Kansas’ Ben McLemore spreads his wings
02/12/2013 12:28 PM
08/06/2014 12:50 AM
The days begin early here, behind the razor-wire fence and electronic steel doors, inside the cell walls that Keith Scott has called home for more than three years.
On most mornings, Keith, 26, climbs out of bed at 6:30 a.m., a young face among the murderers, rapists and death-row inmates at the Potosi Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison 75 miles southwest of St. Louis. His mornings begin at his menial job in the prison’s “Canteen,” where he spends his days filling his fellow inmates’ orders, handing off packages of coffee, potato chips and cookies, counting the hours until he can get to a phone and dial the number he knows by heart.
Life is rough here. Bleak and hopeless. The food is processed and rubbery. And the rules are strict. On some days, Keith says, the anger boils over and he feels like the only answer is another fight. But then he thinks of what he might be risking.
The prison basketball league on Saturday afternoon. The small television in his cell that picks up college games. Those are privileges that can be taken away. And Keith only gets so many chances to watch his younger brother Ben McLemore play basketball for the Kansas Jayhawks. If Keith’s lucky, and the games are on CBS, ESPN or ESPN2, he can battle for a TV in the prison’s rec room. But there’s always the inmate who doesn’t believe his story.
For more than 1,700 days, Keith has been here, locked up behind state-run walls. The state of Missouri says Keith will have to serve at least another seven years. But on a this January afternoon, as Keith sits at a small table, surrounded by bare white walls, he tells a visitor about a choice he has to make.
There are two basketball games at 1 p.m. tomorrow.
One will take place here, inside the octagonal borders of Potosi, where Keith’s team is scheduled to take on another collection of residents from the prison’s “five-house.” And one is in Austin, Texas, where the Kansas Jayhawks will play Texas on national television.
As Keith sits and talks, he says his mind is already made up, and he hopes his teammates understand. There will be more prison games, he says, but he can’t pass up a chance to watch his younger brother — the kid he knows as “Little Ben.”
“He made it,” Keith says, “I’m so happy one of us made it. He stuck to it hard. I just put it on the back-burner.”
A world away, in Lawrence, Ben McLemore stands in a hallway in Allen Fieldhouse, posing for photos and signing autographs for a group of little kids. Life is nearly perfect here. Warm and dreamlike. Ben, a redshirt freshman guard, is the leading scorer for the now-No. 14 Jayhawks, a reluctant superstar on a team still trying to reach its ceiling.
“It’s a blessing just to be here,” he says.
His transcendent talent suggests that anything is possible — a Big 12 title, Final Four, the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft — but there’s one thing he can’t change.
So on most nights, when the basketball is over and the crowds have dispersed, Ben returns to his apartment at the Jayhawker Towers. Just enough time to say a few prayers and wait for a phone call.
• • •
In the old days, Ben McLemore didn’t have to rely on phone calls. He could hunker down in the basement on Wellston Avenue and bond with his brothers over video games and old episodes of Jamie Foxx’s television show. In the old days, when Keith was the man of the house and Ben was a gawky sixth-grade center, Ben could go around the corner to watch his brother play varsity basketball at Wellston High, a small school in the heart of Wellston, Mo., an impoverished town that hugs the northwest corner of St. Louis.
The boys grew up in the house their grandmother had owned. There were six kids in all, three boys, three girls, and Sonya Reid had plenty of help looking after her children. Ben was the second youngest, two years older than baby Kevin.
Keith, the oldest son, was the type of kid who could fix a busted radio or protect his brothers. And the girls, including older sister April Coleman, always showered their younger brothers with Christmas and birthday gifts.
“They had different personalities,” says Sonya, who worked for a cleaning staff in downtown St. Louis. “But they were all so close.”
Ben and Kevin’s father, also named Ben, had faded from the picture when the boys were little, and Ben always seemed to find permanent residence in his mother’s shadow.
“Ben was kind of the quiet kid,” April says. “He kind of stayed home; he was kind of around my mom a lot.”
