Family and Fans Fuel Rice’s Fire

by Alex Schwartz

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Bahrain, China, Dominican Republic, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Darius Rice’s 15-year professional basketball career featured stops in each of those countries, including multiple stints in several nations across four continents.

Before beginning his stellar tenure as a pro, Rice tallied 1,865 points at the University of Miami, where he left as a three-time All-BIG EAST honoree and still stands as the fourth all-time leading scorer.

Now, Rice, announced Sept. 9 as an assistant coach at Mississippi Valley State, is taking the lessons he learned as a player and seeking to impart that wisdom in others.

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Rice came to Miami in 2000 as one of the most highly-touted prospects in program history, capping his prep career at No. 16 in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI) composite rankings. A native of Jackson, Miss., Rice not only played in the McDonald’s All-American Game, but eclipsed 20 points in the showcase affair.

The valedictorian of his Lanier High School class, Rice declined overtures from schools such as Kentucky, Memphis and Mississippi State, as well as the allure of turning pro straight out of high school, to attend Miami.

Photo courtesy of Al Bello/Getty Images

Joining a team coming off a BIG EAST co-regular season title and a Sweet 16 berth, Rice’s impact at Miami was immediate. He scored a game-high 26 points in a win over Florida Atlantic in his first outing as a Hurricane.

“Coach [Perry] Clark was like, ‘We’re going to start you this game and if you play well, you’ll be the starter,’” Rice recalled. “. . . I had a great game and I never lost my position.”

The 6-foot-10 wing garnered BIG EAST All-Rookie honors alongside fellow McDonald’s All-Americans Omar Cook and the late Eddie Griffin, as well as Caron Butler and Michael Sweetney.

To Dwight Freeman, a Miami assistant during Rice’s first two years at The U, the Magnolia State product had a game beyond his era.

“First of all, Darius was a tremendous shooter. He was ahead of his time,” Freeman shared. “The way people are playing today is what Darius was doing then; at [6-foot-10], being able to play on the perimeter, shooting threes. In today’s game, Darius would just flourish because that is what he did.”

Rice’s career featured numerous accolades and incredible moments, many of which he still remembers to this day. Two of his fondest memories came during his junior year, the latter a 43-point outing against No. 11/8 UConn that included a game-winning buzzer-beater to top the Huskies, 77-76.

The other, just 16 days prior, featured a 17-point performance versus North Carolina in the first contest at the now-Watsco Center. Rice hit a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation and scored the lone basket in overtime, helping Miami to a 64-61 victory.

Rice, though, thinks back on much more than his on-court successes when reflecting on his days as a Hurricane.

“The bonds I made on the team—Robert Hite was a great friend of mine, Eric Wilkins was a great friend of mine,” Rice said of his memories from The U. “My toughest competitor was John Salmons. Every day he used to battle me . . . Just those bonds and everything with the guys, I miss that.”

Beyond the relationships with his teammates, Rice also liked spending time with fellow student-athletes from other teams—including football stars Frank Gore, Ed Reed and the late Sean Taylor—as well as the warm, sunny weather.

As much as Rice enjoyed the different aspects of his tenure in Coral Gables both in the gym and away from it, his mother, Brenda, always recognized his drive to shine on the hardwood.

“He was on a mission and, at that particular time, his mission was to be the best he could be for whatever school he played for,” she said. “I’m proud that he chose Miami . . . he had a wonderful career.”

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Rice’s mother not only watched him compete as a Hurricane, but also helped him excel. His father, Tom, did, too.

Their importance to their son extended back many years, though, as family has been an integral part in Rice’s life dating back to his time as a child. Described by Brenda as a “very close-knit family,” Rice had the support of his parents in every aspect of his life.

Tom developed kidney disease in 1990 and while that eventually forced him to retire, it did allow him to spend a great deal of time working with his son on his athletics. A Kodak All-American offensive lineman at Jackson State, Tom first aided Darius on the field before he outgrew the sport and switched to basketball in middle school. Brenda, meanwhile, looked after Darius on the academic side.

“We had a basketball goal in our yard; they worked out in the yard. We had gym membership we would take him to. We were all invested as a family,” Brenda said. “We would all join him at the gym and he was a hard, hard worker. He’s always had that drive to do everything to the best of his ability. First and foremost was his studies. I was on the education side, I worked with the president of Jackson State for 25 years. I was on the education side and my husband worked more with him with his athletic ability and developing him, but Darius always had that drive to be the best at everything and that’s what he did. All of that hard work and family being there to support him in everything that he did [paid off].”

