On a steamy afternoon last summer, Ben McLemore left his apartment at the Jayhawker Towers and made the short walk to Allen Fieldhouse. He wore a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt, his gray Air Jordans making footfalls on the campus sidewalk.
It was a quiet summer day, just a few students on campus, and McLemore could have strolled down the middle of Jayhawk Boulevard without drawing much attention. On this June day, he was no household name or future lottery pick — just a statewide curiosity who had been forced to sit out his freshman year at Kansas for academic reasons.
As McLemore sat down in an office adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse, he began to talk about that first year on campus. The year off had been great, he said. The extra practices; the games spent as a spectator; the secure feeling of living on a college campus. But a few minutes later, the conversation turned to the future.
Just a few weeks later, one of McLemore’s former AAU teammates from St. Louis, Bradley Beal, would be selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft. And McLemore had been keeping up with his old teammate.
“If I can do the same thing,” McLemore said then. “I just wonder like, ‘Will I be in the same positions as him?”
A moment later, McLemore was back to talking about his debut season at Kansas. But it was clear: His future was out there. And it was intriguing.
Back home in Wellston, Mo., a gutted community on the northwest border of St. Louis, McLemore had grown up in a 600-square foot home on Wellston Avenue. His older brother, Keith Scott, was locked up in state prison. And his mother, Sonya, was unemployed. On the worst nights, McLemore and his younger brother Kevin were forced to go without food.
So for McLemore, the NBA was less of a dream — and more of a survival tactic for his family.
“I could give them things they’ve never had before,” McLemore said earlier this year, during an interview with The Star.
One year later, McLemore will finally get that opportunity. On Thursday night, he’ll become a lottery pick, shaking hands with NBA commissioner David Stern as he strolls across the stage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
But one year later, McLemore is still a curiosity, and this time, it’s for a slightly less desirable reason. Earlier this week, reports surfaced that McLemore had signed on to be represented by Rodney Blackstock, the man who allegedly gave money to McLemore’s AAU coach to curry favor with the young star. The alleged payments came during the season, while Blackstock attempted to gain entry into McLemore’s inner circle, and based on recent events, it appears that’s where he’s stayed.
“Rodney Blackstock has been great,” McLemore told reporters last month at the predraft combine in Chicago. “Since day one, since I met him, we have got that bond and communicating very well. And that’s why I chose him to help me with this process.”
The relationship with Blackstock has sparked concerns in NBA front offices, though it’s difficult to gauge how serious those concerns may be. Blackstock is a relative novice in the agent game — he only recently became certified by the NBA Players Association — and his alleged involvement with North Carolina junior P.J. Hairston has caught the eye of the NCAA. According to a report by ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford, McLemore was set to sign with Rivals Sports Group, a Los Angeles-based agency which represents former Kansas stars Marcus and Markieff Morris. But the involvement of Blackstock resulted in a confusing tug-of-war, with McLemore caught in the middle.
Equally alarming, perhaps, were a few reports that suggested that McLemore wasn’t in shape during some his predraft workouts.
“I did everything I could do in those workouts,” McLemore told reporters in New York on Wednesday. “I feel like I did great in all of them. I competed. And like I said, it’s just what people put out. But at the same time, I didn’t look into that. I just stayed focused.”
In the last few weeks, multiple teams have placed calls to Kansas coach Bill Self, but that’s a usual custom of the draft process. So, of course, it’s possible that McLemore’s relationship with Blackstock will cause teams to exercise caution. But it’s also possible that McLemore, who averaged 15.9 points per game during his freshman year at Kansas, is simply too talented to pass up.
“I tell everybody I’ve talked to,” Self said this week. “I think by January to February, he could be a guy that’s averaging 13 points a game for anybody that picks him.
“I do think he has that type of ability, and I do think he could be a potential All-Star.”
And yet, many people that know McLemore well are still concerned that his most endearing qualities — his innocence and kindness — could cause him to be chewed up by the system.
“I think it’s all within yourself,” said former KU guard Tyshawn Taylor, who spent a year at Kansas with McLemore. “You’ve got to be able to tell people no.”
Like McLemore, Taylor grew up in a rough neighborhood in New Jersey. He was selected last year by the Brooklyn Nets, and those first NBA paychecks delivered a new kind of freedom. But, as Taylor says, they must come with a certain level of awareness.
“You have to be able to have some good people with you that can tell people no,” Taylor said. “But when you’re in a situation where you come from little and you get enough, you want to be able to help as many people as you can.”
On Wednesday, McLemore was hopeful he could still go No. 1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. If not Cleveland, multiple projections have him going No. 2 to the Orlando Magic. Whatever the case, McLemore says, he’s just happy to be over with the stress and confusion of the last few months.
“It’s been a long process, and I’ve been through it,” McLemore said. “And I’m just happy and blessed that I’m here and I have an opportunity to walk across that stage.”