I saw The Pursuit of Happyness when I was 13, and I’ve probably seen it 30 times since. It was the first movie that was more than a movie for me. The year before, when I was 12, I was living with my dad in San Angelo, Texas. One day my dad told me that we were going to lose our house. I didn’t understand exactly what he meant, but he meant we had to pack up everything we owned. We were going to be homeless. The Pursuit of Happyness isn’t the same story as my childhood, but it’s like an echo of it. It always gave me lot of comfort to rewatch it over the years, like it was talking right to me.
My parents taught me a lot of things — being grateful is one of the biggest. I’m two years into the NBA now, and of course I’m very grateful. But it’s one thing to just say you’re grateful. For me, it goes deeper than that. I can understand that if you look at someone like me — a guy who made it to the NBA, who’s playing in front of thousands of people — you might think, like, This was always meant to be. The path was always clear. But it wasn’t, and me being where I’m at now still surprises and humbles me. So I’m still always trying to remember what my parents taught me, and to remind myself how crazy it is that I’m here. And how I didn’t do it alone. And how grateful I am.
I was reminded of that this year at All-Star weekend. I had been invited to play in the Rising Stars Challenge, and right before the game, when I was warming up with Jaylen Brown, Shaq came up to us. I actually heard this voice before I looked up and saw him. We talked for a little while, but I don’t even remember what we talked about. I just remember that we laughed about some stuff and that he was even bigger than I expected. Still, though, he was just like he is on TV — really easygoing. Meeting Shaq was a moment for me. Shaq was always like this larger-than-life dude. The young Diesel on the Magic, the dominant Diesel who won three titles with the Lakers. I always looked up to him. I remember watching All-Star games on TV as a kid and just thinking, That’s where you want to be.
But I never imagined what the road would look like.
My Schwinn could fly.
I remember the day I walked into Walmart to buy that bike. I had the cash in my right pocket, candy in my left. I’d saved up enough money from my summer job selling newspaper subscriptions.
After I paid, I was trying to walk the bike out of the Walmart like it wasn’t a thing. I couldn’t keep it cool. When the door was like 10 feet away, I got up on the bike and rode it out of the store. I rode it out of the store, jumped the curb outside and I was free.
I bet I had some kind of wild-big smile across my face. I had nowhere to be, nothing to do, no worries. I was just riding free — pedaling fast, slowing it down, jumping curbs, pulling wheelies. I was hopping back on the pegs, all of that stuff. Flying.
I swear it took me an hour to get home, even though the Walmart was like two miles from my house. The feeling of riding home that day, it’s hard to really put into words … but I can still see it. I wasn’t in any hurry. I was letting cars and bikes pass me by — poppin’ a wheelie here or there, turning down random streets. Just riding. I was straight up admiring that bike … admiring all the little things — the shape of the frame, the grip on the handlebars, the tires that were so new they still had those little hairs on them. I was just proud.
And more than anything, I wanted to show it to my dad.
When I got in the door, he was like, WHERE’D you get that? I told him that I bought it myself. He gave me the biggest hug. Then he heated up some dinner and I parked the bike in the living room so I could admire it while we ate.
I didn’t know it then, but my dad had a lot on his mind. He was working six days a week, but it wasn’t enough. We were about to lose our house.
The first grown-up decision I had to make was leaving my mom to live with my dad when I was 12. I grew up in San Antonio. When my parents got divorced I stayed there with my mom and my dad moved away. He ended up getting into some trouble and went to jail for a little while. But when he got on his feet, he ended up in San Angelo, Texas — a few hours north of San Antonio. I missed him and I wanted to be there for him — to be with my pops. In my gut, it felt like the right thing to do. But it was hard — it was like the first real hard choice I had to make in my life up to that point. I didn’t want to leave my mom. She was essentially a single mom, working full-time with me and my siblings. But I didn’t want my dad to be all alone.
My dad and I stuck together. We were a team. When the eviction notice came and we had to be homeless, it really tested how strong of a team we really were.
