DETROIT (WXYZ) — As Detroit Pistons players and fans eagerly await the NBA Draft to kick-off Thursday night, we're taking a look at what the team has done this year off the court too; that includes connecting with younger fans in a way they never have before.
The Detroit Pistons Youth Council is in its very first year; around 100 kids applied and 13 were selected.
De'Shawn O'Banner, or DJ as he goes by, is one of those 13. What might surprise you, is that DJ wasn't always the kid on the court.
“I have a heart defect called Tricuspid Atresia," he told 7 Action News. "I had three open-heart surgeries before the age of 2.”
Because O'Banner's condition impacts blood flow to his heart, full-contact sports were ruled out for him as a kid; he's just been cleared to play AAU Basketball.
DJ, who is from Ypsilanti, applied to join the council in part he said to raise up kids like him; those with health conditions or disabilities that have impacted their ability to do things they love. Too often he said, he's seen people who are different be forced to the bench or the sidelines, not just in sports but in life.
“I think that it’s something that needs to change," he said. He hopes raising his voice will help make that happen, with the help of the Pistons organization.
“We started hosting what we call community conversations where we talk to key community stakeholders and youth and just really try to gauge what’s going on in the community and how we can be a voice," explained Erika Swilley, vice president of community and social responsibility for the Detroit Pistons.
The council meets monthly. Not only do they learn about the team and the Pistons organization, but they also have guest speakers, talk about team branding, and about the issues that matter most to them; like mental health and bullying, for example.
“Oftentimes we as adults can forget how hard it is to be that age," Swilley said. "And just hearing some of those real things and figuring out how the Pistons can be a voice to help them has been very interesting.”
The council gives kids like DJ a real inside line into the organization.
“We type up a list of notes after every meeting, we sent it around to all of our exec team, just so different departments can take that feedback and implement it into what they’re doing," Swilley told Action News.
With their 2020 season suspended due to the pandemic, Pistons players kept busy off the court over the last 16 months. They helped spread awareness about the importance of getting a COVID-19 vaccine by partnering with the City to host events like "Family Vaccination Day" in Detroit. The team also participated in several "get out the vote" events ahead of the 2020 Election.
In its inaugural year, the youth council is aiming to do the same things as those events; bringing the team closer in line with the people and the city they represent.
“It’s an honor to be able to be recognized and be noticed in that type of way and be listened to on that sort of level," O'Banner said.
He's not shy about it, he has a favorite player; it's Killian Hayes.
“The effort he puts into the game, it’s inspirational to me. He’s the reason why I haven’t given up yet.”