Dylan Talley is stuck inside a townhouse in Camden, New Jersey, where, in the past 80 days, he’s performed CPR on three family members who’ve died in his arms.
Four members of his family in total have died in the past 10 weeks. His grandmother. His mother. His 20-year-old brother. His infant, 3-month-old nephew. The latter three passed with Talley right there, right here in this townhouse.
The memories are everywhere. But the 29-year-old former Husker basketball player can’t escape this place where his nephew once cried, his brother once laughed and his mother once cooked. He doesn’t have the money to move, and the landlord keeps knocking on the door asking for rent. This was his mom’s place. She was behind on payments before she died.
Talley is doing what he can to keep up, trading his life as a European professional basketball player for odd jobs around Camden. But warehouse work is slowed due to the spread of coronavirus. He’s been thinking about applying for a job at Amazon. They pay well, he hears. But he’s not sure that’s such a great idea, since the job is close-quarters and the EMT who arrived at the house last week to pronounce his mother dead said her symptoms were that of a COVID-19 patient. The EMT told Talley he needed to get tested.
So that’s on the list, too, on top of the fourth funeral in weeks. It started with his grandmother in February. Since then, the world has continued to stack weights on Talley’s bench press, and he can no longer lift it alone. He can’t cry anymore. He can’t even sleep. He just stares at the ceiling until the sunrise at 6 a.m.
“I talked to him the other day, he’s just very, kind of like numb to it all,” said Doc Sadler, now an assistant but who coached Talley for one year at Nebraska nine years ago. “He just tells me, ‘What else can happen, coach?’”
This story should be about Dylan Talley’s success, how the former Husker sanded off some rough edges on the way to becoming a productive adult; someone who former coaches point to as proof that hard work and determination get you everywhere. Instead, it’s a story about the cruelty of life, the nightmare of the ongoing pandemic, and how after eight seasons of playing basketball overseas, things are only getting harder instead of easier.
Talley began his basketball career at Binghamton University in 2009, was named American East freshman of the year, then after one year in junior college came to Nebraska. He was a captain of the 2012-13 Huskers and scored a team-high 13.7 points per game. After graduating, he bounced between teams in Germany and the Czech Republic. In the offseasons, he’d return home to care for his mother and grandmother and keep and eye on his little brother. Then he’d fly back to Europe and collect paychecks playing ball.
Over the years, the distance started to wear on him.
“It’s got its ups and downs, you get to experience new cultures and new cities,” Talley said. “But being away from my family and missing my daughter, for sure, that’s hard.”
After three games this season with a team in the country of Georgia, Talley moved back to Camden. He didn’t like the country, didn’t like the team, which was near the bottom of the league. On top of that, his mom, Yevette, wasn’t doing well. And his brother, Donovan Guess, a star in junior college, was starting to fall off track. Talley saw the talent in Guess. He was a big-time scorer in high school and at Mercer County (N.J.) Community College. Talley wanted to help get his brother into a Division I program.
“Camden — whew — I mean it’s a war zone, so you can go left really quick and just get yourself into a lifestyle that’s hard to get out,” said DePaul assistant coach Mark Hsu, who recruited Talley out of high school to Binghamton and remains close to the family. “Once the junior college route for Donovan didn’t pan out the way they thought, and he was just sitting at home, I think that he was potentially starting to go down a path that Dylan wanted to prevent.”
So at the beginning of 2020, Talley put his basketball career on hold to live in the townhouse — and work in a warehouse.
Tragedy first struck in late February, when Talley’s grandmother revealed to the family for the first time she had cancer. She’d been keeping it a secret. Days later, she had surgery. Soon after that, she died.
A little more than a month later, Guess started complaining about a toothache. It turned out to be a tooth abscess. So he, too, had surgery. On the afternoon of April 10, Talley went up stairs to check on his brother, who he often thought of as the next family member to assume the family basketball mantle. Guess was unresponsive. A blood clot had formed. His heart stopped while he was sleeping.
Talley began CPR. Guess was just 20 years old.
Three weeks passed, and on the afternoon of May 1, Talley heard screams from his sister in the townhouse. Her baby boy, Javonte, wasn’t breathing.
Talley took the baby, called 911, and began CPR again.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Javonte was 3 months old.
Another wave crashed two weeks later. Talley’s mother, Yvette, began complaining of pain in her leg. She wouldn’t eat. Wouldn’t leave bed. Last Thursday, May 13, Talley left the townhouse to get food.
He returned home and found her unresponsive in bed. Talley tried CPR for a third time.
An EMT pronounced her dead. She was 48.
Inconsolable, Talley called Hsu.
“Once he told me his mom passed, to me, the first thing that popped into my mind was, 'Shoot, I gotta help,'” Hsu said.
Hsu set up a GoFundMe page and tweeted out a link. The basketball community — stretching from all the stops of Talley’s career — has so-far responded by raising more than $23,000 as of Thursday. It gets bigger each day.
Mercer Community College College basketball coach Howard Levy, who coached Guess, donated $1,000. So did Sadler. Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg donated $500. So did Nebraska booster Neal Hawks. There are multiple anonymous donations of $500, and messages of encouragement from Husker fans. In total, more than 500 people have donated.
“I think that’s what makes Nebraska kind of a special place,” Sadler said. “I don’t know how many people that have donated are Nebraska people, but a large number of them are. There’s so many negative things about social media, but this is one time when social media helped get a bad message and turn it into a positive.”
There’s only so much Talley can say. About his family, about the donations, about the pandemic that has particularly ravaged the high-density urban Northeast where he lives. How do you sort it all out?
“Nobody had to give nothing at the end of the day, so I’ve been thankful and appreciative,” Talley said.
The money will go toward rent. And it’ll pay for the fourth funeral in three months, his mother’s, which is this weekend.
Whatever is left over will go toward whatever is next for Talley. Hsu hopes it gets Talley, his daughter and his 16-year-old sister out of Camden to start a life somewhere else.
Talley said he couldn’t think much past his mother’s funeral. He wants to get back in the gym and get in shape to play ball somewhere, but doesn't know where that’ll be with the pandemic continuing. Maybe he’ll try and coach somewhere. Maybe high school, maybe college. Maybe the Amazon job.
“Whoever will take me,” he said. “I’m just trying to hold up.”
At any point in Talley’s life he could’ve "gone left," Hsu said. Being raised where he was, around people he was around, he made it out when he wasn’t supposed to, Hsu said.
“He’s a success story,” Hsu said. “He’s just trying to keep going right, man, instead of going left. Because any one of these things can trigger left real damn fast.”
For now, the only reprieve Talley gets is at 6 a.m., after a sleepless night in bed, when the sun cuts through the curtains. For whatever reason, that’s when Talley finally falls asleep.
For a few hours, he fades from the cruel world. And when he awakes, he rises to try and fight through the nightmare that's befallen him.