Perseverance pays

Lester Hudson hopes this place has a hot tub.

It's a few minutes after 8 on Thursday evening, and Hudson has just arrived at his East Rutherford, N.J., hotel following a flight from Washington, where he worked out for the Wizards. The day before it was Detroit, and prior to that, Cleveland.

Sometime between now and the following day's tryout with the New Jersey Nets, Hudson wants to plop into the steaming water, close his eyes and soak.

"Gotta take care of my body," he says. "Gotta be fresh for tomorrow."

And the next day. And the next. A guard from Tennessee-Martin, Hudson is scheduled to audition for 16 teams in the three weeks leading up to the June 26 NBA draft. Long flights, security lines, meals at odd times and practices almost every day. The process is a grueling one, but if it's wearing on Hudson, he hardly lets it show.

"I'm having too much fun to be tired," says Hudson, a likely second-round pick. "These are the best moments of my life."

Indeed, competing against the country's best players in multi-million dollar arenas certainly beats the pick-up games in his gang-infested neighborhood in South Memphis, where Hudson once discovered a pair of dead bodies wrapped in carpet on his way home from the courts at Glenview Park.

The silky sheets and mattresses at some of the country's top hotels offer a comfort he never knew at his grandmother's house, where Hudson curled up on the floor most nights so the other 13 women and children in the two-bedroom home could sleep in a bed.

If Hudson makes an NBA team and ends up with a six-figure salary, it will be a far cry from the life most folks predicted for him back in May of 2004, when his classmates went through commencement ceremonies without him.

Yes, along with being the only player in the NBA draft to ever record a quadruple double, Hudson is probably the only one without a high school diploma.

Hudson says he lost focus after it was deemed that, at 19, he was too old to play basketball for Central High School as a senior.

"I was just messin' around, playin' in a church league," Hudson says. "I'd score 40 or 50 points a game some nights, and people would say, 'Man, why aren't you playing in college?'"

Hudson pauses.

"I've always known I could play with anyone," he says. "All I needed was a chance."

Don't bother asking Lester Hudson to assess his performances in his individual workouts. That's one subject he prefers not to touch.

"You should call the NBA teams and ask them," Hudson says. "I'm not the type of guy that goes around giving myself props."

No problem.

There are plenty of others who show no hesitation when showering praise upon Hudson, who turns 24 in August. As successful as he's been on the court, the thing that impresses people the most is what he's accomplished off of it.

"Lester's story is a story of perseverance," says Andre Applewhite, his coach at Central High School. "That's the word I think of when I think of Lester Hudson. Perseverance."

Six years ago it would have been tough to fathom that Hudson would ever be in this situation. He had transferred to Central prior to his junior year but never bothered trying out for the basketball team. Instead, Hudson found other ways to show off his talent on the court.

Almost every day, Hudson would skip classes and sneak into the gymnasium to compete in pick-up games with the students in the various physical education courses throughout the morning and afternoon. Eventually, a few members of the basketball team noticed Hudson and were so impressed with his skills that they alerted Applewhite, the coach.

"I went in there and watched him play one time, and that was it," Applewhite says. "I put him on the team without even making him try out. The only stipulation was that he start going to class. Not only that, he had to actually do something in class once he got there."

Everything went great for Hudson that season but, the following year, he reverted back to his old ways. Because he'd repeated a grade, Hudson was 19 by the time he was a senior. That meant he was too old to compete for Central.

Hudson started skipping class again – which wound up costing him his degree – and instead spent his free time playing in a church league or in the parks near his home on Seattle Street in South Memphis.

Hudson's neighborhood was one of the roughest in the city. Hudson says gang violence was pervasive throughout the community and that he often witnessed beat-downs and shootouts and policemen giving chase to hooligans through alleyways and streets. Hardcore drug use was also rampant. Hudson says a few of his cousins got caught up in the lifestyle.

"There was so much money to be made from selling drugs," Hudson says. "Every day, you'd see groups of users coming up to the dealers, one after another after another.

"My cousins … they just got addicted to the money. It messed up their basketball careers. I always thought they were the best basketball players out there. Then they started smoking weed and selling drugs. I never wanted to go that way."

Even if he did, no one would've let him.

"A lot of those guys in the gangs and the ones using drugs … they knew I was a good basketball player," Hudson says. "Sometimes, when I'd come around, they'd be like, 'What are you doing here? You don't need to be around all of this. Go make something of yourself.'"

Lester Hudson never played AAU basketball … but he did play Run and Gun. Numerous times throughout his childhood, Hudson would gather on the court with family members or friends for one of the most challenging street games imaginable.

