By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay
UTSA forward Dre Fuller Jr. doesn’t want a little pain to stop him from completing his daily routine in preseason training camp. Not now. No way. The 24-year-old Fuller, the oldest player on the Roadrunners’ roster, has been through way too much heartache over the past year to allow knee and shoulder soreness to slow him down.
He knows he needs to push through it. Besides, Fuller will have what he believes to be a heavenly force looking over him after his mother, Stephanie Johnson, passed away in March following a battle with breast cancer. After taking a year off from college basketball to help care for her, he says he thinks about his mom constantly.
“Oh, yeah, every day,” the 6-foot-5 playmaker said after practice recently. “I have my necklace with her on it … She’s not leaving. I can feel her right now.”
With that comment, Fuller smiled, laughed a quiet laugh and shook his head slightly. Perhaps it’s a sign that Stephanie Johnson’s youngest child is beginning to heal emotionally.
Whatever the case, the UTSA graduate senior who last played in the 2021-22 season for the University of Central Florida Knights is definitely looking ahead to brighter days.
He said he thinks he will feel his mother’s presence constantly during his first season with the Roadrunners. “For sure,” he said. “I think she’s going to be right by my side. She’ll be telling me to work harder.”
First-year UTSA assistant coach Kurtis Darden doesn’t doubt that for a moment. Darden has known Dre Fuller and his family for more than 13 years.
The relationship began in 2010 when Darden was starting a new job as basketball coach at Village Christian Academy in Fayetteville, N.C. Much to the coach’s surprise, a kid much too young to be in high school would hang out constantly in the Village Christian gym.
It was Dre Fuller. “He was just always in there,” Darden recalled. “Whether we were having practices (or) whether we were not having practices, he was just always hanging around the gym. I always noticed him. He was a lot smaller than he is now.
“I’d just joke with him. I’d say, ‘Hey, you’re going to grow up and be a pretty good basketball player if you stick with it,’ and that’s what ended up happening.”
Fuller is now a strapping, 215-pound guard/forward. He is expected to play a substantial role for the Roadrunners, who will tip off in their exhibition season opener next Tuesday night against Trinity University.
A playmaker on the wing who likes to drive into the paint and create opportunities for his teammates, he once started 27 out of 67 games over three seasons for Coach Johnny Dawkins and the UCF Knights of the American Athletic Conference.
UTSA will open a new era in the American this season.
Back in the day in North Carolina, Fuller and his mother were a constant presence around the Village Christian basketball program. When Darden first met the mom, her daughters had already graduated, but she volunteered to keep the scorebook for all the team’s home games, anyway.
Her upbeat personality was infectious.
“She was very fiery,” Darden said. “She coached Dre hard. She basically was a basketball coach that was a mom, as well. She would coach him from the stands — in a good way. You know, you have parents who holler and scream and they don’t know nothing about basketball, but then you have those other parents who know about basketball and are able to coach ‘em up.
“That’s what kind of lady she was. Her kids were her everything. When I first got to Village Christian, I didn’t know anybody. But she kind of gave me the scoop. She just volunteered. Her son wasn’t even playing varsity, and she was keeping score for the varsity team. Just out of the goodness of her heart.”
After Fuller’s freshman year at Village Christian, his family moved to St. Petersburg, Fla. There, he played three seasons at Farragut Academy and became a three-star college prospect. He signed with Dawkins at UCF. With the Knights, Fuller’s career was up and down.
As a redshirt freshman, he barged into the starting lineup in UCF’s fifth game and started to make a major impact on a team that had been in the NCAA tournament the previous season. A highlight came in a 13-point, 8-rebound performance at Oklahoma in December 2019, when he hit a three with a minute remaining to pull the Knights within one.
At the end, he missed a three at the buzzer, as the Sooners escaped with a 53-52 victory. “Dre played well,” Dawkins said at the time. “He made plays for us…I was proud of him, as a freshman in this type of environment.”
