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NBA star coaches middle school

The boys of Lester Middle dripped with sweat. They raced up and down the court, doing layup drills. The orange glow of the fluorescent gym lights flashed off the hardwoods. Coach Desmond Merriweather barked out signals.

"Y'all ain't hustling enough," said Merriweather, who was in the throes of battling stage IV colon cancer.

At the far end of the court, former NBA all star Nfl jerseys china Penny Hardaway peeked his head in the door. None of the kids noticed. He and Desmond decided that Penny would show up and surprise the sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

As the players continued to run the court, Penny kept peeping his head in and out of the black metal doors until finally breaking into their practice.

Some of the boys instantly recognized him from a charity game two nights before and sprinted toward him.

But the two best players, Reggie Green and Robert Washington, trailed behind. They weren't sure who the 6 foot 7 guy with the trimmed goatee was.

Reggie was the team's affable star, outgoing, talkative and smooth. A 6 foot 3 power Wholesale nhl jerseys forward, the 14 year old could outmuscle most teams with his sheer size. He could dominate in the post or use his finesse to pull up on a 15 foot jumper.

Coach Penny provides tips to Reggie Green. Under Penny's leadership, Reggie's game improved along with his grades.

His grandfather was Antoine Richardson, who helped mentor Penny in his youth. Basketball served as Reggie's escape, his refuge away from street life and his mess of a home life. His father had been imprisoned 700 miles away in North Carolina months before. As with many serious offenses, the people of Binghampton the rough and dangerous neighborhood where Penny grew up have collective amnesia when it comes to specific charges: something about a high speed chase, his car might've struck an officer, he might've resisted arrest you know, ordinary stuff. He also beat Reggie severely before being captured, hurting the boy as much mentally as physically.

His father had been a huge boost for him the previous season, a mainstay at basketball games, and now Reggie's world was shattered. Nicknamed Taz, his father turned into the Tasmanian Devil in the stands, so wild and crazy he spun around dancing with joy after each basket his son scored.

Taz would race from the stands and sprint alongside Reggie each trip up the court. In his view, Ji as he called his son could do no wrong. Taz would shout Ji's name so loud it would bounce off the hardwood floors and through the cavernous gym. "Give it to 'em, Ji!" Taz shouted. And Ji lapped it up. He'd pound his chest after a made basket, point to his heart and back at Taz. It was a way of showing his dad how much he loved him. Taz hadn't been there for most of Reggie's upbringing and had only returned to Binghampton because he was trying to avoid arrest. He lived the life of a gangsta and had never dreamed Ji could get his family out of the ghetto the clean way, by playing ball. But when Dez took his son under his wing, Taz saw big lights and an NBA future for his boy.

But the blue and red lights of the police caught up with him.

Reggie had been living with his aunt Cheap nfl jerseys before his dad's arrest but was then forced to move into his grandmother's apartment in a different neighborhood, called Hollywood, a few miles away. The whole situation left him shaken, scared and confused. Guys hanging out in the stairwells of the building and others on the block jumped on the new kid. Turf wars are real, and he was coming from Binghampton, a rival hood. His grandmother, Sheila Harris, fortunately was a tough as nails 49 year old and a worthy combatant, hell bent on her grandson getting out of the projects.

"They were trying to fight him. Everything," his grandmother said. "They were really at Reggie, you know. They started surrounding him at the gym. They were over there double teaming him because he don't want to be a gangbanger. He's not a follower. He's a leader.

The boys of Lester Middle School in Memphis rewarded Penny Hardaway with his first championship season.

"You got the gangbanging; you've got the ones trying to pull him in and get in his head because he's a young boy. We're surrounded by them. That's all they do. GDs, Vice Lords, all of them. Grapes, stay right next door. But they don't bother mine because I put it out there.

"The furthest Reggie's ass can go is right here to this curb. I may let him go to the park. But Coach will tell you, when them streetlights come on, his ass got to be right back here: Nine o'clock, he's got to be in the house."

She called the police; she called the gang unit. Whatever it took to keep the pants on the ground, hat turned sideways gangbangers away. "I tell them don't mess with my kids!"

His grandmother is known around the neighborhood as the Freeze Cup Lady for hustling Popsicles at 50 cents a pop as a way to keep Reggie and her three other grandchildren under her roof. Reggie's mother is in and out of his life, living just up the street a few apartments away. But as his grandmother put it, the less time she spends with Reggie the better: "I'm grandmomma hard. But down the road, she's momma hard. She don't play with his ass. He can get away with things with me, but her oooh, baby she ain't nice."

Reggie was the team's leader, having played for Coach Dez since sixth grade. But with his father in prison and his downgraded and dangerous home environment, Reggie grew angry and resentful. Who could blame him?

He was once an honor roll student, but his grades began slipping in the fall of 2011 as basketball season approached. His blunt spoken grandma gave him this advice: "You never know what's gonna happen. Just stay prayed up, ya know. Live from day to day. One day at a time."

Now, in the gym, he looked at his shirt and at Penny. Mayo and Penny. The images of both basketball players graced it.

"Is that really you?" Reggie asked.

"Yeah, that's me," Penny said with a smile.

"You look different," Reggie replied.

While Reggie was the veteran of the team, this was Robert Washington's first time playing for Lester. He had never played organized ball before this season. He knew the game from playing on the street, at rec centers and even on an Amateur Athletic Union travel team, but that was all about individual play. The concept of winning was wrapped around having the best move to the basket, not about the final score or playing together. At 6 foot 4, Robert Washington had a 7 foot wingspan. His bones ached from growing so fast, and at just 14, it was clear he wasn't done.

Learn more about the transformative season

To older Memphis fans, he resembled a young Keith Lee, the dominant big man who took the Tigers to the Final Four in 1985. To the current generation, he resembled a different hoops star. His long limbs and faded haircut, along with his stellar play, earned him the nickname Little Durant, as in Oklahoma City All Star Kevin Durant.

Robert lived in two neighboring homes a couple of blocks from the Lester school, one belonging to his aunt, the other his grandmother. Like Reggie's, Robert's dad also sat in prison. His dad had been locked up nearly all of Robert's life, mostly for drug offenses. The homes were a living testament to Cheap authentic nfl jerseys the saying that it takes a village to raise a child.
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