Darnell Artis (above, in 2015) has played all over the world after a standout career at Gwynedd Mercy. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Christy Selagy (@ChristySelagy)
It was a regular spring day in 2016 when Darnell Artis got the call. He was walking back from class, Snapchatting his followers, when his phone started ringing.
“I don’t usually answer unknown calls, but I answered it, and the guy was like, ‘Hey this is Al Clocker from the Harlem Globetrotters… I just wanted to let you know we’ve been watching you and we want to let you … try out,’” Artis said. “I stopped walking. I just started running to my room. I was sweating at this point because I couldn't believe what was going on. I called home, called my mom and dad. Sent a text message to our group text. I was excited.”
Artis tried out, made the team, and signed his contract in December 2016. Fast forward a few years, and ‘Speedy’ Artis is a star for the Globetrotters. In that time, he’s also played professionally in Brazil, served on the coaching staff at West Catholic, and spearheaded multiple community service efforts and events.
A decade ago, Artis was in his junior year at La Salle College High School, not seeing much playing time. Former head coach Joe Dempsey could see Artis was a skilled player, but the ultra competitive Philadelphia Catholic League is one of the best non-prep leagues in the country, pumping out Division I players every season. It’s a difficult league for anyone, but especially for a 5-foot-7 point guard.
“He's one of the most determined kids I've ever coached,” Dempsey said. “He’s the kind of kid that I get out of bed every day to try to help. He loves the game. Hopefully I've been a small part of his success and a small part of his experience… Hard work, played the right way, community minded, good to others, just checks all the boxes. He’s a tremendous, tremendous person I’m so proud to say I coached.”
Artis earned more playing time his senior year, establishing himself as a team leader and “one of those guys you couldn’t take off the court,” according to Dempsey. That season, Artis was the team’s fifth leading scorer, averaged over five assists per game, and had a handful of double-digit point performances. That was enough to catch the eye of John Baron, head coach at Division III Gwynedd Mercy.
Baron also saw what Dempsey did: Artis would be a standout in the right environment, even if that wasn’t obvious to others.
“I like to try and find guys that will continuously try to prove everybody wrong, with a chip on their shoulders through their entire careers,” Baron said. “Almost like trying to prove that they belong. He’s a perfect example.”
Artis thrived at Gwynedd; he was named Colonial States Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year, and went on to earn three consecutive First Team All-CSAC honors his sophomore through senior seasons. He ranks first all-time in assists (448) and sixth in points (1319) for the Griffins.
Artis (above, in 2015) had a standout career for the Griffins and helped them win the 2015-16 CSAC Championship. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Less than a year after wrapping up his college career, Artis was on the road with the Globetritters for the first time. His first season with the team ended in April, but it wasn’t long before he was traveling again, this time to play in the Paulista Championship in Brazil.
Gwynedd assistant coach Kevin White had previously played in the tournament, which was how Artis came across the opportunity. He first heard from the Brazilian league when he was traveling with the Globetrotters, but turned down the offer.
When the opportunity rose again, the timing was better. Former Gwynedd teammate Julian Hyden was considering playing for the America team (no connection to the United States of America) in the 2017 Paulista Championship in Brazil, and the team told Hyden they wanted a point guard, too.
Re-enter Artis, who didn’t need to be back on the road with the Globetrotters for a while. Although Hyden ended up pursuing a different opportunity, Artis reconnected with the league, headed down to Brazil in July, led all players in scoring with 18.6 ppg, and ranked in the top 10 in assists (3.8) and steals (1.4) per game.
It wasn’t just the statistics that made his time in Brazil memorable, though.
“[Younger fans] were really the ones trying to teach me Portuguese because I was able to talk to them on a regular conversation level. That’s how I became a fan favorite out there with the kids,” Artis said. “You see a lot of players wearing a tie up headband now, like the last couple years. Well, I was doing that in Brazil… By the time I left, kids were wearing tie up headbands. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s some influence out here, 4,000 miles from home.’”
As much as he enjoyed his time in Brazil, coming back to the Globetrotters wasn’t a difficult choice at all. It was much easier for Artis to stay connected with his family and community when he was spending the bulk of his time in the States.
In March 2019, he played in front of friends and family at the Wells Fargo Center. Artis had always gone to see the Globetrotters when they were in Philly and to now be a part of it, surrounded by fans in Speedy jerseys? He was thrilled.
The Globetrotters' COVID pause gave Artis the opportunity to serve on the coaching staff at West Catholic. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
With his Globetrotters fame on the rise, Artis and his teammate Flip White headed to Europe in February 2020 to promote the team’s upcoming world tour. The duo were on TV shows including Good Morning Britain in the United Kingdom and Posse in Finland. Artis played wheelchair basketball in Denmark and performed at halftime of a Eurocup game in Italy. He met the mayor of Ancona, Italy, and did press conferences in the country, sometimes seeing himself pop up in Italian newspapers. And that was all before the tour officially started.
