The Cutting Room Floor: Derek Being Derek

As was posted earlier, we published my Senior Day feature of Derek Elston entitled “Derek Being Derek.” If you have a subscription, or if you want to buy one, you can find it here.

As always with features like this, there were a lot of interesting stories left over, as Elston is a particularly interesting guy. So much as I did with the Victor Oladipo piece, I’m presenting  several bits that didn’t make the final cut.

The Tattoos

Elston’s mural-like tattoo on his upper left arm is obviously his most striking feature, and Elston finally explained what all went into it at a media event with the seniors.

It all started with the cross that reaches up to his shoulders. The cross was in memory of his grandfather Ralph, who passed away when Derek was in high school, and one of Elston’s best role models growing up. Ironically enough, the conservative and old-school Ralph didn’t want Derek to get a tattoo or earrings or anything of the like, so of course Elston got a tattoo to memorialize him.

After that, Elston got tattoos of three angels on the arm to represent “the three ladies in his life,” his mother Chris and sisters Lindsay and Aubrey. He then got a tattoo on the inside of his arm of his nickname “Diesel.” Lastly, he got an eye tattooed close to the elbow with three crosses for the three grandparents he’s lost and also three tears.

That’s the condensed explanation, but here’s Elston’s explanation — as well as his explanation of his mom’s thoughts about it — which are still entertaining because he’s Derek.

“My grandfather he passed (when I was) in high school, and when I got here and I wanted to do a piece for the three ladies in my life, my two sisters and my mother. Then I kind of went on a little outlandish spree and got my nickname here. Diesel. This is just for really all of my grandparents passing away around when I was in college. Just an eye, three crosses and kind of a tear. Then all of the stuff I got on my back I got earlier, that’s a me and my dad type thing.” (It says, “Like Father, Like Son.”)

Why just the left arm

“I don’t know. Just because, my mom hates them, and she won’t ever tell you that she hates them, but she hates, them. I just said, ‘Well, I already have the cross, she finally wore down and said, “Alright, you can get a cross, but I realize it’s gonna bigger, I know it is. I said it wouldn’t. Obviously, I was lying. But I said to myself, if I’m gonna do on something, I didn’t want to do two things, I guess for my mom, but the day I came home with my chest tattoos, she dropped to tears right away. That’s when I realized I was in some crap.”

Are these the last ones?

“It might be, but I kinda told myself that I maystop, but it’s like an addiction I have. If I see something really nice, I’d like to just get it.”

When did you get the most recent one, the eye tattoo?

“I got this, oh, right before the first game, I think, of the season, and I tried to hide it the best I could from my mom, but she ended up finding out because my sister told her, but whatever. I don’t know, I always feel like if I’m going to do something over here, just keep it over here. My mom still has a picture of just this arm because it doesn’t have anything on it. She  just gets a kick out of me having a normal arm.”

Elston tested the boundaries with his mom when he was still in high school in part to get her to warm the idea. She didn’t want him to get earrings either and one team he came home with stick on earrings just to see how she’d react.

“He came home one day and he had a pair of earrings in his ears,” Chris Elston said. “I looked at him and I just hunged my head and covered my eyes. He said, ‘Mom, what’s wrong?’ I said, ‘You know how I feel about earrings.’ He’s like mom, it’s OK. I said, ‘No it’s not. This is one of those times I was getting mad about them.’ I said, ‘Yeah mom it’s OK. He peeled off those little gems. They were stick ems.”

Elston told his mom many times that when he was 18 he could get tattoos without her permission, and without being too harsh about it, made it clear that it was going to happen whether she was on board or not. When he told her he was getting the cross, she decided that she would at least be at the tattoo parlor when he did it. Chris works at St. Vincent Hospital as a nurse, so she was going to make sure the needles were sterile at the very least.

“I’m covering up my head so nobody knows me as we’re walking into the tattoo place,” Chris Elston said. “He and the tattoo guy drew it up, and Derek told him that, yeah, this is what he wanted. So the tattoo guy said, ‘OK, well, I’m going to go into the back and blow it up.’ I said, ‘What do you mean blow it up, isn’t it big enough already?’ He said, ‘Well he’s going to go to college and he’s going to be working out and his arm is going to get huge, we have to blow it up so he can grow into it.’ I said, ‘Oh no we don’t.'”

Of course they did, and now that Derek’s arm really is huge, she’s glad it was blown up. Even if she’s still not crazy about the general idea.

Sampson Recruit

It wasn’t pointed out in the story, but one fact about Elston that makes him unique to the rest of the senior class is that he was the only one on the team who was first recruited by Kelvin Sampson, and Elston was in fact part of the investigation against him. According to the NCAA report, Elston was illegally contacted by Sampson and assistant coach Jeff Meyer at a camp before Elston had been formally “dismissed,” making it an illegal contact. Elston was also given a t-shirt and backpack in violation of NCAA rules. Elston had to actually meet with the NCAA while he was still in high school to discuss that situation.

“Why put a kid in that situation?” Elston’s father Darrell said. “That was pretty strange to me. I wasn’t happy about it. Derek handled it pretty well, he got over it, but it was stupid. It should never have happened. And I got a long with Sampson. We talked three or four times. To me, he seemed like a really nice guy. But that should never have happened.”

