Denim DeShields committed to UAB earlier this year after a winding process. (Courtesy of UAB Athletics)

To understand Denim DeShields, you have to start with paper donuts.

DeShields used to cut out paper versions of the circular treat, decorate them, and then walk around the neighborhood, selling her creations for 25 cents. No one needs a paper donut, but there was something about Denim beyond the cuteness factor.

“She’s always had a great entrepreneurial spirit,” said her sister, WNBA player Diamond DeShields. “And an eagerness to financially get ahead.”

Her neighbors sensed it and would happily part with their quarters for one of her signature, albeit useless, paper donuts.

There was also a fearlessness to Denim. She was vibrant and had a never-ending zeal for life.

“When she was little, she was a firecracker full of energy,” Diamond said. “I remember her always running around my games, being the cute, younger sibling.”

Diamond remembers when Willow Smith released her song, “Whip My Hair.” Denim would run around singing the lyrics and, of course, whipping her hair all over the house.

But between her spurts of youthful energy and dreams of playing basketball like her sister, there was always a little businesswoman in her. Denim was a kid, but she was also an old soul. She still is. That firecracker has a calm side, one that remained stoic in unlikely circumstances, and one that forged its own unconventional path.

When life gives her paper, Denim makes donuts.

***

About this time last year, Denim was committed to play college basketball at Indiana State.

The Georgia native picked her school simply because she knew it. COVID-19 made it so Denim couldn’t visit any other programs, and she’d at least been on campus at Indiana State.

“I didn’t want to go to that school,” she said. “I didn’t get to go through my recruiting process the way I wanted to, physically, because of COVID. I made an impulse decision to commit there because it was the only school I’d been able to visit. From a comfortability standpoint, that was just what I decided.”

A school she knew, even if it wasn’t exactly what she wanted, was better than one she didn’t. At least, that’s what she thought.

A few months before Denim was set to report to Indiana State, Diamond, then a guard for the Chicago Sky, had some unprecedented free time. She started thinking about Denim, and how different her younger sister’s senior year had been. Diamond remembers thinking how devastated she would have felt missing out on things during her high school days — Like her last AAU season — because of COVID-19. So, she picked up the phone and dialed Denim.

The question was simple: “How are you doing?”

The answer took a lot longer to unpack.

Diamond knew she had to do something. Denim had been independent for so long, that she didn’t really know she could rely on anyone, even the people who love her.

Denim’s parents have been divorced since she was born, but she remains close with both of them. Her father, Delino DeShields, was a professional baseball player and currently serves as a coach for the Cincinnati Reds. She grew up living with her mom.

“I definitely had a different childhood compared to other people,” she said. “There are times where whole families sit at the table and eat dinner every night. For us, it was a lot different.”

Between her dad, her sister and one of her brothers, Delino Jr. (he currently plays pro baseball for the Reds), most of Denim’s days and nights were spent at sporting events.

“It was very exciting,” she said. “It was never boring.”

Then, when she was 14, Denim moved 45 minutes away to live with her high school coach. It was out of necessity, to make the commute easier and give her the opportunity to attend the school she wanted. Her mom still came to all of her games, but Denim essentially took charge of her own life.

So, when the recruiting process came around, even with all the unknowns of the pandemic, Denim relied on herself.

When she was unhappy, Denim didn’t tell anyone. When it came to school and basketball, she’d always been able to handle her business. Why ask for help now?

If it weren’t for an older sister’s intuition, Denim might not have opened up. And she might have played her freshman season at Indiana State. But as soon as Diamond heard Denim’s voice on the other end of the phone, she knew one thing.

“Just hearing her on the phone that day, with tears in her eyes, it just broke my heart,” Diamond said. “I knew I had to do something.”

Her little sister would not be going to college in 2021-22. There had to be another option.

