Near midnight, they were walking out of the Bradley Center together, Brandon Jennings(notes) and Kris Stone, the fabulous Milwaukee Bucks rookie and the young sneaker executive. In the background, you could still hear people congratulating Jennings, delirious over the kind of performance they hadn’t seen out of a rookie in almost 40 years there, hadn’t seen since the savior was named Lew Alcindor.
Jennings had gone for 55 points on the Golden State Warriors Saturday night, one of the greatest rookie performances in history. He obliterated Alcindor’s 51 points in 1970, and nearly passed Wilt Chamberlain’s rookie record 58 for Philadelphia in ’60. Jennings was chasing ghosts in that old gym. Most of all, he’s dared to transform the beleaguered basketball town of Milwaukee, with so much NBA history, so much pride, into a Bucks town again.
“We’re going to find a place to eat,” Stone said by phone. “It’s slim pickings this late here.”
Stone and Jennings have had a lot of dinners together, a lot of talks, here in the States and across Italy and Europe. Everyone will tell you they believed in Jennings, that they knew, but no one invested like Stone.
Everyone knows Jennings’ story now. They know about his resolve surviving the benchings and loneliness as a teenager in Italy. They know the time for NBA executives to scout him was at the practices with Lottomatica, the late nights and early mornings shooting in the gym. Everyone knows that Jennings challenged the system, defied the false gods of college basketball and pursued a trailblazing path.
When Under Armour hired Stone to get into the basketball endorsement game, all he did was bank his career, his credibility, on a skinny lefty kid who everyone feared would be broken overseas and an afterthought in the 2009 draft. Only, Stone always believed he had a deeper understanding of Jennings.
To Stone, there’s one story that tells it all. There’s a reference to which he always returns. Three years ago, Jennings had come to New York as a high school junior to play in the Elite 24 all-star game that Stone had started, and he won the MVP over players like Michael Beasley(notes) and Kevin Love(notes). The next morning, it was Stone’s job to drive over to the Westin Hotel in Times Square and make sure the kids were awake by 8 a.m. on the way to LaGuardia for flights home. So, Stone walked into the hotel lobby at 6, the elevator doors opened and there was a vision that brought him back to his days growing up in the Bay Area.
“And here comes Brandon walking out with a basketball under his arm, a T-shirt and shorts,” Stone said. “He had just achieved his greatest accomplishment as a high school player, and he’s running out the door to go work out with Ben Gordon(notes). That always stuck with me.”
Stone was raised in Oakland, and something about Jennings’ staying power always brought him back to his best friend from the Bay Area: Jason Kidd(notes). “I just saw the same mental strength with Brandon that Jason has always had, and I just knew it would carry Brandon,” Stone said. “I knew I could believe in him.”
Now, Stone had passed his cell phone to Jennings, the 20 year old, and you could still hear the kid’s voice crackling late Saturday night. Fifty-five points had come without him scoring until the second quarter. He had 29 in the third quarter, when Jennings had made 12 straight shots, when the 10th pick in the draft looked like the runaway Rookie of the Year.
“The shots kept going in, and after a while the rim kept getting bigger and bigger and I just felt like I couldn’t miss,” Jennings said. “I guess I was in that zone, you know? But that doesn’t happen without [Andrew] Bogut down low, scoring in the post and opening things up for me. I’m not doing this alone here.”
Almost though, almost. Jennings talked about the New York Knicks passing on him at No. 8 on draft day, about losing out on the chance to resurrect one of the league’s glamour franchises, to make Madison Square Garden his own.
“I feel like I understand why teams like the Knicks passed on me, because I didn’t put up big numbers in Italy last year,” he said. “But you needed to see me in the practices, and the workouts, to see how I was coming along there. Hey, I’m a gym rat. You had to know that about me.”
Hours earlier, Jennings had arrived to the Bradley Center at 3 p.m. for a game at 8 to shoot with Bucks assistant Kelvin Sampson. They do it every day. Sometimes, he gets up 500 shots before they leave the gym. Eventually, Michael Redd(notes) will return to the floor and the Bucks won’t need Jennings to score so many points. He’s on his way to becoming an improbable Rookie of the Year, but insists, “Really, I’m not thinking about that at all. What I want is to keep this team winning, and get the Bucks to the playoffs. That’s what everyone wants here.”
Milwaukee has been down a long time, and here comes this skinny 20-year-old kid on a cold Saturday night in November chasing one of Alcindor’s records right out of the Bradley Center. It was past midnight now, and they were on the way out of the arena to grab dinner downtown. Jennings had a restaurant in mind, a quiet spot where they could talk about a forever night, maybe Jennings’ biggest since he had come to New York as a young teenager and won the MVP and announced himself as the best guard in America.
All along, Stone believed Jennings was the one, and he probably risked his job on it. Before Stone hung up, he laughed and made one promise about the kid. “All I know,” Kris Stone said, “is that Brandon is treating tonight.”