BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Zion Williamson received a loud roar from the crowd when he was selected by the New Orleans Pelicans with the first pick at the 2019 NBA draft on Thursday night. Perhaps the loudest cheer came when the crosstown New York Knicks selected RJ Barrett third overall. And then there was a surprising group of over 60 people screaming for Darius Garland from the green room on the Barclays Center floor to the upper deck when he was selected fifth by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It’s crazy that they came out to share this moment with me. That meant a lot to me by them traveling this far. Even my grandmother is out here and she is 85 years old,” Darius Garland, 19, told The Undefeated.
In 2014, New Jersey native Karl-Anthony Towns had a large contingent in Brooklyn when he was taken first overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves. But in terms of true out-of-towners, Garland may have set an unofficial NBA draft record with 62 family members and friends on hand, mostly coming from Gary, Indiana, where he was born. Garland also had friends in town from Nashville, Tennessee, where Garland attended high school and played his lone college season at Vanderbilt as a freshman.
Garland was very excited to be drafted by the Cavaliers, where he hopes to team up with fellow guard Collin Sexton in a “crazy” backcourt similar to the Portland Trail Blazers duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Garland also expects his many supporters to come to Cavaliers games as it is a 4½-hour drive from Gary and a short flight from Nashville.
“Hopefully, all 62 will come,” he said.
Garland’s father, former NBA point guard Winston Garland, mother Felicia, older brother Desmond, agent Rich Paul and ex-Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew all sat in the green room when the 6-foot-3, 175-pound point guard was drafted.
The Garlands were understandably emotional as Darius was selected by Cleveland while wearing a unique beige suit from the Fear of God collection. Darius hugged his mother first after NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced his selection. Felicia Garland found symbolism in her son being drafted fifth overall as he only played five games with Vanderbilt last season before succumbing to a knee injury.
“We’ve cried so much since Nov. 24, the day he went down until today,” Winston Garland said. “We’ve been a ball of emotions. No doubt.”
It was tears of joy on Thursday night.
“We have family and friends here from Gary who were a huge part of his life,” Winston Garland said. “Then we moved to Nashville. It was same thing there. People welcomed us in and they were a huge part of his life there.
“What blew me away was that this wasn’t a cheap trip. They were more than willing to come. That meant a lot to us and Darius.”
Said Felicia Garland: “They felt it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing and they wanted to be a part of it.”
Those same family members and friends were on hand for the Garland’s private pre-draft party on Wednesday night after renting out the entire Lexington Brass restaurant in midtown Manhattan.
It was an emotional celebration on Wednesday night with a lot of food, fellowship, testimonies, fun, laughter and dancing, too.
“Everybody was there. Just seeing everyone’s faces, my grandmother’s face, meant a lot,” Darius Garland said.
Among the 10 people who spoke at the pre-draft dinner was Paul, who told the attendees that he has never seen a player get that much support at the draft in his 17 years of attending.
“It is just a special kid where people want to see him do well. In a world where people would rather see you fail than succeed, it was good to see the opposite,” Paul told The Undefeated. “A lot of times, especially with where we all come from, people have the question of, ‘Why not me? Why him?’ I did not see that from his family, cousins, teammates.”
Also attending the Garland festivities was Nike basketball scout Vince Baldwin, who envisioned this day arriving long ago.
“Darius has some natural instincts you just can’t teach,” Baldwin told The Undefeated before the draft. “The first time I saw him play in the eighth grade, I told his dad, ‘If he continues to work hard, I will meet you in the green room at the draft. And he did what he had to do to be here.
Baldwin said he was also touched by the speeches from Garland’s friends at the pre-draft party.
“What really touched me was that the kids that grew up with him had such good stories,” he said. “It had nothing to do with basketball. He came back home for Father’s Day to spend time with one of his friend’s fathers. Stories like that. It told you more about his character that told you more about him as a kid than what he was as a player.”
Winston Garland had his own big draft night when he was selected 40th overall in the second round of the 1987 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. The journeyman was waived by the Bucks, but played in 511 games for the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves, averaging 9.4 points and 4.7 assists in his career.
While Winston Garland had a respectable NBA career, he is confident his son will pass him quickly.
“He is so much better than I was,” Winston Garland said. “He does so many more things than I did. He enjoys watching the game. He enjoys studying it. They’re a lot more visual now. There are a lot more things to look at and more players to emulate. Easier access to do it.”
Darius Garland said after the draft that his father was his basketball role model.
“That’s touching. That’s sweet. That made my day,” an emotional Winston Garland said.
Winston and Felicia Garland are proud natives of Gary, Indiana. But the predominantly black city struggled with poverty, high unemployment, countless abandoned buildings and crime. In hopes of a better life for their family, the Garlands moved to Nashville the summer before Darius entered the sixth grade in 2012. While Darius Garland said he wasn’t happy about moving from Gary, the move to Nashville worked out well for him.
“It wasn’t the Gary that we grew up in,” Winston Garland said. “Once the mills closed, other things took place and the job scene was getting bad. The crime rate started to rise. I wanted to give my kids a fighting chance.”
Said Darius Garland: “My parents told me it was going to be a special situation for me.”
Garland grew into a nationally ranked basketball star in Nashville. (ESPN listed him as the 16th-best player in the high school class of 2018.) The 2018 McDonald’s All-American chose local Vanderbilt over Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA and was named to the 2018-19 Southeastern Conference preseason all-conference team as a freshman. Garland averaged 16.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 27.8 minutes in his first five games, shooting 47.8 percent from 3-point range. But on Nov. 23, he suffered a season-ending injury after tearing the meniscus in his left knee during the Commodores’ game against Kent State.
Winston Garland said his son was “in a dark space” after the injury, but worked hard to recover.
“There was a lot of prayer, a lot of tears, a lot of everything,” Winston Garland said. “He worked his butt off to get back. Stayed positive. It was tough, man. It was in a dark space for a little bit. But he kept grinding, stayed positive and here he is.”
Said Darius Garland: “Everybody faces adversity. I just had to get over that hump. That’s in the past now. I’m just ready to achieve my dream.”
Darius Garland’s parents said his older brother, Desmond, is expected to be with Darius during his rookie season. His parents plan to make regular visits, but say they “don’t want to hover” over their son. But based on draft night, don’t be surprised if his family and friends from Gary and Nashville come out to see him in droves next season, too, in Cleveland.
“It means a lot to have the support,” Garland said.