And there was: prep school. It’s a path that plenty of men’s college basketball players have taken. They finish their four years of high school, and then take a fifth at another private school in order to improve their skills or grades, or sometimes to get bigger and stronger and enhance their recruiting prospects.

For Denim to go would be different. Yet it also made complete sense. Her life has been unconventional from the start, and this would be another step on the path she’s long been forging.

“I don’t know a high school girl who’s done it,” Diamond said of the fifth year. “I’m sure it’s been done, but it is so uncommon. In pursuing this option, I had to think outside the box. It’s not a blueprint that is common as an alternate option for women’s basketball players.”

Once she realized it could be done, Denim was all in.

With so many elite athletes in the family, comparisons are bound to happen. But since she moved out, Denim had just been Denim. For the first time in a long time, she was ready to let someone else take control of her life.

***

Denim spent the summer before her second senior year living with Diamond in Chicago, where the older DeShields sister was playing for the Sky, on their way to winning a WNBA championship. And when school started up, Denim still headed to the city for weekends when she had the chance.

Denim, Diamond says, is her best friend, but they weren’t always so close.

There are eight years between the two, and when Denim was in elementary school, that felt like a lot.

“We had such a huge age gap that we couldn’t really bond with each other,” she said. “It was kind of like, ‘Yeah, that’s my sister,’ and she would play around with me, but it took until we got a little bit older to really be able to get close to her the way I wanted to.”

Then, COVID-19 happened.

The pandemic ruined a lot of things for Denim, but it strengthened her relationship with her older sister. After years of being away playing basketball — first in college at North Carolina and Tennessee, then in Turkey, and then in the WNBA — Diamond moved home to Atlanta during the pandemic.

When Diamond left for college, they were sisters who loved each other, but after the pandemic, they also understood one another.

“We had many, many conversations, because during lockdown, all you could really do was talk,” Denim said with a laugh. “We caught up on lost time … So now, we are really close. If there is a person I go to about anything, it is always going to be her.”

Denim also used the pandemic to learn a new hobby — braiding hair, which, in typical Denim fashion, she took to the next level. Braiding her own hair, or her sister’s, wasn’t enough. So once she mastered the skills, Denim turned it into a business.

Now, she has clients in Atlanta and Chicago, and over the summer she set up shop in a Chicago hair salon called Vanity Palace. Her coworkers were all in their 40s, but Denim bonded with them, too. They check up on her via text message, and every time she’s in Chicago, Denim goes by the salon to catch up.

“She’s the only person I’ll let braid my hair,” Diamond said.

***

After her conversation with Denim, Diamond started cold-calling admissions offices and talking to people she knew in the basketball world. She spent her free time looking up different schools and doing as much research as she could. Finally, she whittled down the selections. Wherever Denim went, it had to be a good fit, but most importantly, she had to be able to play basketball, take classes and remain eligible for the next level.

La Lumiere ended up being exactly what they were looking for. The prep school of 215 students boasts several notable basketball alumni like Tyger Campbell, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jordan Poole and, most recently, Jaden Ivey. The Purdue star, who declared for the NBA Draft in March, spoke highly of his coach at La Lumiere, Matt Marvin. The basketball world is small. Small enough that word about Ivey’s experiences traveled back to Diamond.

Marvin is now the girls coach for the Lakers, and with the testimony of players like Ivey, the DeShields girls felt comfortable with him.

For Denim and Marvin, the move was mutually beneficial.

“We are getting things rolling with the girls program,” Marvin said. “This was a good opportunity to jumpstart the program.”

So Denim headed to La Lumiere. The difference between her hometown of Atlanta, and the small town of La Porte, Ind. — population 21,577 — was instantly noticeable. But Denim didn’t mind.

“It’s definitely been different,” she said. “But nothing short of memorable. I’ll always remember this place, the people and the relationships I’ve formed here. I’ve never been in this type of environment. Not just because of the location, but because of the community.”

Denim described La Lumiere, with its small student body and tight-knit supporters, as “intimate.” There’s no getting lost in the shuffle.

