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Ohio State basketball: Ex-Buckeye Dave Bell now a pro after transferring to be a dad

Adam Jardy
ajardy@dispatch.com
David Bell, shown playing for Ohio State as a freshman in February 2016, is preparing for a professional basketball career in Greece after finding success as a transfer at Jacksonville University.

It began when his mother passed away when he was young, leaving Dave Bell in the care of his grandmother. It surrounded him as a Black youth growing up in the greater Cleveland area and followed him to his dream school, Ohio State.

Time and time again, the expectation arose: Bell wasn’t supposed to make it. And yet today, the former three-star recruit, the one who transferred from OSU midway through college to be closer to his daughter, is in Greece preparing to start a professional basketball career that will help provide for 3-year-old Londyn Bell and her mother, Angelica Castro.

Life is good for Bell. It just took an awful lot of work.

“I feel like I had to be mentally strong to get through a lot of situations, but it’s life,” he told The Dispatch. “You can’t be weak.”

It’s an approach that has played out against a backdrop of loss and tough decisions.

Meechie Johnson Sr. was there for Bell’s formative years, watching him sprout into a raw 6-foot-10 talent with the drive to play Division I basketball. With no parent in Bell’s life, Johnson, his wife and the Garfield Heights basketball program helped provide stability and grit.

That eventually helped a player ranked No. 189 in his 2014 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports.com composite, sign with the Buckeyes in a class that also included D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate.

Bell was beginning his redshirt-sophomore season when his girlfriend became pregnant, and she decided to move back to West Palm Beach, Florida, to raise their daughter. Bell faced a decision: Stay at Ohio State or follow his girlfriend and daughter to Florida.

Johnson, it turned out, had played for Jacksonville coach Tony Jasick from 2005 to ’08 when Jasick was an assistant coach at what was then Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne.

“I was on (Dave) tough about the importance of being a father first,” said Johnson, whose son, Meechie Johnson Jr., was born while his dad was in high school and is now an Ohio State commitment in the class of 2021.

“There were times Dave felt like he couldn’t make it or wanted to quit, and I just never allowed it to happen. It was just like, ‘You can’t feel sorry for yourself.’”

Bell’s decision to leave Ohio State in April 2017 wasn’t an easy one. Associate coach Dave Dickerson had said repeatedly throughout what would be Bell’s final season with the Buckeyes that he thought the upcoming year would be critical in the player’s progression. But Bell played in only 15 games in 2016-17, which would be Thad Matta’s final season with the program.

When Bell decided to transfer, he wrote Matta a letter that privately had the coach gushing about Bell’s maturity in the face of adversity.

Ohio State is “where my heart was at, but I’m a family man first, and, of course, I had to be closer to my daughter,” Bell said recently. “I loved every single thing about Ohio State. I wanted to graduate from there, for sure, but I had to make the best decision for me and my family, and that’s what I expressed.”

The on-court transition wasn’t seamless. Bell dealt with an injury during his sit-out transfer year, then spent the next year adjusting to seeing regular playing time for the first time since high school.

Everything clicked for him as a senior last season. He averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds and was named the Atlantic Sun’s defensive player of the year while finishing third nationally in defensive rebounding rate and 40th in blocked-shots percentage, according to KenPom.com.

And Bell did it while juggling the responsibilities of being a father and pursuing a master’s degree in sports business with an attitude that Jasick described as completely lacking in entitlement. When the players were given running shoes for their offseason conditioning, for example, Jasick said Bell was genuinely appreciative of a pedestrian pair of Nikes.

“The second you mention his name around the office, around campus, people’s eyes and smiles light up because he was such a pleasure to be around — and he didn’t have to be,” Jasick said. “He’s coming from Ohio State. He looks like a million dollars. There are a lot of guys that have a tenth of the reason to walk around and carry themselves in a certain way, and he was the polar opposite.”

Jasick said that was the mindset that Bell brought to Jacksonville, one nurtured by Johnson and adopted by Bell.

It’s a story with a happy ending, one that Johnson said can show kids of all backgrounds that anything is possible.

“Then here, years later, you have a kid that probably a lot of people felt couldn’t make it to be a professional, now he’s blessed to be able to go overseas and play and have a chance to take care of his family,” Johnson said. “He raised the bar.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy