It’s a hot summer Monday night, coming up on bedtime for Brinkley and Baker Gulledge. Even so, 4-year-old Brinkley and her 2-year-old brother are still up, still perched in front of the television, jumping and cheering to their little hearts’ content.
What’s unfolding on the screen might as well be a world away from Kinston, N.C., a tiny town tucked along the banks of the Neuse River in the state’s Inner Banks. The glittering gluttony of Las Vegas is three time zones and 2,400 miles west, and here, the population hovers at about 20,000, the poverty rate around 40 percent.
It’s another world, but their daddy switched on the television, and there he is. There’s Reggie Bullock. Their Reggie Bullock.
The No. 25 pick in June 27’s NBA Draft, Bullock is playing for the Clippers at summer league. He’s moved on from his Carolina blue, moved all the way across the country from Kinston and Chapel Hill, but Wells Gulledge, his coach at Kinston High, still cares. Roy Williams, UNC’s coach, still cares. These men call Bullock family, and Bullock calls Kinston home, and even now, even as he darts across that screen in an NBA uniform, there’s a sense that this kid – this man, now – is still the longest shot in the world.
He isn’t. Not anymore. Thanks to these men, and to Kinston, to one grandmother, her faith and to the magic of that Carolina blue, Reggie Bullock made it out.
Just months before that July night, Bullock, then a junior at North Carolina, approached his coach about the upcoming draft. He had another year of eligibility, but he wanted to leave for the NBA. Williams had other ideas. To him, it only makes sense for a player to declare early if he’s a consensus first-round pick, and at the time, Bullock was not.
Bullock insisted; he was ready to prove himself, and he promised he could break into the first round. Williams continued to resist; after all, 11 underclassmen had declared for the draft during his first nine seasons at UNC, and all had gone in the first round. He didn’t want Bullock to be the first not to, both for the sake of the 22-year-old swingman and also for his program’s image.
Still, Bullock resisted, and Williams eventually agreed to support him. It was time, Bullock decided, to move on from North Carolina, from the place that could have broken him, from the place he’d clung to for the past 18 years.
When Bullock was 4, his father drove him down from Baltimore to Kinston and dropped him at the doorstep of his maternal grandmother, Patricia Williams. Two years later, the father was dead, and Bullock’s mother lived in Kinston but was not much of a presence in her son’s life.
It was just Bullock and Miss Williams, as everyone in town called her. She was a minister, and Bullock was raised to toe the line. Miss Williams was the backbone of their makeshift little family, and she was going to keep her grandson on the right path, no matter the circumstances around them.
Growing up in Kinston, there were plenty of distractions.
“There was not a yellow-brick road or a silver spoon or anything like that,” Roy Williams said, and it was up to Miss Williams to keep Bullock in church, in Bible study, at basketball and football practices – anywhere the troublemakers and gangs were not.
“She protected me,” Bullock said. “She definitely showed me right from wrong. She kept me focused. That’s always good to have a person like that in your life.”
In middle school, Bullock would often miss Wednesday night practices in order to go to Bible study or church; in fact, he can recite the name of every book of the Bible on cue. But in a town where basketball reigns supreme – “Being the coach there, it’s about like being the mayor,” Gulledge said – word traveled, not only of Bullock’s religious obligations, but also of his talents. By the time he got to high school, coaches were beginning to think that basketball might be his ticket to college – if, of course, practice could cut into some of that church time.
Before Bullock’s freshman season, Gulledge set up a meeting with Miss Williams. He told her that her grandson had a chance to be a special player and that the coaches would take care of him and keep him on the right track. He even offered her a compromise. “He’s going to have to get some extra time in church on Sundays,” Gulledge remembers telling her. “He can go in at 10:00 a.m. and get out at 4:00 p.m., because we need him the other days.”
