Scoot Henderson's unwavering desire

Scoot Henderson’s unwavering desire

Tonight, it seems that SCOOT HENDERSON will have to earn his buckets the hard way.

There are about 1,500 individuals distributed throughout the 3,500 seats at the Gateway Centre in College Park, Georgia, some with their legs dangling down onto the seat in front of them and at least two people sprawled out horizontally across numerous seats. It’s quiet enough to hear the game’s symphonic nuances: the squeaky starts and pauses of shoes; trash talk; furious exchanges between teammates; and the intensity of a foul. In this scenario, it sends Henderson tumbling to the floor, sending a slight echo around the stadium.

It’s early March, and the G League season is coming to a close. Henderson, who is currently in his second season with the G League’s Ignite, has had a lengthy career. Everyone understands this is his last season with the Ignite before becoming a top-three choice in the NBA lottery with the potential to reshape the league’s destiny for the next decade. As a result, there was an atmosphere in the stadium before to the game that reminded me of myself, an Ohioan of a similar age to LeBron James who would occasionally come early to see his high school team warm up. People had gathered at College Park early today, too, trying to get as near to the lightly guarded baselines as possible in order to get a glimpse of Henderson, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound guard who attended Carlton J. Kell High School.

To their dismay, he didn’t appear until just before game time, and he appeared apparently locked in, immune to the hubbub. Now, an hour later, the tangible energy in the stadium has faded as we enter the second half of a game that has provided nothing in the way of defence. Henderson scores both free shots after being assisted up after the foul, and the game continues drably. Both the Ignite and their opponent, the College Park Skyhawks, are showing signs of season wear, albeit the Ignite players are more thickly shrouded in it. They are 9-15 and have dropped their previous two games by double digits. Tonight is heading in the same direction.

It’s worth investigating Scoot Henderson’s whereabouts, what he’s doing here, and where he’s going. He is the youngest American player in history, having joined the Ignite at the age of 17. He comes from a basketball family that suggests he’s never been anything other than who he is today. A brand-building adolescent who can’t picture life without being the No. 1 selection, who isn’t reading your essays and analysis that shows differently. He knows he’s got it, regardless of parallel worlds or Victor Wembanyama.

Despite the fact that three of the previous five NBA MVPs have gone to players 6-11 or taller, and despite the fact that Wembanyama is a wonder, sending the mind flying with flights of curiosity, the guards will always insist it is a guard’s game. So, although Victor will go first, with a degree of excitement and expectation that will assure some sort of fame or infamy, Scoot Henderson, too, has great intentions. Plans to reposition himself and, by extension, the game. Plans are in the works to reimagine the road to the NBA in the first place.

He’s here at College Park right now, putting his ideas to the test. Because playing in the G League means competing against grown guys. Some of them have played in the league and understand what it takes. Some of them are very aware that scouts will be there during a game featuring a young, potential NBA star. Henderson has to work his way through everything.

Silva and Tyrese Martin instantly fall on him in the paint, preventing him from reaching a launch point. He’s taken the risk of shooting beyond the 3-point line. On the perimeter, he’s being double-teamed. Henderson is still battling, and the Skyhawks are still fighting him, even when the game seems to be out of reach. He ends with 17 points, seven assists, and five rebounds, but he also had five turnovers and scored on 19 shots.

Fans pouring out of the stadium are unaware that Scoot Henderson had just played his last game in a G League Ignite outfit.

IN THE LOBBY OF THE TEAM’S HOTEL THE NEXT MORNING, JUST BEFORE THE IGNITE ANNOUNCED THEIR ENDING OF HENDRISON FOR THE SEASON, HE LOOKS EXHAUSTED. But, as he spreads his legs on the carpet in a conference room, he feels relieved that he is getting near to home.

We’re just about 30 miles from Marietta, Georgia, where Henderson grew up. He watched his younger sister, Moochie, play in her high school game from his locker room before participating in his own. Henderson smiles a bit and then grins with pride when I tell him she smashed his school scoring record. “Yeah, well. My record wasn’t that many points; I think it was around 1,700,” he says, before gently shaking his head and resuming his grin. “However, she got over two bands, 2,300.”