It has been 18 years since Freeman last coached Rice, but the importance of family and the impact it had on his star pupil still stands out to him today.

Rice with his father, Tom

“Just the family dynamic that they had [is something I recall]. His tenacity for being able to endure. His dad was on dialysis,” Freeman shared. “We always had to make sure, whenever they visited, his dad had to go to the clinic and his mom was just really strong and making sure everything was taken care of. He had some obstacles that he had to deal with and being at that age and dealing with some of those things and still being able to be a 4.0 [high school] student and thrive, that just says something about his tenacity [and his] character.”

Tom sadly died just under a year ago, but Brenda knows her husband would be proud of Darius for where he is now.

“He passed on October 25th of last year and even at that time, he was talking about how he wanted to see [Darius] in the coaching arena because he felt, in his spirit, that’s what he felt God had for him to do,” she said.

While his parents contributed a great deal to Rice’s success, they are not the only family members who did so.

"Darius always had that drive to be the best at everything and that’s what he did. All of that hard work and family being there to support him in everything that he did [paid off]."
-Brenda Rice

When most people hear the name Jerry Rice, they think of the greatest wide receiver of all-time. Darius thinks of his uncle.

Rice absorbed a great deal of knowledge from his father’s brother—a 12-time NFL All-Pro who holds nearly all the league’s notable receiving records—about what it takes to succeed as an athlete.

“The thing I took from him pretty much through life was just how hard he worked and how he never settled a day without saying, ‘I could have done something to make myself better today,’” Darius said. “That’s what he always told me when I was younger, ‘Just keep working every day. Outwork people, outwork everybody.’ That’s what I’ve done. On the high school coaching level, playing-wise, I’ve just tried to outwork everybody. No matter what people said about me, my actions spoke louder than anything.”

Thirty-five years after Jerry departed Mississippi Valley State as a first-round pick, Darius is now back at his uncle’s alma mater carrying on the family legacy for the Delta Devils. Jerry, though, is not the only football-playing Rice to whom Darius looked up to and learned from.

While Brenda echoed many similar sentiments about the impact her son’s famous uncle had on him, she also pointed out that her husband made his mark, too.

“I don’t know if it’s something in the Rice genes, but he had that same work ethic and that same drive that Jerry had and . . . we would attend football games and Super Bowls,” she said. “I think all of this just instilled in him, ‘Yes, I want to be just as great as my uncle and my dad.’ He never left out his dad  . . . because he was a hero in his eyes in a lot of ways, fighting and battling kidney disease, and what he did on the football [field], too.”

Although it was on the hardwood instead of the gridiron, there is no doubt the lessons from his uncle and father paid off for Rice.

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Of the 24 McDonald’s All-Americans in the class of 2000, only two played in a competitive, five-on-five basketball game in 2019: Rice and Cook.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Squire/Getty Images

“It was just funny because at the McDonald’s Game, I was a 6’9, 180-pound small forward. The NBA scouts were like, ‘Oh, your body is not going to hold up and you’re not going to play over a couple years,’” Rice recalled. “And I ended up playing, outside of [Cook], longer than anybody else in my class. So, I take pride in that—that I took care of my body to play so many games and still can play today.

“I played last year. My last game was actually last year and if I wasn’t coaching, I would still be trying to play. I still talked to my agent before I signed the deal here [at MVSU. I was] like, ‘Hey, you got any jobs for me? I’ll go play.’ And he was like, ‘D, you’re 250 pounds. You’re not 225 no more,’” Rice added with a laugh. “But, I took pride in watching my uncle Jerry and how he took care of his body. And that’s what I tried to do, just eat right and take care of my body all through the years and I always stayed strong.”

There were two driving factors in Rice’s consistent decisions to continue his playing career: passion and the fans.

Along with his drive to compete and win, relishing his opportunity to play a game for a living that so many people love, Rice also cherished playing in front of fans across the world.

“I loved the fans to death and that’s another thing you don’t get back in life is the feeling of the fans screaming your name, cheering for you. You’re playing for them. That’s what drove me every year to stay fit, to stay ready to play,” Rice explained. “Sitting home in the summers, not having that thrill in life, drove me to be like, ‘You know what, I’m going to keep playing, I’m going to keep going. I’m not injured, I’ve never been hurt, I’m going to keep playing.’”

