UNC's Dexter Strickland comes home

"I call heaven and earth to witness against you, that today I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Oh, that you would choose life; that you and your children might live! Choose to love the Lord your God and to obey Him and to cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days." -- Deuteronomy 30:19-20

NEWARK, N.J. -- If not for prayer -- and a little discipline -- North Carolina sophomore shooting guard Dexter Strickland probably wouldn't be where he is now: on the verge of playing the biggest game of his life in front of his family and friends in the city where he was born.

His father, Dexter L. Strickland, was reminded of that when his son called him one time last year.

"Dad," Dexter Strickland said, "I just wanted to thank you for everything you've done for me."

And then he repeated -- well, paraphrased -- the Bible verse that changed everything:

"Life and death, blessings and curses, you choose."

On the other end of the call, Dexter L. Strickland smiled.

His son, and the rest of his Tar Heels teammates, will take on Marquette in the Sweet 16 on Friday night at the Prudential Center, with a trip to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight on the line.

It's truly a dream come true. Especially since Dexter Strickland is the lone New Jersey product of the 48 players -- from the four teams -- who will be competing in the East Regional for the right to reach the Final Four in Houston. Born in Newark, he grew up between Rahway, Linden and Hillside, ultimately starring at St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth before choosing to play at UNC.

"I said recently, I don't really think I've had the time to take it all in," said Dexter L. Strickland, who helped mold his son into the person he is today. "A lot of things had to happen to get him here, playing in the city that he left in the Sweet 16. It's surreal."

Of course, it wouldn't have happened if not for prayer. And a little discipline.

Seven years ago, a probationary judge was ready to throw the book at Dexter Strickland. And juvenile hall was a possible destination.

Strickland had been living with his mother, Sherrone, in Rahway after his parents divorced. But it wasn't working out -- young boys can be tough to handle for single mothers -- and the sixth-grader was heading down the wrong path.

"He was very troubled at school," Dexter L. Strickland said. "He was continually being disruptive in class and being suspended. I'm pretty sure he got suspended at least once every year he was in school."

Dexter Strickland had even gone so far as to hit his teachers. But what landed him in the most trouble was when he was caught pulling out a knife in front of one his female classmates.

"I got the call about that at work," said Dexter L. Strickland, who works as an electrician. "That incident, that's when I realized, we got a problem."

Although Sherrone had majority custody of Dexter, she and her ex-husband realized it would be best if he began living with his father in Linden (Dexter L. Strickland and his new wife later moved to Hillside), as well as change schools.

"I took him in," Dexter L. Strickland said. "And I began to read the Bible to him every day. It was like clockwork. He was a kid that needed structure. Sherrone did the best she could. There's no question about that. But she was a single mother and it was tough.

"But it was that one Bible verse -- 'Life and death, blessings and curses, you choose' -- that stood out and had the biggest impact on him."

Ever since, as his father said, Dexter Strickland has been choosing life and blessings.

"Absolutely [moving in with him saved my life]," Dexter Strickland said. "I think my father shaped me to be the person I am today. I don't now know where I would be without him. I think he plays a big part of where I'm at right now."

Dexter L. Strickland didn't want his son to make the same mistakes he made.

Back when he was in college, he had a football scholarship at Montclair State University. But early in his freshman year he quit because he wasn't getting enough playing time.

"I just didn't understand what sports could do for you," he said. "I came in thinking I was going to be a star and it was going to be easy. But I started the season on the bench and just walked off the field. I could've been a star if I had just waited for my time to arrive. One of the things I've done is to make sure my son didn't make the mistakes that I did."

Dexter Strickland's father introduced his son to football at the age of 7, and he quickly excelled at the sport.

"I did want him to play football," Dexter L. Strickland said. "But I also wanted to expose him to all different kinds of sports. You could see right away that he was gonna be an above-average kid. When he was 9 years old, I had a coach come up to me and say, 'I regret not being able to have a chance to coach your son, because I bet you at this age he has world-class speed.' That's been the consensus with him. The last thing his high school coach [St. Pat's Kevin Boyle] said to me was, 'If he doesn't go to the NBA, the NFL is gonna be looking for him.'"

But Dexter Strickland didn't want to play football. He liked basketball more.

"I was always hurt in football," Strickland said. "I started playing basketball for fun, and soon found out that I was good at it. I just started working hard and getting better."

By the time he was 12, his infatuation with basketball had taken over, and he was no longer playing football.

Dexter L. Strickland didn't have a strong grasp of the game -- he claims he still doesn't -- yet he introduced his son to organized basketball while they were living in Linden. He also took him to the street ball courts in Newark to toughen him up a bit.

"A lot of people want to say he's from this place or that place," Dexter L. Strickland said. "But the fact is, he did a lot of his growing up here in Newark."

Dexter Strickland began playing AAU ball for coach Lamont Halsey, who later married Sherrone.

"I think he was a huge inspiration on my son," Dexter L. Strickland said. "He coached my son in both football and basketball. I think he could see right away that he was a gifted kid with a lot of potential."

Dexter L. Strickland wanted to make a better life for his family. But it was hard in Linden -- even if they didn't reside in a bad area.

Dexter Strickland vividly remembers hearing four gunshots one night while he was playing outside with his cousins when he was 10 or 11. The man who got shot eventually went up to Strickland's grandmother's house and knocked at the back door. He was bleeding and needed help.

