When I tell people, man, they don’t believe me.
Like they really don’t believe me.
It’s true, though: I wanted to stay at Florida State past my freshman year. For real. But when I tell someone that, or they ask about why I left, they all have that same face. Like, Nah, this guy is a typical one-and-done. He just went there so he could get to the league.
That’s not it, though.
When my freshman year ended in 2017, and my name was being thrown around as a lottery pick, everyone kept asking what I was going to do. I didn’t answer, but deep down I knew what I wanted. I had gone in to talk to my coaches a few months before the draft and I told them that I wanted to come back. I told them that we had unfinished business, and that I had a few things I wanted to work on in my game.
I told them I wasn’t ready for the NBA.
But my coaching staff wasn’t having much of that.
They were like, “Jonathan … we will pack your bags for you, young man. You are going to the NBA.”
And over time, as I came to realize that that was the best decision, I understood why they were so firm with me. They knew that opportunities like mine don’t come around for too many players and that I’d be foolish not to take it. They were right. But it hurt that they were right.
Because … man, I just love Tallahassee. I love Florida State. That’s my place. I didn’t want to leave.
Three years later, I still keep in touch with my FSU roots. I stay up to date on the team, with Coach Ham. I know they’re doing really special things down there and they’re building on some of the success we had in 2017. It’s that time of year now, when all the alumni get a little nostalgic … keep checking their phones for tournament scores and bracket predictions.
Whenever spring rolls around, I’m reminded of Tallahassee. And even though I was only there for less than a year, it made a huge impact on who I am today.
Now with everything that’s happening in the world, and with the sudden way the NCAA season finished, I wanted to write something to the guys who are scared about their futures — their legacies.
When you play ball at FSU, man, it’s about way more than ball.
You play ball at FSU? You a ’Nole for life.
So to know what Florida State means to me, you have to know where I’m from.
I grew up on Barretto Street, up in Hunts Point in the Bronx.
Life was easy back then. I had four brothers, one sister. We had a nice house that my parents owned. They rented out the downstairs to some folks and we had the rest. My brothers and I had some bunk beds. Sis had her own room. We were just super adventurous kids. We’d always be making up games to keep ourselves busy, or we’d be out front on the street just playing with a ball or something. I didn’t hoop too much back then or take it too seriously because I loved doing what everyone else was doing.
And most of the time … we were at Kennedy Fried Chicken over on Longwood Avenue. That place had some unreal cheese fries. To this day I can remember that taste. INCREDIBLE.
That’s one of the first things I thought of when my mom told me we were moving to Florida when I was 10 years old.
… No more cheese fries?
We moved to Naples and, at first, life was just weird. I’m not sure you can find too many places in America as different as the Bronx and Naples. I was always getting in trouble because my brothers and I used to love to roughhouse with each other and that didn’t really sit so well with the teachers there.
The pace of life was slow. It was quiet. No sirens or shouting.
Naples — it’s no Bronx.
But I had this cousin down there who played basketball on a pretty good team, and he kept asking me to come out and play because I was tall. Like I said, I didn’t know too much about the game — but I decided to go out and play anyway. I don’t really know what happened, but something clicked the first couple of times I was on the court. Everything about it just felt right.
Mark Wallheiser/AP PhotoAnd then the next few years everything started to change. I was playing on travel teams, going to camps and tournaments all over the place, and people were telling me I could go to the NBA one day. For real. It all happened that fast.
But even when I was a junior or senior in high school, I didn’t really get it, you know?
When people would tell me I was a top recruit, or I could do something with basketball, I didn’t believe them. It didn’t make sense to me because I didn’t follow the sport very closely. I didn’t understand what it meant to be a prospect, or what a scholarship offer really entailed. I didn’t know a blue-blood program from any other school.
I was just Jonathan. Tall, lanky kid from the Bronx who liked to put the ball in the hoop, hang with his family and eat cheese fries.
So when I did a postgrad year at the IMG Academy in Bradenton before going to college and I started getting major attention from big-name schools, I had different wants and needs from some of the programs.
Lots of coaches from top schools would come meet with me, and they would just get straight into basketball talk.
“Jonathan, we’re going to build our offense around you … get you a bunch of touches … play you all over the court … really show you off before you get drafted.”
It’s not as if I didn’t want to hear it, or that I didn’t appreciate it. I just think it wasn’t the best approach for me.
