Dennis Gates wasn’t like the other coaches interested in D’Moi Hodge.
Gates had come to visit Hodge in the summer of 2019. Gates was still an assistant coach at Florida State at the time. Hodge was a rising junior college prospect, becoming his team’s leading scorer averaging 19.3 points per game as a freshman at State College of Florida, and was beginning to generate interest from NCAA Division I coaches. Gates had already offered Hodge over the phone. He’d come to meet the 6-foot-4 guard in person.
Most coaches wanted to watch Hodge in a workout when they came to see him. Gates didn’t — he showed up at Hodge’s picture day instead. Most coaches wanted to talk to Hodge about basketball. Gates didn’t — for nearly two hours Gates asked Hodge questions about everything else.
“I want you to trust me with your life,” Hodge remembers Gates telling him.
It wasn’t a small thing to ask of Hodge. Two years before meeting Gates, Hodge was completely cut off from the sport, marooned in the British Virgin Islands due to the effects of Hurricane Irma. He didn’t have any other options when he committed to State College of Florida. This time, he did.
Gates had to earn that trust from Hodge. He would, eventually. Now two-and-a-half years removed from their first meeting, Hodge is leading Gates’ undefeated Missouri Tigers in points and steals.
But as much as he trusts Gates, Hodge trusts himself more. After years of living away from his family to pursue his basketball career, he knows there aren’t odds he can’t overcome.
Hodge grew up in Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands and the nation’s capital. He had a basketball hoop in his backyard and would often play against his friends. At first, that’s all the game was for him — a game. He never thought he’d play basketball in college. He didn’t want to play basketball in college.
But Hodge and his family soon realized he was a lot better than his friends. His grandmother entered him into his first organized basketball league. He dominated the competition.
“Growing up, I was always ahead of my peers,” Hodge said. “So it just got to the point where I was like, ‘I want to try (playing in the United States) I’m too good for down here.’”
He first moved to the U.S. in 2014 when he was 15 years old, living and training with his second cousin, J.R., in Orlando, Fla. He returned home the following year, then came back to the States in 2016, attending Faith Baptist Christian Academy in Ludowici, Ga., for his senior season. According to MaxPreps, the Crusaders went 21-13 under head coach Matt Sellars, with Hodge scoring a team-high 22.5 points per game. But by the end of the year, Hodge only had a handful of junior college offers, so he went back to be with his family over the summer while considering his options.
Hurricane Irma struck the British Virgin Islands on Sept. 6, 2017, the eye of the storm passing over Tortola with sustained wind speeds of 185 miles per hour. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated the Category 5 hurricane caused $3.6 billion worth of damage on the islands. Four deaths were reported.
By the time Hodge was able to fly to the U.S. again, classes had already started and seasons had already begun. Sellars stayed in contact, though, making sure Hodge was safe as Irma crossed over the Caribbean Sea. Sellars had taken a new job at Arlington Country Day (ACD), a prep school in Jacksonville, Fla., and encouraged Hodge to come play for him. The guard obliged.
But on Jan. 26, 2018, less than a month after Hodge arrived, ACD closed its doors and shut down permanently. Hodge joined the first school that would take him and enrolled at New Mexico Junior College (NMJC). Because he transferred in mid-semester, Hodge was ineligible to play and received a redshirt. NMJC fired its head coach, Brian Lohrey, at the end of the season in March and chose not to bring back any of the players on its roster, including Hodge.
Through no fault of his own, Hodge’s year was squandered. He was back where he started when he graduated from high school: without a team, waiting on junior college coaches to reach out.
Tom Parks was the only one who did. Parks had served as an associate head coach at Sheridan College in Sheridan, Wyo., from 2014-17 and as an assistant coach at East Florida State College in Cocoa, Fla., during the 2017-18 season. In June 2018, he was hired as the head coach of State College of Florida (SCF), a program that’d posted losing records in six consecutive years. He planned to retain players already on the roster and uphold any letters of intent signed by the previous staff, but still had a few holes to fill.
