The story begins when Dajonee Hale held a basketball for the first time at age 3. She did then what she does now: She put the ball in motion.
“I remember I was inside our apartment and it was the first time I ever dribbled a basketball,” she said. “My stepdad kept saying, ‘You’re double-dribbling, you’re double-dribbling, you’re only supposed to touch the ball with one hand!’ "
Hale shot baskets inside at a kids-sized hoop until she outgrew it at age 5. Then she went outside and dribbled away the hours on the street in front of her house in Northeast Anchorage.
“I didn’t get a hoop outside my house till I was in the second grade,” she said. “My auntie’s boyfriend saw I was outside dribbling all the time so he got us a hoop, and that was it. Me and my brother would spend hours and hours playing. He was five years older and about 6-2, and he would always beat me, and at the end of the day I would go inside crying. He told me I might not like it, but some day I would thank him.”
Hale, now 26, grew to be a 5-foot-8 guard with tremendous skills and court vision that make her a double-figure scorer and a flashy playmaker. During her senior year at Missouri’s Central Methodist University, she was named the NAIA Player of the Year.
Last week, after signing a contract to play professional basketball in Germany, she thanked her brother DaJ’on with a little trash talk: “I told him, sorry brother, your days of beating me are over.”
The story pivots when Hale became homeless at age 16.
The little girl who learned to dribble in an apartment and played one-on-one in front of her house had neither apartment nor house by the time she was a sophomore at East High.
She barely knew her dad. “I don’t even know his birthday. He has been in jail my entire life,” she said.
Her mom was an alcoholic who died at age 42 in 2014 when Hale was 19.
“My mom loved me to death. I knew it and I felt it,” she said. “I also loved her to death. ... She simply had an addiction. I watched it develop as I grew up and by the time I was 16 she was a full-on alcoholic. I accepted it and just did my own thing.”
When her mom was evicted, Hale stayed with a neighbor for a couple of weeks and then spent nearly two years couch-surfing and sometimes sleeping in doorways.
“Wherever I could lay my head,” she said. “I’d stay at a friend’s until their parents said I had to get out of there, and I’d find another place.”
If she had the money, she’d spend a night at the Merrill Field Inn or another inexpensive motel. Her few possessions were scattered among neighbors and friends.
As a freshman and sophomore at East High, Hale was a productive scorer and playmaker for the basketball team. Things were good her freshman year, but as a sophomore, with her life at home crumbling, she fell in with a crowd she said was heavy into drugs and alcohol.
She started skipping school and smoking weed. When the basketball season ended, so did her interest in school. She missed so many classes that the Anchorage School District dropped her from attendance rolls.
That made her homeless and a dropout. She was drinking or smoking almost daily, and she stopped playing the game she loved so much.
“I was in survival mode,” she said.
The story pivots again when Hale was 18 and two women from Wasilla changed her life. Maybe saved her life.
One is Amy Morrison, a friend of the family. The other is Michelle Overstreet, the founder of MyHouse, a homeless youth drop-in center in the Valley. Morrison got Hale back into high school, and Overstreet got her back into basketball and helped her get into college.
On an August day in 2012, Hale got in a fight with her older brother. Their younger brother, Eric, was returning to Alaska that day after spending time with his grandparents in the Lower 48, and Hale was mad nobody told her about it.
Eric was going to live in Wasilla with Morrison, who picked him up at the airport.
“He said, ‘My sister doesn’t have a place to go, please bring her, please bring her!‘ " Morrison recalled.
Morrison found Hale at the Mountain View Car Wash. “She had a little garbage bag and a black eye, and I said, ‘C’mon, get in the car.‘ ”
By then Hale was down to one set of clothes -- black jeans, a polo shirt, white Air Force One sneakers and a Carhartt jacket and hat. What little else she possessed was in the garbage bag.
Morrison was living near Burchell High School, an alternative school whose students include a number who face troubles like abusive homes, homelessness or teenage pregnancy. Morrison made Hale an offer: Hale could stay as long as she wanted, but she had to go to school.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, yes!’ ” Hale said. “I was done with all of it. I was tired.”
Morrison said some people, including some of Hale’s family, told her she was making a mistake, that Hale was a troublemaker and Morrison would regret taking her in. She set a schedule for Hale that included dinner every night, school every day and a curfew.
“She wanted that, and I wanted her to succeed,” Morrison said. “She wasn’t trying to impress me with street stories. Around me she was polite, she never talked back and she was respectful.”
