"My passion for basketball started long before I could dribble a ball.”
D.J. McCall’s life has always been centered around the game of basketball. His earliest memory is going with his mother to watch his aunt and uncle play for Indiana Tech, a small college in his hometown of Fort Wayne. McCall is currently a redshirt sophomore at IUPUI. He’s an athletic slasher on the basketball team and worked his way to a starting role this past season. The game has been good to him, but it has certainly made him earn it.
He began his journey in the third grade, joining the Fort Wayne Pal Basketball League. There, he met one of the biggest mentors and influences on his young life, Kevin McGuigan.
“What an amazing influence he is,” said McCall. “He’s a good loyal guy. He does things the right way.”
McGuigan would coach him throughout his prep career, following him through grade school and high school. The two teamed up at Suburban Bethlehem Lutheran Grade School, a small parochial school to the north of Fort Wayne. Sub Beth, as it’s known around Fort Wayne, is surrounded by fields and looks nothing like a basketball school. Yet, Sub Beth was a powerhouse in McCall’s tenure there.
“We didn’t have a big class, maybe 20 kids,” McCall said of his grade school. “In the fourth and fifth grade, the other guys in my class and I used to dream of success when we got to the 8th grade.”
Success is just what they found. The Lutheran Schools Athletic Association (LSAA) in Fort Wayne is renowned for producing the area’s best athletes and hosting the best competition. Small schools like Sub Beth typically don’t stand a chance against the bigger city schools. Unfazed by the stiff competition, McCall and his teammates won the LSAA tournament his eighth grade year and earned a berth in the Lutheran Basketball Association of America tournament.
“That LSAA tournament was one of my favorite tournaments to play in,”McCall said on the unique opportunity. “I was so focused on basketball that season and it paid off for me.”
That focus made something click for the young baller. He realized he could use basketball to pay for his education in his future.
“My mom was such a big influence on me. She had me at a young age, and she didn’t go to college because of me. A big motive for me was to get my degree and not have her pay.”
His opportunity to make this dream a reality would come in high school. He continued in the Lutheran school system by attending Concordia Lutheran High School in Fort Wayne. The jump was quite the learning experience for him. As the star of his middle school team, he expected to be playing with the varsity his freshman season. Instead, he spent the first day of tryouts with the freshman team.
His communication and basketball IQ was not at a varsity level yet, so he spent his freshman season on the JV team under coach Tim Reinking. There, he focused on developing his game. He got his fair share of bumps and bruises along the way, but was appreciative of the season on the JV team to hone his skills and properly prepare him for varsity. Sophomore year was another jump as he went from JV to Varsity. There, he could feel that he was growing into his body and was getting more athletic.
Success similar to his eighth grade season greeted him his junior year as he and his fellow Concordia Cadets made it to the state championship game, but lost in a close contest.
“We lost the state championship, but that group of seniors was amazing. They stayed out of trouble and held each other accountable. Everyone knew their role and the practices were always competitive. It was a feeling I’ll never forget and I hope that feeling pushes me at the college level.”
While wins came easy as a junior, McCall and his teammates couldn’t get the ball rolling his senior season. The team struggled to collect wins, and McCall needed convincing just to remain on the team. The team was his and he was big talk around town, but he felt the game slipping away from him.
“Senior year was tough because I got big headed, I thought I was better than I was. I got too comfortable and it made me inconsistent,” McCall said.
“The year didn’t go how I would have liked but I learned a lot. I learned to never be too comfortable. I had good stats but I could have done more in terms of leadership. The star label is cool and nice to have but I wish I was better for our team.”
The Varsity head coach, Josh Eggold, was an instrumental reason in why McCall is at IUPUI today. Eggold convinced McCall that he needed to continue playing. He opened the door for McCall to be the best player he could be, and helped him tremendously in his recruiting. But no one helped D.J. more than himself.
“I heard about IUPUI my junior year of high school. I was interested in them both academically and athletically, plus my father lived in Indy for a few years, so I thought it would be a good fit,” McCall said.
“I reached out to them first. I emailed the coaching staff and expressed my interest. I was offered a scholarship the June before my senior year and I signed my letter of intent a month later.”
While D.J. thought he had his future figured out, things took an unexpected turn. A poor season by the Jaguars that season resulted in a clearing of the coaching staff, the same ones who had extended a scholarship to D.J. He hung in the balance his senior year, hoping the new coach would still be interested in bringing him on board. That new coach was Jason Gardner, and within an hour of his hiring he called McCall and confirmed that he indeed would become a Jaguar in the fall.
“He’s a great guy,” McCall said about his current coach. “I think sometimes he forgets he’s a coach and not a player. He’s so passionate and wants to win so badly. He yells and screams and gets into it because that’s what he did as a player.”
Both McCall and Gardner were settling into new roles in the fall of 2014. McCall was trying to navigate the world of a collegiate student athlete, while Gardner was figuring out how to be the head coach of a college basketball team.
Life outside of the Lutheran School system was a bit of a culture shock for the sheltered young man. In Indianapolis, he was living on his own and making all his own decisions. He could now make all his own mistakes and learn from them. This newfound freedom allowed him to grow as a person and do things on his own.
Once he overcame the butterflies that were bound to come with this new life, McCall performed well his freshman year. In just his second collegiate game against Purdue, he recorded 14 points and six rebounds off the bench. He finished that freshman season averaging 4.8 points per game and 2.9 rebounds.
Given his performance, he was understandably confused when his coaches asked him to redshirt his sophomore season.
“Coach Gardner said I did a lot of things good but there was not a single thing I did great,”McCall said on why he was asked to sit out a season. “I thought it meant the coach didn’t want me, and I thought about transferring. Thankfully, Coach clarified what this meant and said he wanted me, so I decided to accept the redshirt and stay.”
“In that off season, you want to break them down and identify their strengths and weaknesses,” said Coach Gardner on his decision to redshirt McCall. “We did it for the sake of the program. We envisioned him as one of our leaders. Looking at it now, the work that he put in has paid off.”
The extra time allowed McCall to bulk up and gain a better understanding of the game. He also had more time to focus on school, but it’s not like he needed it. McCall has been named to the Academic Advisor’s list every year he’s been at IUPUI. He attributes his hard work in the classroom to Concordia, where they challenged him and pushed him to be the best student he could be.
Fresh off of a redshirt, he was itching to get his redshirt sophomore season underway in the winter of 2016. He took on a defensive role this season and was tasked with guarding the best perimeter player on every team.
“I guarded a lot of good guys this season,” McCall said on his new role. “It was interesting to go from a top scorer in high school to the best defender on the team in college.”
College basketball is just getting started for McCall, he still has two years left here at IUPUI. He gets recognized not only around campus, but around the city as the Jaguar’s high-flying dunker. He is a role model on and off the court, showing drive not only to be a great player, but also a great family man and student.
“It’s all thanks to the people in my life,” said McCall on those who drive him to be the best he can be. “My mom, grandparents, step dad, coaches, teachers and friends. My family has always supported me, and my friends are always there for me. After a bad game, I can text or call any of them to get my mind off of it.”
D.J. has aspirations to play professional basketball after college. His length and aggression that Coach Gardner raves about could bring interest. If he approaches that process like he has with every life change in his life this far, there is no reason he can’t.