Mavericks’ Dereck Lively II lost his last living parent, but found a family with his team

Dereck Lively II’s booming voice didn’t reverberate quite like it normally does. His attentiveness, though, was the same as ever.

“There’s really been a lot going on in my life,” the Dallas Mavericks rookie center began. “There’s been a lot of chaos.”

He was expected in the weight room following last week’s team practice between the first two games of the Mavericks’ first-round series against the LA Clippers. He’s a 20-year-old lottery pick on a team with title aspirations, which would be plenty of pressure for anyone. But first, he reflected on how he developed a poise that has amazed his teammates as he deals with unimaginably difficult circumstances.

“My mom was on her deathbed and she shrugged her shoulders acting like nothing was happening,” Lively told a small group of reporters in Los Angeles last week. “She said, ‘I’m fine.’

“To see that attitude, to see that grit in her, made me realize, ‘All right, I have to continue it,’” he said. “She passed the torch onto me, and I have to make sure I continue to carry it now.”

On April 12, several hours before the Mavericks’ final home game of the regular season, Lively revealed that his mother, Kathy Drysdale, had died. She was 53, a decade into a battle with cancer. One she vowed to fight — and did — from the first diagnosis. For most of his life, it had been just them. A friendship, a partnership also born out of tragedy, that he must carry on.

“I truly can’t imagine my life without her,” Lively wrote as part of the social media announcement. “But I know I have an angel in the stands always and forever cheering (me on) and yelling at me if I’m bull—-ing.”

That means he’s handling this moment with an unusual maturity bestowed upon him by Kathy. And in the process, he’s found another family within his teammates.

“Many can’t handle it with the poise and the strength that he does and he has,” Mavericks reserve center Dwight Powell said. “That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of pain that’s being dealt with on a moment-to-moment basis. There’s going to be a lot of pain for the rest of his life. But he is far more mature than his age, and he’s far more mature than his height.”

Eleven months ago, Lively sat next to Kathy on a blue velvet couch at the Barclays Center after the Mavericks officially drafted him 12th out of Duke: his first interview as an NBA player, her first as a mother of one. They both beamed in complementary tuxedos, velvet like the couch.

“I’m so emotional,” Kathy told ESPN’s Monica McNutt. “I don’t even know what to do right now.”

Kathy described how proud she was of her son and of everything he had overcome. His father, Dereck Lively Sr., had been a heroin and cocaine addict. He was a loving father, outgoing and boisterous, but his addiction made him an increasingly unreliable figure in his son’s life. When Lively was 7, he woke up one January morning to his life being forever changed: the elder Dereck had overdosed in the night and was pronounced dead by the time paramedics arrived.

“You never get over it,” Lively said in a pre-draft interview. But he hasn’t forgotten his father, either, the 6-foot-7 man who was lovingly called “Big Dereck,” who made his son laugh and smile, who bought him more candy when his son was disappointed with his small Halloween haul.

“(He) did whatever he could to stay in my life for as long as possible,” Lively told the Washington Post in 2023.

After Big Dereck’s death, Kathy took on both parenting roles. She watched her son grow to be 7-foot-1, turn into the country’s No. 2 recruit, play for Duke and then Dallas.

Even in the days immediately following his selection, Lively was already displaying how his perspective perhaps differs from your typical lottery pick. He talked about his excitement to play with Dallas superstars Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Not about how they’ll help him score, but about how he’ll help them.

“It’s definitely going to be scary when I set a really good pick,” he said during his first news conference in Dallas.

In high school, even though he was always the tallest player and always played center, Lively shot 3s and flashed backcourt crossovers. But that was then.

“Of course, we all have visions of ourselves in high school wanting to be a point guard coming off the screen,” he said several months ago during a quiet moment at his locker before a game. “But, you know, that’s dreamin’.”

Over the summer, the Mavericks’ coaches couldn’t believe how quickly Lively took instructions and implemented them minutes later. He started working with Sean Sweeney, the team’s lead assistant, and that relationship has stuck all season. They met twice a day and texted more. (“Probably more,” said Lively, asked in March if he still met with Sweeney that often.) It’s unique, Sweeney said earlier this week, for a rookie to be so sure of their identity on the court.

But that is how Lively had been coached since he was a child. Not by his actual coaches, but his mother, a 6-foot-4 center for Penn State who had tallied 1,300 points and 700 rebounds before she graduated in 1992.

“My mom’s always taught me, it’s not about how many points you put up on the board,” Lively said in March. “Try to fill up every stat sheet, try to get a steal, try to get two blocks, try to get eight rebounds, try to get four assists. And then try to get 10 points.”



