Jamestown High has won more than two dozen state championships since opening 24 years ago, but no athletic team in school history galvanized the Eagles’ community like the 2016-17 Group 4A boys basketball state runner-up.
Electricity filled the air that season as the home stands were packed for every game and the gym was sold out for the three victories over rival and fellow state tournament participant Smithfield. Behind its brash coach and an undersized but fiercely competitive team, Jamestown won 27 games on its way to the state final.
The Eagles lost Diamont’e Brown, the “heart and soul” of that team, last Sunday night. Brown, 22, was shot and killed, the victim of a robbery in an apparent drug transaction, according to a report filed in Williamsburg-James City County General District Court.
The news hit Brown’s former coach and teammates hard. Ryan Jones and twins Evan and Mason Wang, starting guards on the ‘16-17 state finalists, reacted with disbelief at waking up to the news Monday morning.
“It broke my heart,” Jones said. “I was hoping that I was still sleeping.”
Mason Wang said, “I just didn’t want to believe it was true because we were all family on that team. He carried us, and I think he was the reason we went so far, so I feel like I’ve lost a brother.”
Coincidentally but poignantly, Donovan Bridgeforth, the Eagles’ coach that season, was reminiscing about Brown to athletes at a tournament Sunday in Philadelphia around the time (9:15 p.m.) he was killed. Bridgeforth was telling them that he did not get along at all with Brown when he coached him in middle school, then came to love him at Jamestown.
“We were complete opposites,” Bridgeforth said. “He knew he was talented in middle school, but I wouldn’t allow him to think that because I knew his potential and I wanted him to keep working.
“Then it was like God put us together in high school at the right time. Diamont’e would play any role I asked, and then he could play the superstar role when we needed that.
“His ability was special.”
Because Brown, 6-foot-4, missed part of that ‘16-17 season with a wrist injury, Bridgeforth asked him mostly to rebound and defend the opponent’s best player when he returned. Though well under 6 feet, the Wangs were averaging 17 points apiece and, like the even-smaller Jones, were dazzling the opposition with their outside shooting and passing.
But, as he returned to full health, Brown emerged as a go-to star.
“He was the only guy on the team that I could throw alley-oop passes to, which made it fun for both of us,” said Jones, whose pass from 25 feet to Brown for a dunk was the highlight of a win over Monacan that clinched the state tournament berth.
“Evan Wang said, “Diamont’e was super-versatile. He was a great defender and could guard anyone from 1 to 5 (positions) and could score at all three levels.
“He was really good driving to the basket and kicking it out to Ryan, my brother and me, so he opened the floor up for us.”
Mason Wang added, “He could get to the basket at will with that left hand and always find a way to make the shot.”
That proved especially true in the biggest games in the run to the state final. He scored 13 points in the 65-56 win over Smithfield in the region championship game, went 7 for 8 shooting in scoring a team-high 18 points in the win over Roanoke’s William Fleming in the state quarterfinals, then scored most of his 13 points in a key stretch of the 66-65 win over Handley of Winchester in the state semifinals.
“He was a fearless competitor on the court,” Jones said, “but after the game, he would joke on people and get in rap battles and be your best friend. It was always such a good time on the bus ride home with him.”
Chowan University recruited Brown following his big stretch run, but he only played in nine games for the Division II school in Murfreesboro, North Carolina, returning to Williamsburg because of homesickness after a knee injury limited his time as a freshman.
Brown remained in touch with his teammates in the years since graduation. Bridgeforth says Brown was working and had recently earned his commercial driver’s license with an eye toward owning his own (18-wheel) trucking business.
“We had been talking about him giving back by helping coach kids with us because I think he had a lot to teach them,” said Bridgeforth, who mentors young athletes with his Dream Catchers organization. “He did so much for my career, and the memories he brought to the city of Williamsburg for basketball will never go away.”
Jones said, “He was our heart and soul. We all looked up to him and he was more than just a friend — he was my brother, a guy I could turn to for anything.