But Ben, a tall and lanky kid, also found basketball. His father was a playground star. And Ben’s uncle, Daniel Reid, had been a standout player at Wellston High in the late 1980s, acquiring the nickname “Danny Manning” for his versatile game.
“We were a basketball family,” Ben says.
On cold winter days, the family would travel a few blocks south to the Wellston High gym at the corner of Plymouth and Sutter, where Keith held down a role as an hard-nosed defender.
“Two different personalities,” says Jeff McCaw, a family friend who would later coach Ben at Wellston High.
Ben was soft-spoken and sweet, a polite kid who wanted to please. Keith was more outspoken, a scrapper. As he sat in the stands, Ben was always stuck with the same thought: He wanted to be more like Keith.
“He was a great player,” Ben says. “Just learning the little things, and watching him do the things he did.”
• • •
On April 27, 2008 — a Sunday night — Keith and a friend arrived at a home on the 1800 block of James Harvey Lane, a half-mile from his family’s house. Keith, who says he came to help another friend, encountered a large fight that included more than 10 people.
The front door was kicked in and two men were shot and seriously wounded, according to St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCullough, who confirmed the details of the case.
The following Sunday, Keith and another friend were a few blocks away, at the corner of Derby and Morton, when a red Dodge Charger drove by. Keith fired at the car, according to St. Louis County court records, which turned out to be an unmarked police vehicle carrying a member of the Drug Enforcement Agency and a local police officer.
When Keith was brought into custody, he was charged with first-degree burglary, first-degree assault and first-degree armed criminal action in the first incident, and first-degree assault, armed criminal action and discharging a firearm at a motor vehicle in the second. The county prosecutor’s office recommended a 25-year sentence.
Keith pleaded guilty in the first incident, in which prosecutors said he shot one person. Keith disputes his participation in the second offense, but authorities could trace the gun back to one that had been in his possession. Fearing a longer sentence, Keith entered an Alford plea — not admitting guilt but acknowledging the prosecution could prove its case — and was sentenced to 15 years. According to Missouri law, he must spend at least 85 percent of his sentence behind prison walls.
“I don’t think anybody could explain this,” Keith says. “I’d never thought I’d experience anything like this.”
But back on that Sunday in April, his life had already spun down a dangerous abyss. Back in high school, he’d dreamed about playing college basketball, about being one of those kids on television. But his grades were sub-standard, and he didn’t understand that a junior-college education could lead to something better.
During his freshman year of high school, he had been kicked off the basketball team for fighting. Two years later, he saw a close cousin, Jewel Boyd, killed in the streets just a few blocks from the family’s house.
“I always had an anger problem,” Keith says, “and at the time, I always wanted to be … I always thought I needed to prove myself to people.”
Back in those days, there were only a couple people that could calm Keith down. And oftentimes, it was up to Ben and Kevin to go outside and convince their brother to come play video games instead of hanging in the streets.
In the months after Keith was arrested, Ben began the trips to the county lock-up, visiting his brother.
“It was a hard feeling,” Ben says, “because I looked up to him a lot. He was the man of the house, and now he’s gone. And now I got to step up and do the things he did.”
For years, Keith had tried to impart some wisdom on his brothers, promises he could never keep. He would see “Little Ben,” the kid that always wanted to stay home and be around his mama, and he wanted something more for him.
“You don’t gotta run in these streets,” Keith would say, “you don’t got to go to parties, you don’t got to go to clubs. Stay in the gym.”
• • •
Jeff McCaw entered a backdoor of the gymnasium at Wellston High and listened for the sound. The bouncing of a ball. The thud-thud-thud of moving feet. The swishing of the net, echoing off the gymnasium walls.
McCaw, a first-year coach at Wellston, opened the gymnasium for Ben McLemore on Sunday afternoons. But sometimes, McCaw wanted to make sure the kid was here. So he’d sneak in quietly, just to listen to Ben shoot.
