A Yonkers Tale

There are a lot of myths about basketball players from New York, but there’s one I want to bust right off the jump.

They say the only thing New Yorkers know how to do is dribble.

I get it. When people look back, they think of Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair, the guys that had the ball on a string.

But that’s not all New York kids can do anymore. We can shoot, we can get to the rim anytime we want. We don’t get enough credit for that evolution. A lot of times, when I was playing high school or AAU ball, people would sag off me ’cause they thought I was this New York kid who couldn’t hit an open jump shot. (Bad idea. I went on to tie the career record for three-pointers made at Cincinnati.)

Coming up between 2005 and 2010, I was surrounded by lots of regional talent and the competition was fierce. I’m talking about guys like Kemba Walker, Sylven Landesburg, Darryl (Truck) Bryant, Kevin Jones and Mookie Jones. I squared off against those guys regularly, and it made me better because I had to bring it all the time. Every weekend was like a Big East game. My AAU team, the Westchester Hawks, had five D-I guys in its starting lineup — including Tyshawn Taylor — and two D-I dudes coming off the bench. The ’08 and ’09 recruiting classes from New York were special, and I’m not even including the Jersey and Philly guys like Corey Fisher, Dexter Strickland and Tyreke Evans. They could all do more than just dribble.

We all had the same formative experiences, watching local guys like Sebastian and Lenny Cooke blow up. We all watched Through the Fire, the documentary that focused on Sebastian’s senior year at Abraham Lincoln High. It was the He Got Game of my childhood, but the story was real, and it was one that my friends and I could identify with. (I always thought they should have continued that series, with Lance Stephenson, and then Isaiah Whitehead after him.) We lived and died with those guys. I knew Sebastian the best. I was actually at the game at Fordham in 2003 between Lincoln High and Edgewater High, of Orlando — when Sebastan went up against Darius Washington and led Lincoln to an 82–77 win on national television. I remember seeing Rick Pitino in the stands. That was the first time I had seen him or actually knew what a college offer was. The game was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Sebastian sprained his ankle right before halftime, and we all thought he was done. I remember being so disappointed that he might not get the chance to shine on such a big stage, and that Lincoln would lose to this team from freaking Orlando.

Then, all of the sudden, Bassy came back. He played so well in the second half that it was like, Did he even get hurt? Lincoln won and it was incredible. I remember feeling so proud. We saw how hard Sebastian had worked and how he had made the most of the opportunity. Remember, he was a small guy. Even though his pro career didn’t pan out like people expected, we were always watching. He represented all of us.

We saw some great things, but we also saw some sad stuff, too.

The best player I ever saw, bar none, was Lenny Cooke. Something I remember so vividly was watching Lenny roast LeBron. When LeBron made it to the NBA and started emerging, we were all laughing like, Man, Lenny was so much better than him! There wasn’t anyone like Lenny. But watching LeBron rise and Lenny fall showed that making it is not all about basketball. What do I mean by that? What made LeBron’s story different from Lenny’s? Lenny had some bad people around him — people who were constantly asking him for stuff — and he didn’t have the opportunity to escape the negative environment that surrounded him. Lenny was from the mecca, and people expected the world from him. LeBron had an opportunity to breathe in a smaller city. Lenny didn’t.

We all learned from that.

It hurt. Those New York guys that surrounded me were basically family. I took their failures personally, and so did all my friends who played ball.

Even though I bled for New York basketball, and my game was shaped by my experiences there, I knew I had to leave.

Actually, my mom forced me to leave.

I’m not from the best neighborhood. I grew up in Yonkers, in a place called Cottage Place Gardens, which is a project building. It isn’t pretty. You heard of D Block? I grew up right down the street from there. Most people I knew were involved in the streets, selling drugs, and most of them didn’t finish high school. Going to college wasn’t really a thing.

From an early age, basketball was really important to me. It was the most popular sport in the area, and I threw myself into it, playing every chance I got — which helped a lot since my parents both worked and weren’t always around. I had to decide early on whether I wanted to be a leader or a follower. My mom taught me to be a leader. My early teenage years really taught me how to move, how to maneuver through life, and to avoid the negative stuff that surrounded us.