When Sampson was fired, Elston’s father asked him if he still wanted to enroll at IU or if he wanted to go elsewhere.

“I told him, ‘You know what, if you don’t want to go to IU, you don’t know anything about Tom Crean yo don’t want to go, if you want, I’ll make some calls and we can go some place else,” Darrell Elston said. “He said, ‘no, dad, I’m committed to IU.'”

Darrell Elston again asked his son after his freshman year when the Hoosiers went 10-21 if he still wanted to stay, but he said his son never considered leaving, and after they talked that year, they never did again.

Can’t Stay Mad at Him

Just about everyone who knows Elston said it’s virtually impossible to stay angry with him. Start chiding him for something, and he’ll just flash his impish grin or say comically sincere and he’ll be out of trouble just as quickly as he got into it.

Elston’s roommate Jordan Hulls deals with that on a daily basis. According to Hulls, Elston is otherwise a clean freak, but he has an aversion to doing the dishes. This drives Hulls nuts, but he can’t bring himself to hold it against him.

“You can’t get mad at Derek, because he’ll just do something funny and I’ll forget about,” Hulls said. “If he doesn’t do the dishes, I’ll be mad for two seconds.”

Elston’s parents know what he means, because they’ve always struggled to do the same.

The biggest case in point came when Elston was younger. His three siblings — older sister Lindsey, older brother Bryan and younger sister Aubrey. All went in to the families’ garage, closed one of the side doors and pushed up against it to make sure Derek couldn’t get in. Derek in turn pushed against the door and particularly against a glass window pane on the door. The window broke and the glass fell on to both of his sisters, cutting Lindsey’s leg and Aubrey’s foot. Both had to go to the hospital for stitches. Darrell was incensed, and asked his son on the drive to the hospital, “why would you go and do something like that.”

Derek answered with the obvious, and Darrell suddenly found himself laughing.

“He just said something to the effect of, ‘Well, they wouldn’t let me in,'” Darrell Elston said. “And it was funny. I just had to laugh. And we just got everybody stitched up and moved on.”

Elston the elder statesman

Among his many contributions to the cohesiveness of the locker room, the IU coaching staff most appreciates Elston’s ability to get the younger players to feel welcome and to help them with their games.

There wasn’t much Elston could teach Cody Zeller when he arrived — Elston admittedly found himself learning more from Zeller — but he could make the celebrated freshman feel like one of the guys instead of someone who was just coming in to take his playing time. He did that by busting on him at team meals, which resonated perfectly with Zeller, a noted prankster.

“There’s nobody that was harder and poked more fun at Cody early on, which really brought Cody into the group,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “They may not agree, but that’s how I saw it. It really brought Cody into the group. It was priceless to have some of those pre-game meals, to just sit and listen to Derek get after Cody, and what was so great was that Cody laughed harder than everybody. Derek’s just got that way.”

And Elston has taken a lot of ownership in the career development of freshmen Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin. When the Hoosier veterans were assigned freshmen in the summer, Elston was assigned Jurkin. When it became evident that Jurkin was struggling just to catch the ball, Elston brought his baseball glove and borrowed Hulls’s and he played catch with Jurkin — a native of the South Sudan who had never picked up a baseball in his life — to improve his hand-eye coordination.

“What’s really rewarding for he is to see him helping the younger guys,” said assistant coach Tim Buckley, who served as Elston’s mentor for most of his career. “When Derek got here, he was kind of on his own in that regard. The coaches had to take more of a role in that. Now it’s more player-driven and he’s one of the guys who had led the charge on that. You can really see that in Hanner and Peter.”

The Number

In the season-opener, IU senior forward Christian Watford wore Elston’s No. 32 because Elston was out for the first two months with a knee injury. The Hoosiers had seen a number of players suffer through injuries in the last four years, but this was the only time someone had made a gesture like that.

“That’s like my brother,” Watford said. “Any time you go into battle with somebody for so many years and you’ve been in a hole with somebody for so many years, and they can’t experience the fruits of their labor, you want to do something to make it easier for them to deal with. I can’t play for him, I can’t do that, but I just wanted to show him some love and do that for him.”

Elston didn’t ask, but it said it was one of the most meaningful things in his career.

“That was unbelievable. The fact that Christian asked me. I never would’ve thought. Chritian came up and asked me, I never would’ve thought to go to Christian and say, ‘Hey, will you wear my number?’ He came up to me and knew that it was one of thoseuplifting things that he thought I needed. It definitely was. I was a little emotional because I wanted to be out with those guys. I was a little emotional just because I wanted to be out there with those guys, and him saying, ‘This way, we all feel like you’re out here with us,’ that was unbelievable.’”

Said Darrell Elston: “That almost made me want  to cry. Everybody thought that much of him. Here’s a kid that can’t get out there for a very special evening
senior year the first game. Showed me that these guys are connected, they’re together. The chemistry is a big part of winning basketball
games These guys are friends first of all they’ve gone through a lot of ups and a lot of downs.”

That’s one of many signs about how close Elston is with all of his teammates, and Crean suggested there’s more of that to come.

“Everybody cares about him and loves him,” Crean said, “and Derek’s one of those guys, he’s gonna be in a lot of these guys’ weddings when it’s all said and done.”


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