It was late summer, in 2009, just a short time after Keith had been sentenced, and McCaw had recently taken the job at Wellston, one of the poorest schools in the St. Louis area. In some ways, McCaw says now, he got the job because nobody else wanted it.
Decades earlier, in the late 1980s, McCaw had been an All-Metro player at Wellston — also known as Eskridge High —and helped the school win a state title in 1988. He had grown up here, amidst the poverty and gang violence. So many players with college talent had come through here, but few made it out.
“We were kind of like the best that was never was,” McCaw says.
During those years, as McCaw finished high school, he would find himself on a local court, nicknamed the “Spectrum,” with a 20-something named Ben McLemore, a high-flyer could who could leave onlookers breathless. The kids in Wellston took to calling him “Donkey Kong.”
Close to 25 years later, when McCaw accepted the coaching job at Wellston, he knew of a young kid on the roster. It was Donkey Kong’s son, Ben McLemore III, and he had the potential to be special. This may be the kid, McCaw thought, that Wellston had been waiting for.
The kid just didn’t know it yet.
• • •
In the months before his junior season, McCaw brought in Ben and his mother for a meeting. It was an informal gathering, but McCaw wanted to think about the future.
Sonya Reid simply wanted Ben to get an education, but McCaw spoke up: That would be the easy part.
“The hard part,” McCaw told Sonya, “is he gonna be willing to put in the work?”
Ben had always been a homebody, a quiet soul who preferred the relative calm of his basement, but an attendance issue had caused his grades to suffer during his beginning years of high school. If he wanted to play Division I basketball, McCaw told Ben, he’d have to change.
“I told him,” McCaw says, “I wasn’t going to allow him to fail.”
On the court, Ben faced other challenges. All his life, he had played inside. In the sixth grade, when he suited up at center for the St. Louis Majestics, his first coach, Darius Cobb, had told him that he was only allowed to do two things.
“Rebound and put the ball back in the basket,” Cobb says now.
After his sophomore year of high school, McLemore sprouted three inches to 6-foot-5. But even then, Cobb and McCaw could see his future. He needed to be out on the wing, making plays and scoring.
McCaw mapped out a diet of 5,000 jump shots a week. For Ben, it became a life of repetition and routine. Rise. Release. Swish. His brother was gone, but he was being reborn, an unpolished forward becoming a silky shooting guard, one beautiful jumper at a time.
“He saw that there was another way of life out there,” Cobb says. “He saw that you can create your own destiny.”
That summer, before his junior year, Cobb used a basketball connection to get Ben a spot in KU’s summer camp for elite players. The KU coaches had hardly heard of this young player from St. Louis, and at first, Ben was hesitant. But by the end of camp, Ben was showing off his athleticism in scrimmages against future NBA players Marcus and Markieff Morris, and the KU coaching staff wanted to know more.
A few months later, when the Wellston season was beginning, McCaw wanted to teach McLemore another lesson. So he took him to watch another young junior, Bradley Beal, a future McDonald’s All-American who signed with Florida and was a first-round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. In St. Louis circles, Beal was a phenom, a precocious talent who played for Chaminade, an affluent parochial school.
“This is an elite player,” McCaw told Ben, “This is what we’re building to.”
For years, Cobb had drilled Ben with a simple five-word phrase: It’s OK to be good. And finally, the shield began to crack. During his junior season, Ben led Wellston to the state semifinals. Major college programs took notice. And McCaw was most amazed by the young kid on the floor — always wanting to work, to learn, never a chip on his shoulder.
“All the qualities you want in a person,” McCaw says. “He always wants to please. You try to get that little feistiness from a player. I could never push those buttons.”
After Ben’s junior year, Wellston High shuttered its doors, just the second Missouri school district shut down by the state after years of facilities crumbling and test scores lagging. The school that left too many kids behind now stands abandoned on the corner of Plymouth and Sutter avenues.
But as McCaw watches Ben from back in St. Louis, representing for Wellston, he still thinks of all the kids that didn’t make it — so many young men like Keith.
“He represents all our struggles,” McCaw says. “And he’s carrying it for us. So now we get to feel like it wasn’t in vain.”
