I start getting it immediately after every game.
I get roasted. I get dissected. Even if I score 30, I still get it, right on schedule:
… Your legs were gone by the fourth quarter. You weren’t jumping into your shot.
… You were rushing. You were throwing the ball. And what do we do? We shoot the ball. We don’t throw it.
… And, I’m sorry, but your arc was a little flat.
… And I know I don’t even have to say it, but I’m gonna say it anyway. Your elbow wasn’t tucked in on the corner three, baby.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Man, Coach Brooks is not messing around! Also, why is he calling you baby?”
This stuff is not from Coach. It’s not even from my friends. It’s from my mom.
The texts start blowing up after every game. Before I can even get to my locker to grab my phone, I’ll have an epic chain of texts with the full breakdown. They get so long sometimes that the phone company literally has to split them up for data purposes.
My mom is the all-seeing eye in the sky. And she definitely doesn’t lie. She knows exactly what I’m doing right or wrong, because she taught me everything I know. When I was four years old, she started teaching me the release that I still have to this day.
I remember sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed, watching the ’97 NBA Finals (MJ vs. Malone). They had this huge king-size bed in this tiny room, and in the corner there was an old Little Tikes hoop. My two older brothers had already beaten it up pretty good, but it was still standing. The thing was, there was no room to move around and dribble. I could just sit on the edge of the bed and shoot.
So I did what every kid does. I was clutching the little ball at my chest and shooting with both hands.
My mom wasn’t having it.
She played ball at Kentucky State, where she met my dad, and then she went on to be a high school coach and athletic director. She was like the O.G. of basketball where we lived outside St. Louis. She had five boys at home, and she was without a doubt the Mama Lion. She wasn’t about to have her middle son shooting from the chest. Nope.
I remember this, clear as day: She took my left arm and held it behind my back, and she put the ball in my right hand, and she showed me the stroke.
Clank. I missed. It felt weird.
Whomp. Missed again. Hit the nightstand. Airball.
I’m looking at her, like, “Mom, come on, this is weird, I don’t want to shoot like this.”
But she knew. She said, “You want me to teach you to be good?”
I said, “Yes, momma.”
She said, “Okay then.”
And she put my left hand behind my back again. Every single day, she had her four-year-old working on fundamentals. It’s been like that ever since. All the way up through middle school and high school games, she’d be sitting in the front row, screaming louder than the coaches.
“Elbow in! Elbow innnnnnn!”
Besta Beal has no chill, and I love her for it.
My family has always been my circle. I know it might sound kind of weird, but if you know a little bit about me, you’d understand.
My life changed when I was in sixth grade, because I got a chance to go to a prep school called Chaminade in a really nice part of west St. Louis Country. It was definitely different. Where I grew up in the eastern suburbs, we didn’t have a lot of money, but we weren’t dirt poor either. It was the life I was used to, and I had friends and my little basketball bubble.
When I got to Chaminade, it was a total culture shock. I’m talking all-boys school. Six a.m. wake-up call. Shirts and ties. And extremely, extremely tough academically. But more than that, it was a different world socially.
I’ve always been a quiet guy. I like to keep to myself. When I got there, I didn’t have any friends, and I was kind of lost. I had some really hard days trying to adjust to what was … well, it was like a new world, to be honest.
So one night, I sat down with my mom and dad and we made some goals. We decided that I was going to embrace the opportunity. I wasn’t just going to go along for the ride at this nice school. I was going to get a 4.0 GPA. I was going to make the varsity team as a freshman. I was going to get a free ride to college. And I was going to be hungry.
My dad would say it almost every day. I’d be walking out the door to school, sun barely coming up.
“Hungry for more.”
That was our little slogan. We were always hungry for more. Like, just for example, I always had a jump-shot. My mom made sure of that. But she wanted me to be tough in the lane, too. So after school, I’d go to the court with my two younger brothers, who are monsters. Their names are Byron and Bryon, and they’re 300-plus pound college linemen now. Back then, they were already beasts.
So I’d play them 2-on-1, and my whole mission was to get to the hole.
Man, they’d be sitting in the paint just waiting to smash me.
I got pushed, kicked, ball thrown at my head, flipped, tripped, and one time I even took a punch. They used to set me up like a tag-team. One would flip me into the air, and the other would hit me with the super-elbow. I love my brothers, but they turned ball into the WWE.
