The best game Tre Demps has probably ever played happened in a small gym 50 miles north of Barcelona in a small municipality called Sant Julià de Vilatorta. Demps, a fifth-year senior, poured in 38 points on 15-18 shooting, leading Northwestern to a 85-62 victory over CB Tarragona, the fourth game on the Wildcats' five-game Spanish tour in August.
As Northwestern left the court, freshman guard Jordan Ash bounded up to Demps. Ash, who roomed with Demps on the trip after meeting him just a month or so earlier, was still high off the victory and pumped about his teammate's performance. "Tre!" he chirped. "Everything was cooking for you out there tonight, huh?"
Demps barely looked up at the 19-year-old.
"Yeah," he said in a voice comparable to that of a shy third-grader giving a class presentation for which he is unprepared.
End of conversation.
Something has always been a little different about Demps. He's almost an enigma. At 6-foot-3, he plays at a frantic pace. He always seems to be moving, but not in that smooth, athletic glide that makes some guards so graceful. Demps' movement is choppy. He uses hesitations to get by quicker, stronger and taller defenders. His favorite move, for example, starts with a hard power dribble toward the lane. His body looks like it's pushing with all its might to get forward, but his face, in contrast, remains calm. Then, as he gets to a point around the free throw line, with his defender not quite beaten, he stops on a dime and leaps at an angle backwards, opening himself up for an easy jumper. He used it in the final seconds of regulation and then in overtime in back-to-back games during his junior year to beat North Florida and Elon. He modifies the move, too. In that famed game against Michigan, Demps stopped at the top of the key before jumping to his left to create space, and hit a three to tie the game at 59 with three seconds left. Then with 12 seconds left in the first overtime, Demps brought the ball down to the baseline and stepped back for a corner three. He then sent the game into double OT just a few seconds later with another bomb.
But for all the variations, for all those clutch shots over his career, Demps has only one celebration.
"Tre is really laid back," Ash said at Northwestern basketball media day. "Like, really laid back."
For someone with such a loud game — as a redshirt freshman, he ranked 65th in the nation in usage rate, a number that hasn't fallen by much since — Demps is awfully quiet. "Tre was a very introverted guy," Northwestern head coach Chris Collins says. "He was to himself, he wasn't very vocal. And a lot of times that gets misconstrued as being a selfish guy."
Demps doesn't go out, he explains. He says he's not "the typical college kid." He's right. He got married this summer to his wife Heather John in June.
"Now, that's actually different man," Ash says. "Like, when I heard he was getting married, man, it was a big surprise. Like, when we're out and you look and he's got his ring on, that's when it's, like, real.
"You don't really think about it, though," Ash continues. "He's just one of the guys. But when he goes home to his wife, that's when you kind of laugh a little bit. Man, this dude really is married."
Demps met John through a Northwestern basketball connection. John knew former players Juice Thompson and Reggie Hearn, who had mentored her little brother. When Hearn left the Chicago area to play for the NBA D-League's Idaho Stampede, John was looking for someone to continue to mentor her brother, and Hearn called up Demps. "I just love giving back to youth," Demps says. "Throughout my time here, there's been a couple kids around the Evanston neighborhood that I've worked out and spent some time with. I think it's so important for male figures and men to be a part of somebody's life, and enrich them and encourage them, because I think we all need that."
One thing led to another, and Demps proposed to John on March 22, 2015.
"I think for the most part, I haven't really changed much [since getting married]," Demps says. "The guys know I don't really go out much, and I'm more of a low-key guy. I still hang out with my teammates, try to go out to eat with them. Not much has changed. When I go to practice and go to the court, I kind of just separate the two between that and my marriage. I think it's been working out so far."
It's not just his marriage Demps separates from when he hits the floor. It's pretty much everything. "He's like a big brother to me," Ash says, "In my first couple days here, I came to the gym with Tre. We got shots up. And it's nonstop. He's not gonna come in here and talk and waste time. He's gonna come in here and he's gonna get better. That's one of the biggest things I've learned from Tre. No matter if he's in the weight room or whatever, it's just work. He wants to be the hardest worker."
Basketball, as it has been well documented, has always been a part of Demps's life. His father, Dell, played three seasons in the NBA, and is now the New Orleans Pelicans' general manager. So growing up, basketball was an ever-present in Tre's life. But with the NBA pedigree came obsessive work habits that, while bringing a cleaner jump shot and higher vertical, also brought intense pressure.
During his true freshman year, that pressure finally got to Tre. "I had to mature a lot, a lot of immaturity on my end," he says. "I was somebody who put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. And I guess I didn't really recognize the talent that was around me. I think I just put unrealistic expectations on myself, and it kind of hurt me. I didn't respond well when I didn't get to play as much, and I kind of distanced myself from the guys. I think that's a lot of freshmen's story. You grow from it. You mature from it."