When I first met Coach Hamilton, it was a few years before I ever even got to IMG. He’d come down with the FSU staff, or it would just be his assistant, Coach Gates, who would come down and watch a game or workout. And whenever I spoke to any of the people from Tallahassee, they made something very clear: They cared about me, the person — not just the basketball player.
It was mostly Coach Gates, who is the head coach at Cleveland State now (BIG shout-out, because he’s my guy), who recruited me, so I got to know him really well. Whenever we’d talk, he’d make sure everything was all right with me. He’d ask about my dad, who was still up in New York working. He’d want to know about my family in Naples, and how I was dealing with the recruiting process as a whole. He felt like an older brother to me, almost.
And for me, somebody who felt way out of their comfort zone in this world — his friendship meant the world to me.
Florida grew on me, too. The lifestyle was familiar and staying in the state became important.
That’s why I went to Tallahassee.
I just never could have imagined how hard it would be to leave that place once I got there.
When I first got there and our season got underway … I’m not going to lie, the arena wasn’t really poppin’. We hadn’t made the tournament in five years and the program was just starting to find its legs again. But I remember at the end of December we went on the road and beat No. 12 Virginia. Then we came home, and our next five games were against Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Louisville — they were all ranked in the AP Top 25. We won four of the five — the only game we lost was against UNC on the road in Chapel Hill. And I don’t think the Tucker Center has been the same since.
We didn’t lose a game at home all year.
And by the end of the season, the place was bumpin’.
It was incredible to play in front of those fans. They made me feel like family. Even on the road, they traveled so well and we always had support in every building we played in. Back on campus, whenever I’d bump into anybody who followed the team, they’d tell me what it meant to them to be cheering for a team that was competing at a high level again. Everybody was so kind and thankful. It’s just such a special place.
That year we made the tournament as a three-seed. We played down in Orlando against Florida Gulf Coast, and it was really eye-opening to me because I didn’t grow up watching the tournament. Experiencing the atmosphere firsthand, it was really a crazy vibe. I think maybe the weight of that stage hit a few of us and the game against FGCU was close. But Coach Ham … he really made the difference. He has this poise about him. No task is ever too great, no problem is unsolvable. Even when I felt like we were on the cusp of being upset, I just looked at him and he’d nod his head, like, Keep going, we’re going to get there. And we did, we made it to the second round.
Mark Wallheiser/AP PhotoIn hindsight, because we lost the next game to Xavier, it might not seem like much, that first-round win meant a lot.
Any time you can come together as a team when you’re all, deep down, feeling the heat … feeling the pressure — you remember those games for life. And the guys you went through it with, they become your brothers.
I understood what our team was all about after that, which is why the loss to Xavier was so tough to take. I didn’t expect it, but as the seconds were ticking off the clock and it was hitting me I might be wearing an FSU jersey for the last time … man, I just started crying. I put a towel over my head and I just let it all wash over me.
All those memories, those brothers on my team — the relationships I made … I felt like I was losing them all with that loss.
I know now that that wasn’t the case and, of course, I’m still close with so many of those friends I made that year. But in the moment it was so tough. I wish I could go back and feel all those things again because you realize the pain came from a place of love, if that makes sense. I only hurt that day because of how much I grew to feel a part of ’Nole Nation.
I thank God I got the opportunity to attend Florida State, I’m truly grateful.
So I sincerely thank y’all, Tallahassee. It’s all love.
I got one last thing to say, alright? It’s a message to this year’s team. (Coach Ham, they better read this one!!!)
I know this sucks right now. It’s brutal. And I know there are a lot more important things than basketball, or playing out your senior year. But everything y’all went through this season — the grinding at the gym, the hours on the court — it was worth it. You brought an energy to Tallahassee that will last a long, long time.
I’ve been following you guys. I know we had a chance to go deep this year. Coach Ham and the staff started something with our group and we couldn’t finish it. But I know you could have. Y’all have been doing it all year, winning big games and making the Tucker Center jump.
Y’all embraced the moment. You left your mark on the program. You did us proud.
You created a legacy for yourselves.
And that legacy? It’s bigger than a tournament in March.
But so is what’s going on in the world right now. Stay safe, stay healthy. And most importantly, take care of your families and your communities.
Because that’s how we do it in Tallahassee.