Fortunately, the man received medical attention and lived, but the haunting memories of the near tragedy left a lasting impression on the younger Strickland.

"I was scared," he told Scout.com. "It made me wanna get out of that area. It made me want to work even harder; because if I work hard, I can go anywhere I want. My neighborhood has shaped me to be the person I am. Just knowing if you don't work hard, you can't get to where you want to be, it motivates you."

All the motivation Dexter Strickland needs can be found on his Twitter page, just under his "@DStrick01" handle.

"Just a boy from Jersey balling at UNC tryna do it BIG so my family wont struggle," Strickland wrote.

"I feel like when I first started playing basketball, I was just having fun," he said. "Then I felt like I had an opportunity to better myself and my family. That's my top motivation. To help my mom and dad. And myself."

When it came time to decide where Strickland was going to play high school basketball, Sherrone didn't have to think twice. St. Patrick it was.

"I didn't know anything about basketball. I'll be honest," Dexter L. Strickland said. "His mother was really adamant about him going to St. Pat's. She really wanted him to go there."

There was never really a doubt.

Dexter Strickland ended up making his impact felt at St. Patrick, winning three N.J. Tournament of Champions boys' basketball titles under the tutelage of Boyle. He was named a McDonald's All-American in 2009.

"I feel like St. Pat's got me ready to play on a level such as this. Such as Carolina," Strickland said. "Kevin Boyle and coach Roy Williams are similar to one another so it kind of forced me to prepare myself for this level."

Just like his high school teammates Kyrie Irving, a freshman at Duke who may go in the top five if he declares for the 2011 NBA draft, and Michael Gilchrist, now a senior who is headed to play at Kentucky, among others, Strickland was heavily recruited. He could've gone to any college he wanted to attend.

So why did he choose UNC?

"It just felt like home," Strickland said.

Strickland never really had to buy into a role at St. Patrick, because he was one of the standouts on the team.

That wasn't the case at UNC.

Strickland averaged just 17.3 minutes per game as a freshman, and the Tar Heels ended up going just 20-17 overall, 5-11 in the ACC, and had to settle for an NIT berth.

"It means a lot to be where we are right now, especially considering the season we had last year," Strickland said. "Just to bounce back and have the season we had this year is a great feeling."

Now a sophomore, Strickland has proved himself to be a vital cog in the Tar Heels' 26-7 resurgence in 2010-11.

He averages just 7.4 points per game in 26.5 minutes out of the starting 2-guard position. Not exactly gaudy statistics. Still, Strickland is regularly assigned to guard the opposition's best wing player. He may not get all the hype of his teammates like Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller, but they nicknamed him "the DeX-factor" for a reason.

Why? He's the consummate team player.

"I think he does a lot of things that don't get put in stat books, such as his defense," Barnes, the much ballyhooed freshman small forward ticketed for a lucrative NBA playing career, said. "He always comes up with big plays defensively. He's guarded so many big matchups for us. And I think a lot of what he does goes unnoticed."

And he's had to do all that despite being hampered by a slightly torn meniscus in his knee. At this point, Strickland, who has had to fill in at point guard at times, said he doesn't believe he'll have to have surgery on it.

"They were talking about me having surgery, but I had the same injury on [my other] knee and I played through it so I knew I could play through it," Strickland said.

He has. And his perseverance and bravery might just pay off in a national championship.

"He's started for us every game, I think," Williams said. "He's developed into our best perimeter defender. He uses his speed and quickness to be a really good player for us on the defensive end of the floor. When we get out and run, he is unbelievably quick with the ball. He can fly up and down the court. But defensively is where he has made his biggest impact for us."

When it comes to obtaining and trying to distribute tickets for Friday night's game, Dexter L. Strickland pities his son.

"What a nightmare," he said. "I feel so sorry for him. I want to bring 20 people. His mother wants to bring 20 people. He did a good job of networking with other teammates. I was told he was able to opt out of dealing with it and put a team manager on it. He's through with it."

Still, the younger Strickland is elated that he's going to be able to play in his home state in front of more than 40 friends and family members.

"It was crazy. I got a little aggravated about it, to be honest," Strickland said. "But it's great to be here and play in front of my family and friends that haven't seen me play yet in person that much.

"There's no place like home."

Strickland said that while he won't be able to go and visit his mother and father at their places, they're going to visit him at the team hotel. And that is more than enough for him.

He also said his goal is to someday play in the NBA. And his father believes he's talented enough to do so.

"His dream is to play this game on the next level, and I think what we see hasn't tapped into what he can do at all," Dexter L. Strickland said. "He's in a system and he's playing within the system. He's doing what Roy Williams is asking him to do. But I think there's a lot more to him. As somebody who doesn't understand basketball history at UNC, you don't come to this program to be a superstar. Or to do what you can do. Roy is a phenomenal coach that knows how to win. And everybody is in a position to help this team win. But I'm told on this next level there's no restrictions. And I think when the restrictions come off, we're gonna see a kid that has nothing but an upside."

Strickland always knew his son had upside. He just had to get him out of trouble and help him realize his potential. He did so with prayer. And a little discipline.

And eventually, his son chose the right path.

The path to life and blessings.

Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPN NewYork.com.