Basketball is the globe around which the Henderson family orbits. Scoot is the youngest of seven siblings, including two elder brothers, CJ and Jade, three older sisters, Diamond, Onyx, and China, and a younger sister, Crystal (nicknamed “Moochie”). Onyx and China attended Cal State Fullerton, while Diamond attended Tennessee Tech and Syracuse. All of his sisters now help him promote his brand: Onyx manages his social media, China dresses him, and Diamond serves as his “chief of staff.” Meanwhile, Moochie is a top-rated point guard in her class. Chris, their father, coached all of them.

“You know Joe Jackson, like the Jackson Five’s dad?” Chris Henderson says over the phone. Chris responds when I clarify that, yeah, the name does strike a bell. “Well, I’m kinda like the Joe Jackson of basketball,” he says, laughing, before adding, “Less severe, but yeah.”

Chris and his wife Crystal both tell me that the advantage of parenting a family of high-level basketball players is that you don’t have to work hard to develop their competitiveness. If a large number of your children are already excelling in one subject, the rest will not want to fall behind. “Scoot was always a student of the game,” adds Crystal. “At two years old, he had to accompany us to his older sister’s games, and he would watch, and it helped his IQ a lot; when Chris started training him, he already knew so much of the game just from watching at such a young age.”

Chris has an opinion. “And look, when we train, we’re not just training to train. I tell all my kids, if you’re not doing it to be the best, we’re not going to do it. I didn’t want any second-place trophies in my house. If we went to a tournament and got a second-place trophy, it wasn’t coming home with us. I had to create that culture in my household.

Chris did not play high school basketball, despite becoming one of the most sought-after trainers in his region. Scoot claims that he only ever played lightly with friends. “He’s just a real student,” Scoot remarks. “I’ll wake up, go upstairs, and then I see him just watching a lot of basketball. He’s got a little notepad that I’ve seen him just working in. He’s a student in the game, and it’s really scary how locked in he is — it’ll be all night.”

Henderson’s parents launched Next Play 360, a gym in Marietta, while he was in ninth grade, which became a centre for developing all of the Henderson brothers. This was a watershed moment for Scoot. He had previously played both basketball and football. After the gym opened, he devoted his whole time after school and throughout the summers to basketball, working with his father at the Next Play 360 facility. He’d reclassified to the 2021 class by his junior year and signed a two-year, $1 million deal with G League Ignite, making him the league’s youngest player in history.

His skill astounded his colleagues. Erik Mika was a standout at BYU in 2017 and had mostly spent his time abroad until joining the Ignite this season. He recalls a practise play that “lives rent-free in my brain,” in which one of his teammates stepped up for a layup during a two-on-one drill. As Mika describes it, “the layup was high-arching, it had to be at least twelve feet in the air, and Scoot just — I swear, he came out of nowhere — got all the way up and just smashed it against the backboard. And THEN, he gets the ball, comes back down to the other end for the two-on-one, takes off one foot inside the free throw line, and just floats to the basket for a dunk.”

John Jenkins, who played for Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, Washington, and New York before joining the Ignite this season, grew up in the same neighbourhood as Scoot and had heard tales about how motivated he was. Henderson, he adds, followed up to his reputation by getting up to the gym four hours before game time, rebounding his own misses, and practising on defensive footwork. Jenkins believes, not unexpectedly, “his playmaking has taken a leap this year. He knows when to pick his spots, slow down, pick his spots, when to get someone else involved. All the things he needs in the league, he got better at.”

Henderson, now stretched out in the hotel lobby, believes that the road with Ignite has been lengthy, but it has also flown by. When we converse, he refers about the period in the past tense, which should have been a hint. He thanks Pooh Jeter, a type of player-coach who tutored him over the course of two years.

“I’ve been blessed to have these opportunities, to have extra access to places, to be in buildings that other draught prospects would love to be in, but it’s still a grind, especially off the court. We get schooled at the business of basketball. We have to learn stuff that a lot of people don’t know about,” he says, pausing for a moment to reflect. “And, if you think about it, it can be annoying at times, but it’s what you need to know going into your job for the next ten years or so.”

