by Mario Aguirre / @mario_aguirre pictures by Alex J. Berliner/abimages for Under Armour
About a half-hour before a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Gardena, CA, he was the centerpiece of was set to begin, Brandon Jennings slipped out of a tent conspicuously, wearing basketball shorts, a hoodie, and fresh fade.
Crowds gathered as the second-year Milwaukee Bucks guard and hometown hero walked pass the midcourt area barring his name and logo. He posed for a dozen news cameras, granted a few interviews, and slipped back inside the tent amid a pack of supporters tippy-toeing to get a glance.
This was Brandon Jennings Day at Rowley Park in Gardena, where Brandon partnered with his shoe sponsor, Under Armour, to renovate the court (featuring a logo SLAM helped create for his high school event last month) that saw countless playground battles throughout his youth.
As he sat atop a folding table to speak with SLAM, an adoring fan was allowed through, breaking his concentration. Former NBA star Kenny Anderson apologized for the interruption, but Jennings would have none of it.
“Legend,” he said, playfully bowing to Anderson. “Best point guard in New York right here.”
“When I see you play,” Anderson said, “it’s like a mirror image of me.”
Jennings may have been celebrating his second birthday as Anderson was preparing for his rookie season with the New Jersey Nets in 1991, but he knew plenty about one of his favorite players growing up. From the early 90s haircut Anderson donned (a thin part above his forehead, which Jennings was replicating Thursday) to the white t-shirt he wore underneath his Georgia Tech jersey.
The respect was mutual.
Around the time of the 2009 draft, Anderson read a newspaper article that said that a younger Jennings would watch tapes of him play. Anderson reached out to him then and the two have been friends since. As friends do, Anderson tempered some of the expectations fans might have for Jennings, especially after some feared his 55-point outburst seven games into his career would perhaps encourage him to be a shoot-first point guard.
“He’s a great player,” Anderson said. “Everybody expects so much. It’s his second year. Relax. He’s got so much potential, greatness. He’ll be fine.”
For a while, it seems, Jennings has known he would be fine. Even though he was unable to get the required test scores to attend the University of Arizona, he found an alternative route in Europe. Because of NBA rules that require players to be a year removed from their graduating high school class before being eligible for the draft, Jennings played a season in Rome.
He was drafted tenth overall in 2009 and finished third in votes for the rookie of the year award.
“Brandon’s decision was great,” Anderson, 40, said. “He went overseas. He got humbled over there and it worked for him. He played little minutes, didn’t get a lot of numbers, didn’t play sometimes. It might not have helped him out on the court, but mentally he got stronger.”
Throughout the day, Jennings was showered with praise from longtime friends to city officials. Though it’s almost cliché to say that Jennings never forgot where he came from, the saying holds serious weight in his instance. He left nearby Dominguez High to play his senior year at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. And then after spending a season overseas, he was drafted by Milwaukee, nearly 3,000 miles from his hometown. Yet despite the distance, Jennings has shown there’s been little disconnect.
“There’s nothing like giving back at home,” Jennings, 21, said. “That’s where you started from and that’s where everyone remembers you. Hopefully everyone remembers this day and remembers that I never forgot about them. I always wanted to give back where I came from, so why not with a basketball court?”