ST. FRANCIS, Wis. – Greg Monroe was 15 at the time, a high school sophomore still clumsily moving through his growth spurt but already a highly regarded basketball recruit, when Hurricane Katrina forced his family to take a four-car, 16-person caravan from their home in Harvey, La., to Houston. In the month Monroe spent away from home, opportunistic AAU and high school coaches aggressively courted him, promising grander stages and more exposure for college scouts if he chose to stay.
The interest was flattering, but Monroe's heart remained with his hometown and he later made a practical decision that matched his sensibilities. His house, located near the west bank of the Mississippi River, was mostly spared by the storm, sustaining some wind damage. His high school, Helen Cox, was one of the few in the area reopening and his teammates were also returning. He was going back, simple as that.
"I was afraid. Coaches were like drooling over him, doing everything in their power to get him to stay. Some of them were probably a little shady," said Helen Cox coach Tyron Mouzon, who regularly and nervously texted Monroe during that period. "He never wavered. He wanted to come back home."
What Monroe discovered by not chasing a larger platform in Texas was that fame and success would eventually follow him. Monroe became the top player in his high school class, had the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self, Jim Calhoun and John Thompson III in his living room, eating his mother's gumbo and red beans and rice, and Helen Cox would wind up playing games all over the country, some on national television, and claim the state title in his final game.
Ten years later, Monroe once again faced one of the most important decisions in life, as one of the league's most coveted free agents, and chose sensible over the shine. Having narrowed his choices down to the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Milwaukee Bucks – all offering maximum contracts ranging from one to four years – Monroe determined that the allure of playing in a bigger market was furthest from his mind. His decision actually came down to two of the league's smaller markers, with Milwaukee winning out over Portland.
Monroe joked that he's a basketball player, not a real estate agent. Endorsement opportunities, more renown and an attractive nightlight paled in comparison to what he sought most: After compiling a career winning percentage (36.2) that ranks seventh-worst among active players with at least 350 games in the league, Monroe wanted the team closest to immediately competing for the postseason.
Milwaukee had one of the league's most intriguing young rosters, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Michael Carter-Williams and one of his good friends in Khris Middleton, stability in coach Jason Kidd and ambitious owners who recently received approval for a new arena. The Trail Blazers had an electrifying All-Star point guard in Damian Lillard, but they were in the Western Conference and provided a more congested playoff path.
"If I'm in a city where I have to sit inside all day, I'm fine. I like to have fun. I like to do things, but that's not going to ever determine my decision as far as where I play basketball," Monroe said. "I've lived in different places and I was comfortable in all those places. Where I was living wasn't the biggest thing for me, so it was definitely, purely a basketball decision. I was looking at where I felt I would have the most success, where I would fit in, help a team and continue to move forward. I definitely feel like I made the right decision."
Monroe's decision to spurn the league's glitziest markets marked a significant shift in a league where cold, Midwest towns were once ignored in July. But with the league's highest-paid endorsers residing in Cleveland and Oklahoma City, payrolls skyrocketing and a restrictive salary cap prohibiting teams from stockpiling the most talent, the playing field for a team like Milwaukee to compete for top talent has been leveled. "It just shows that maybe we're doing something right," Kidd said. "It used to be about the city. Now I think it's about winning. I think the world's gotten smaller. All games are on TV now."
Knicks president Phil Jackson, Bucks owner Marc Lasry and Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen – making a rare trip from Seattle to engage in the process – were among the influential figures who arrived in Washington to meet with Monroe at the office of his agent, David Falk, in the first 14 hours of the free-agent recruiting period.
Monroe refused to be blinded by the power in the room, focusing more on whether what was said aligned with his prior research on each team. The pleas last July were reminiscent of when Monroe picked a college but he added, "this time, it was more business."
Kidd said he was confident the Bucks would prevail because, "We shot straight. He had to trust that we weren't selling him a bag of tricks. We were very honest."
Thompson, who persuaded Monroe to pick Georgetown over Duke, said being honest and direct is the best approach for the unassuming big man.
"Greg was not one that you had to court and kiss his behind," he said. "I can honestly say, his was one of the more different and unique recruiting experiences because not only did he not crave that, he didn't want that."
What also swayed Monroe toward Milwaukee were conversations with former Pistons teammates who played for the Bucks, including Caron Butler, Brandon Jennings and Brandon Knight. Middleton was Monroe's teammate in Detroit during the 2012-13 season and has remained so close that Monroe shared Thanksgiving dinner last year when Milwaukee was in town to play the Pistons. When he realized the Bucks had a chance, Middleton was persistent in calling and texting Monroe – "every five minutes," Monroe said with his baritone laugh – to convince him that he needed to come.