Turning pro at the age of 17 fulfils a fact that many teenage basketball players are aware of: basketball is your profession, and often your only career. But basketball as Henderson’s only occupation suits him well at this time, when his laser concentration shields him from the many whirlwinds of media analysis and conjecture. He says that he hasn’t looked at any draught boards since there’s no need for him to. It makes no difference what they say. He wants to be number one, therefore the maths is straightforward. He’s building on his leadership skills, being more outspoken when his squad is struggling. He exclusively listens to those who are now or have previously been members of NBA teams. He doesn’t really follow many of his other classmates.

While Henderson repeats himself (“I want to go No. 1. I don’t want anyone to think I’m solid at No. 2”), there is a looming, ever-present danger to that goal: Victor Wembanyama, who is widely expected to be the first choice in the draught. Henderson and Wembanyama notably fought each other in October. Wembanyama stole the show, scoring 37 points on a sequence of amazing shots for a man his stature (7-2). But the Ignite won, as Henderson led the way with 28 points on 11-for-21 shooting. Henderson seems more equivocal than contemptuous when I bring up Wembanyama.

“I mean, he’s like any other draught prospect, except for his height and unique ability to shoot the ball at that size, which is… I don’t know, I’m not guarding him, so I can’t say too much.”

Henderson shrugs when I ask how it felt to be on the court with Wembanyama.

“I guess it was cool; I’m sure it was cool to be on the court with me as well.”

A MAN WAITING OUTSIDE THE WINTRUST CENTRE IN CHICAGO WAVES A LARGE PHOTO OF SCOTT HENDERSON IN DISPLEASURE, WHILE BEING TALKED DOWN AND WALKED BACK ONTO THE SIDEWALK. “I’ve been out here waiting,” he exasperatedly adds. “I just got a few more things, just one more thing,” Henderson’s team respectfully says. “You’ve already got two, he’s already signed two, that’s it, come on man,” Henderson responds.

When the argument is over, the guy sulks off, dejected, before gazing at the two Scoot Henderson autographs he already has and nods with pleasure. Scoot’s team member sighs as he glances over at me. “We shouldn’t have come outside.”

It’s the first day of the NBA draught combine and the lottery, and Henderson has been mainly confined to the gym, watching some of his Ignite colleagues go through their individual measures, vertical leap, shuttle, and so on. He exited short from the stadium concourse’s side entrance onto a sparsely packed walkway that would not stay so for long. He initially came to a halt to sign an autograph. And then, as a result of his pausing, people started to gather from locations I couldn’t even find. I’d glance down for a bit, then back up, and there’d be three more people, Scoot in the centre of the throng, smiling and gracefully thanking everyone for their time while signing his name and giving cards, posters, and pieces of paper back through the crowd.

Scoot and I settle in a quiet area of the food court after leaving the somewhat disappointed straggler behind, where he can shrink a little more and go to work on some leftover Chipotle. When I ask him how much of that attention he’s been receiving, he smiles and shakes his head. “They were there the first time I got to the airport, and last night when we got back from getting food. Dang, it’s been a long time.”

It’s been about two months since we last talked, and in that time, Henderson momentarily restricted all media access as he worked and prepared for the draught. He’s lighter than he was in March, walking with a spring in his step and talking in longer, more convoluted paths where he’ll sometimes stop himself mid-story and talk himself into or out of an aside.

“I’m just trying to carry on a tradition,” he adds, nodding and sifting rice with a plastic fork. “My siblings all left legacies behind their names. If you go back home to Marietta, everybody knows who my sister Diamond is before they know me. I always looked up to my brother CJ. I looked up to how hard he worked. That comes out in my workouts now. Being so young, watching them grow up and train. “It’s almost as if I’m watching myself right now, which is entertaining.”

Henderson claims he’s establishing “a whole enterprise, a whole empire” with the aid of his sisters. He pulls at his red button-up shirt and tells me, “My sister China, she’s my stylist, she put together this whole fit I got on right now.” Diamond helps with his social media, expanding his fans. He refers to his sister Onyx as his chief of staff, the person he keeps near by to keep track of his days and remind him when it’s time to eat, drink, and sleep. CJ joins his father in assisting Scoot with his training.