“I had coached a couple of kids from (ACD) that were really talented,” Parks said. “And their coach, Matt Sellars, said, ‘Hey, if you need any players, D’Moi Hodge is the best player I’ve ever coached.’ And so, I had coached some kids that were really good and I was like, ‘Dang, alright, there’s some validity there.’”
Parks reached out to Hodge, who was staying with J.R. in Orlando again, asking if he was interested in taking an official visit. Hodge said he was, but would need a ride. Parks offered to make the two-hour trip from Bradenton, Fla. to Orlando to drive Hodge.
The visit was just OK. Parks had a hard time conversing with Hodge at first, struggling to understand him through his Caribbean accent. Most of the team was on break, so Parks had Hodge work out with one of the Manatees’ players who just happened to be on campus taking summer classes. Hodge didn’t shoot it that well. Some of the coaches Parks spoke to thought, in the best-case scenario, Hodge would end up being an NCAA Division II player.
But Hodge was a good student and Sellars had vouched for him. There wouldn’t be any harm in adding him to the team. And the longer Parks was around Hodge, the more he grew to like him.
Hodge became Parks’ first signee.
“I ain’t had nowhere to go,” Hodge said. “So it was just like, I had to trust him and what he was building.”
“He just is always smiling. You know, he has a nice smile,” Parks said. “It was a struggling program, so for a kid at that caliber to be so excited and grateful for an opportunity, for a visit, I just knew that he was special off the floor. And I just knew, the relationship I had with his coach in high school, I was like, ‘I gotta take a chance on this kid.’
“I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t realize he was going to be that good.”
Parks made that realization later in the summer when SCF had its first team practice and began playing five-on-five. Hodge was easily the fastest player on the floor. His shots were falling in. He was stealing the ball and blocking shots — not a common occurrence for players at his position.
Hodge established himself as the Manatees’ best player and, more importantly, began helping them win. SCF went 18-15 overall in the 2018-19 season and earned a berth in the NJCAA Region VIII tournament for the first time in program history. Hodge notched 19.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 2.1 blocks per game, all team highs.
“You know, as coaches, we want our guys to learn to play at different speeds and different tempos and D’Moi really doesn’t,” Parks said. “He really plays at one speed. But the thing about D’Moi is his speed is ultra-fast, so he can afford to play at one speed because guys can’t catch him on both sides of the floor.”
In one game during his freshman year on Dec. 8, 2018, Hodge was on the free throw line with 10 seconds remaining and his team trailing by 11. Someone from the scorer’s table informed Parks he needed just two more points. The coach thought they meant two more for 30. Hodge sank both of his free throws. The scorer’s table told Parks he’d just eclipsed 50 points.
In another game on Feb. 9, 2019, SCF matched up with Florida Southwestern State College, the No. 1 JUCO in the country at the time that featured Keon Ellis, a future member of the Sacramento Kings. Hodge scored 34 points in an 86-70 loss for the Manatees. Gates approached him after the game to compliment his play. It was the first time a D1 coach had taken an interest in Hodge.
Gates and Parks were familiar with each other already. Gates had recruited one of Sheridan College’s players, P.J. Savoy, to Florida State. Savoy had a successful three-year stint with the Seminoles and played an important role in helping the team make back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances in the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and ‘19.
“That’s how we found (Hodge),” Gates said. “Just by word of mouth and relationships.”
Hodge said he didn’t hear from Gates again until after the season, when the coach tried to call him.
“I didn’t even know who he was at first,” Hodge said. “Like, I saw the number on my phone and was like, ‘Who is this?’ He’s like, ‘I’m an assistant coach at Florida State, I’m calling —’ you know what I’m saying?”
Gates offered Hodge a full scholarship with the Seminoles. The two met up in person at SCF’s picture day soon after.
