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For Bulls’ Tony Snell, Mama Knows Best

When her first-born child, Tony, was seven years old, Sherika Brown took him on a short trip to see America’s opposite ends: first to Los Angeles’ skid row, which wasn’t too far from the Watts projects they lived in at the time; and then to Beverly Hills.

“Life is all about choices,” she told him.

Some of life’s choices concern what to embrace and others concern what to ignore.

For Tony Snell, the Chicago Bulls ascendant rookie guard, there was a lot that needed ignoring: the dangerous allures of the streets in south central Los Angeles; the temptations that come with being an athlete; the absence of his biological father; and, more recently, some questionable advice from a well-known college coach — because that could have been the undoing of it all.

Several unexpected factors have conspired this NBA season to make Snell’s choices seem all the more sage. The misfortune and turmoil that have befallen the Bulls — a season-ending injury to Derrick Rose; the mid-season trade of Luol Deng — have allowed Snell to bypass coach Tom Thibodeau’s typical bench-warming routine for rookies.

“It has been a roller-coaster ride,” Snell said last week by phone from Orlando, where the Bulls were facing the Magic. “My whole motto is work hard, stay ready at all times.”

Snell’s early career success (and $1.4 million annual salary) has been a validation not only for some of his own choices, but also for the influence of his mother and his AAU coaches. In the morality play of college basketball, hanger-on parents and club coaches are most often cast as the pariahs who destroy promising talent. That didn’t happen in Snell’s case, and his story presents an informative counterargument to the conventional wisdom that treats the act of turning pro early as something unscrupulous.

Snell is, in many ways, the exemplar of what the coaching bourgeious like to call, “doing things the right way.” He is quiet, unflashy, earnest and serious, a gym rat and game-film obessive. And for a 22-year-old, to say nothing of a 22-year-old pro athlete, he’s a study in puritantism: a non-drinker, non-smoker, non-cusser, and, according to his mother, virgin.

“Growing up, all I’ve seen was negativity, all the bad things,” says Snell. “I see all my friends in the past doing the same things. I wanted to do better. The only thing I could do was avoid as much as I can.”

At the culmination of three encouraging but unspectacular college seasons at New Mexico, Snell finally marshaled the full measure of his talents last March at the Mountain West Conference tournament in Las Vegas. Over a three-game stretch he averaged 17.7 points, made better than 50 percent of his three-pointers, and was named tourney MVP on his way to leading the Lobos to the championship title.

Sherika Brown could hardly contain herself. Perched midway up the arena, she wore a plush wolf hat and held a sign that read: “The Silent Assassin.”

“I poured my whole world into Tony,” she says.

Brown, now 42, was a single-mother raising her son in a Los Angeles public housing facility called the Hacienda. There was scarcely any furniture in their apartment, but a mini-hoop turned the living room into a tyke basketball court. Though this was Lakerland, the television was usually  tuned to Bulls games or Michael Jordan videos.

Snell took to basketball with great seriousness: It was his passion and his only passion; most everything else — friends, girls, partying — he viewed as a distraction. Brown shrank her life to fit tightly around Tony’s: instead of hanging with friends, or going on dates, she would be at the nearby parks watching him play.

“I was an outcast because I would be at the park with him at nighttime,” she says.

They were an odd couple, mother and son: She was outgoing, bubbly. He was quiet and reserved, an old soul trapped in a young, lanky body.

“It is just his demeanor,” says Brown. “My daddy is a guy of very few word and [Snell’s biological] dad is a guy of very few words. It is me that’s happy-go-lucky and sometimes I just want to jump in his body and be aggressive for him.”

When Brown was pregnant with her second child, daughter Tonyecia, she decided to move the family to Culver City, Calif. She would later marry a man who became Snell’s stepfather.

Snell played high school ball at Martin Luther King in Riverside, Calif., teaming for a while with another future NBA player, Kawhi Leonard, who grabbed most of the attention while Snell comfortably operated in the background.

“Some people are name-brand people,” says Brown, “He was always under-the-radar and he liked it that way. He didn’t want all the hoopla. He just wanted to do his work, do the work he could do. Even in high school, it was always Kawhi, Kawhi, Kawhi. It was never Tony.”

It also didn’t help that Snell, who grew four inches his junior year, was stuck playing center.