• • •
Man everyday I pray for him. I pray for better days and wish he’ll be home soon, so I’m keep working everyday and getting better. FreeKeith — Ben McLemore, on Twitter, Dec. 9, 2012
He searches for the right words, smiling as he shakes his head. How do you explain a gift from God?
McLemore is sitting in an office, just down the hallway from Allen Fieldhouse. One look, and the resemblance is unmistakable. He shares so many traits with his older brother; the same dark brown eyes, the kind of eyes that bring you in; the same youthful face.
A visitor has asked McLemore to explain that sense of freedom — cutting through the air like a basketball superhero, finishing a dunk in front of 16,300 fans at Allen Fieldhouse. He pauses for a moment.
“I just get that feeling,” Ben says, softly, “like … can I fly?”
McLemore smiles as he says this, as if he’s not quite sure of the answer. Maybe he believes it. Or maybe here in Lawrence, it all feels possible.
“He has an innocence about him that you don’t see in kids that often,” KU coach Bill Self says. “That’s what makes him so cool; he doesn’t see it the same way everybody else sees it.”
A year ago, McLemore was on the sideline, working out with the Jayhawks as a member of the scout team but unable to play in games. And in some ways, that’s made his emergence all the more startling. One of the most talented players in the country just seemingly came from nowhere — even if that’s not quite what happened.
After Wellston closed, McLemore attended Oak Hill Academy in Virginia before transferring to Christian Life Center Academy near Houston, where he finished his senior year of high school. He was ranked in the top 25 in the country by recruiting services when he signed with KU, but was deemed a partial academic qualifier and had to sit out last season under NCAA rules.
In 24 games this season, McLemore is averaging 16.8 points per game, best by a freshman in KU history. But if the Jayhawks are going to reach their potential, McLemore must evolve again, transforming into something closer to, as Self says, an offensive “assassin.”
“He cares about what other people think,” Self says. “He hates to lose. And certainly prepares to win. But he’s not an assassin. He’s not a guy that sees himself as the guy, ‘Hey, I want to put a team on my back.’ He’ll get there.”
It’s a lot for a 20-year-old to take in, and maybe McLemore can’t fully comprehend it all — at least not yet. In just months, he could become a top pick in the NBA Draft, a moment that could change his life forever. Like most teenagers, Ben can’t think about his future without thinking about his family. He wants the best for Kevin, a high school senior who is now following his path in basketball. And Ben also thinks about Keith.
“It still sucks he’s not out here with me, supporting me,” Ben says, “But he’s still out there … still blessing me.”
McLemore says he’s not focused on the NBA right now, while those close to him talk about how one more year would put him just one away from graduating. His mother would love that, he says. But he also can’t help but think about what he could do for his family.
“I could give them things they’ve never had before,” he says.
• • •
They walk past the walls on a chilly Christmas Day, past the razor wire and past the electronic steel doors. Ben has made the trip to Potosi with younger brother Kevin and older sister April.
It is Keith’s 26th birthday, and they brought him chicken. Keith asks Ben about his season, about life in Kansas. And Ben asks Keith about his role as a power forward on his prison team. But mostly, they reminisce about the old days, when they were all together.
Keith tells Ben and Kevin to keep working. And Ben tells Keith that, if the NBA dreams work out, he wants to help him when he gets out.
“I don’t want you to go back to Wellston,” Ben says.
Finally, Keith says goodbye, and Ben, Kevin and April make the long drive back to St. Louis. Nearly three weeks later, Keith sits behind the prison walls and recalls the visit. When it comes right down to it, he says, life is about opportunity and decisions.
Days later, Keith turns on the television on a Saturday afternoon. Watching his brother lead KU to a victory over Texas, Keith is reminded of this once again. They are two brothers, from the same family and same streets, separated by the fragile shreds of talent, chance and choice.
And hopefully, they can talk on the phone soon.
“When I watch him, I see me in him,” Keith says. “I know he’s playing for him and me at the same time.”
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