CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- For nearly an hour Thursday, the pace was frenetic. Weaving through a maze of cones and crossovers, 17 basketball players sprint back and forth from all corners of the Frisoli Youth Center. Their only break from the tireless shooting and dribbling drills is the occasional one-minute breather -- and the far more frequent set of push-ups.
“Stop! Stop!” a voice shouts, freezing everyone on the court. “Push-ups! I’ll tell you why afterward.”
Dwight Brewington walks around his players as most struggle to finish the set. He then grabs a ball and instead of telling his players the reason for the punishment, he shows them. His slick, 6-foot-5 frame glides quickly through the cones at a gear coaches love to call “game-speed,” and Brewington would too if he called himself a coach.
“You gotta push it!” he tells them.
“You’re supposed to be doing this at home, aren’t you?” he asks.
“Do NOT cheat yourself!” he says.
That encouragement is something Brewington said was rarely passed to him during his formative years.
Born profoundly deaf, he knows he wouldn’t have been able to hear it. But he’s making sure others do now.
“Believe me, I’m going to have kids that make it to the NBA,” Brewington says, with both defiance and a smile. “I’m going to have kids in the NBA -- with my help.”
A NEW DREAM
Once driven by a dream to be the first deaf player in the NBA, Brewington says he’s finding true happiness in his second basketball career.
Since May, the 27-year-old Lynn native -- who starred at two colleges before playing in the NBDL and overseas -- has run the Active Skills Basketball Training Program in conjunction with his AAU team, the Active Skills All-Stars.
Together, they draw athletes from Lynn, Cambridge, Boston, Winthrop and beyond. On Thursday, they included kids prepping for middle school tryouts to teenagers preparing for the next step, such as former Newton North star Tevin Falzon, who’s set to begin a post-grad year at Winchendon; his brother, Aaron Falzon, who plans to enroll at St. Mark’s; and Macam Bak Macam, a deaf Sudan native whom Brewington is trying to help land at a prep school.
Brewington runs training sessions where he can find court time, most recently for two days a week at the Frisoli Youth Center in Cambridge and every Sunday at Winthrop High School. Soon, he’ll return every Monday and Wednesday to Breed Middle School in Lynn for a six-day-a-week schedule he’s more than happy to offer.
The goal, Brewington said, is to give athletes the help he never had. He’s a trainer, he says, not a coach because his focus in on improving the individual as opposed to a team. His sessions feature seemingly non-stop movement, and when a player blows a lay-up or junks a drill, he has push-ups waiting for him.
How many is hard to tell. On Thursday, some did 10, some did eight, others did five. After what mounts to countless sets, they seemed almost eager to get back to running.
“I can feel it when I go to sleep,” said Deondre Starling, the former Cambridge star who’s training with Brewington before heading to play at Dean College in Franklin. “And I can feel it when I wake up.”
Perhaps most importantly, the players display the same passion for playing Brewington does for training them.
“He’s found himself,” said Mauricio “Mo” Vasquez, Brewington’s mentor and former AAU coach with Metro Boston. “It’s something where he kind of controls his destiny. It’s not up to someone else. And he enjoys seeing guys develop.”
'THE KID IS UNIQUE'
There are obstacles, of course. In an area filled with established AAU programs -- Metro Boston, Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC) and the Bay State and Middlesex Magic are just a few -- Brewington will have to find his niche.
Born without 60 percent of his hearing in both ears, Brewington still wears hearing aids, and as he did Thursday, he will demonstrate almost as often as he instructs, in case his players don’t understand him.
As a child, his disability made him introverted and anti-social, he said. For a long time, it hindered him in school before he utilized professional note-takers. He admits he "didn’t want to trust people" when he is was younger, and his guarded nature often went misunderstood. In college, he often butted heads with the coaching staff at Providence College before transferring to Liberty University in Virginia, and he admits he didn’t take orders well.
“For some reason, people don’t look at me as Dwight Brewington,” he said. “They look at me as Dwight Brewington, that deaf guy. People never gave me the chance to get to know me. If you don’t give me the chance to get to know me, I’m not going to get to know you.”
Even during Brewington’s recruitment, Vasquez told coaches that “this kid is unique” and cautioned them of the extra steps needed to make him feel comfortable. For instance, as smart as Brewington is, Vasquez said, he never could grasp sarcasm, most times taking everything anybody said literally.
“You don’t understand it because you don’t hear it,” Vasquez would tell him. “And I used to tell him, ‘You think too much.’ He’s always trying to please everyone. But when he took something in the wrong manner, he already built a wall.”
