by Adam Fleischer
Back when my tenure as a SLAM intern was about half a year old, I was given an assignment that brought upon my first real “Oh, this is the kind of dope stuff that comes with being a part of the best basketball mag on earth” experience. We were doing the photo shoot for our annual SLAM All-Americans back in 2008, during the week of the Jordan Brand Classic when they were all in town, and Ben asked me if I wanted to tag along. I had gotten some cool perks like free stuff in the past, but this was my earliest opportunity to cover some big time players and a special event.
From watching some games and highlights during that high school season, I had come to feel that Brandon Jennings had a chance to be That Dude in the class of ’08. His ability, presence, and style each made me a fan, and I figured they would translate to continued success. While at the shoot at a Manhattan hotel on that April day, I saw he and Ben chopping it up for a bit and realized that not only could this kid ball, but he was down to earth, too. Although he didn’t live up to my expectations as dunk champ of the Jordan Jamfest, held later that day, I remained excited to watch as many Arizona Wildcat games as possible the following year.
Until that no longer made sense.
As we all know, Jennings chose to head to Europe last year, instead. Thing is, I made that choice, too (although for different reasons that unfortunately didn’t involve me getting paid to play basketball and wear Under Armour). While studying abroad in Madrid last spring, one of the many stops I made away from my home base was Rome. In between sights and food, I got to the chance to watch a very solid performance and talk with Brandon post game after hanging out with his mom during it. I soon realized firsthand what I had observed through Ben almost a year earlier.
And then the season started and he was quickly proving any doubters wrong, while making fans and magazines who had done stories on him as a tenth grader at Dominguez High School (not naming any names) feel good. It was time for some shine.
As the chatter sparked by his 55-point game from just weeks earlier had only slightly subsided, I headed down to Washington, DC in early December to catch the Bucks take on the Wizards and get up with Brandon at a photo shoot at the Georgetown Four Seasons the night before the game. When we spoke at the shoot, he was candid, level headed, friendly, and laid back.
He came in around 9 pm eating pasta (I guess the type and time of dinner from back in Italy stuck with him) with a smile on his face, ready to work. Once things got started, Atiba asked for different movements, expressions, as poses from Brandon and, after each shot, the handful of people in the room circled around the computer to check out the pics as Lil’ Wayne’s latest mixtape, No Ceilings, burst through Atiba’s laptop. Brandon seemed in his element during what I can only imagine is a tedious process, cracking jokes and making sure to blurt out “No Ceilings” in unison with Wayne each time the iPod hit the twenty second mark of “Run This Town” through the speakers.
During backdrop/wardrobe changes and other short breaks, Jennings made clear to me what I had already come to understand. He often reiterated that he was living out his dream by playing in the NBA and there was no one or thing that could subtract from that. He’s a good deal younger than many of his teammates and, like most 20-year-olds, loves to play video games. Unlike most twenty-year-olds, he has a portable XBox with a TV on it that let’s him run some 2K10 even when he’s on the road because, unlike most twenty-year-olds, he actually plays in the NBA, even when the power button is off (he said he plays as the Bucks and tries to imitate what they do in real life as much as possible). He wasn’t letting all the hype and positive press get to him—the same way he wouldn’t let the negative stuff phase him when he was overseas. If your name is always out there, though, the only way to let it not get to you is to straight up avoid it. So that was his play. “People ask me if I read some article or saw highlights on ESPN or heard th-” he cuts himself off. “Nah. I don’t.”
His focus was on winning. Not in the way that every professional athlete is told to tell the media that’s their focus, but in the way that losing actually leaves a burn. So, the following day, when the Bucks fell to the Wiz in the waning seconds, and our coverboy was called for a foul that lead to the game winning free throws, there was definitely some pain. The sizzle had turned to simmer on the Bucks hot start, and it seemed like every night Number 3 was expected to deliver like he was taking on the Warriors. But you gotta have downs to have ups, and you need to tear those muscles in order for them to grow back stronger. It seemed that was one of the many things he was learning. Fielding questions from the media about the game and it’s final possession after the game, Jennings held his head despite trying to stomach a tough L. But this is the NBA. Long season. On To the Next One.
As he continues with the grind of the season, yet to again hover around the half a hundred mark but still helping spearhead Milwaukee in a playoff pursuit, he continues with that determined winning focus. There are probably those that look at box scores and dismiss the double nickel as a fluke, believing Jennings won’t pan out to be great. Then there are those that have actually watched the kid, seen his game, witnessed his demeanor and already know. He’s well on his way.