When we walked into The Salvation Army that first day, I thought it was a cafeteria.
My dad signed some papers at the front desk and they showed us our room. The room had four concrete walls with two beds — no carpet, no TV, no furniture. It was just a place to sleep. My dad looked at me and said, “We’re lucky we got this room.” I was like, Lucky?? How? And he said, “Some rooms have four or six beds, but we got a room to ourselves.” My dad, man. Even in a homeless shelter with his son, he was trying to find the upside.
He was constantly doing that, my dad, just looking for ways to teach me. It was never like, Son, here are the three keys to life or anything like that. He wasn’t even a big talker. He just liked to point out how different life situations could be educational.
My dad, man. Even in a homeless shelter with his son, he was trying to find the upside.
We stayed at The Salvation Army for the next 30 days, except for a few nights when we got there too late and they were full. They had this rule that you had to check out every morning and then check back in every evening. So there were a couple times we were out of luck and my dad would have to call a friend to ask if we could crash on a couch. On two nights, when nobody answered his calls and the rooms were full at the Salvation Army, we had to sleep outside. And once I got older, I realized how embarrassing it probably was for him, a grown man with his son asking people for shelter and admitting that we were homeless. To me, though, at that time, I never saw him show it. He made me feel like we were a team, like we were just on an adventure.
That whole time, I was trying to go with the flow, trying to be adaptable. I remember how cold it got in those rooms at the Salvation Army because of the concrete walls. And I remember those beds because there was no boxspring. It was just a thin mattress on top of a metal frame. You forget about how important a box spring is until you don’t have one. To this day, when I jump into a nice hotel bed, I take a second to remember to be thankful for a box spring.
In the mornings, it was weird — I’d be brushing my teeth next to total strangers. It was weird, you know, because I never knew who was gonna be coming out of a stall. I remember something my dad told me. He said to use it as a lesson to treat everybody right. If we were down on our luck but we were good people, you never knew what the person next to you was going through. I’ll never forget that.
My dad and I had our morning routine — you know, waking up and getting ready together. We’d walk to the bus stop, a 30- or 40-minute walk, and taking the bus — me to school and him to work. Walking to the bus stop with my dad in the morning, I saw him kind of smiling a little bit, like he was daydreaming. I was thinking, What is he smiling about? Something inside of him was keeping him going forward. I don’t know where it came from. You have to know this about my dad — he’s one of the hardest working people I know. Even in the toughest of times, when we were homeless, he was working as much as he could to get us back on our feet. He just kept telling me that we were going to climb our way out of the situation soon. He would talk about how adversity builds character. I didn’t really ever see him complain. So to this day, I don’t like to, either. Dad wouldn’t approve.
Nobody achieves success by themselves. That’s something I really believe. I’ve seen it. Most of us, at some point or another, are helped along by a guardian angel or two.
That’s who Bowdy Thompson was for me. Bowdy was my middle school friend. By eighth grade in San Angelo, my dad and I weren’t at the Salvation Army anymore but we were bouncing around to a lot of places. Bowdy found out about what me and my dad were going through and he told his parents. They offered to let me stay with them for the rest of the school year. My dad agreed it was the best thing for me, so right after that I was living with the Thompsons. They gave me my own room and everything. I was the only black kid in that neighborhood. You can imagine how some people probably viewed the situation — some black kid from who knows where, living with a white family right in the middle of suburbia. I could sense that vibe sometimes. But the Thompson family never made me feel out of place. They embraced me. Bowdy’s mom treated me like I was one of her own. To this day, it means the world to me, how giving they were, and I still talk to Bowdy. I can’t really ever thank them enough. To me, it’s just simple — looking out for people in hard times is one of the most beautiful things you can do in life. With the Thompsons, I had strangers treating me like family. That bed, too, man … it was comfortable.
