Why an Auburn forward turned down MIT, Stanford to play for the Tigers

Freshman forward Anfernee McLemore (via Auburn Athletics)
Freshman forward Anfernee McLemore (via Auburn Athletics)

After Auburn suspended two basketball players following their arrests for marijuana possession, coach Bruce Pearl turned to a true freshman brainiac to help fill the newfound holes in his rotation.

Anfernee McLemore could have been in a dorm room at MIT or Stanford, studying for an economics test and dreaming of a future as a CPA. Instead, the Georgia product, who graduated from Worth County High School with a perfect 4.0 grade GPA, answered the call for the Tigers against Coastal Carolina on Thursday night.

McLemore’s mother, Cinderella Lewis, settled into her living room to watch her son get his first significant playing time of the season. She wasn’t nervous watching her son, even though McLemore still weighs just 219 pounds after spending the summer bulking up. And she didn’t have any second thoughts about his college decision, despite the fact that McLemore turned down offers from Brown and Stanford to play for Pearl in the SEC.

“It was his decision in regards to where he wanted to go,” Lewis said. “I’m proud of his academics. He’s strong and stayed focused and stayed out of trouble. Brown had given him a good offer but that was before I knew about the offer that Auburn had given him.”

When McLemore was growing up, Lewis worked as an information technology specialist in the military and earned a master’s degree in management and leadership. She raised McLemore and his four siblings as a single mother, encouraging her children’s pursuit of education outside of school. As a result, McLemore would read the Harry Potter books and dictionaries cover to cover, and he viewed his siblings as rivals.

“I get inspiration from my brothers and sisters and I’m competing with them,” McLemore said. “I want to be the smartest in the family. I put time away where I could be doing other things and study so that I can have bragging rights by Christmas time.”

Because of her job, Lewis and her children were always on the move, traveling between Virginia, Texas, Arkansas and Georgia. Lewis said that it was important to her that McLemore set more permanent roots for high school, so he moved in with Lewis’s mother in Warwick.

That’s when McLemore kicked his schoolwork into high gear, staying after class to ask for extra help on his physics homework in hopes that it could help boost his college options.

“Just coming from the town that I come from, a small town with less than 200 people in it, I knew that if I wanted to get somewhere, I would have to put in the extra mile,” McLemore said. “I knew basketball probably wouldn’t be enough. So I knew that once coaches saw my GPA or my SAT scores, maybe that would give me the extra edge. I just always knew that coming from where I come, I had to do a little bit more.”

The offers poured in. In addition to an academic offer from MIT and athletic offers from Brown and Stanford, McLemore considered offers from Yale, Oregon State and Georgia Tech.

Ultimately, McLemore chose Auburn over those more academically rigorous institutions because he bonded with Pearl, who promised to “develop his basketball abilities” in a way that might not be possible in the Ivy League.

McLemore hasn’t had to wait for his chance, appearing in five games this season including a season-high 18 minutes in Thursday’s 117-72 win. The 6-foot-7 forward is averaging 3.6 points and 2.7 rebounds per game and posted season highs of nine points and eight rebounds against Coastal Carolina.

While basketball is his current focus and he wants to continue playing after college, McLemore has a back-up plan: He wants to become a CPA at an accounting firm. He’s confident that goal is still within reach, even without a degree from Stanford.

Plus, it’s Christmas time and juggling SEC basketball with academic success makes for some pretty good family bragging rights.