This was the same kid that questioned Vasquez’s ability to help him when he first came to him in the eighth grade. The then-6-foot-2 teenager would look down on the 5-foot-6 coach and quip, “For a little guy, you bark a lot.”
“Mind you, I’m a short guy,” Vasquez said, laughing at the memory of how Brewington would sometimes shut his hearing aids off in a huddle. “The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Are you sure your guys get better?’”
But Brewington remained as loyal as they come. He stayed with Vasquez through all four years of high school, even as he jumped from Wakefield High to Lynn English to Worcester Academy, emerging as a star wherever he went.
When he ascended to the collegiate level, he struggled to adjust in many phases -- except for basketball. As a sophomore, he averaged 13.3 points and 4.3 rebounds a game, giving the Friars a second weapon past star Ryan Gomes.
Being deaf never hindered him on the floor, where his athleticism was almost equaled by what Vasquez called a “sixth sense” for feeling the game. As long as Brewington kept eye contact with the coach, the point guard and others around him, he didn’t need to hear a play call to make a play.
The problem was, Providence coach Tim Welsh and him “weren’t seeing eye to eye,” Brewington said. Welsh publicly supported the guard when he decided to transfer, but it wasn’t a secret that Brewington was uncomfortable there.
He sat out the fall semester of his junior year, weighing where to go. Arizona and Ohio State courted him, he and Vasquez says, as did Gonzaga. Then, literally days before he was set to leave Providence, Brewington was struck by tragedy. Four of his closest friends were gunned down in a basement recording studio, a brutal killing that shook the Dorchester neighborhood where it occurred.
Edwin Duncan, 21, was shot three times; Jason Bachiller, 20, seven times; Christopher Vieira, 19, four times; and Jihad Chankhour, 22, was shot as he ran for the door, according to news reports. It leveled Brewington, who says there are very few people in the world he can point to and say, “That’s my boy.”
“There are only like five of them like that,” he said. “Four of them are dead.”
Feeling lost, he turned to Liberty, a private university steeped in Christian values.
“Even though I knew there was the chance it would hurt me with the NBA and my resume, I needed God,” Brewington said of going to the mid-major school. “Liberty was the first school who wanted me. They knew about my four people getting killed. I said, ‘I needed God.’”
But despite averaging more than 14.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game there and declaring early for the NBA draft, Brewington said he sensed he wasn’t close to realizing his dream. He wasn’t selected and later was taken in the NBDL draft. Never called up to an NBA team during his time there, he then played in Israel, the American-based Premier Basketball League and finally Slovakia.
He returned last December after injuring his left Achilles, again feeling lost and disappointed. He was happy to be back in the U.S. with his wife, Gabrielle, and two children, 7-year-old Dantia and 4-year-old Malakai, but he said he stayed in the house “24/7, trying to figure out what the hell went wrong with my life.”
“It made me decide I’m done [playing] ball,“ Brewington said. “Being far away from home, being far away from your family and knowing that I have two kids and a wife, I’m overseas and [thinking], ‘Why am I here? I should be in the NBA.’ That was my dream. It was always the NBA. I could never see myself waking up in the morning and going to work.”
So he made his own work. In less than five months after starting his program, he’s drawing close to 20 kids a night for training, whom he then funnels into his AAU team. This fall, he’s planning to coach players at both the junior high and high school levels, and on Sept. 17, he is hosting the Love of the Game Mass. Basketball Tournament Classic at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, which figures to draw some of the top AAU talent in the region.
It’s helped Brewington come to terms with never reaching the NBA.
“Because I’m doing this, it makes me look back and say, ‘I’m OK with it,’” he said.
PROVIDING THE PUSH
The night is winding down at the Frisoli Youth Center, and in a circle surrounding their trainer, 17 kids are doing push-ups.
They’re sore, they’re tired. But you never hear one groan about Brewington’s regiment. In fact, most manage a smile while they rest between sets.
“I’ve never had somebody who sticks on me like he does,” said Dan Trentsch, a rising junior at Swampscott High School who’s trained with Brewington for the last five months.
In the beginning, Trentsch says, he couldn’t get through half of one of Brewington’s practices. Push-ups were a foreign concept.
Today, he does more than 300 a day, is taking 500 shots a day under Brewington’s watch and can dunk.
“On a good day,” Trentsch said with a smile. “He loves to push me, and that’s what I love about it.”
That’s why they’re all here. It’s why Brewington is too.
“Me being deaf, there were a lot of things I had to deal with it that made me look back and say, ‘I want to be in kids’ lives,’” he said. “I want to be that guy who can help kids get to where they can be at. They just need someone to push them.”