Dez Wells scores against Duke in the second half. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
COLLEGE PARK — — It's hard to fathom what it must have been like for Dez Wells to emerge from beneath the weight of public suspicion and step into a sold-out basketball arena again and hear cheers and balls bouncing and bands playing.
Those who know the Maryland player's story — the infamous brawl during his freshman year at Xavier, the sexual assault allegation rejected by a prosecutor — understand why Wells seemed overcome as the sophomore transfer was introduced for the Terps' season-opening game against Kentucky, leaning in and hugging his coach, Mark Turgeon.
It was a powerful moment for Wells under the bright lights of the just-opened Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 9 — as if he was being welcomed back after having been exiled to some cold, distant place.
Watching on television, Wells' mother, Pam — a religious woman who wears a tattoo on one of her legs that reads "Dez" and "Family 1st" surrounding a bleeding heart — couldn't help but be grateful for her son's opportunity to start over at a new school.
She thought it unfair that people would make judgments about her son based on a "truth or dare" game that ended badly. The game led to the sexual assault allegation against Wells, and Xavier announced in August that it was expelling him following a committee review.
A prosecutor who reviewed the allegation said no criminal charges were warranted.
"I'm not known as soft on crime by any stretch of the imagination," Hamilton County (Ohio) Prosecuting Attorney Joseph T. Deters said in an interview before this season began. "I am also very sensitive of people being accused of things where it doesn't even reach anything close to a standard of proof that we would even think of accepting."
Nine months earlier, Wells was in the middle of an on-court brawl with Cincinnati that led to Wells and seven other Xavier and Cincinnati players being suspended. Deters reviewed the brawl and said the matter was best left to the schools rather than the criminal justice system.
Fans at Northwestern and Duke chanted "No means no" this season when Wells stepped to the foul line during Maryland road games — a reference to the rape allegation.
Nevertheless, Pam Wells — who was in the stands at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium and heard the taunts — considers this Maryland season as literally the answer to her prayers. Wells is Maryland's top scorer (12.2 points per game) and will lead the Terps (20-11, 8-10 Atlantic Coast Conference) in its opening ACC tournament game against Wake Forest (13-17, 6-12 ACC) on Thursday night in Greensboro, N.C.
Despite Maryland's mediocre record, those who know Wells say it's hard to overstate how gratified he is to be playing college basketball. Maryland won an NCAA appeal exempting Wells, 20, from transfer rules that would have required him to sit out the season.
"You're talking about an emotional rollercoaster," said longtime family friend LeVelle Moton, the men's basketball coach at North Carolina Central, near where Wells was raised in Raleigh, N.C. "In a matter of months he went from, 'I don't know if I'm going to prison,' to 'I don't know if I'm going to be in school,' to 'I don't know if I can play this season,' to 'I'm playing against Kentucky, the [former] No. 1 team in the country .'"
A hard-working mom
The public can't see it, but Wells has a tattoo on his chest with his mother's name on it. It's similar to the one on her leg bearing the names "Dez" and "Jaz," which refers to Jasmine Wilson, her daughter.
Wells leaned heavily on his family — and on prayer — during the uncertain period when he was a player without a school. "I just had to just trust in God. That's the main thing I could do," said Wells, who was interviewed at various times during the season.
He is close with his mother and with Jasmine — a senior at Winston-Salem State — as well as a circle of family friends who help fill a void left by the prolonged absence of Wells' father.
The father "was in and out. He wasn't able to be around," said Moton, declining to go into specifics.
"I don't have any bad things to say about him other than he wasn't a constant part of Dez's life," Pam Wells said.
Pam Wells raised the kids herself. She drove a school bus in Wake County, N.C., ran a convenience store for a time, and now works at a seafood and soul food restaurant in Raleigh
A 6-foot-1 former basketball star at Saint Augustine's University, she found time to play ball with Dez when he was young. She didn't baby him.
"We had a basketball goal in front of the house. It was one of those that stands alone," she said. "I could smack him around. I messed around with him. I blocked his shot all the time. I made it tough."
Always a gifted athlete, Dez Wells had to learn control. He could play angry or become ill-tempered on the court.