. "He's always trying to keep people in a good mood, focused and working hard."
Said Adam Angelo, another teammate: "The one thing I always liked about him, you can always feel his presence when he walks in the room. You know it's all about business, but you're going to have a little fun, too, because he's always going to have a smile on his face."
For the longest while in his teens, however, Drew didn't smile. He was 14 when his mother, Michelle Drew, and his stepfather, Robert Harley, became ill. He declined to say what they died from, and the aunt who raised him, Wanda Thomas, would only say it was a "terminal illness."
The family of eight children was broken up. Four - the two oldest and two youngest - went to live with Thomas. The remaining four went to Rock Hill, S.C., to live with another aunt, Joyce Moreland.
The shock sent Drew into prolonged mourning.
"I didn't want to do anything," he said. "I didn't want to go to school. I didn't want to work. I felt like nobody could tell me anything."
It took the concerted efforts of both Thomas and another Jersey City aunt, Carolyn Freeman, to pull the troubled youngster out of his depression.
"They were the good cop, bad cop," he said. "Aunt Wanda was the bad cop. She was telling me I better go to school, that 'you aren't going to be able to do this.' Aunt Carolyn built me up. They both worked. I wanted to prove to Aunt Wanda that I could do it."
Drew wasn't the only member of the family lurching down the wrong path. His older brother Rahoo, 24, experienced a similar malaise. And it was Dawud who brought him out of it.
"When my mother and father passed away, I felt like I was in a lost state of mind," Rahoo Drew said. "I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. My brother told me to get back on the horse."
In Dundalk last year, the 6-foot-2 Drew quickly settled in as a big scorer. He lifted his teammates and his team. The Lions won 22 games and reached the Region 20 championship game despite having only eight players. Drew was named a first-team JuCo All-American after averaging 24 points a game.
"He's dangerous in every aspect of the game," Preston said. "He makes it easier for everybody else."
Drew averages 13.5 rebounds a game, 6.5 assists and 6.6 steals to lead Division II. The scoring average is particularly impressive when you consider his overall game, the coach said.
"A lot of people see the [scoring] stats and you associate that with selfishness," Torres said. "This is just the opposite. He plays with great enthusiasm, great pride. He makes all the players around him better."
Drew leads the 13-13 Lions into Hagerstown today for a 4 p.m. regional tournament game against Chesapeake, a team they have lost to twice this season.
On a team with no starter over 6 feet 4, Drew is the man who must make it happen.
"He's the best player in the country at this level ... at a couple levels," Torres said. "I've seen a lot of people with his talent that didn't have his competitive edge."
Where - or if - Drew plays next season is another question. There is uncertainty about his remaining NCAA Division I eligibility because he spent a semester at St. Peter's in 1999.
He has drawn interest from schools like Connecticut, Winthrop and Kent State in Division I. If NCAA rules prohibit that route, he may wind up at Lee University in Tennessee, an NAIA Division I school.
Wherever he ends up, it will be for the better.
"I'm definitely a better person," Drew said. "I see things for what they are, not for what they look to be."
Nation's top scorers
(Through Wednesday's games)
Div. ....... Player ................. School ........ PPG
JUCO .... Dawud Drew ....... Dundalk ...... 32.0
D-III ...... Dennis Stanton .. Ursinus ....... 31.8
D-II ........ Lewis Muse ........ Concord ...... 29.1
D-I ......... Keydren Clark .... St. Peter's .. 26.9