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TAMPA — Their protesting was pointless, Nelson Agholor and Devontae Morgan knew that. If there were two things the woman they had long since deemed their godmother rarely let them miss, it was meals and church.
So after much rousing and a hearty breakfast, Leslie Berlin, her son Greg and two surrogate boys — sometimes three when buddy Quincy Mitchell joined them — would make the 1-mile drive to Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church.
“They would call me the point guard because I had these big four boys and me,” said Leslie, a trace of her north Georgia childhood still in her voice. “And we’d have to sit in the back row because they were so tall.”
This week, in the closest thing to a cathedral that Florida high school basketball possesses, Leslie and husband Jack will have far more favorable sight lines.
Greg and Devontae, a Butler University signee, will start for Tampa Prep in Tuesday’s Class 3A state semifinals. On Wednesday, Nelson — a Southern Cal football signee — will start for Berkeley Prep in the 4A semis. Jack and Leslie won’t miss a dribble by any of them.
For the better part of five years, they rarely have.
“She’s always there for us when we need her,” Devontae said.
Shortly after Nelson and Devontae became Greg’s buddies, they became Leslie’s mission. Chauffeur, short-order cook, shoulder to lean on — Leslie provided it all, with her husband’s blessing.
“They just got my heart,” she said.
They initially captured it one summer weekend in 2007, when Leslie opened the doors of her three-bedroom house in a gated west Tampa community to some of her son’s AAU teammates.
For all practical intents, they’ve never left, and a basketball version of The Blind Side was spawned.
“She’s pretty much all our moms,” Nelson said.
Greg, one of her two biological children, puts it another way.
“She’s a saint,” he said.
Brotherly bond forms
Of the 32 teams competing at The Lakeland Center this week, no two are more intertwined than Tampa Prep and Berkeley Prep.
At various points in the past seven years, no fewer than seven players from the schools’ current rosters have competed on the same offseason club team.
What originated as the Tampa Bay Spirit evolved into the Tampa Bay Miracle before finally becoming the SEBA (Southeast Basketball Academy) Select team coached by former Jesuit guard Mike McManamey.
Embracing the it-takes-a-village concept, parents served in a variety of capacities ranging from GM to driver to fan to fundraiser to physician. In 2010, they watched SEBA Select defeat a Canadian national team in Louisville, Ky.
The starters that day, according to Greg Berlin: himself, Devontae, Nelson, current Berkeley Prep senior Reggie Barnes and Blake senior Quincy Mitchell. “We were kind of hyped up and there were college coaches everywhere,” Greg recalled. “It was probably the best game I ever played in AAU.”
Three summers before, this group had assembled for a team party on Father’s Day weekend. As it wound down, Greg asked Leslie if Nelson could spend the week with him and accompany him to a local basketball camp. She obliged, agreeing to dole out another three-digit camp fee.
By night’s end, Nelson had asked if Quincy could join them, and Devontae. Before you could say Sandra Bullock, the Berlins were writing checks for all to attend camp, coordinating sleeping arrangements and taking them water skiing near the Courtney Campbell Causeway.
“Every night they were in the driveway trying to kill each other on the basketball court,” recalled Leslie, who retired eight years ago from the document imaging software company she ran. “And every one of them were telling me it was the best week of their lives.”
Weeks would segue into months, then years.
“I couldn’t let them go,” Leslie said.
A second home
By the following school year, Leslie was picking up four kids — Greg, Quincy, Devontae and Nelson — from four different schools every day, putting 500 miles a week on her gold Acura MDX sport-utility vehicle.
Devontae remembers having a homemade turkey sandwich, apple slices and fruit drinks waiting for him when Leslie picked him up.
“It was really funny, because I was in a Bible study that summer and one of my friends said, ‘This is your mission. You get so excited, this is what you need to be doing,’ ” Leslie recalled. “I said, ‘You know, you’re right.’ ”
For Nelson, the fourth of five kids born to Nigerian emigrants, Leslie evolved into a second mom. For Devontae, whose mom died when he was 5, she became one of several de facto parents, joining his aunt, Alicia Morgan; grandparents Linda and Earnest Morgan; even Terps coach Joe Fenlon and wife Cindy.
To this day, Devontae is a weekend fixture at the Berlins’; Nelson is there even more often.
“Her and my parents both have made it easy to be a dedicated athlete,” Nelson said.
“The social part of life, they’re there with advice. Not many kids have rides to go work out, to go to different gyms and stuff like that. They’ve always supported me (with) transportation. …I pretty much have two families. We all have two families.”
Leslie, who remains close to the Agholor and Morgan families, downplays her role, though she acknowledges to doing no fewer than two loads of laundry daily and purchasing a lot of her groceries in bulk.
She says her labor is borne of love and, to a lesser degree, logistics. Because Berkeley is less than a mile from her Town ’N Country house, it makes sense for Nelson to gravitate there.
If anyone has sacrificed, she says, it’s her son and daughter. Greg especially.
A 22-year-old Duke University student, Lindsey Berlin’s room essentially has been handed down to Nelson. And Greg’s sparkling academic feats — including a 1400 SAT score — haven’t garnered nearly the attention of Nelson and Devontae’s athletic achievements.
“(Greg) has shared his whole life with these kids,” Leslie said. “He has given up his room, his clothes. …He has given up a lot for these guys, but he has gained a lot. They are literally brothers. They would do anything for each other.”
Leslie wants them to do only one thing for her: Maximize the scholarships they’ve earned.
“The thing is, all we did was provide an environment for them to thrive,” she said. “They worked hard both in school and their sports …they’re the ones that made it work.”
State boys basketball semifinals
Where: the Lakeland Center
Admission: $10 per session; parking is $7
TV: BHSN will air the finals
• 3A: Tampa Prep vs. Jacksonville Providence, 7 p.m. Tuesday
• 3A: Shorecrest vs. Weston Sagemont, 8:30 p.m. Tuesday
• 4A: Berkeley Prep vs. Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
• 5A: Nature Coast vs. Jacksonville Terry Parker, 6 p.m. Thursday
• 7A: St. Petersburg vs. Pompano Beach Ely, 4 p.m. Friday
Tuesday's other games
• A: Greensboro West Gadsden vs. Chipley, 10 a.m.
• A: Lake Butler Union County vs. Hawthorne, 11:30 a.m.
• 2A: Orlando Christian Prep vs. Tallahassee FAMU, 2:30 p.m.
• 2A: Hialeah Champagnat vs. Boca Raton Grandview Prep, 4 p.m. the Lakeland Center