“It’s been amazing. The way I've evolved the last few years has really been, even to me, astonishing,” Artis said. “Sometimes I can't believe I’ve done some of the things I’ve done. Like last year when the pandemic hit, it stopped so many more experiences I was about to have.”
Things started out normally enough in the UK, with the team making stops at Wembley Stadium and the O2 Arena, among others. After their last game in the country—March 7—Artis and the Globetrotters were supposed to head to Italy. But, Italy was starting to shut down due to the virus. France was supposed to be the next stop, but with things shutting down there and across the world, the Globetrotters had to head home.
When Artis shared an Instagram post about coming back to Philly, West Catholic head coach Miguel Bocachica noticed. Bocachica knew Artis from their years in the Philly basketball world, and had offered him a position on his staff when he started three years ago. Artis was interested in coaching and had occasionally coached with the Gwynedd Mercy team after graduating, but his travel schedule with the Globies meant any kind of permanent position wasn’t really possible.
The pandemic changed that, and Bocachica seized the opportunity. He sent Artis the eyes emoji. They both knew what it meant. Would West Catholic be seeing Coach Artis soon?
Yes, it would. Artis joined the staff with the caveat that, if the Globetrotters went back on the road during the season, he’d have to leave the Burrs. That was fine with Bocachica. He was just excited to have Artis on board.
“I love his basketball mind,” Bocachica said. “He’s a thinker, so when he sees something, he says it… The fact that he’s still doing it and still playing, that’s another thing. The kids watch him on film. The kids see that he’s a player. He’s not just talking it. When he’s trying to teach a kid, he’s not just talking it. He’s trying to do the same thing he’s teaching right now. That’s rare.”
And what do his former coaches think Artis will be like as a coach? Dempsey, who is currently an assistant at Lower Merion, said Artis will be a “fantastic” coach because of his work ethic, knowledge of the game, and leadership skills. Baron has seen Artis work with younger players and agrees with Dempsey.
In addition to coaching and playing, Artis also runs a training business, a summer league, and a community building organization. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“I think that he’s going to be not only a really good high school coach,” Baron said. “I think if he connects with the right people, he’s going to be a very good Division I college coach. All he needs is an opportunity to get in front of the right person, and they’re going to love him.”
Part of that, Baron said, is because of the way Artis interacts and connects with others. Even when he’s playing or coaching, it’s about more than the game. He sees opportunities to bring people together.
In college, Artis was always eager for the team’s volunteer work with the Breathing Room Foundation, which provides support for families affected by cancer. When the team went to deliver Christmas presents and a Thanksgiving turkey, Artis wanted to get to know the families and talk with them about what they were going through.
After Baron’s ex-wife, Jane, was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer in 2015, Artis hand wrote a letter to the Breathing Room—a letter which Baron still has—nominating the family to receive support from the foundation.
Artis is still frequently in touch with Baron’s two children. He even calls Baron’s son—JP, a junior at Pope John Paul II—after his games to discuss what he did well and what he could do better.
Guiding young players is nothing new to Artis. He runs a training business, Underdawgs Basketball, and has worked with multiple kids for years. Artis and his friends also run Lonnie Young Summer League, an initiative with roots back in 2013, and provides playing opportunities for kids and adults, including a league for men on probation and parole with required life skill classes.
“I know everyone knows about my basketball accomplishments and what I did in college, what I’ve been doing since college and all of those things,” Artis said. “But my community stuff is the things that I'm most proud of, like the things that make me the happiest.”
Artis and his friends also run We Not Me, a community building organization that focuses on providing events and activities in Artis’ East Germantown neighborhood. Their first year was mostly just moonbounces and cotton candy, but the organization grew quickly, and looked poised to add a dance team and cheer competition, among other things.
The Lonnie Young Summer League was also supposed to expand to include a flag football league leading into the basketball leagues. Last year’s plans were stymied by COVID, much to Artis’ dismay, although he’s hoping to resume his community work this summer.
From coaching to playing to serving the community, Artis has a lot of open doors. So what’s the’ next step? Where will he be in five years? Ten years?
“This is always the toughest question,” Artis said. “COVID has made the world understand that nothing is given and nothing is set in stone and you have to be prepared for anything, really, at this point. I’m just prepared for wherever God leads me… Wherever He leads me, whatever doors He opens, I usually walk through them and do whatever is asked of me in that room to the best of my ability.”
Wherever that next room is, whether he’s Darnell or Speedy or coach, you can be sure he’ll be combining community service and basketball. They’re both just who Artis is.
“I’m a 5-7, African American kid from not the greatest neighborhood,” Artis said. “The odds were stacked from the beginning. There’s chances to end up doing so many different things where I'm from. Selling drugs to taking drugs to being immersed in the violence that goes on up there, so it’s like, that’s against you.
“I know I’m just one man. Maybe I can’t change the entire community, but if I can help save the life of one kid, change the outlook of one kid, four kids, five kids, then I'm gonna do that by any means necessary.”