Fuller’s success was uneven, at best, at UCF. Though he averaged 6.3 points as a freshman and 7.0 as a sophomore, by his junior year, his minutes were slashed. He was no longer a starter and his scoring averaged dipped to 4.0. Frustrated, he put his name into the transfer portal.
Once again, though, the stars just would not align for him. He briefly joined the program at Florida Atlantic University, enrolling in summer classes in 2022. But it was a short-lived stay in Boca Raton. In the infancy of the Owls’ preparation for what would be a startling run to the NCAA Final Four semifinals, he elected to exit the program after about a month.
By the end of July, Fuller was gone.
“That’s when I started taking care of my mom,” he said. “I called them and told them, ‘Thank you.’ I was like, ‘Ya’ll are good. Ya’ll are going to make it far.’ I didn’t know, Final Four far. I just told them I had some things to work out.
“They just said thank you for coming and, like, wished me the best of luck. They didn’t know my mom was sick at the time. They just wished me the best and asked me why. I told ‘em I (couldn’t) really say. I was just hurtin,’ you know.”
From there, Fuller’s basketball journey veered into some murky waters. He traveled back to Orlando, where he took one class at UCF to gain his bachelor’s degree. Not too long after that, Fuller tried to stay active, playing basketball recreationally wherever he could find competition.
But as the months advanced, his attention turned to his mom, who passed away on March 17. At the funeral, he encountered a friendly face in the gathering. It was Darden, who had coached him for a few years at Village Christian in North Carolina.
“Just going there as a friend of the family,” Darden explained. “One of the last things he told me (after the service), he said ‘Coach I’m trying to play this last year for my mom.’ ”
Darden was determined to assist if he could. At the time, he was still working at Campbell University as the operations director for the basketball program, and he mentioned Fuller’s name to the Fighting Camels’ coaching staff as a potential prospect.
“But they weren’t recruiting him at the time, or whatever,” Darden said, “so I called some other schools about him, just trying to help him out. We would just talk and text. Then I land up here (at UTSA, in May) and as soon as I get here, he’s one of the first names I brought up to the coach.”
Not too much later, Fuller committed to Roadrunners head coach Steve Henson, and he was announced as a signee on July 11. “He’s a great kid,” Henson said. “We’re excited about him. He’s done a good job. We’ve got to get him 100 percent healthy. But he brings a great element to our team.”
Henson called Fuller an instinctive player whose best attribute is his ability to create.
“He seems to have a real joy for the game,” Henson said. “He seems to enjoy playing. Can’t really describe that real well. Told him a story. We coached Toni Kukoc and Shareef Abdur-Rahim (with the Atlanta Hawks). Shareef was a terrific player. An all star. We were trying to get them stacked up on the weak side. And tell them, ‘You pick for him. Shareef, you pick for Toni (and) just play.’ It was just fascinating. Toni loved it. Just the freedom to do whatever. You know, just play.”
Henson said Fuller reminds him of Kukoc, in that regard.
“It’s just, ‘Coach, let me go. Give me a little idea of where I need to start the possession and let me read (it),’ ” the coach said. “He’s a good cutter. A good penetrator. He wants to pass the ball. He just seems like he has fun playing. Drills may not be his favorite thing. But as soon as we’re actually playing, he just makes instinctual plays. (He has a) good (basketball) IQ and (is) very versatile.”
Perhaps more than anything, motivation may emerge as a key to his overall performance.
After all, it’s a powerful thing when a young man wants to honor someone who sacrificed so much for him. The words Dre Fuller once heard from his mother back in Fayetteville, N.C., will always be remembered during wind sprints at UTSA basketball practices in coming months. Said Fuller: “If I want to stop, I always have a little voice inside my head saying, ‘Keep going.’ And, ‘One more. You can do one more. You’re not tired.’ ”
Oct. 24 — Trinity at UTSA, exhibition, 7 p.m.
Oct. 30 — McMurry at UTSA, exhibition, 7 p.m.
Nov. 6 — Western Illinois at UTSA, regular-season opener, 7 p.m.