Hodge was ranked as the No. 11 junior college player in the country by JucoRecruiting.com and started receiving interest from other schools, including Bethune-Cookman, Coastal Carolina, Eastern Kentucky, Florida Gulf Coast and Illinois State. Gates, in the meantime, was hired as the head coach of Cleveland State. Hodge didn’t realize the coach had made the move until Gates reached back out to him in the fall. Gates was still interested and offered Hodge a spot with the Vikings. He still wanted Hodge to trust him with his life.
“It was the first time hearing somebody say that to me as a man. It was a different approach,” Hodge said. “He talks about more than basketball … So that was the biggest thing for me.”
Hodge verbally committed to Cleveland State on Oct. 5, 2019. SCF went 21-12 in his sophomore season, with Hodge averaging 25.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 2.7 steals and 2.1 blocks. He left as the program’s all-time leading scorer
Hodge continued playing at a blistering pace with Gates. He became an immediate starter at Cleveland State, posting 10.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game, and helped the Vikings make their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2009. He didn’t receive any postseason recognition, though, failing to make the Horizon League’s all-conference or all-defensive teams. It frustrated him.
He told CSU assistant coach Ryan Sharbaugh ahead of the 2021-22 season he want to be the Defensive Player of the Year. Sharbaugh told him he needed to get his hand on the ball as often as possible, whether it be steals, blocks or tipped passes. They settled on a goal of eight deflections per game.
That defense, Sharbaugh told him, would lead to his offense. Gates said he believes Hodge is one of the fastest players in the country in terms of going from a defensive stance to being in an all-out sprint in transition. Hodge isn’t just physically faster than his opponents, though — he’s mentally quicker, too, able to anticipate where the ball’s headed before it arrives.
Hodge went on to average 2.2 steals, ranking 17th nationally, and became the Vikings’ leading scorer with 15.4 points per game. Cleveland State won its conference regular season championship, going 20-11 overall. Hodge was named to the All-Horizon League First Team and All-Defensive First Team and was voted as the Defensive Player of the Year.
Gates moved on to Missouri in the offseason and asked Hodge to come with him. The coach said Hodge made him recruit a little harder than before, with other big-name schools showing reaching out to him. Hodge said he wanted to explore his options, something he hadn’t done much of before, but knew in his heart he’d always end up joining Gates for his last year of college basketball.
“He trusted me with his career and the process at which he was going through,” Gates said. “I’m definitely thankful he’s here.”
The pair have kept the ball rolling with the Tigers, winning all of their first nine games. Hodge is up to 16.7 points and 2.8 steals per game. They’ll face their biggest challenge so far this year on Saturday at 4:15 p.m. when they take on No. 6 Kansas.
Hodge said he plans to play professionally after this season, hopefully in the NBA. But for now, he’s focused on winning as much as he can at Mizzou.
“My goal is to make it as far as we can in the tournament, SEC tournament,” Hodge said. “We just want to win, everybody wants to win.”
Parks has watched every game Hodge has played in since leaving SCF. He knows when Hodge is homesick because the British Virgin Islander will post a picture of his family or the beach on Instagram. He knows Hodge will come up with a steal when his team needs it most. He knows how well Hodge is going to shoot on a given night merely based on how much energy he comes out of the gates with.
He noticed the latter most recently in the Tigers’ game against Wichita State. Though Hodge finished the game with 19 points, he had his worst shooting performance of the year, going 7-18.
“I hit him up and he’s like, ‘Coach, I had a big paper and a presentation,’” Parks said.
Parks will get to see Hodge play live for the first time in two and a half years when Missouri plays UCF on Dec. 17 in Sunrise, Fla. He’s excited to see Hodge continue to make the most of his calculated risks.
“Honestly, he’s just a really sweet young man. Like, he’s just an unbelievably humble young man, he’s the nicest of kids. I mean, he would be the person holding my children in the locker room after the game, just smiling,” Parks said. “He just did some things for me as a coach that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to repay him for.”
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