Rice’s professional journey featured numerous stops with NBA franchises. The Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Hawks, Heat, Mavericks, Nets and Spurs all provided him opportunities in different capacities.

He took part in preseason games, summer leagues and/or workouts with those seven teams from 2004 to 2012. However, Rice never did make a regular season roster. His game, as Freeman mentioned, was simply ahead of its time.

“Back in that time, when you were 6’9, 6’10, they always wanted you to have a post-up game,” Freeman said. “So, a lot of times people would try to play big people near the paint and that’s just not [only] Darius—that was anybody that was his size. As soon as they saw you, they were like, ‘He’s a post player.’ But Darius never was. He was a [6-foot-10] guard.”

The last cut on multiple occasions, the closest Rice came to earning a roster spot might have been in 2005 with a Miami Heat team that went on to win the NBA title. Despite not making the team, Rice loved his time with that group, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade.

In fact, despite never making an NBA cut, Rice characterizes his professional career as “awesome” and is grateful for all he got to experience.

“Everyone has a different path in life and mine, I enjoyed it, like I said. I’ve been to over 20 countries. I have fans all over the world who never would’ve thought of me 20 years ago and I love that,” Rice shared. “My picture is on the walls in Bahrain. In Dubai, I still hold the record with 70 points in a game. I’m a legend in the Philippines. In Uruguay, I was voted best player ever to come through there. There’s so many places that I’ve been and I’ve left my legacy. So, I don’t have any regrets.”

In addition to his time abroad, Rice also spent time playing stateside, mainly in the G League. In 2007, he led the Dakota Wizards to the then-NBA Development League title, scoring 52 points and hitting 11 3-pointers in a 129-111 overtime victory to defeat the Colorado 14ers for the crown.

Although his career did not include action in a regular season NBA game, it was, without question, one to be proud of.

“Well, I would sum it up, one, as being successful,” Freeman said. “He’s done a lot of things that a lot of people haven’t done.”

“For me, it was better than watching him in the NBA because God sent him places that a lot of people have not gone. I guess he should be in the Guinness Book of Records for being able to go to those many places,” Brenda Rice chuckled. “His career over there, it mimicked the NBA because they loved him. God always placed him where he was the top player and he worked hard—just as hard as though he were playing here—for whatever [team in the] country he played for because Darius wants to be a winner. He never wants to be second at anything; he wanted to win. That was his motivation. God gave him that talent, I told him to use it and he did. To go to that many countries—he had some tough times, it wasn’t easy, but it was a blessing for him.”

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After finishing his playing career—with the exception of a brief stint in Mexico in February 2019—Rice returned to Miami to finish his undergraduate studies.

In the spring of 2004, Rice left Coral Gables to begin preparing for his professional career just three classes shy of getting his degree and promised his mother he would eventually go back to do so.

Over 14 years later, in the fall of 2018, he did just that. Taking classes with professors who remembered him as a player was special for Rice, but the best part was actually completing his classwork, which he did so about two months after his 36th birthday.

“To graduate and to walk across that stage at Miami meant everything,” Rice said. “It’s a prestigious university and to get your business administration degree from there was great. It was awesome.”

As much as it meant to Rice himself, he notes it meant more to his mother, who spent a quarter-century years of her life working in higher learning.

After convincing her son to attend college out of high school to pursue a degree rather than jumping directly to the NBA and then receiving his promise four years later that he would eventually complete his credits, it was a joy to watch him achieve that mission.

“That was a highlight of my life. For God to work it out where he could complete all of these things that he desired, it was amazing,” his mother said. “. . . It may have taken those years, but he fulfilled that promise and I thank the Lord I was there to be able to able to witness that. That was a proud moment, a very proud moment [for me and] for his dad. He was ill at the time and he could not make the trip, but I represented the family—not just myself—and it was amazing.”

Rice with his sister, Valenica, and mother, Brenda

During his semester at The U in 2018, Rice also spent time with the Miami basketball team, serving as a student-assistant coach for his alma mater.

Rice worked closely with junior forward Dewan Hernandez, a second-round NBA Draft choice the following summer, and looked to help the players following in his footsteps for the orange and green.

“My first year [as a college freshman], I enjoyed it,” Rice said. “Mississippi to Miami, I enjoyed it, but I realized I had a bigger goal and that’s what I tried to tell the guys when I was [there coaching. I said], ‘Y’all got a lot of potential, athletic-wise and everything. It’s fun, Miami is all glitter and glamor and party time, but you still have a bigger goal in life.’ So, I had to learn that and I had to show those guys, ‘Look, focus on your goals.’”