A mother’s fight, a son’s love: How Dereck Lively became the player and young man every school wanted — and Duke got

Team decision-makers were already impressed with Lively’s maturity in pre-draft workouts. They selected him believing he would be the franchise’s center of the future. Probably not yet, though, coaches said when the microphones were turned off during July’s Summer League in Las Vegas. Many expected Lively would first begin in the G League. He was a teenager, after all. They would do right by him, even if it meant easing him in.

But in the fall, Lively started the team’s first preseason game, the second, the third. He came off the bench in his Oct. 25 NBA debut but outplayed generational rookie Victor Wembanyama in 31 minutes. Dallas needed a center like him, but he earned it.

“I didn’t expect this impact of him,” Dončić said in late December. “He’s been playing like he’s in the league for 10 years already. I’m really proud of this guy.”

Kathy was there for Lively’s debut and most home games that followed. They lived together in an apartment less than a mile from the arena. Unusual, perhaps, but there were perks: home-cooked meals, laundry, conversations at any hour with his best friend.

“Just being able to know that I got my mom there,” Lively said on Feb. 12. “She’s making sure I keep my head on straight. So I’m just grateful for her.”

Lively’s still young. He reminds his teammates with Gen-Z jargon and teenaged energy. That’s sometimes not enough.

“I myself always forget how young he actually is,” teammate Maxi Kleber said last week. “Because he’s so self-confident and puts in the work, has a strong voice.”

This is what Lively wanted. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy.

“(I’m) just trying to balance being a pro and being a teenager,” Lively said just before his 20th birthday in February. “I’m 19, no one’s going to look at me as being 19. At the same time, everyone’s going to try to be the first person to point at me if I do something wrong. I’ve got to be able to carry myself right, I’ve got to be able to talk right, to move right.”

A few weeks after playing in the Feb. 16 NBA Rising Stars Challenge, Lively missed one game for personal reasons. Later in March, he injured his knee. Kathy’s condition worsened around this time, and Lively’s rehab turned into caretaking. He missed the rest of the regular season, spending more moments with her, as many as he could. She died on a Friday afternoon.

That morning, Lively showed up to shootaround and spoke to his teammates. By this point, they had become more than that. “I ain’t around my teammates,” Lively said last week. “I’m around my family, man.” He shared what he had been going through, wanting them to hear it from him, and explained the changes they may have seen in him.

“I just wanted to make sure that my teammates knew what was going on,” he told reporters in Los Angeles, recalling that morning. “There have (been) times where I’m not as joyous, I’m not as loud, not as (much) laughter, not dancing, not doing all those things.”

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Dereck Lively II is playing with a heavy heart after his mother died of cancer just before the Mavericks’ playoff run. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

Lively’s new family has shown that they chose him, too. It’s not usually about Kathy, not directly, but about smaller gestures. Like helping Lively identify the right dog hotel to use for his two pit bull mixes when he’s on the road with no one to watch them anymore.

“It’s being there: picking up the phone, putting hands on him, loving on him,” Powell said. “It doesn’t have to be spoken about 24/7, but he of all people is committed to this team, committed to the job he has to do. We’re going to support him in every way possible.”

Lively played in his first playoff game on April 21, his first since his mother’s death. He could have taken more time, but he wanted to be back on the basketball court. For his brothers, but also for himself.

“This is the only place where I can come and smile,” he said. “We’re playing a game that I’ve loved since I was a kid. Whenever I dribble the basketball, I can trust that it comes back up. Just like when I talk to my teammates, I can trust that I’m going to get the same energy coming back.”

Kathy’s on the court with him, right there on his left forearm. That’s where he had her name, birthdate and date of death inked onto him in the days following her death. The new tattoo is positioned beneath an identical, older one for his father. Between them, added at the same time as Kathy’s, are the words: I Love You, Love Bug.

In 2022, not even two years ago, Lively had a tattoo inked onto his thigh. It was the date that Kathy first received her cancer-free diagnosis. It’s meant to remind him that “she’s been through more pain than I could ever be in,” he explained before the season.

Lively, Powell said, is even more mature than he knows right now. Perhaps that’s one thing he still has to learn — and will. That understanding will come alongside the grief that will always linger.

“His mom did an incredible job raising him to this point,” Powell said. “Her legacy will live on in him.”

Years ago, Lively had another tattoo put onto his other forearm: Time Heals All Wounds.

“Man … it’s hard, man,” Lively said last week. “It’s hard just trying to — not move on but — not act like nothing happened. You’ve got to be able to keep it moving. That’s what my mom would want me to do. That’s what she was doing the whole time.”

(Top photos: Tyler Ross / NBAE via Getty Images and Ron Jenkins / Getty Images; Illustration by Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic)

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