COLLEGE PARK — — It's hard to fathom what it must have been like for Dez Wells to emerge from beneath the weight of public suspicion and step into a sold-out basketball arena again and hear cheers and balls bouncing and bands playing.
Those who know the Maryland player's story — the infamous brawl during his freshman year at Xavier, the sexual assault allegation rejected by a prosecutor — understand why Wells seemed overcome as the sophomore transfer was introduced for the Terps' season-opening game against Kentucky, leaning in and hugging his coach, Mark Turgeon.
It was a powerful moment for Wells under the bright lights of the just-opened Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 9 — as if he was being welcomed back after having been exiled to some cold, distant place.
Watching on television, Wells' mother, Pam — a religious woman who wears a tattoo on one of her legs that reads "Dez" and "Family 1st" surrounding a bleeding heart — couldn't help but be grateful for her son's opportunity to start over at a new school.
She thought it unfair that people would make judgments about her son based on a "truth or dare" game that ended badly. The game led to the sexual assault allegation against Wells, and Xavier announced in August that it was expelling him following a committee review.
A prosecutor who reviewed the allegation said no criminal charges were warranted.
"I'm not known as soft on crime by any stretch of the imagination," Hamilton County (Ohio) Prosecuting Attorney Joseph T. Deters said in an interview before this season began. "I am also very sensitive of people being accused of things where it doesn't even reach anything close to a standard of proof that we would even think of accepting."
Nine months earlier, Wells was in the middle of an on-court brawl with Cincinnati that led to Wells and seven other Xavier and Cincinnati players being suspended. Deters reviewed the brawl and said the matter was best left to the schools rather than the criminal justice system.
Fans at Northwestern and Duke chanted "No means no" this season when Wells stepped to the foul line during Maryland road games — a reference to the rape allegation.
Nevertheless, Pam Wells — who was in the stands at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium and heard the taunts — considers this Maryland season as literally the answer to her prayers. Wells is Maryland's top scorer (12.2 points per game) and will lead the Terps (20-11, 8-10 Atlantic Coast Conference) in its opening ACC tournament game against Wake Forest (13-17, 6-12 ACC) on Thursday night in Greensboro, N.C.
Despite Maryland's mediocre record, those who know Wells say it's hard to overstate how gratified he is to be playing college basketball. Maryland won an NCAA appeal exempting Wells, 20, from transfer rules that would have required him to sit out the season.
"You're talking about an emotional rollercoaster," said longtime family friend LeVelle Moton, the men's basketball coach at North Carolina Central, near where Wells was raised in Raleigh, N.C. "In a matter of months he went from, 'I don't know if I'm going to prison,' to 'I don't know if I'm going to be in school,' to 'I don't know if I can play this season,' to 'I'm playing against Kentucky, the [former] No. 1 team in the country .'"
A hard-working mom
The public can't see it, but Wells has a tattoo on his chest with his mother's name on it. It's similar to the one on her leg bearing the names "Dez" and "Jaz," which refers to Jasmine Wilson, her daughter.
Wells leaned heavily on his family — and on prayer — during the uncertain period when he was a player without a school. "I just had to just trust in God. That's the main thing I could do," said Wells, who was interviewed at various times during the season.
He is close with his mother and with Jasmine — a senior at Winston-Salem State — as well as a circle of family friends who help fill a void left by the prolonged absence of Wells' father.
The father "was in and out. He wasn't able to be around," said Moton, declining to go into specifics.
"I don't have any bad things to say about him other than he wasn't a constant part of Dez's life," Pam Wells said.
Pam Wells raised the kids herself. She drove a school bus in Wake County, N.C., ran a convenience store for a time, and now works at a seafood and soul food restaurant in Raleigh
A 6-foot-1 former basketball star at Saint Augustine's University, she found time to play ball with Dez when he was young. She didn't baby him.
"We had a basketball goal in front of the house. It was one of those that stands alone," she said. "I could smack him around. I messed around with him. I blocked his shot all the time. I made it tough."
Always a gifted athlete, Dez Wells had to learn control. He could play angry or become ill-tempered on the court.
"In that world [in which Wells grew up], you have to be tough to succeed," Moton said. "You have to meet aggressive with aggressive. When you get out of that neighborhood, you've got to turn that switch off."
