By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The child, his mother would decide when he was young, was destined for something big. He was a star waiting to shine, and Denise Roberts was so certain of it that she moved her family from Oakland to Los Angeles when her son was just 5 years old.
Her intuition soon proved fruitful, first with the modeling assignments, then the television ads and then the offers for the child to appear alongside people like Bernie Mac and Ellen Degeneres in TV sitcoms.
If only the path to Division I basketball had been so easy for Dion Overstreet Jr.
Before getting an offer to join the University of Washington men’s basketball team as a walk-on late last month, Overstreet was a bit of a hoops vagabond who stubbornly held on to his dream. He always knew he had what it took to play NCAA Division I ball, and the 5-foot-9 guard from Venice High School in Los Angeles — by way of Edmonds Community College — was going to do whatever it took to get there.
“That’s one thing about me: I never settle,” he said. “I’m never satisfied. I always want to compete at the highest level.”
Overstreet’s cross-country journey from Oakland to Hollywood to New Jersey to Edmonds to Montlake had a few lucky breaks along the way, and meeting a former NBA player named Sean Higgins proved to be a key moment along the way for the child-star-turned-hoops-junkie. Higgins took Overstreet under his wing about seven years ago, when the former University of Michigan star was coaching minor-league basketball in Los Angeles, and he’s the one who eventually convinced the L.A. kid to pass on a Division II scholarship from the East Coast to play at Edmonds CC.
That didn’t initially look like an obvious stepping stone to the Pacific-12 Conference, but Overstreet’s gritty determination helped him get to UW when all doors seemed to be closed.
After two weeks of playing open-gym pickup games with several current and former UW players, and getting another break when the Huskies lost recruit Mark McLaughlin in early August, Overstreet finally got the call. Lorenzo Romar, who had never even seen Overstreet play a game, delivered the news that the Huskies were offering a spot as a walk-on.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Overstreet said last week. “I just put it in God’s hands, like, ‘It’s all going to work out.’ I knew it would all work out. I did what I could in open gym, so that’s all I could control.”
For most of his youth, Overstreet looked like a good bet to be a star on a different kind of stage. His small roles in shows like “Ellen,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Chicago Hope” helped pay the bills for a single mother while providing a career path from the young actor from Oakland.
He once appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial with none other than Muhammad Ali. A few years later, during an audition for a part he didn’t end up getting in a movie called “Magnolia,” Overstreet showed up for the reading expecting to find behind-the-scenes directors and producers but instead opened the door to see A-list actor Tom Cruise waiting to read lines with him.
“You kind of get nervous when a big star like that is at your audition,” Overstreet said last week, smiling and shaking his head.
The acting bug dug deep into Overstreet’s skin, and yet it didn’t stay there forever. He quit acting in the ninth grade, opting instead to focus on his next goal: playing Division I basketball.
It was around that time that Higgins came into his life while training young basketball players in his spare hours. Higgins loved Overstreet’s potential but didn’t initially believe he had what it took to make it on the basketball court.
“I remember the first day I worked with Dion, and he wanted to quit,” Higgins said last week. “He wasn’t used to (being pushed hard on the court). His mom — he has a great mom — she pushed him into staying.”
Perseverance would become the attribute Higgins most appreciated about Overstreet, and he kept in touch with the kid through the coming years. Overstreet played on a struggling team at Venice High School, then missed out on a chance to walk on at UC Irvine when his grades slipped as a high school senior.
Having decided to go to Apex Academy prep school in New Jersey after his senior year, Overstreet finally got an offer from a four-year school. It was a Division II school out East, and so he jumped at the chance to return to the West Coast when Higgins called in the summer of 2010 to offer a different kind of opportunity.
Higgins had recently taken a job as head coach at Edmonds CC, and he was looking for talented players to help build the program. He convinced Overstreet that a Division I offer might be there if the guard could put together a solid highlight tape at the junior college level.
Overstreet’s first year at Edmonds CC didn’t go as planned.
“Everyone was out of control,” he said. “It was people’s first college year, and it seemed like everyone’s attitude affected the entire team. We won some games, but we didn’t have that bond and chemistry.”
A weightroom warrior whose biceps make him look more like a running back than a point guard, Overstreet put in extra time in the gym after his freshman year to improve his jump shot and become a more complete player. A switch to shooting guard helped show off his scoring prowess — he averaged 13.9 points per game last season and had a season-best 42 against Shoreline CC — and yet the D-I offers never came. Not many Pacific-12 Conference schools are in the market for 5-9 two-guards, and so Overstreet found himself on the verge of basketball extinction.
And so, as Overstreet said last week, “I became like my own business man.”
He started sending out game tapes and calling coaches throughout the West. Gonzaga, Washington State and Colorado State were among his targets. But UW, a program with which he had fallen in love while watching Will Conroy and Nate Robinson when Overstreet was in high school, was Overstreet’s undeniable target.
He ended up contacting a UW assistant about the remote possibility of walking onto the team. NCAA rules prevented Romar and his staff from watching Overstreet live during the summer, so all the coach could tell him was to show up for open-gym sessions at UW and hope to make a mark. Overstreet was sleeping on a friend’s couch and spending his free time doing three-hour shooting sessions, working out or jogging. Then he would head back to open gym, where he tried his best to make an impression playing with and against former Huskies like Isaiah Thomas and Terrence Ross, as well as returning players like Abdul Gaddy.
UW had recently lost McLaughlin, a junior-college transfer who was supposed to be the lone member of this year’s recruiting class, and so the Huskies were already short on players.
As Romar said last week: “We were looking for bodies.”
The coach began asking around, and players like Gaddy recommended Overstreet because of his attitude and 94-foot, Venoy Overton-like defense.
“They felt he could be competitive enough where he could hold his own,” Romar said last week. “He came out one day, we looked at him (in an individual tryout), and we invited him to join the team.”
That call came in late August, right before the team left for an international trip. Overstreet, who did not make that trip, had spent two weeks sleeping on a couch, working out, playing open-gym basketball and chasing a dream.
With only a single suitcase of clothes by his side, Dion Overstreet Jr. had finally done it.
He had become a Husky.
“He’s done through some ups and downs and persevered,” said Higgins, now an independent scout who no longer coaches at Edmonds CC. “Dion, he’s been through a lot. He comes from humble beginnings. He fit the profile of a kid anyone would want to have in their program.”
With most of his acting money dried up, Overstreet is relying on Sallie Mae loans to pay for school. He didn’t earn the scholarship that will help get his UW teammates through school, but that doesn’t really matter to Overstreet now. What matters is that he achieved his dream of being a Division I basketball player.
“My route was different, but I think everything happened for a reason,” he said last week. “Everything prepared me for this situation. … Everywhere I go, I have to go out and prove myself.”
Overstreet said he hasn’t given up on acting. He might get back into it one day, but for now he’s majoring in communications and looking to forge a career path in the journalism field.
“Somebody told me: ‘When you’re young, plant all your seeds,’” he said of his diverse portfolio.
For now, Overstreet is focused on school and basketball. He finally achieved his dream, and now the former Edmonds CC player wants to show how far he can take it.
“This is still a new stage for me,” he said. “I’ve never experienced thousands of people screaming their lungs out. My adrenaline is definitely going to be pumping.”
It just might be that stardom was not meant for Dion Overstreet Jr. But don’t bet against this strong-armed man with the childlike face.
When it comes to chasing a dream, he’s got his mother’s tenacity and a stubborn way of throwing himself in with both feet.