His first foray into the college coaching world was an enjoyable experience for Rice, a member of the 2015 ACC Legends class.

In addition to helping the current Hurricanes, Rice savored the interactions he had with Jim Larrañaga’s players.

“Oh, man, I loved it. It felt like being back on the yard at The U again. I wish I could’ve gotten out there and played with those guys,” he said. “. . . Just mingling with those guys again and just laughing with them, it made me feel part of the team.”

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Now, Rice is again part of a team. Although it is not the Hurricanes, it is a Division I college program.

Following one season as an assistant coach at Petal High School, where he helped lead the team to the state semifinals, Rice joined the staff at Mississippi Valley State.

Lindsey Hunter, MVSU’s head coach, played at Jackson State and Alan Perry, an MVSU assistant, worked at Jackson State. Their ties to Rice’s mother helped form a bond that has culminated with Rice earning his first full-time college coaching job.

“Lindsey Hunter and coach Al Perry pretty much put the basketball in my hands back in—I think maybe it was [Hunter’s] first year with the Pistons and coach Perry was at Jackson State,” Rice explained. “My mom was an administrative assistant in the Jackson State president’s office at the time. I was maybe in the sixth, seventh grade and I went to the Lindsey Hunter Basketball Camp and that’s how I met coach Al Perry and coach Hunter. And over the years, I just had a relationship with them.”

After a few years of applying for college coaching jobs, Rice wrote Hunter a letter this offseason. Soon thereafter, a position opened at MVSU up and Hunter offered it to Rice, who was “ecstatic” to have the opportunity.

Now, he has the chance to show he can turn his lengthy playing career into a successful coaching career, something he feels well-positioned to do.

“I know so many players and what it takes to make it to the next level. I think that kind of experience [helps me]. Plus, I played high-level DI, I played high-level pro basketball,” Rice said. “I know the hard work and the dedication. I know the recruiting process. Everything that it entails of being a college coach, I know the whole game and whatever I can do to help Mississippi Valley, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Freeman, Rice’s former coach at The U, spent 24 years working in college basketball. For nine years, Freeman ran programs of his own, serving as the head coach at Marshall for four years and as the chief at Norfolk State for five.

"[His father] passed on October 25th of last year and even at that time, he was talking about how he wanted to see [Darius] in the coaching arena because he felt, in his spirit, that’s what he felt God had for him to do."
-Brenda Rice

The long-time coach, who played a key role in recruiting Rice to Coral Gables two decades ago, thinks the former Miami star has what it takes to become a quality coach at the college level.

“Darius is a personable person. I think one of the things you have to do as a coach is be personable because you got to recruit. You got get out here and be able to relate to the kids and recruit. He has that,” Freeman said. “He has a basketball IQ to be able to understand the game and put in X’s and O’s or teach the game because he has certain skills and he can go ahead and teach those skills. And then the third thing of it is having thick skin and [having] tenacity. Enough people talked about him, [saying things like], ‘He’s not doing this, he’s not doing that. We expected more of this.’ When you’re a coach, you got to have thick skin. So, understanding the game, having thick skin, being personable and being able to network, those are all attributes of a coach and he has those.”

Meanwhile, Rice’s mother feels Rice has found his new calling in life, one that allows him to remain around a game he loves so much.

To Brenda Rice, this new role is a chance for her son to give back to the game that he got so much from.

“It’s just amazing the things that I listened to that he learned from those years of basketball from the University of Miami [and from his time] all overseas. Every place he went he gained knowledge about the game of basketball,” Brenda Rice said. “I can see him wanting to bring all of this knowledge back to young players now and teach them everything he has learned through the years. I think that’s his mission now and he’s embraced it. I feel the sense that he loves it now, that’s his passion now—that he wants to give back.”

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While Rice might now be back in his home state of Mississippi, working at an institution synonymous with his family name, he will forever cherish his time at The U.

A star on the hardwood for the Hurricanes with his name littered throughout the program record books, Rice is thrilled about his new position, but will not forget the roots that helped him grow capable of reaching it.

“It’s just weird how life works sometimes. I never would’ve thought I would be at Mississippi Valley State. I’m still a Miami Hurricane,” Rice said. “I told them today, ‘Our colors are similar, so that’s okay, but y’all better get me some gear unless you want me to walk around in green and orange.’”