His senior season, Snell joined Team Eleate, a Southern California-based AAU squad led by Marvin Lea, a former college basketball player at Pepperdine University.  There, Snell was allowed to move his game out to the wing, a more comfortable fit.

“He just kind of took off when he played for us in the summer,” says Clink Parks, another of Snell’s former club coaches.

Snell graduated in 2009, but ended up five credits shy of the NCAA’s eligibility requirements, forcing him to spend the next year at Westwind Prep in Phoenix, where Lea was now an assistant coach. Allowed to play the point-guard position, Snell finally had the chance to display a greater functionality to his game. Over 20 Division I schools ended up offering him scholarships that year.

“He loved Arizona State,” says Brown, “but it is so hot and he is so dark-skinned that Arizona was out of the question.”

The high desert of New Mexico would do, instead.

Brown had never been on a plane until she flew to Albuquerque to do a campus visit with Snell.

“I don’t believe in planes,” she said. “It was the scariest shit in my life. Have you ever been on a plane with someone for the first time, and they are ‘aw’-ing and ‘oooh’-ing? I was so fucking afraid.”

When Snell signed with UNM, Brown and her husband and their kids moved out to Albuquerque to be close by.

While he showed bursts of pro-level ability in his first two seasons at the University of New Mexico, Snell was just as often a shrinking violet. Playing the small forward, as opposed to his more comfortable position as a two-guard, Snell always seemed constrained in the Lobo offense.

Still, prior to his junior year, he told his mother and former AAU coaches that he planned to declare for the NBA after the season, despite the fact he had attracted very little buzz as a league prospect up to that point.

His performance in Las Vegas cemented it, but he would have to clear one final hurdle, an aggressive push by then-Lobo coach Steve Alford to keep his best shooter on the team for another season. According to Brown, when Alford heard Snell was leaning to the NBA, he angrily called a meeting with player and mother.

“Alford, of course, is a control freak and he is mad as hell and he wants a meeting with me to know what I am doing with Tony,” Brown says.

“We were having a screaming match, him literally telling me he is not going anywhere, saying ‘What if he doesn’t make it?’ First of all, I have a positive attitude. I am a woman of God. I believe in prayer. I have had (Snell’s) back since day one.… I don’t care if he goes first or second round, or if he goes overseas, we are going to take that chance.”

Brown inferred selfish motives in Alford’s efforts . Alford was the brand-name player, the white All-American with the charmed high school and college careers. He played his senior year at Indiana and ended up getting drafted in the second round.

“I called him a motherfucker at the time,” says Brown.

“My attitude was: I know it’s a gamble, a big gamble, and sometimes you might not make it,” says Brown. “But we were adamant that we were fine with going in the second round or [playing] overseas.”

Snell tried to defuse the tension in the room by agreeing to hold off a week on his decision, so he could listen to five hand-selected NBA contacts of Alford’s appraise his draft value. Ostensibly, this was going to be selective intelligence, but even a couple of Alford’s contacts thought Snell had a shot to be selected in the early second round.

Not long thereafter, Alford took a big pay raise to jump to UCLA. Was Alford interested in Snell’s education and long-term prospects or was he only thinking of himself and his team?

“I have no idea,” says Snell. “That is the question that is going to be unanswered, but he made his move and I wish him the best.” (Through a UCLA spokesman, Alford declined to comment for this story.)

A fringe draft prospect when he declared, Snell dutifully worked himself up the board, trying out with 20 different NBA teams over 26 days in May and June.

“I figured I didn’t get to show as much as I could do in college,” says Snell. I figured in pre-draft [camps], I could show everything I had.”

The performance reviews were uniformly positive: scouts took quick note of his soft, high-arcing shot; his near-compulsive focus; his seven-foot wingspan.

According to Parks, the New York Knicks had made clear to Snell they would assuredly not let him slip past their 24th pick, but the Bulls instead nabbed him with the 20th.

Brown and the rest of the family have since re-located to Chicago. Snell is spending his first NBA season living with his family in Highland Park — not quite Beverly Hills, but getting there. Mom makes him breakfast every morning (pancakes and eggs, no bacon), and braids his hair twice a week.

He plans to move out on his own next season, to a place of his own in the city.

“I have to grow up sooner or later,” he says, “and cut my hair.”


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