"Every single person on the court plays defense against the person with the ball," Hudson says. "Sometimes you're being guarded by three or four people all at once. And if you get by them, there are three or four more guys waiting for you.

"That game turned me into a pretty good player."

Applewhite thought so, too. That's why he called Hudson the summer following his senior year and offered to help him land a spot on a college roster. He told Hudson he was too talented to settle for becoming a park legend. He described it as a "second chance" in basketball, and Hudson was quick to capitalize.

By the end of the summer, Hudson was enrolled at Southwest Tennessee Community College, which is Applewhite's alma mater. Hudson excelled on the court during the next two seasons. He also earned his GED and maintained a 2.5 GPA.

Once again, though, he failed to graduate from junior college because he wasn't enrolled in enough core classes. Without a diploma, most Division I schools were scared away. Luckily for Hudson, Applewhite knew an assistant at Tennessee-Martin. The only catch was that he'd have to sit out a year before becoming eligible, meaning he’d have to be diligent about going to class.

"It may have seemed like a little bit of a gamble at the time, but we thought it was worth it," Tennessee-Martin coach Bret Campbell says. "Sitting out made him hungrier. It was the first time he'd completely been away from basketball for awhile. He was able to really work and clean up his shot on a consistent basis from beyond the arc."

Still, as good as he thought Hudson could become, what happened the following year was beyond Campbell's zaniest dreams.

In his very first game at Tennessee-Martin, Hudson scored 35 points in the season-opener against Derrick Rose and eventual national runner-up Memphis. Eight days later, Hudson became the first player in Division I history to record a quadruple-double when he had 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals in a victory over Central Baptist.

There was also a 36-point effort against Vanderbilt, a 27-point game against Mississippi State and a triple double in a win over Southeast Missouri State.

With each 30-point outburst – and there were 12 in all – it became more and more obvious that Hudson would "test the waters" in the NBA draft.

"It helped to have everyone believe in me," Hudson says, "because it made me believe in myself.

"I hope everything works out for me so I can motivate people and teach them not to give up on their dreams."

As the draft draws closer, Hudson says he couldn't be any happier that more and more basketball fans – and NBA executives – are hearing his story of perseverance. Along with his amazing tale, there's something else Hudson would like people to know about.

His height.

At the pre-draft camp in Orlando, Hudson was measured at just under 6-feet without shoes. A few days later, before his workout in Washington, he was measured again.

"This time I was 6-1 – which means I'm 6-2 with shoes on," Hudson says. "And the weird thing is that same guy measured me in both Washington and Orlando. In Orlando, they made my touch my heels together when they did it. That's why everyone down measured about an inch short.

"I don't know why they do that. I don't play basketball with my heels touching."

Hudson is worried that the Orlando measurement might have a negative effect on his draft stock. He's also concerned that his play at the pre-draft camp turned off some scouts. Hudson says he thought he needed to show teams that he could “run a team” as a true point guard, but the plan ended up backfiring.

"You only get to play 10 minutes a half, and people are trying to show off their skills," Hudson says. "You push the ball up the court, and once you pass it, you never see it again. So how can a point guard show his skills off?

"I should've been scoring more. I should've put the leadership thing and the scoring thing together, but I thought they already knew I could score."

Campbell was in Orlando to watch Hudson compete at the camp.

"In Orlando," Campbell says, "he tried to show people that he could be a true point guard. I tried to remind him that the reason he was down there was because he averaged 26 points a game last year. He's a scorer. That's what he is. He's not a true point. He's a combo-type kid."

Throughout his first four individual workouts, Hudson says he's gone back to playing his style of game. The results have been favorable. Team officials say Hudson is solidifying himself as a mid-second round selection and that his stock could still rise in the next few weeks.

Even so, some of them question whether Hudson – who has not hired an agent – should remain in the draft.

"The issue isn't whether Lester Hudson can play in the NBA," one scout says. "He's an NBA-caliber player. The question is whether he's ready to do it now. He could benefit so much from another year of school. But he may be one of those kids who just doesn't want to wait."

Another factor is this year's draft class, which is much deeper than the projected field for 2009.

"This has been a good experience for Lester," Campbell says. "When the time comes for him to make a decision, I just hope he keeps a level head and does the right thing."

With less than three weeks remaining before the draft, Hudson says he's "50-50" on whether he should return to Tennessee-Martin for his senior season. Whatever happens, the road ahead appears bright.

"I talked to him a few weeks ago and wished him luck," Applewhite says. "He told me, ‘Don't worry, Coach. I'm not going to mess this up.'"