He emphasises that any road to the top will be accompanied by his family. He’s trademarked the phrase “O.D.D.” (“Only Determined to Dominate”), which he hopes will define his arc. “I’m on an odd pathway that nobody has ever been on. And I’m prepared for the job. I think everyone should be O.D.D., mentally-wise. Be overly determined to dominate whatever it is in life you want to do.”

Henderson sometimes veers into what some could interpret as motivational speaker-speak, but there’s no act; he sincerely believes in his attitude to the world because he’s basking in the consequences of it. In the middle of discussing age and numbers, he gets specific: “Most guys start on this kind of path of building things around 25. And I’m starting out at 19, which is a blessing, but also I have the right people around me.”

Of course, draught boards have altered since our last conversation, with Brandon Miller now the overwhelming favourite to take second overall following Wemby. Henderson, on the other hand, professes to be unconcerned by any of this. He’s in a phase where he controls what he can and lets the rest wash away. He’s focusing on his leadership, drawing lessons from his experience at Ignite with Pooh Jeter, whom he refers to as his “Brother/Uncle.” He insists on spending time practising talking while dribbling, or talking out loud, in order to discover his leadership voice.

But work isn’t everything. There are other more frivolous branches of Scoot Henderson’s enormous dreaming tree. Things you’d expect a 19-year-old on the cusp of (even more) life-changing financial windfall to be excited about. Henderson, for example, couldn’t drive two years ago. “I really never had to drive anywhere,” he adds. He acquired his driver’s licence following his first G League season, a test he says he passed effortlessly without ever studying. He practised driving with his mother, which he now jokes about (“She’d always be on me to slow down, you know how it is when your parents are with you. It’s so chaotic.”) All of this culminated in his receiving his driver’s licence, for which he has huge hopes.

When I casually suggest that he can now drive and would soon be able to fill a driveway with automobiles, he gasps, “My DREAM car???” “My DREAM car…” he says again, as if for the first time, tapping his fingers on the table in short, precise beats.

“Rolls Royce Cullinan. I’m gonna get one of those one day,” he says, wide-eyed, looking past me, onto the vacant street over my shoulder.

As a fan, you hope Scoot Henderson never loses these personality points. His on-court demeanour and attitude are tinged with ferocity. He settles down with a straightforward approach: “People are out there working hard, and I have to work harder than they are.” Nobody can work as hard as I do. But there’s a switch that switches off the court, and he’s a child experiencing a miracle, appreciating the pleasure of it.

The first time we spoke, he wanted to tell me about the books he was reading (“The Secret,” for example), and about his two dogs, two young pitbulls he cares for. He wanted to chat about how he’d just completed watching the Harry Potter films and was now playing the Hogwarts video game. When I ask him in Chicago whether he found the time to beat the game, he nods and says he’s off to Dead Island. We lament over the game’s sluggish pace (“It’s like a long way to get a gun just to kill the zombies,” he mutters, shaking his head.)

He’s also been playing 2K, joyously grappling with the odd aspect of the fact that he’ll be in the game himself next year. He goes on an exuberant linguistic and arm movement gallop, telling me about how he and his brother used to construct bespoke teams and players. Then there’s an option that disables the little rambunctious style of remembering. “It’ll be surreal, but… I worked for it, so it’s not a surprise; I knew I’d be in 2K because I knew I’d work hard to be in the league.”

All of this is correct. Scoot Henderson will undoubtedly benefit from an attitude (and a work ethic that aligns with that approach). But in the minutes between now and whatever happens on that night, he’s still motivated by a delightful disbelief that I hope never completely fades.

When we sat across from one other after he was pushed inside and away from the autograph hunters, he chuckled and rested his head in both his hands for a time, his fingers reaching up into his beautifully piled hair.

“It’s crazy, bro. Life is crazy. I would never have guessed in a billion years…I knew I was going to do SOMETHING, but I… I just never thought I’d come to be the person I am to people.”

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