So Demps began to express himself more. He began to write. He writes poetry, specifically, in a free-form style. He does not publish his work, he says, because it's therapeutic for him, a way to reflect about his life and deal with emotional struggles he faces on a day-to-day basis. "That was something that I did a lot when I was kind of struggling with things," he says. "Just writing it down. Just writing down some of the experiences I had and things that I felt. It was helpful for me during that time.
"I always enjoyed writing my whole life," he continues. "I'm a big thinker. A lot of thoughts go in my mind. Whenever I have the opportunity, I like to just write what I'm thinking down. I think that's kinda how the hobby of it developed. A lot of it is just about evolving as a man, transforming and seeing things in a different light, just kind of as a man of faith and somebody who believes in God. Just seeing how God has worked in my life. And just seeing the different trials he's taken me through to make me a more mature person."
That's another thing about Demps. During his freshman year, he developed into a devout man of faith. He did not grow up faithful, but as he struggled early on in college, he had nowhere else to turn. Now, Demps leads a team Bible study every Monday.
"Just from the pressures of basketball and the things that I went through and the pressures I put on myself, I really desired a sense of freedom," Demps says. "I feel like, in Christ, I have that freedom. It really just came from a need to find my identity outside of basketball.
"I just wanted something constant."
But while he has found different ways to cope with his self-imposed pressure, it has not left. "It's not like a pressure urgency," he says, "it's more fun." That pressure and desire, though, still pushed him to rent apartments far from campus and across the street from Welsh-Ryan Arena for the past four years. Whenever he wants, he can go over to the basketball facility and get shots up.
When Chris Collins first got the job, he says, he spent about 20 hours a day in his office high above Northwestern's practice court. Often he would hear a ball bouncing below him late at night, or early in the morning. And it was always Demps. Alone.
"Tre was the one guy, when I got here, who was the gym rat, he was the one guy who was so passionate about being a great player," Collins says. "And others wanted it, but no one like he was.
"Tre and I have a great bond," he continues. "As I was coming in, he was trying to make his mark. He'd been hurt and played sparingly as a freshman. We both are wired the same way. We've always kind of bonded the same way. To me, to see him in such a great place as a person, on all levels, because he's gone through his ups and downs as a person. He's had some tough times. To see where he's at now is really gratifying to me."
That bond stems from a similar attitude, growing out of a similar pedigree. Demps always refers to himself as an underdog. It's puzzling in a sense, because growing up with a dad who played and worked in the NBA would seem to give a basketball-playing kid all the great advantages. Demps, for example, grew up in San Antonio around the Spurs. He was a ball boy for Tim Duncan as he shot late at night or early in the morning. Collins was the same way. His father, Doug, was a four-time NBA All-Star with the Philadelphia 76ers who played alongside the late Darryl Dawkins (who, according to Collins, lived with his family during his rookie season) and Hall-of-Famer Julius Erving. But they both maintain that as many advantages as that lifestyle seems to hold from an outside perspective, it was often difficult at times to escape that basketball family stereotype.
"It's funny that people say [that I'm not an underdog] all the time, because I feel like it's actually harder when you have an NBA pedigree," Demps says. "Everybody assumes that you're entitled and that your dad got you that position. People don't give you the respect that you're really a good player and you got there on your own. You ironically become an underdog in the eyes of other people. I didn't get any big offers until close to the end of going into my senior year. A lot of guys get offered in their sophomore year. I use that as motivation to keep proving people wrong and to prove that I can be a good player. It happened all the time when I was young. Guys and even coaches sometimes would treat me like that."
Collins says he immediately recognized that trait in Demps. It was something he has also felt throughout his time in basketball.
"I was always very proud of who my dad was," Collins says. "But it gave me a huge chip on my shoulder, because I wanted to make my own name. My biggest goal was to get to a point where every time I was mentioned, it didn't say ‘Chris Collins, son of Doug Collins.' That was something that fueled me. Look, I love everything my dad did and has done, but I wanted my own thing. It helped me kind of get that edge, get that chip to be my own guy. I think Tre carries that same chip."
At no time since he got to Northwestern has Demps felt more of this underdog mentality than when he first arrived at the elite Nike Basketball Academy this summer. One of 20 players invited, Demps says, "Guys didn't really know who I was or where I came from." Demps, though, stayed quiet, put his head down and continued to work. It's his default setting now.
But with that quietness, he displays a confidence. At one point during Big Ten Media Day in October, a reporter from a publication that presumably covers Indiana basketball sat next to Demps. The reporter asked him what is was like "knowing you're going to go up against a guy like Yogi Ferrell every year."
Demps stared at him blankly for six excruciating seconds.
That was it. End of conversation.