Mark Blinch/For The Globe and Mail
The retired NBAer, 41, has transitioned from player to coach after finishing a pro career that spanned 18 seasons
I grew up in Kinston, North Carolina. It was great place then. They had a big plant in town: DuPont. When it closed, a lot of people left. It's a small town with a lot of big city problems – crime, shootings. I've got to say it's really bad there now.
There were 11 of us – eight boys and three girls. I'm the baby, so I ate first. My closest brother, Tony, was six years older.
When people ask me about my parents, I say, 'They were workers.' We saw each other in passing.
The thing that was most important to my family was church. We went to our church on the second and fourth Sundays of every month. We would visit a church on the first and third. When I look back over everything, my family was based on our faith.
My dad had to be at work at 6 a.m., so we were all up at five to pray together as a family. Every day, like clockwork. I'd wake up, half-asleep, roll out of bed to pray in the living room, then go back to sleep. If I had a friend staying over, he had to get up and pray too.
When my family all came together for special occasions, we'd play basketball. That was my proving ground. All of my brothers were good – three of them played college, and another could have, but he decided to join the Army instead. I knew if I could play against them, going against kids my own age would be easy.
My brother Tony was the best scorer. My brother Thomas was the best shooter. My brother Avery was probably the toughest. My brother Greg could shoot it pretty good, too. I had a little bit of all of them in me. That makes me the best, overall.
My brother Avery, he'd kind of take it easy on me. I'd get mad and say, 'Play me like a man.' Eventually, it got to the point where them being men didn't matter. That started early for me – 13 or 14 years old.
Being a high-school star in North Carolina was fun. At first. People were coming from all over the state to watch me play. When I left to go to Oak Hill in my senior year, it put people in perspective. The only thing I read was how I'd cost the high-school association over $100,000 because I decided to do something smart that was getting me ready for college.
How much were they paying me? Nothing. My mom and dad didn't even get season passes. They had to pay for tickets. I was a purist – I just loved playing. That was the turning point where I understood that this thing is all about business. I had the potential to be a revenue driver and I had to start looking at things differently.
Every college was trying to sell me on how much I could do for them. The only person who didn't do that was (University of North Carolina) Coach (Dean) Smith. He said, 'If you work hard, you'll play.' I totally bought into that. I knew I was good enough to earn it.
That was an incredible team – so much talent, some really good seniors. We were kicking ass every day. That became a problem. I'm going to Coach Smith's office and saying, 'I feel like I should be playing more.' And he tells me that Brian Reese and I should try to be the best small forward in the country, together. I told him that I could be the best small forward in the country by myself. Imagine that. I know what Coach Smith was thinking – this guy's crazy. But that was the confidence I had.
Standing up for yourself - my dad was big on that. Stand up for yourself; stand up for your family; stand up for your brothers. If you get into a fight, I better not hear that you got your butt whupped and your brother is standing there watching. That better not ever happen. Family first. That's a mantra I live by.
I've never been afraid to express my opinion. You're not always right. But Biggie Smalls put it a way I like: 'Even when I was wrong, I got my point across/They depicted me the boss.'
After the games, I was venting to my mom. 'This ain't the place for me. I need to transfer.' She listened to my whole spiel. Then she said something that still resonates with me today: 'If you start running now, you'll be running for your whole life.' Two weeks later, I was named MVP of the ACC tournament. That's the importance of listening to your momma.
She saw it. I didn't see it. She saw the test Coach Smith was preparing me for. At the NBA level, guys deal with it every day.
I never expected to come out of school early, but then my mom got sick. Breast cancer. I had an opportunity to change her life, so that she wasn't getting up every morning at five o'clock to go to work. All I had to do was make this decision to play professional basketball.
When I left, I promised my mom and Coach Smith that I'd come back and finish my degree. A lot of people thought it was lip service. I hate it when people doubt me.
I went back to campus. I rode my bike. I went to tutoring sessions. I had a little money in my pocket. I built a house in the area. Going back and getting my degree is something I'm extremely proud of.
Civil Rights was the late '60s. I was born in the early '70s. My parents lived through it – 'Whites Only', going to the back door of restaurants, all that stuff. Hearing their stories, I was more in tune to it. I understood that a lot had changed pretty fast. But then you look at some of the stuff we're dealing with now, it seems like we still have a ways to go.
Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS
I took a course at Harvard last year. I got accepted to Emory's MBA program just before I got a call about the job. I was weighing the two. One my mentors told me, 'There are only 30 head coaching jobs in the NBA. You have to take it.' School will still be there.
When I got to Philadelphia as a rookie, I'm the saviour. I'd played power forward most of my life and now I'm getting compared to Michael Jordan as a shooting guard – and I'd never played shooting guard before.
There weren't many veterans on that team. Vernon Maxwell was the guy who taught me a whole bunch of things. Other vets didn't want to teach me anything because they were still trying to maximize what they could do on the court. I promised myself from that experience that I would never be that guy.
That's why I played so long – I always gravitated to the younger guys. I wanted to help them. It was never like, 'Stack's not going to teach me something because he fears that I might supplant him on the court.' …. You're not good enough to do that.
I took five boys into my home. They were on my son's AAU team. They were eighth graders at the time. I went and talked to their parents. I said we should try to keep these kids together. These kids were all in awful school districts in Atlanta. I could see that if we didn't make this decision to help them, they could easily fall through the cracks.
I didn't really get the total clearance from my wife on that one. That I was bringing in five more boys to live with us. It was impulsive. That's who I am. She'll tell you herself.
Those kids stayed with us for four years. They just graduated. They've gone some amazing places.
When you have strong beliefs, you shouldn't waver or allow yourself to be easily changed.
I always preface this with Christian Laettner is a friend. We spent hours after practices hanging out. We got in a heated card game. Normally, when you play cards and you lose, it's no big deal. Just try to pay your debt before the next plane ride. You don't have to pay the next day at practice, or the next four days at practice, but before the next plane ride, you get your debts out of the way. That's the rule of things. Laettner liked to have debt and play until he won it back. We had a little heated conversation about debts. I'm sitting there thinking, 'How you sitting up here talking about this and you owe me money?' Next thing I know, it was on. I was heated that night now, but I can admit when I was wrong. The next day was an off day. I drove up to his apartment. He opened the door – I could see he had a black eye. But we talked and laughed and it was over. We're still friends. As good friends as a Duke and North Carolina guy can be.
My mom worked all the time, so my older sister was like a second mother to me. Losing her early (to complications from diabetes) was tough. Her daughter moved in with us. She's like a sister to me.
I look back at all the good memories I have of my sisters (another also died owing to the same disease), and I don't know if I'd say I miss them. Because when I see my niece, I can't think help but think of them. Every time.
I can't say there's anything I would change about my life because something might be different. Maybe I'd have spent more time working on different things. Like, I was 6-5 in the seventh grade. I thought I'd be 7-foot for sure. Maybe confrontations you have with certain people, handling some of those differently. But major decisions? Nah. This is me. It's my life. Everything I've done – good, bad, in between – has put me in this spot. If I changed just one thing, I might not be here talking to you.
– As told to Cathal Kelly