PISTONS’ ROOKIE, 29, HAILS FROM REAL WORLD

These days, NBA rookies get their first paychecks before they can vote and their second contracts before they can drink. But there is one new member of the league who is grateful to reach rookie status before his 30th birthday.

Meet Horace Jenkins, former electrician, former postal worker, who, at 29, is making less than every other player on the Detroit roster and is, without a doubt, the happiest man in the gym.

“Wow, wow, wow,” the rookie guard said Monday on the Pistons’ media day, looking around at the TV cameras, microphones and notebook-flapping reporters. “This is totally different than where I was last year.”

Sure, because last year he was in Greece. The year before that, in Italy. And four years before that, he was punching a clock in Elizabeth, N.J., paying his bills, picking up whatever blue-collar jobs he could get. The Pistons’ slogan in recent years has been “Goin’ to Work,” right? Forget that. Jenkins has been to work.

Now he wants to play.

“God has a plan for everybody,” Jenkins said. “I guess this is my story.”

It’s a story peppered with familiar hurdles — tough neighborhood, bad grades — but salted with one rare element: responsibility. Because at the heart of Horace Jenkins’ journey is someone else’s heart: his son’s.

Born to Jenkins’ girlfriend when he was 19, the child, named Hakeem, put Jenkins at an immediate crossroads. He could have done what many young athletes do: run and hide. Shun the telephone. Crouch beneath the veneer of being a promising basketball player with “too many other priorities” until somehow, some way, someone else takes care of his problem.

He didn’t.

And that’s where Horace Jenkins turns special.

A late-blooming college career

“I had to become a man,” Jenkins said. “I was 19. Back then, I ate, slept and drank basketball. When I had to walk away from that, it was difficult.

“But unfortunately, I had my first child.”

He stopped.

“No,” he said, correcting himself. “I’m not gonna say ‘unfortunately.’ “

And he wasn’t going to feel sorry for himself. He refused to shift the burden. He left school and went to work.

During those years, as he did electrical work, labored at the post office, dealt with the late-night tears and early-morning yelps of a newborn, basketball was like dessert. He hoped to get to it, but a meal on the table came first. At nights, when he could, Jenkins played pickup ball, often at a Newark park, where he continued to exhibit the explosive speed and streak shooting that once earned him a college spot even though he had never played organized high school basketball.

One day, the coach at Division III William Paterson University came by that Newark park, scouting another player. He couldn’t take his eyes off the darting guard who was lighting it up. At the end of his visit, he gave Jenkins a business card and, the story goes, told Jenkins it would take him 45 minutes to get back to his office. Forty-five minutes later, Jenkins called the office.

He became a college player again.

How Dumars discovered him

From there, it only gets more interesting. Jenkins averaged 22 points in his first year back and won three Division III player of the year awards. He even won the slam dunk contest at the Final Four. But when the NBA draft time came, he was overlooked again. Too small, some said. Too unknown. And yes, too old.

Jenkins had endured too much to quit. He hooked on over in Europe, first for one Italian team, then another. Then he went to Greece, for a team named AEK Athens. That team featured a kid named Andreas Glyniadakis, whom the Pistons had drafted with their last pick in 2003. Every week, Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ president of basketball operations, would get a tape of AEK’s games to keep tabs on Glyniadakis.

“I kept seeing this other guy on the tape, really fast, pushing the ball up, scoring,” Dumars recalled Tuesday. “Pretty soon, my staff and I were saying to each other, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ “

They brought Jenkins over and put him in a summer league. During one visit, Jenkins told Dumars something that stuck.

“I asked him about going back to college at his age, and he said the hardest part was that he’d gotten used to making $14 an hour, plus benefits, and it was tough to give that up,” Dumars said, smiling. “I knew then that this guy had been in the real world.”

Today, Jenkins’ real world is a far cry from the post office. He has two more children, both daughters, a wife, a home and now a guaranteed one-year contract for around $350,000. He has a Pistons uniform. He has a role to fill, backing up the MVP of the NBA Finals, Chauncey Billups.

But all that really boils down to this: He has a chance.

Which is all he ever wanted.

It’s a rare story, an NBA newcomer, more than a decade older than LeBron James, stepping to the forefront after refusing to turn his back.

“You know, I actually felt goose bumps when I pulled on this uniform,” Jenkins said. “I told myself, ‘I’m here, I’m really here. I signed a contract with a world championship team!’ “

And Dumars doesn’t have to worry whether Jenkins will honor his commitment. He might be a rookie, but that part of his game is well-established.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This