When he was about 13, Wells made it clear he didn't want to run sprints with the rest of his team after an Amateur Athletic Union practice.
"So I put a chair at the half-court line and I told him to take his shoes off and made the guys get him some Gatorade," said Kendrick Williams, the AAU coach. Williams also coached Wells at Word of God Academy, the school attended by NBA player John Wall.
Wells "literally started crying," Williams said. But he didn't complain about sprints after that.
Later in his AAU career, Wells "sometimes couldn't control his emotions and his intensity turned to anger," said Williams, who believes Wells has since matured. So do Maryland coaches, who say Wells is a team leader.
"He talks more than anybody," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said of Wells. "He especially talks to the younger kids a lot."
Wells has said he wishes he had handled things differently when Xavier and Cincinnati brawled at the end of their game in December 2011. Wells pushed Cincinnati guard Ge'Lawn Guyn and was in the thick of the melee. Wells was suspended for four games.
Williams has a theory about the source of Wells' anger as a youth. "His mother works seven days a week. The only time she takes off is to see him play. The anger? It was at how hard his mother had to work with no support from his father," he said.
"Truth or dare"
His official biography calls Joseph Deters "one of Ohio's most vocal advocates for aggressive prosecution of violent criminals."
After the rape allegation against Wells had been reviewed, Deters told The Sun: "If I thought he did this, he'd be in prison. I wouldn't pull any punches."
But Deters took the unusual step of publicly advocating for the player, calling him a "good kid."
Deters said the "truth or dare" game involved three females and three males. He said the accuser's "dare" had been to lift her shirt up, and that she complied. At some point, he said, Wells and the accuser began having sex.
The two "knew each other [and] they were in a sexual situation totally consensual until the very last seconds, and that's where their stories diverged," Deters said.
Xavier has declined comment because of privacy considerations. The accuser's name was being withheld.
When she heard about the allegation, Wells' mother said she was frustrated with her son "because he shouldn't have put himself in that situation."
But she believed in his innocence. He had been raised by women — not just his mother, but his sister, Jasmine, who is two-and-a-half years older. "I told him to never put your hands on a girl. If a girl says no, you go by that. I won't even allow him to put his hands on his sister. She's always been a big sister to him."
Since Wells began at Maryland, his supporters have clung to the hope that he would be embraced — that fans would give him the benefit of the doubt after he was expelled from Xavier.
"My biggest fear was for his public image because he wasn't even [a year] removed from the brawl," Williams said. "He knew it would be hard for the public to believe him."
Maryland career begins
Wells, who at 6 feet 5 can play guard or forward, was subpar in his Maryland debut against Kentucky (eight points on 2-for-12 shooting). He had learned just two days before that — based on the unusual circumstances of his Xavier dismissal — he would receive a waiver from transfer rules and be eligible to play. Wells had also considered transferring to Kentucky, among other schools. He had friends at Maryland and believed in the coaching staff.
As the Maryland-Kentucky game arrived, Wells couldn't help but reflect on how he had survived such a trying year and was returning to his sanctuary — a basketball court. He calls Maryland his "home away from home."
When Wells embraced Turgeon before the nationally televised game, the coach "was just telling me, 'Calm down, collect your emotions and just play basketball.' That's probably the most emotion Coach Turgeon will ever see out of me besides playing basketball," Wells said.
Wells is clearly Maryland's toughest player — the one best able and most willing to take big shots on the road.
"He's a talent. I think he's going to be a special player," ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale said.
Wells has struggled occasionally after losses. He sometimes talks in a monotone and wears a faraway look, as if replaying defeats in his head. "Hates to lose," Turgeon said of Wells.
After a seven-point loss at Miami in January, Wells brooded over his two charging fouls and talked about needing to "look in the mirror" to see whether there was more he could do for the team.
Wells' best games have come away from Comcast Center, including 23 points both at Northwestern and at Wake Forest and 25 points against George Mason at Verizon Center.
At Northwestern's Welsh-Ryan Arena, Wells smiled when a reporter asked him after a Maryland victory about fans who had directed "No means no" chants at him.
After all he has endured in his college career, being heckled by fans doesn't rattle Wells.
"You have to embrace the hate that you get on the road," he said.