With his family supporting him, he worked hard and earned a scholarship to North Carolina-Wilmington.
By 4 years old, Riverview senior Brion Whitley had already lived a tougher life than most.
His parents lived in a bad part of Bradenton and got caught up in drugs and other things that do not coincide with capable parenting. He and his older sister, Lacoya Edmond, were initially handed over to their grandparents, but they soon were unable to care for the two children.
Off to the foster care system they went.
The pair ended up with a foster family intended to be just for teenage girls. Whitley never felt at home. It wasn’t just the lack of other males. Whitley said the family did not treat them well and went as far as locking up the refrigerator so the kids could not eat without permission. He was scared. Eventually, the foster care system decided Whitley could not live in that situation any longer, and started putting out emergency calls for adoption.
Around the same time, Kent and Danielle Whitley decided they were ready to adopt a child. They already had two biological children and would later add a third, all daughters. They wanted to finish their family by adopting a son. They told the adoption agency that they had room for one, possibly two children. Through the adoption process, they found their pick, a boy named John, and brought him home. They thought that would be the end of their adoption story, but it was not.
Since the Whitleys had said they were open to adding two children, the agency called them a short while later with an emergency. A young boy needed out of his foster family as soon as possible. Danielle was the one on the phone. With Kent at work and unavailable, Danielle had to make the big decision on her own, and quickly.
She agreed to take the boy, sight unseen. Later that day, Brion Whitley, timid and confused, stepped out of his foster home for the last time, and into Danielle’s car. He did not have a chance to say goodbye to his sister, who was not home.
The next day, he went with his new family on a pre-planned trip to Disney World.
“He’s loved Mickey Mouse ever since,” Danielle said.
When she first agreed to take Brion in, Danielle thought it might be a temporary solution to an emergency situation, she said. When she saw him, however, love filled her heart. She said she knew he was going to be with them forever. It was not long before Brion referred to Danielle and Kent as his mom and dad.
While in third grade, Brion attended a basketball camp with a childhood friend for the first time. The Whitleys knew their son was athletic, but they had never channeled that athleticism into anything before. The first few years, they simply wanted Brion to get acclimated to his new dynamic.
At the basketball camp, everything changed.
Ty Bryant, a youth coach and father of former Riverview point guard D.J. Bryant (now at the University of Texas-Arlington), recruited Brion to be on his team, seeing his potential. Brion started slow, admitting he did not get much playing time on travel teams until his seventh and eighth grade seasons, when he worked hard to improve his game.
After going to states twice in his first two years at Sarasota Christian School, a coaching staff shakeup made Brion feel like the program was crumbling. He transferred to Riverview for his junior season, and played well, but come summer Brion held a single scholarship offer, from Rice University. He decided to work even harder.
Riverview coach BJ Ivey said Brion shot 500 three-point attempts a day in June to improve his shot before the “live period,” when college coaches can evaluate and talk to recruits. During the live period, playing travel ball, Brion got noticed. He was in talks with multiple schools, including Harvard and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, but ended up committing to the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.
“I had three coaches tell me, ‘Don’t commit on your first visit,’” Brion said. “I was like, set. ‘I’m not gonna do it, I’m not gonna do it.’ Then you go there (Wilmington), and it’s basically a bigger Sarasota. Three beaches. It’s a pretty big school. My mom was with me, we both just loved it.”
Off the court, Brion is no longer the quiet kid he was the day of his adoption. He is a larger-than-life personality who is not afraid to be himself. He went to middle school at Julie Rohr Academy, a performing arts school, to better accommodate his travel basketball schedule. One day, Danielle said, after dropping Brion off at school, Julie Rohr herself jumped out of nowhere and flagged down her car. Rohr told Danielle she wanted the already 6-foot-2 Brion to star as Danny Zuko in the school’s full production of “Grease.” Whitley could sing, dance and do it all on stage. Danielle was hesitant, because Brion’s schedule was full enough as it was. But Brion wanted to perform. A compromise was made: Brion would play Zuko’s best friend, Kenickie Murdoch.
“If he (Brion) wanted to, he could be doing theater,” Danielle said. “He literally stole the show. He still knows all the words to ‘Greased Lightning.’”
Brion is also knowledgeable, sometimes about random things. Ivey said that when he told the team they would be playing in a tournament in Alaska in January, Brion's first thought had nothing to do with basketball.
“He said, ‘You know, there’s not many polar bears in Alaska,” Ivey said. “‘Everyone thinks that there’s polar bears, but there’s really not.'”
The other big aspect of Brion’s life is his faith. He and his family attend Sarasota Baptist Church every Sunday. He reads his Bible as part of his pregame routine, and tries to build positive relationships with everyone he meets.
Brion said he feels blessed to have been put in a wonderful, stable family situation after a rough first four years, and the family feels the same way.
“God put Brion in our family,” Danielle said. “It has been an amazing experience, and we feel fortunate. A lot of people think adoption is doing children some kind of favor, but it’s not at all. The blessing is all ours.”