BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Summer basketball has ruined the American basketball player.
That's the common theory among talking heads, and I can't say I totally disagree. The extensive travel limits practice to almost nothing, statistics are deemed more important than wins and runners for agents lurk from one event to the next. No doubt, the summer circuit is a breeding ground for bad habits and folks with bad intentions. Anybody who claims otherwise is lying. So if you want to curse it all, that's fine and reasonable.
|Milton Jennings' change of environment changed everything for him. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Kline)|
It's a story that shows the other side of things.
"In a way summer basketball saved my life," Jennings said. "It really did."
Unless you are a recruiting enthusiast or Clemson fan you've probably never heard of Jennings. Likewise, you probably have no idea how close you were to never hearing about him at all because you have no idea how close he was to never amounting to anything, on or off the court.
"I had a terrible childhood," Jennings said over dinner the other night, and the bluntness was striking. We were tearing through an order of wings at and the conversation turned from basketball to the Olympics, from my life to his.
"I didn't have any friends until I was like 12 years old," Jennings said, and I couldn't help but press the issue. It's not everyday that an elite basketball prospect -- Jennings is committed to Clemson and rated by Rivals.com as the ninth-best player in the Class of 2009 -- tells you everything hasn't always been quite as promising. So I was intrigued by the dialogue and started talking to anybody I could about Jennings to find out more.
Here's what I learned: Jennings has a black father and white mother who was 16 when she gave birth. That's a difficult place to start, especially in the South where bi-racial couples aren't always embraced. So Jennings had the odds stacked against him from the moment he entered this world, which is why nobody was surprised when he failed third grade before limping through fourth, fifth and sixth.
School was hard.
Nothing came easy.
But the kid did get one break in life: Good genes.
Jennings was always a little taller than the other kids, making basketball an obvious hobby. He played in a church league yet wasn't all that skilled or good. But when Rufus McDonald decided to start an AAU team for his youngest son, Tyler, he remembered the tall kid he had seen in that church league and thought it might be worth reaching out to see if he was interested in playing.