When I was nine, I was playing in a Salvation Army League game with some kids from my neighborhood. In one game, I scored 65 points, and I thought, Yeah, maybe this is something I should take a little more seriously. From then on, I had a special connection with basketball.

I had a good high school career at White Plains High, where I averaged 28.4 points and 7.0 rebounds in four years. Once I started getting recruited, I made an unofficial visit to St. John’s with Mom, to check out the city’s premier college basketball program.

On the way back from our visit, she said, out of the blue, “Yo, you gotta get outta New York. You can’t be here.”

She was right — there were too many distractions. All my friends were there, and many of them weren’t going to college. I also had a girlfriend in the city. I was lucky to have the parents I had: They both worked, so there wasn’t any additional pressure on me like I was seeing with some of my peers. It was never, I need to make this basket — or I need to make this play — in order for my family to make money.

So I took a prep year in at Notre Dame Prep, in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, to work on my academics and my game. It was a tough year, and I felt lonely a lot. My roommate was a guy from Queens named James Sutherland, which helped. But I was still a long way from home, in the middle of nowhere, living inside a converted — but sort of decrepit — mansion. (When Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin came to scout me, he actually got lost because he was looking for a school, not a house.) Weirdly, I had been assigned the room Michael Beasley had lived in the year prior, and he had written BEAS in the closet. At the time, Michael was a freshman at Kansas State and he was scoring like crazy. Even though it was a small thing, that helped me get through that year — it showed me that if I had the work ethic to stick through my situation, I would be on the path to excelling in college, too.

Coach Cronin came to Fitzburg to watch me work out and told me he wanted to offer me. I made an official visit to Cincinnati and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was my first official visit to any school, and I just knew I wanted to go there. I was on the plane coming back to New York from Cincy and I texted Coach Cronin, “This is where I want to go. I want to commit.” And he says, “O.K., great. Let’s get the paperwork finished.”

At the same time, my friend Lance Stephenson was trying to decide where to go. He had it down to Maryland and Cincinnati. When he heard that I had committed to Cincy, he was like, Why not? We had become pretty good friends, we were both city kids, and we were comfortable with one another. Of course we then became roommates, which was really beneficial to both of us.

Not everything about Lance being there benefitted me, though.

With the last-minute addition of Lance, the Bearcats had a pretty crowded backcourt, and Coach Cronin wanted me to redshirt my freshman year.

I’m a competitive guy, so yeah, I was absolutely tempted to say, “No way. I’m not redshirting. I’m too good for that.” But I’ve always wanted to try and see things from other perspectives, so I talked to my mom about it. She said, “Son, maybe he knows what he is talking about.” Guess what? She was right.

Every practice during my redshirt freshman year was like a game for me. I attacked the situation with that mindset. I know it would make sense for me to say that season was painful and agonizing, but honestly, it was over so fast. We didn’t make it to the tournament. So it was like preseason and conference play and that was it for us.

Then it was my time. I was ready.

I had a great four-year career at Cincy, which culminated in being named first-team All-America by the AP my senior year. But given that I was 24 when I was a senior, I wasn’t high on draft boards. I went undrafted.

So I went to the D-League.

I struggled in a lot of games in the D-League, especially that first year. I had been drafted by Santa Cruz, but during the season I was traded to Delaware. Listen, I was struggling. I didn’t know exactly what it was I needed to do to get an NBA look. My play was up and down. There were games where I’d do well, and a lot of games where I didn’t know if I had done well or not. It was really hard to tell. Friends who had been in my ear at Cincy faded away — people thought I was supposed to be in the NBA, but here I was, in Sioux Falls for a road game against the Heat’s D-League team. The only people calling me then were my parents, who asked me if I had a good enough coat to wear. (Sioux Falls, man.)

It meant so much to me to have my mom and dad in my ear, telling me, “You’re still learning. You have to get this under your belt.” It was a pretty intense experience. You’re going up against guys who have been to the NBA and lost their spot, so it sometimes felt like they were taking things out on you.

What’s great about the D-League is that someone is always watching — even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes. I had a string of great games at one point in the season, and I started getting call-ups out of nowhere based on my success in Delaware. First I went to the Timberwolves, then to the Nuggets. Then, the Nets. Each time, the call up was for 10 days.

Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune
Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune /

Let me tell you a little bit about 10-day contracts. You’re living out of a suitcase. But that’s not even close to the most uncomfortable thing about the situation. You can’t do anything wrong. I’m a guy who is big on being on time — being on time has never been an issue for me. The rule of thumb is, if you’re eager to impress, you have to be there 15 minutes early. On a 10-day, you gotta be there 30 minutes before, if not earlier. You always gotta be one of the guys shooting after the game and lifting weights. You’re so tired, and you can see all the guys on contracts relaxing, but you gotta stay late and grind. You gotta be the first one at the gym in the morning. When it’s time for a game, you’re already exhausted, but you gotta dig deep and find the energy to go all out when you get minutes. (If you get minutes.)

But it gave me an edge. It made me realize that you gotta have that mindset all the time, because someone else in the league is working just as hard as you. When Sean Marks and Brooklyn decided to pull the trigger on me and give me a guaranteed contract for the rest of the season last year — man, what a relief — Sean Marks pulled me aside and told me that I was one of his guys. We have a little joke about it, because offering me a contract was one of his first transactions — “Let’s not screw this up for each other.” Even though I wasn’t a lottery pick or anything, he made sure that I was part of the plan going forward and that he was invested in me. I wanted to leave him with a good impression.

It all comes back to my upbringing, to my parents, and to the choice I made when I was a kid to surround myself with people who would prop me up. One of the biggest things my parents taught me was how to say no. I get ticket requests every night, and my rule is, If they haven’t been around, I gotta say no.

Not a lot of players come out of my situation and make it to the NBA, but it’s good to have people who’ve got my back.

Take Jason Phillips, a little kid my parents used to watch over when they were teenagers.

Once, when I was a kid, I was over at my grandmother’s building, which was on a side street near the projects. She lived in the same building as Jason, who was in his 20s at this point.

A kid I knew in the building wanted to introduce me to Jason, so we went over to Jason’s mom’s apartment and knocked on the door.

Jason emerged. Immediately, he recognized me. In a gravelly, deep voice, he said, “You’re Shark’s son, ain’t you?” (They called my dad Shark in those days.) That voice was one that the world would come to know pretty well.

I had just met Jadakiss.

We’ve been good friends ever since.

This year’s Nets team has 12 new players, so even though I wasn’t even here for the full season last year, I’m one of the older guys … which is crazy. Right now, the Nets foster a culture of development and Coach Atkinson doesn’t have any limits for where progress can be made. We play a really free-flowing style, and he pushes me to be really aggressive within it. Coach is always making sure that we’re going out and playing to our fullest potential, making sure we’re enhancing every part of our game and becoming more well-rounded players. As a young group, it’s important for us to find as many little things in our games to polish as we can. Like Brook shooting threes, that’s something he’s been working on all summer, and even though people have been surprised by how many of ’em he’s making, we’re not.

I’ve gotten close with Jeremy Lin — in fact, Jeremy hired us a sleep coach, and he told me I have a standing offer to crash at his place in Brooklyn when the commute back to White Plains isn’t convenient. (I have a daughter, Bailey, who is six and attends school there.) I’ve been working on developing my combo guard skills, and Jeremy has been instrumental in that, even when he’s been out this season with an injury.

His instruction was instrumental in the biggest game of my career, when the Clippers came to the Barclays Center in November.

At that time, Jeremy was out eight to 12 games with an injury, so it was up to me to come up with plays at guard. Against the Clippers, I played the whole fourth quarter and both overtimes quarters at PG, which I’ve never really been able to do. It all comes down to development, and coach has been developing me to be a combo guard since last summer. It’s helped my game a lot, and it’s also helped me become more comfortable on the court, knowing that I can bring up the ball anytime. That kind of confidence has meant everything coming from the coach and GM — to know they want the ball in your hands in big stretches.

I ended up with 38 points and 14 rebounds. Not bad for a kid from Yonkers.

New York takes pride in their pro teams — all the New York guys on the Nets feel it, and it fuels our competitive spirit. Every guy coming from New York has a lot of pressure on them. Even though it’s a privilege to play here and I take it super seriously, I don’t feel nervous. I don’t need to be. I don’t need to put pressure on myself. Everyone in New York knows who I am. I feel blessed.

Every time I get to the arena, I don’t feel worried about anything.

I’m home.