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Gym Gem

February 07, 2014
Courtesy: Texas A&M Athletics
(photo: Texas A&M Athletics)

This feature, which originally appeared in 12th Man Magazine, is brought to you in conjunction with the 12th Man Foundation

Named in honor of Texas A&M’s famous 12th Man tradition, the 12th Man Foundation strives to continue Texas A&M’s athletic success by funding scholarships, programs and facilities in support of championship athletics. From a vision in the late 1940s to the introduction of The Championship Vision in 2000 and the successful funding and completion of numerous athletic facilities that have dramatically enhanced the landscape of Aggie Athletics, the 12th Man Foundation has become one of the most successful and well-respected fundraising organizations in all of college athletics.

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Freshman Fitzgerald makes quick impact on Aggie men's basketball team

by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine

From her home in Atlanta, Lavonne Fitzgerald acknowledges that she was not particularly surprised when she found out that her 19-year-old son, Texas A&M forward Davonte Lawrence Fitzgerald, recently became the first Aggie men’s basketball player to ever earn SEC Freshman of the Week honors, as designated by the conference office. She was overjoyed, but not astonished.

After all, this was not the first time that Davonte Fitzgerald made an especially strong, memorable and notable impression on people at his new school.

“I am really thrilled that he is doing so well in his first year at Texas A&M, but I actually suspected he would,” said the personable and outspoken Lavonne Fitzgerald. “I have thought since he was 2 or 3 years old that he was going to be a very good basketball player. His older brother (David Lawrence) is 10 years older than Davonte, and he played college basketball (at the College of Charleston), too. So, I have had an idea of what it would take for Davonte to earn a scholarship.

“From a very early age, I would watch Davonte and think to myself, ‘He has what it takes.’ And nothing he has done in basketball has really surprised me since he first made the middle school team in Radcliff (Kentucky). Now, that surprised me because he wasn’t even a student in the middle school yet.”

At the time, Davonte was a fifth-grader, who had just moved to Radcliff from Georgia with his mother so that she could help care for her mother. Davonte had befriended some older kids in the neighborhood and followed them one day to the basketball tryouts at the middle school. The coach at Radcliff Middle School discovered that Davonte was two years younger than the rest of the kids, but he allowed him to try out for the team.

“I don’t want to say he’s been a pleasant surprise because we knew that he could be a good player right away when we recruited him...he is in the gym more than anybody. He cares so much, and he has worked hard. But he has really just scratched the surface of what he can be."

- Billy Kennedy

Fitzgerald made the squad and made a name for himself among the basketball-crazed fans in Kentucky.

“He was the first elementary school-aged kid to ever make the Radcliff Middle School team,” Lavonne Fitzgerald recalled proudly. “At the first game, you cannot imagine how many people came out to watch because they all wanted to see this fifth-grader from the elementary school who made the middle school team. That is when I knew he had a chance to be really, really good.

“I had a hunch as far back as when he was 2 and dunking the ball on his Fisher Price basketball goal. But I absolutely knew when he was in fifth grade. He made history with his basketball skills as a fifth-grader and people from all over packed the gym to come watch him.”

Texas A&M head basketball coach Billy Kennedy hopes history repeats itself in that regard, as he believes that Fitzgerald is the kind of talented player who can help the Aggies pack Reed Arena again in the near future.

The 6-foot-7 Fitzgerald possesses the ability to create his own shot and score in bunches, as he displayed in earning the SEC Freshman of the Week honors. On Jan. 15, Fitzgerald scored 13 points and grabbed three rebounds in Texas A&M’s win over South Carolina. Three days later, Fitzgerald produced a career-high 20 points with four rebounds while logging a personal-best 32 minutes in the Aggies’ loss at Mississippi State.

He also played well upon returning to the state where he first made a name for himself on the basketball court. On Jan. 21, Fitzgerald scored 12 points (tied for the team high) in the Aggies’ loss at Kentucky.

Unfortunately for the Aggies, Fitzgerald followed up those three strong performances with a disappointing one at home in the loss to Vanderbilt, when he was held scoreless. Obviously, the true freshman still has plenty to learn, and he needs to improve in various ways to be more consistent.

For the most part, however, Fitzgerald has been one of the bright spots of this year’s team, and he is most definitely one of the building blocks for A&M’s future in the SEC. On Feb. 5, Fitzgerald played a key role in helping the Aggies snap a five-game losing skid with his hustle and athleticism In A&M's 72-52 victory over Mississippi State at Reed Arena.

In addition to scoring seven points against the Bulldogs, Fitzgerald turned in the defensive play of the game when he blocked a fast-break layup attempt by Fred Thomas that prompted a roar from the crowd midway through the second half.

“I don’t want to say he’s been a pleasant surprise because we knew that he could be a good player right away when we recruited him,” Kennedy said. “He has been all that. He has been a scorer for us, and he is in the gym more than anybody. He cares so much, and he has worked hard. But he has really just scratched the surface of what he can be.

"When we (got) to Texas A&M, he lit up like a Christmas tree. He was more talkative and was excited meeting with the players. He came to me...and said, ‘Mom, please let me say yes. This is the right fit. I promise.’ ... He felt at home, which made me really happy."

