When Damian Chong Qui earned the starting point guard position for the McDonogh boys basketball team as a freshman, he stood 4 feet, 9 inches tall. More than six years later and 11 inches taller, the Mount St. Mary’s sophomore still does not believe that his stature is a hindrance.
“I don’t believe in height,” he said with a smile Tuesday, adding that he didn’t know he was short until his freshman year at McDonogh when a female classmate told him so. “… It’s just another challenge. Whatever I’ve got to do to make it happen, I’ve got to do it.”
Chong Qui’s height may be the least remarkable detail of his journey from Baltimore to Emmitsburg. His mother was murdered in a shooting. His father was involved in two shooting incidents — the second one confining him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. And he was ignored by scores of Division I programs despite graduating as the Eagles’ all-time leader in assists.
“He’s always had to overcome obstacles and people telling him that he can’t achieve something,” said coach Dan Engelstad, whose Mountaineers (6-11 overall and 2-2 in the Northeast Conference) welcome Central Connecticut (1-17, 0-5) to Knott Arena on Saturday at 4 p.m. “It wasn’t given to him. Nothing’s been given to him in terms of the basketball stuff, and I think that’s where his work ethic potentially stems from. He always wants to go prove somebody wrong.”
Chong Qui’s story begins with his parents. Edward Chong Qui grew up in Baltimore and went to Polytechnic Institute where at age 16, he met Lisa Renee Brown, who attended Arlington Baptist Christian School. Eight years later, while home from Navy Reserves boot camp, Chong Qui ran into Brown again. They began dating in 1997, and Damian was born Sept. 7, 1998.
On Jan. 13, 2002, Edward Chong Qui said he was home alone when he was the victim of a home invasion. He was shot once and stabbed five times with the most serious wound involving his left hand. After undergoing surgery for his hand, Chong Qui said he was informed by doctors that he would not regain use of his hand, which was balled up in a fist for six months. But the hand eventually opened up.
On March 1, Brown and Oliver L. McCaffity Jr. were found shot in the head in the front seat of a car owned by former heavy weight boxing champion Hasim S. Rahman. Four men who allegedly used money from the city’s drug trade to try to forge a career in the rap music industry were charged with those homicides and several others.
Damian Chong Qui was 4 years old when he lost his mother, who was 28 at the time. He said he can’t remember the sound of her voice, and the few memories he had of her have since faded.
“I probably know more about her death than her life,” he said, adding that he learned her birthday was Jan. 4, 1974, when he was at McDonogh. “… My mother was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
On Sept. 29, 2010, Edward Chong Qui picked up his son from football practice and dropped him off at home before going to get dinner. When he stopped to talk to men while waiting for his food, someone fired shots, and he was struck in the back. Chong Qui, who is now 47, was paralyzed from the waist down, but that was not his most pressing concern.
“All I could think about was that I had left Damian in the house by himself,” he recalled. “I didn’t realize I was paralyzed until about two days later when my mother came in and told me that I wouldn’t be able to walk again.”
For many years, Damian has been his father’s most important caretaker, dressing him and carrying him downstairs to their handicapped-accessible van to run errands or visit family and friends. Gerald Abrams, an assistant coach for the McDonogh boys basketball team who began recruiting Damian when he was 12, said the father-son bond is unbreakable.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had a game or a practice, and the van has pulled up, and I see Damian run up to the van and go get the wheelchair and put his father in the wheelchair,” Abrams said. “And I can’t tell you how many times his father has said, ‘I haven’t had anybody except for Damian.’”
Damian Chong Qui said arguments between him and his father can explode, but fade out just as quickly.
“He can cuss me out or punish me or whatever it is, but five minutes later, it was like nothing happened because I didn’t have anyone else to go to,” he said. “It was just me and him, and to this day our relationship is like that.”
Abrams said he called more than 100 Division I coaches, but none expressed interest in the Eagles’ career leader in assists with 518. And because he turned down offers to play at the Division II or III levels, Damian Chong Qui spent the 2017-18 season at Our Savior Lutheran in the Bronx.
Abrams then reached out to Engelstad and Mountaineers assistant Matt Miller, who had seen Chong Qui while coaching St. Maria Goretti High School in Hagerstown, and persuaded them to take a chance on Chong Qui as a preferred walk-on.
After sitting in the first seven games, Chong Qui took over the starting point guard role against St. John’s on Dec. 5, 2018, for the final 24 games and finished the season leading the team in assists (3.7 per game), fifth in scoring (6.8 points), and sixth in rebounding (2.8).
“Damian from the very beginning showed that he had an elite work ethic and was somebody that you could depend on, an everyday guy that was going to give you every little bit of effort that he could give,” said Engelstad, who offered Chong Qui a scholarship in the offseason. “We were fortunate to have a guy like that who wasn’t on scholarship be the heartbeat of how we wanted to build this thing.”
This winter, Chong Qui leads Mount St. Mary’s in scoring (11.6 points), assists (3.4) and steals (1.3) and ranks fourth in rebounding (3.8). Edward Chong Qui has attended every Mountaineers game at Knott Arena in Emmittsburg, sitting just behind the team’s bench, and has missed only three road contests. Father and son talk three or four times daily, and Damian Chong Qui said he draws strength from his presence.
“He’s my superhero,” he said. “He’s probably the reason I am where I am today. Everyone talks about how I’m able to fight through adversity, and it’s solely because of him. My father’s been through a lot, and I’ve been through a lot, too. But he never wanted anybody to feel bad for him. There was never this idea of feeling bad for yourself. It was always, ‘The world never stops. So it’s never about you.’ My father has always been that way. With what my father has gone through and him being able to be so resilient, it just drives me.”
The feeling is mutual for his father.
“I can’t even put it into words,” he said. “I’m beyond proud. I feel like God has been working things out for him. Even though there was that situation between his mother and me, that’s the past. He’s putting the work in.”
By many accounts, Damian Chong Qui is happy, pursuing a bachelor’s in business management (although he is considering a switch to cybersecurity), carrying a 3.0 grade-point average, bonding with teammates and friends, and playing basketball. But he admitted that he thinks about his mother “every night.”
“After the game, when I see everyone go to their parents, I think, ‘What if my mother was here? How would it be?’” he said. “I always think about my mother, what it would be like to have her here, what she would think, what she would say. I can’t even tell you what I think she would say because I don’t really know.”
Playing professional basketball — whether in the NBA or overseas — is an objective for Chong Qui, who said, “Playing Division I basketball was a goal, and being a pro is a dream and a goal. I’m always fighting for it and working hard to achieve it.”
Engelstad fully backs his point guard’s aspirations.
“I’m not going to bet against that young man,” he said. “I know for him, he’s just going to stay focused on doing what he can here, but the reason why he’s made the jump from his freshman to his sophomore year is because of the amount of work he’s put in. That work won’t stop, and usually those young men that have that pursuit of excellence end up doing well at whatever they choose to do. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Damian keeps getting better at this game.”