"He's a great friend of mine, so I didn't want to do too much," Middleton said. "I just know, I told him he had to make the best decision for himself, but we wanted him here and we needed him to take it to the next level."
Monroe won't be mistaken for a franchise-altering talent but his skill set – a back-to-the-basket low-post scorer and willing passer – meshed with what the Bucks lacked. From his days as a two-time Mr. Louisiana, Monroe was never one to crave the spotlight or special treatment. In high school, he was an active participant in car washes and other fund-raising events for the athletic program, even when his presence was the reason Nike provided uniforms and shoes for his basketball team.
"Greg was always a very humble kid. Never made himself bigger than the team," Mouzon said.
Monroe has repeatedly made unorthodox choices that reveal both his intelligence and strength. He could've been a lottery pick after his freshman year at Georgetown but came back for an extra year to gain more seasoning, confident he would avoid injury or sliding in the draft. And he became an unrestricted free agent last summer by making the unusual decision of signing a one-year qualifying offer worth $5.5 million after rejecting an offer from the Pistons worth 10 times more.
Falk and Monroe's uncles encouraged Monroe to skip the restricted free-agency dance – by avoiding the search for an offer sheet that the Pistons could match – and gain his outright freedom after he determined he couldn't find the success he desired in Detroit. Monroe had nothing against the city of Detroit, its fans or even Pistons president and coach Stan Van Gundy, but the Pistons were wrought with more change than wins in his five seasons and he lacked the patience to commit long term.
With the Pistons unable to find a suitable sign-and-trade package two summers ago, Monroe took out an insurance policy in case of injury and recorded his fourth consecutive season with at least 15 points and nine rebounds.
"He figures out what he wants," Thompson said. "The pressures that a lot of other kids are under, because of friends, family, society, saying this is what you should do … that doesn't faze him. He's comfortable making decisions regardless of what everyone else thinks or feels around him. And he's normally right."
For someone who watched his mother, Norma, raise two kids as a postal worker and elementary school teacher's aide, and who slept on an air mattress in a two-bedroom apartment that he shared with five other people for a month after Katrina, Monroe didn't feel that he was taking a huge risk.
"I don't try to make rash decisions. I just try to take everything into account," Monroe said. "Most people say, 'Dang, how could you pass up on all that money?' I come from a family where you always make do with what you have, you work for what you get. And talk about a regular job. What was the qualifying offer? Over $5 million? Everything is relative and people are different, but I know how I was brought up and how I was raised. I was living perfectly fine throughout my whole rookie deal, so that was still a raise."
Before free agency began, Van Gundy called Monroe and both thanked the other for how they handled an awkward season. Monroe had just grown frustrated with a franchise continually in flux. He played for five different coaches, had to adjust his game when Andre Drummond emerged quicker than expected, when the team added an odd fit in Josh Smith and again, when Van Gundy implemented a more wide-open system in which Monroe wasn't an ideal component.
Monroe remained so confident in his eventual payday that he finally bought his mother her dream home before entering free agency. For Monroe, it was his way of making good on the pledge made in a card he gave for Mother's Day after he declared for the draft. "The card read, I gave to him all his life, now it's his turn to give to me and whatever I want, or whatever I need, I got it," Norma Monroe said in a phone interview. "It was overwhelming. I stood there, bust out in tears."
Milwaukee was always a special place for Monroe since it was where he received the Morgan Wootten Award as national player of the year before participating in the McDonald's All-American game at the Bucks' home arena in 2008. In his short time since joining the Bucks, Monroe has quickly taken to the city, purchasing an apartment with a view of Lake Michigan. When he sat down to dine at a restaurant recently, a fan thanked him for picking the Bucks.
"I'm not sure what he was thanking me for," Monroe said with a shrug.
Monroe wasn't running away from expectations in New York or Los Angeles; he was lunging into the type of scrutiny he long desired. The pressure won't be solely on him to elevate one of the league's rising young teams, but Monroe won't deny that some exists. "I always feel like I have to deliver, no matter what. I know they're hungry, and I'm starving to get to the playoffs," Monroe said. "But coming here, they're asking me to do things that I'm already comfortable doing. And a guy like me, I have a lot of pride. So I always have the mindset that I want to be everything they think I am. I want to be worth every penny, however you want to say it. That's what drives me. This is always a great opportunity in my eyes. I try not to take it for granted."
By accepting a three-year contract worth $50 million, with a player option for the final season, Monroe took another gamble that few in his position were willing to take last summer. But the move could lead to an even more lucrative payout in 2017, when the salary cap is expected to rise to more than $100 million. If he plays out his current deal, Monroe still stands to make more money over four years than the offer the Pistons made in 2014.
"I didn't know if there was anything better out there for me, and that was a part of it," Monroe said. "I'm always willing to bet on myself, honestly, if I'd bet on anything."
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