And most importantly, Denim got to hit repeat on her senior year.

Diamond loved seeing her little sister’s name pop up in the family group chat, recapping her experiences. One in particular sticks out: It was a picture of Denim sledding down a hill, enjoying the snow with her new teammates.

“You can see a genuine smile on her face,” Diamond said.

La Lumiere was a new beginning for Denim, but there was still plenty to do. Now, the recruiting process had to start all over again. And like anything Denim does, she approached this task with her own, unique spin.

***

Denim felt relief when she decommitted from Indiana State. Now, after choosing La Lumiere and spending the summer in Chicago, finding the right school was the whole point of all of this.

Yet when she arrived on campus, Marvin was surprised to find that Denim didn’t seem concerned about what was going to happen next. She was calm and focused on playing for the Lakers — that’s it.

Denim, Marvin says, is the consummate point guard.

“When emotions are running high, she is always in control,” he said.

Marvin remembers one of Denim’s performances, in particular. The Lakers played No. 16 South Bend Washington on Jan. 29, and Denim got in foul trouble early on.

“We kind of took a gamble leaving her in the game and letting her play with fouls,” Marvin said. “Even in a game that was so high pressure and she had foul trouble, she was totally in control of herself.”

Denim finished with 12 points, six rebounds and six assists as La Lumiere pulled out a one-point win.

The point guard is so even-tempered that sometimes Marvin wishes she would show a bit more emotion — especially when it came to her recruitment.

Until February, Denim didn’t have an official offer. Marvin was incredulous. His point guard had all the skills to be a college basketball player, and an elite one at that.

Denim is undersized at 5-foot-5, which may have impacted her recruitment, but her small stature has never been an issue for her on the court. A pass-first point guard, Denim uses her ball-handling and playmaking skills to create for others. She’s quick to the rim, fast in the open court and capable of finishing in traffic.

And, Marvin says, you can always trust her with the ball, which is why he knows she will make an impact at the next level.

“There are going to be a lot of colleges across the country that regret not trying to recruit her,” he said.

Yet as the days passed and Marvin eyed the calendar, Denim didn’t. There were no panicked conversations, no stress-fueled moments, not even a glimmer of doubt.

“She has not panicked about it at all,” Marvin said. “And there were even times where I would be like, ‘Denim, what do we do?’ And she would tell me, ‘It’s OK. I’m going to keep working hard and the right fit is gonna come.’ That’s just how she’s wired.”

Since that phone call with Diamond early last year, Denim has learned to allow others to help her. This time, Diamond was heavily involved in the recruiting process, and eventually, without any rush, Denim committed to UAB.

She knew she was meant to go to UAB from her first conversation with coach Randy Norton and his staff. This time, when she made the commitment, Denim didn’t have any second thoughts.

“It just felt right,” she said of becoming a Blazer. “My journey has been nothing but a rollercoaster, but I just put in the work and God did the rest.”

DeShields connected with UAB head coach Randy Norton and his staff from the start. (Courtesy of UAB Athletics)

It took a year longer than planned, but Denim found her school.

“If there is anything this process has taught me, it’s just that things will work out in the end,” she said. “You can’t force anything to happen that’s not meant to be. There is no reason to stress about things.”

Denim plans to study business at UAB — no surprise there — and Diamond can’t wait to see what she does next.

“She really can do anything she sets her mind to,” she said.

Anything, like learning to braid hair and accruing clients in two different cities.

Like accepting help after years of doing things alone.

Like forging a path that high school girls basketball players have yet to try.

It’s too soon to know if other girls will follow suit. Denim made an impact at La Lumiere, but the landscape of girls prep basketball is rooted in its own traditions.

Denim, however, isn’t concerned with changing expectations as a whole. She just did things her own way.

And that isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Eden Laase is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously ran her own high school sports website in Michigan after covering college hockey and interning at Sports Illustrated. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.