When I got to 9th grade, I was already battle-tested by my own brothers. I was ready. By the time I graduated from Chaminade four years later, I had really made a name for myself. I was the 2011 Gatorade National Player of the Year, and I had a full ride to the University of Florida to play under Billy Donovan.
And … and!
…. I finished with a 3.9 GPA.
Man, I had the 4.0 all the way through my last two years, and then I got a few Bs. I still think about it. I wanted to prove that I could make it in that world. And not just make it, but dominate it.
But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you have to stay hungry, because every step you take up the ladder, everything changes again.
When I got to Florida, it all flipped again. I had such a tough time handling adversity on the court. We were good, and I was good, but I would get so mad at myself for making mistakes that I would start spinning out. It wasn’t like high school, where you can basically do whatever you want out there. I actually went to coach Donovan and told him that I needed his help, because I was struggling to keep my emotions in check on the court.
Thankfully, my family, and especially my mom, was along for the ride with me. I mean really along. I remember we were playing Kentucky at Rupp Arena, and it was packed. You know, 24,000 people going nuts. And I’m standing in the huddle during a timeout, and it’s just deafening.
And then I hear this whistle.
I’m talking about that two-finger, heavy whistle. You know the kind. The kind only the old men from your block who used to be in the Marines know how to do.
I’m like, Nah, it can’t be.
I hear it again, and I look up into the crowd of 24,000 people, way up to the second bowl of the arena, and I spot her.
My mom is going crazy, waving her arms. She sees me see her. And then she mouths something, and puts her elbow in, and she extends her arm in a perfect arc, and of course she follows through with the wrist.
She’s showing me the stroke.
I calmed down right then and there. It was incredible. I mean, 24,000 people, and my mom has the confidence to be like, You know what? Let me talk to Brad right now. He needs me.
At the end of that season, we crossed another goal off the list in New York City at the NBA Draft. It was crazy, because it fell on my 19th birthday. I remember thinking, even then, Man, I’m still a kid. I can’t believe this. My whole family was there, reunited again, and I remember everybody crying when Washington called my name. Even my little brothers were trying not to cry, I swear.
You know what’s really crazy to me?
I got home from Game 2 against Atlanta the other night, and for whatever reason, I slipped into some deep thought. After the game, I was furious with myself. We had won. I had scored 31. I even hit a corner three near the end of the game to help seal it. The crowd went nuts. We got out with the W.
But I didn’t shoot the ball well in the first half, and I missed some free throws. My mom didn’t even need to text me. She knew. Once the playoffs roll around, she backs off a little bit.
So I was sitting up in bed that night, trying to fall asleep, and I just couldn’t. Then I caught myself, and I took a step back.
For whatever reason, I started thinking back to shooting on the Little Tikes hoop in my mom’s room. Time is so funny. I can remember that night so well that it feels like it was just yesterday, but some things from middle school or college can feel like another life altogether.
Then I had this realization. I know it might sound funny to call it a realization, but it really was. I thought …
Man, you’ve been in the league five seasons now, and you’re only 23 years old. You play basketball for a living. You’re healthy, and you’re in the NBA Playoffs. You’re here. You’ve arrived. Now what’re you gonna do with it? Can you rise to the occasion?
Maybe it sounds obvious, but there were times during the last few seasons when I was so frustrated that I couldn’t stay healthy. The worst part was that people started putting the “injury-prone” label on me, and it was so, so tough for me to hear that. Like … me? Of all people, the kid who got beat to hell by his football player brothers every day, on purpose.
I had to suffer so many bad breaks just to get to this point, where I finally feel like myself again. What’s been so rewarding about this season is that I was forced to really grow up and become a man. It’s easy for people to say, “Hey, these young guys got to step up and be leaders.”
In reality, it’s a lot more complicated.
John is 26.
Me and Otto are 23.
Kelly is 21.
You try telling a grown man who’s been in this league a long time, “Hey man, you know what? I see you developing some bad habits.”
It’s not so easy. For a few years, I kind of sat back and observed. I used to beat myself up and stew over everything. Every miss, I’d take it personally. But this season, there was no choice. Our veterans were gone. It was all on the young guys in the room to grow up and figure it out together.
There was a lot said about me and John not being able to co-exist in the backcourt. There was a lot said about me not being able to stay healthy.
I read every word of it, and I did what I’ve been doing since I was shooting Js on the Little Tikes. I put some goals in my head, and I got to work crossing them off.