When USF guard Nehemias Morillo began playing basketball at age 11, he crafted his own baskets, using wood for the backboard, iron for the rim and a rice bag for the net.
He worked with what he had when he lived in the Dominican Republic, sometimes playing basketball without proper shoes.
“The shoes over there only lasted me for about three months because I used to play on the street and not on a court,” Morillo said. “The material on the street is really bad for the shoes.”
Opportunities to excel in basketball are limited in the baseball-driven Dominican Republic. But that never stopped Morillo from pursuing his passion.
From the time his childhood friend, Angel Rosario, introduced him to the sport, he remained focused — despite distractions.
“We grew up in the hood,” Rosario said. “We saw a lot of bad things with drug dealers, people being shot and stuff like that.”
Morillo’s love for basketball grounded him, motivating him to become something more.
“I want to be an example for them,” Morillo said. “I just want to make a difference because a lot of people make a lot of excuses. I want to inspire them to do better.”
Not many Dominicans have the opportunity to play Division I basketball, and Morillo is humbled that he is able to play the sport at USF.
Rosario recalled what Morillo said to him when he first arrived on campus: “‘Remember when I was playing basketball every day? It was for this. I can’t believe I walk into the locker room and see my name on the jersey. I can’t believe that I’m playing at this level.’”
Rosario said he and Morillo were like Batman and Robin. They played whenever they could.
“Sometimes we missed classes just because we were playing,” Rosario said. “When we’d get to the class, the teacher wouldn’t even allow us to come in because we would sweat a lot. No one wanted to sit next to us.”
Morillo moved to the U.S. in February 2010. When he first arrived, he only knew how to say “thank you” in English.
His oldest sister, Evelin Collado, helped him adjust to the new language, lifestyle and academic system. Collado, who graduated from Columbia University, had moved to New York in 1994.
It wasn’t long before Morillo encountered his future coach — unbeknownst to him.
Orlando Antigua first saw Morillo play at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School during the 2010-11 season.
“I remember him playing and hearing about him playing in the high school ranks — a Dominican kid that had just gotten on the scene,” Antigua said.
Antigua and Morillo became better acquainted when Morillo played for an AAU team. Antigua was recruiting for Kentucky, and Morillo played with one of his recruits, Willie Cauley-Stein.
Morillo played two years at Monroe College in New York, where he averaged six points and three assists his freshman year and 12.2 points and four assists the following season.
Though he was committed to play for Ohio, the Bobcats’ coach left around the same time Antigua arrived at USF in the spring of 2014. Ohio released him from his letter of intent, and so Morillo became a Bull.
“(Morillo) knew me, he knew my family, he knew our reputation, and it wasn’t a hard sell at all,” Antigua said.
Morillo and Antigua also connect on a cultural level, as they are both Dominican.
“I can talk to him in Spanish when I need to — to get my point across, so he knows exactly what I’m asking him to do, what I’m asking of him,” Antigua said. “Just having the same background, the same culture, being passionate people, being able to reach him that way, and being able to use that to motivate him and get the most of him.”
Morillo was one of eight newcomers for the Bulls. The team chemistry has continued to build since the players met each other in the spring.
“He’s one of the older guys,” freshman Ruben Guerrero said. “So he kind of has to pick the team up — Sometimes, cheer us up instead of pointing at our mistakes. He boosts me. That helps me.”
Coming from a big family has shaped Morillo into a leader. As the second youngest of 10, he acts as a “broker,” Collado said.
“If there are disagreements, he will be the one saying, ‘There is no need to argue,’” she said. “He takes himself out of the issue and tries to fix it, which is a sign of leadership.”
Morillo has seven sisters and two brothers, yet he is the only one who plays a sport.
The guard didn’t take long to begin contributing for USF. In his debut, he recorded a double-double, marking the first debut double-double by a Bull since 2005.
The 6-foot-5, 180-pound junior wears the number five on his jersey to signify the five sisters he grew up with in the same household. And whenever he goes to the free-throw line, he puts up seven fingers over his chest for his sisters.
“The younger sisters, they love it,” Collado said. “They go crazy when he does it. For me, he’s my little brother, so it’s cute.”
His family doesn’t understand the game in-depth, he said, but they love to watch him play. He has family in New York and the Dominican Republic, and although they haven’t seen him play in person as a Bull, they watch him on television.
“For me, seeing him play, it’s sort of like ‘yes, I knew he could do it,’” Collado said. “The thing I’m most proud of is how much he has grown emotionally in the last two years or so. He’s growing up. He’s a young man now.”
The 22-year-old has come a long way since playing ball in the streets of El Ejido, Santiago.
“Everyone in the neighborhood is proud of him, and we’re always watching, always supporting him,” Rosario said. “He’s like our LeBron James.”
Morillo hopes to graduate with a business administration degree and play professional basketball, but he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
“Ney has a huge heart,” Collado said. “He believes in giving back and every time he can, he gathers some of his things and sends it to poor kids from the neighborhood that play basketball. Basketball sneakers are particularly expensive, so they are always very much appreciated by these kids.”
Morillo turned a makeshift hoop into a Division I scholarship and vows to help today’s youth in any way possible.
“Every time I have some shoes, I always give it to (the neighborhood kids) because I know what I went through,” Morillo said. “I want them to have a little bit of what I’m getting because they don’t get this opportunity that I’m getting now.”