I’d always been an above-average player on the basketball court. By high school, I decided to move back to San Antonio because it had the better basketball talent and because I wanted to be closer to my mom again, and my dad was doing much better. I tried out for varsity at Earl Warren High School and I made the team. Before the season started my freshman year I was ruled ineligible because I was failing Spanish … no bueno. My sophomore and junior years I got my grades up, but I barely played because the team was stacked with seniors. It wasn’t until my senior year that I was in the starting lineup. I wasn’t getting any good D-I letters.
That year, a guy named John Collins showed me how to approach basketball in a different way. He changed me and changed my game for the better. I think of Coach Collins as a guardian angel who came into my life when I needed him. Collins was a local basketball coach who ended up coaching me in AAU that summer and, man … he just wasn’t like any person I’d ever come across. The way he talked about basketball was in terms of life or death. See, he talked about hoops in the same way my dad talked about work. It was almost like a Kobe mentality — uncomfortable situations weren’t what you avoided — they were what made you better. He never gassed me up. It wasn’t enough to be tall or have some talent. His vibe was that nobody was going to hand you anything. When I met him, I told him that I’d been through stuff — that I could handle whatever he threw at me.
I thought I was tough, and maybe I was to a certain extent. Collins gave me that dog mentality. He showed me how to put in work.
After every one of my high school practices from that point on, Coach Collins would be waiting to pick me and my point guard, Marcus King, up and we’d go to the gym. He kept the gym hot as f— on purpose. He never turned on the A/C. And we spent most of the time not even touching a basketball. We’d run two and a half miles right away, then we’d hit the weights. At the end, we’d get to do 45 minutes of skills work with a ball. My arms would be like noodles. Coach Collins really showed me the difference between just going through practice … and being a dog. Without him, I don’t think I would be where I am today.
I wouldn’t be where I am without my mom and dad, either. We don’t all get together as a big family too often anymore. Not since the divorce.
That’s what made it so good to have everyone there the night of the NBA draft in 2016.
On draft day, I spent a lot of time thinking about the handshake with Adam Silver. When I was a kid, it’s funny, when I used to imagine myself at the NBA draft I would picture shaking the commissioner’s hand. I must have replayed that scenario a hundred times in my head.
Everybody’s seen Silver’s handshake, right? It’s just a good, solid shakedown. Nice approach. Smooth. Not too flashy. The whole day before the draft I was thinking about it.
They had us seated at a table way in the back, up near the stands. My agent was on his phone the whole time. The Hawks were on the clock with the 12th pick. I saw my agent hang up and nod to me, and he showed his phone. It was a text from Malik Rose, in the Atlanta front office. The text said, We’re glad to have Taurean. I had to read it twice.
Once I heard my name get called, everything sped up. As I was walking up to the stage I was thinking one thing over and over: Just don’t mess up the handshake. When I was a few feet from Adam Silver, I’m going, O.K., it’s showtime, Taurean. You can’t mess up this handshake … not on draft night, not on national TV.
Then I called an audible.
Adam Silver put out his right hand, and I stretched my arms out real wide.
I don’t know where it came from, but I just thought at the last second, Nah, it’s hugging time. We hugged.
Turns out the commish is a good hugger, too.
I remember trying to look out into the crowd as they led me off stage, just trying to see if I could spot my family. But I couldn’t see anything because of the lights. All I could do was imagine them and feel them — feel all the love they were sending my way in that moment. Because any success I’ve had in my life isn’t my own. I had people looking out for me. I had people who taught me how to work — people who taught me that effort is 100 times more important than an excuse. I had people who helped me understand that struggling isn’t failure. It’s just part of the road. It’s crazy, how we look at “success” and we only see the end result. It’s easy to look at an end result and be like, It was always meant to be like that. I just don’t see it like that. That’s why I wanted to tell you these stories about my life.
After my hug with Adam, they led me to the green room to do media stuff. The reporters had their microphones and cameras out and they were asking me the things you’d expect, like, How does it feel?
I don’t remember exactly what I said — some standard things about how thankful and excited I was, which I was.
But if I could go back to that moment, I would’ve had a better answer.
How does it feel?
I would’ve said it feels like I’m on back that Schwinn, jumping a curb, free.