Culture / Sporting Life

Life, Death and Buckets in The Big Easy — How Houston’s DeJon Jarreau and Brison Gresham Became Brothers in Every Way That Matters

A Special New Orleans Bond Helps Make UH the NCAA Tournament's Best Story

BY // 03.24.19

TULSA, Okla. — When DeJon Jarreau and Brison Gresham first met, it was hardly a mutual admiration society. In fact, it was more like a Bachelor reunion special — hard feelings all around.

“It kind of started off like a bad relationship really,” Jarreau tells PaperCity. “Because I used to get on his nerves a lot. He really didn’t like me that much.”

Now, these two New Orleans kids are like brothers in Jarreau’s estimation, living the NCAA Tournament dream together for the University of Houston, having followed each other to not one but two colleges as something of a package deal.

When this 32-3 Houston team is at its most devastating, it’s free flowing in transition turning defensive stops into fast breaks. Jarreau is often the one pushing the ball, throwing lobs at the rim. Gresham is his most frequent — and effective — target, rising to meet Jarreau’s array of flings and flicks at the perfect moment to slam them down.

In the first round rout of Georgia State that sets up a Sunday night fight with Ohio State for a Sweet 16 berth, Jarreau collects seven assists in only 18 minutes of action. Gresham scores nine points on perfect 4-for-4 shooting, with three of those baskets coming on alley-oop finishes off Jarreau passes.

“He’s got a gift,” Houston assistant coach Kellen Sampson says of Jarreau, who is arguably the most intriguing NBA prospect on UH’s roster. “Some guys when they get downhill, everything slows down for them.

“He’s so much of a better passer when it comes natural in the flow rather than when it’s scripted. He just has such spontaneity and he and Brison have a synergy, such a connection. They know how to find each other.”

Call it New Orleans ESP.

For The Big Easy flows through everything Jarreau and Gresham do. It’s the city where they first met (and clashed) as ninth graders trying out for the high school basketball team. It’s a city that can give so much — and take away so much in a devastating instant.

“New Orleans is really a small place,” Jarreau says. “Everybody kind of knows everybody.”

The Real New Orleans — Violence and Hope

The real New Orleans is a much different place than the Mardi Gras/French Quarter world that most visitors see. It is a place that forges close bonds in part because of all the craziness bubbling off the tourist track.

“Honestly, it’s just kind of life The Third World,” Gresham says. “You’ve just got to be there to see what goes on. We’ve got our own lingo. Different things.”

In the New Orleans that DeJon Jarreau and Brison Gresham know, you need an ally, a brother by everything but blood who always has your back. Jarreau and Gresham didn’t realize it in their first encounter (or their 10th), but they each found one on the day they met in that hot high school gym.

Even if things began more rockily than the voyage of a stranded cruise ship.

“My first year of high school, we had tryouts and we hated each other,” Gresham tells PaperCity. “Every pass he threw to me, I missed.”

Jarreau was not shy about letting the big kid know what he felt about these flubs either.

“Like I’d miss the pass and he’d go all at me,” Gresham remembers. “He’d fuss at me. Stuff like that. ‘Why didn’t you catch the ball?’

Gresham shoots a look at Jarreau across the rather nondescript locker room Houston is using at Tulsa’s BOK Center. Hey, just because you’ve forgiven doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten.

Now, these two — Jarreau, the 6-foot-5, rail-thin lightning rod of a guard, and Gresham, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound big man with the easy demeanor — are the best kind of NCAA Tournament stories. In a college sports universe that often takes advantage of its players, Jarreau and Gresham made the system work for them.

Together.

When UMass fired the head coach who recruited them to the East Coast university (Derek Kellogg) after Jarreau and Gresham’s freshman season, the duo looked for a school that would take them both. They were a package deal. Again.

After all, you don’t leave your brother behind.

Especially if you come from the New Orleans that Jarreau and Gresham do.

“New Orleans is very dangerous,” Jarreau says. “Really like the slums. To make it out is really a blessing. Just to be safe. I’m just happy we made it out and are kind of making a way for ourselves with our family.

“… It’s very easy to get in trouble. I’m just happy we made it.”

Many of Jarreau and Gresham’s teammates at McDonogh 35 Senior High School have not been so fortunate.

“A lot of our high school teammates didn’t continue going far because they got sucked into that other route,” Jarreau says.

This 21-year-old who’s seen so much says this matter of factly. He talks about telling himself he needed to stick with basketball so he wouldn’t become “one of the others.” The kids who settle into the street corners.

Even when you make it out, the violence can still touch you — and threaten to shatter your entire world. Jarreau’s cousin  is the rapper Young Greatness. His real name is Theodore Jones — and he was gunned down in a Waffle House parking lot in New Orleans two days before Halloween.

He was just 34 years old, shot in the back, and left to die on the pavement. Jarreau looked up to his cousin, they were close. Then, he was just gone — taken after he’d seemingly made it out as a success.

Jarreau leaned on his family (his mom Renett Hall and his dad John Jarreau), UH assistant coach Quannas White — who recruited Jarreau and Gresham when he was an assistant at Tulane and never gave up on bringing them somewhere with him — and Gresham. That’s what brothers do.

They share the joy and the unbearable pain. And the doubts.

One Shining Moment

Five months later, DeJon Jarreau and Brison Gresham are playing together in the NCAA Tournament, making an impact for what Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann calls “one of the very best teams in the country.” Jarreau slices into the lane, all long arms and legs, and throws passes to the sky, knowing that Gresham will know to go up to meet them.

“I love looking for my teammates and throwing alley oops and stuff like that,” Jarreau tells PaperCity. “It kind of brings a joy to me. I love seeing smiles on my teammates’ faces.”

University of Houston Cougars DeJon Jarreau
DeJon Jarreau is just finding out what he can do — and that gives the University of Houston even more room to grow. (F. Carter Smith.)

Houston is one of the most unselfish teams in America — a squad with a starting senior guard (Galen Robinson Jr.) who is thrilled with an NCAA Tournament opener where he takes only one shot because it means everyone else has gotten involved. In this kind of group, Jarreau and Gresham’s bond fits right in.

They’re the New Orleans’ heartbeat of the best bench in college basketball. And they have plenty of shared history to draw upon. Like the time when they started the second half of a junior varisty game together and Jarreau passed the ball to Gresham — and watched him dunk it on the wrong basket.

Or the time in AAU ball when Gresham hit a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“Had a game winner, trey ball to the domeski,” Gresham says, grinning. “Everybody’s excited. Everybody didn’t think I had it in me. Little trey ball.”

“He just chucked it up and it went in,” Jarreau laughs.

In a few minutes, Gresham and Jarreau will leave the locker room and head for the team bus. A team dinner and some meetings await. They’re part of the greatest University of Houston basketball team since the days of Phi Slama Jama — and if the Cougars beat Ohio State this Sunday they’ll be an important part of the team that broke Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Young’s school record for wins in a season.

If the NCAA Tournament is really all about the stories, there are few better than the tale of these two guys from New Orleans playing for Houston who know they’re brothers in every way that truly matters.

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