Hale thrived at Burchell. The school doesn’t have sports, but there’s a place to play basketball in the cafeteria. After nearly two years away from the game, Hale started shooting again.
Overstreet, Hale’s graduation coach at Burchell, had played basketball for Wasilla High three decades earlier -- she was a member of the Sarah Palin team that won the 1982 state championship -- and when she saw Hale shooting in the cafeteria, she was impressed.
“I walked over and said, ‘Why aren’t you playing ball somewhere? You look like you were born with a ball in your hands,’ " Overstreet said.
Hale explained that she was considered a fifth-year senior and therefore ineligible to play high school basketball. Overstreet pleaded Hale’s case to the Alaska School Activities Association, which initially rejected the idea but eventually approved it. Hale remained at Burchell but was allowed to join the team at Houston High.
“Of course I was terrified,” Hale said. “I did not think that I was any good anymore.”
In her first game in nearly two years, she scored 33 points. She went on to lead the Hawks to their first state tournament appearance in years. Drugs and alcohol had impacted her speed, she said, “but as far as skill, it was all there.” And before the season had ended, the speed was there too.
Morrison watched Hale’s self-esteem grow during the basketball season while Overstreet continued to advocate for Hale in her role as executive director at MyHouse, which provided Hale with new basketball shoes and provided other assistance.
Buoyed by the support, Hale decided she wanted to give college basketball a shot. Overstreet contacted Gregory Ray, a former coach in Alaska who had become an assistant coach at Central Methodist University.
Ray was familiar with Hale’s considerable talent, but he was also familiar with her history at East High.
“I won’t even look at her unless she gets straight A’s,” he told Overstreet.
“She got straight A’s the first trimester and I called him back and he said, ‘Tell her I said to do it again,’ and he hung up,” Overstreet said. “So we went to work and she did it again. She graduated with a 4.0.”
With Overstreet’s assistance, Hale managed to accumulate $108,000 in scholarship support, including local scholarships from the Rotary Club and Lions Club in Wasilla and academic and athletic scholarships from Central Methodist.
Pivots are a way of life for kids who are homeless, Overstreet said. “It’s two steps forward and one step back,” she said.
And so it was for Hale, who says she has been guilty of “self-sabotaging behavior.” There have been personality clashes with coaches and run-ins with the law, most of them as a minor, many of them involving alcohol.
Hale got into trouble during her first year at Central Methodist and was removed from the team but allowed to remain on scholarship and attend classes. She transferred to Connors State in Oklahoma for the 2014-15 school year, but again was kicked off the team.
“I’ve had a lot of downfalls after being successful, and I called Michelle every single time, and she would not shame me,” Hale said. “She’d say, ‘That happened, let’s get back up and keep going.’ Having Michelle as a safety net helped me with everything.”
When Central Methodist accepted Hale back for the 2015-16 school year, she responded with one of the most spectacular careers in school history, one that culminated in the NAIA Player of the Year Award in 2017-18. She was the NAIA’s leading scorer with 28.8 points per game.
She finished her career with 2,109 points in three seasons and several school records, including the single-game scoring record of 50 points. Overstreet and her daughter traveled to Central Methodist for Senior Night in 2018 and joined Hale on the court.
“She won so many awards all three of us had our arms full,” Overstreet said.
After graduating summa cum laude with a degree in mathematics, Hale went to Germany to play professionally for one season for DJK for Bamberg. She was one of the league’s highest scorers before returning to Wasilla.
Hale spent the last year working as a project manager for MyHouse and spearheaded an effort that resulted in a $115,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Overstreet, who praises Hale’s linear thinking skills.
“She’s one of the most diligent budget managers that you’ll ever see,” Overstreet said. “She’ll never be homeless again. She likes having a place for her things and (having) a place to belong.”
Soon, Hale’s home will again be in Germany with Bamberg, which just signed her to another one-year contract. In a press release announcing the deal, the club called Hale a crowd favorite and “the likable American.” She leaves on Sept. 2.
Where does her story end?
“I don’t know,” Hale said. “I’m keeping my options open.”
It’s not a stretch for her to imagine coming back to Alaska. The last year has been a good one, working at MyHouse while training every day in anticipation of a return to pro basketball.
“I love that I’m living in both worlds right now,” Hale said. “This organization completely changed my life, and basketball has taken me to so many places.”