- Lavonne Fitzgerald

“He is still learning how to play and understanding the game at this level and how we can let the game come to him instead of forcing things. The hardest thing for him has been the defensive side of it. He can score and create on his own, but we need him to be better defensively. He plays at one pace right now, and he is just learning how to play at another pace. But he can get there. His brother was a really good player, and Davonte has a chance to be a really good one, too.”

Fitzgerald, who says he is especially looking forward to returning to Georgia this Saturday when the Aggies play the Bulldogs in Athens at 7 p.m., fully realizes that Kennedy is correct in his assessment. And he says it isn’t just Kennedy or the other A&M coaches who remind him of what areas of his game need the most improvement.

Although his brother is currently in Romania playing for a team (BC Timba Timisoara) that Fitzgerald says he can’t even pronounce, David Lawrence is still regularly encouraging and critiquing his much younger brother.

They frequently speak via FaceTime, and thanks to technological advances and the Internet, Lawrence can follow his younger brother’s collegiate development closely.

“With him being so much older than me, I did a lot of watching him when I was real young,” said the soft-spoken Fitzgerald, a sport management major. “We didn’t play against each other very often when I was younger, but he did give me a lot of advice. I saw him play in college, and he was always telling me that I could play in college, too. I would play with the players there (at College of Charleston) even when I was in middle school or going into high school.

“Now, he gets to watch a lot of my games online. He tells me what to work on, and he is always encouraging me to work harder and keep on improving.”

Lavonne Fitzgerald says it’s only fitting that Lawrence is now closely watching Fitzgerald’s every move on the court. For many years, it was the other way around, as Fitzgerald practically studied everything his brother did. He mimicked his brother’s moves on the floor and also learned from his brother’s mistakes.

“Davonte tried to do everything his brother did on the basketball court,” Lavonne Fitzgerald said. “But he was also wise enough not to follow his brother’s every move. For example, David was on track in high school to meet all his grade requirements, but he didn’t maintain those grades and ended up having to go to Daytona Beach Community College before he made it to a Division I school. Davonte saw that and made sure he didn’t make those same mistakes. He was a good student throughout high school and made sure he had his grades. He exceeded his brother in that regard.”

He also excelled on the court throughout his prep career at Tucker High School just outside of Atlanta. As a senior, Fitzgerald averaged 22.8 points and 9.2 rebounds while earning All-State honors. ESPN.com ranked Fitzgerald as the 10th best prospect in Georgia and the 32nd best forward nationally, while Scout.com projected him as the 44th top prospect in the country at the position.

"I am glad to be here ... (Texas A&M) really is a friendly environment, and I feel like I am growing more and more comfortable each day. Now, I just want to do my part to help us consistently win games.”

- Davonte Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald was recruited by numerous schools from the power conferences, including Clemson, Florida State, Ole Miss and Georgia. But a couple of Kennedy’s former assistant coaches had seen Fitzgerald play and told their former boss about the swingman. Dating back to his days as the head coach at Murray State, Kennedy says he has always liked recruiting the Atlanta area, so it made sense to give Fitzgerald a close look.

A&M assistant coach Kyle Keller first paid a visit to Atlanta to meet Davonte and his mother, and Kennedy followed up. Lavonne had gone with her son on recruiting trips to several schools, but she was concerned that he did not seem to be truly captivated by any of them.

Until the trip to Aggieland, where it was apparent right from the start that Fitzgerald felt comfortable and at home.

“I had gone with him on some long trips, and as we came back from Florida State, my oldest son was at home and I was like, ‘I’m not going to Texas A&M,’” Lavonne recalled. “But my oldest son was encouraging me to go with him, and I did. I had told Davonte right from the start that I didn’t want him to allow distance to be a factor in his collegiate decision. I told him I would come to watch him no matter how far away from home he chose to play. I just wanted him to find a place where he felt like he belonged.

“Well, when we get to Texas A&M, he lit up like a Christmas tree. He was more talkative and was excited meeting with the players. We got there Thursday night. He came to me on Friday and said, ‘Mom, please let me say yes. This is the right fit. I promise.’ I told him to enjoy the weekend, and if he still felt that way on Sunday to commit to A&M. Sure enough, he still felt that way. He felt strongly about everything at A&M: the program, Coach Kennedy, the culture, the school, everything. He felt at home, which made me really happy.”

Although there have been some difficult adjustments and his freshman season has not always gone just as he would have liked, Fitzgerald says he is more confident than ever before that he made the right decision in coming to Texas A&M.

“Yes, I am glad to be here,” he said. “This place has a friendly environment, the campus is very beautiful and from the basketball aspect, it has been a good fit for me. I have really enjoyed all the traditions like the 12th Man and learning about so many other traditions. I really didn’t know that much about A&M growing up, and I didn’t know exactly what to expect in coming to Texas for college. But it really is a friendly environment, and I feel like I am growing more and more comfortable each day. Now, I just want to do my part to help us consistently win games.”

If he can do that, he can once again be responsible for helping to pack the gym in his new home away from home.

Follow the 12th Man Foundation on Twitter @12thManFndtn and Rusty Burson @12thManRusty

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