Miss Williams agreed, and not two years later, her grandson was one of the state’s top talents. Meanwhile, she’d fallen ill, and Gulledge and his wife, Dawnn, had stepped into Bullock’s life. During his junior season, when Miss Williams was in and out of the hospital, he moved in with the couple, who helped him get his schoolwork in line with college admissions standards. Even before then, Gulledge had become something of a father figure, helping Bullock navigate the recruiting scene.
Gulledge did so in a way that made Miss Williams proud. When Bullock was a sophomore, he got his offer from UNC. He already had offers from Wake Forest and Indiana, but he knew he wanted to stay in state, and the Tar Heels were it. Someone had to let Dino Gaudio at Wake Forest and Kelvin Sampson at Indiana know, though, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Gulledge.
The coach took the teenager to Bojangles’ Famous Chicken and Biscuits, a local fast food joint, and bought him a biscuit as motivation. He sat him down, handed him the phone, and punched in Sampson’s number.
“I’ve never seen a young’un so doggone scared in my life,” Gulledge said, but Bullock placed the calls. No doubt, Miss Williams would have made him do the same.
While she was ill, Bullock’s grandmother did what she could to get to his games. At senior night in Kinston, he pushed her in her wheelchair out onto the court, and it’s hard to know which of the two was prouder. That same year, when she made a trip to the Jordan Brand Classic in New York on a charter bus to watch him play, Bullock gave up his plane ticket home and made the eight-hour trip back on the bus with her instead.
During Bullock’s freshman season at UNC, Miss Williams was too ill to travel to Chapel Hill, but she insisted on watching his games on television. No matter how bad her eyesight, she could at least hear the play-by-play announcers call his name.
Miss Williams’ time cheering for her grandson as a Tar Heel was short-lived, though. She passed away Jan. 7, 2011, during Bullock’s freshman season. He had stayed in North Carolina in part to be near her, just a two-hour drive away, and now she was gone. Then, exactly two months after her death, he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus, ending his season. It was the hardest time of his life, a time when, Gulledge said, he felt like the doors were closing in on him.
Even so, Bullock persevered, earning his reputation as a scorer who could “shoot the dickens out of it,” Roy Williams said. He played a secondary role his sophomore season, when the team boasted four 2012 first-round picks, but by his junior season, he had come into his own. He had a new support system, Roy Williams and Gulledge and his Carolina teammates, and to this day, he knows his grandmother is watching.
When it came time for draft night, Gulledge put himself in charge of Bullock’s itinerary. A possible first-round pick, Bullock had the option of going to Brooklyn to watch, but when Gulledge told him, he turned down the idea immediately. He told his former coach that if he wasn’t one of the select few players invited with their families and given a table, he wanted to go home.
Gulledge had to clarify. Maybe he meant Chapel Hill, the coach thought. No, Bullock said. Kinston. He wanted to go home.
Bullock submitted a list of about 70 names, all people he wanted near him on draft night, and Gulledge got to work. He and his wife organized an event at a local community center where everyone could watch the draft on a big-screen television. It wouldn’t have felt right to be anywhere else, Bullock said. After all, he has the intersection of East and Bright streets, a crime-ridden Kinston neighborhood, tattooed on his arm. The place, for all its faults, is never far from his mind – or his heart.
“My city supports me 110 percent,” Bullock said. “My best friends are there. If I wasn’t at that table sitting with my family, I just felt like I should be with them at home.”
That night, Bullock became the sixth Kinston native taken in the NBA Draft, joining the likes of Herbert Hill, Cedric Maxwell, Charles Shackleford, Jerry Stackhouse and Mitchell Wiggins, father of likely 2014 pick Andrew Wiggins. The town boasts of its NBA history, and when it came time for Bullock to join that list, Kinston rallied behind him.
“He loves his roots,” Gulledge said. “He loves this city. It means a lot to him, and him being there meant a lot to us, meant a lot to my family and his friends.”
The night of the draft, Williams was perched at a restaurant in Kiawah, a resort town near Charleston, S.C. Sipping his lemonade, he scrutinized each pick, waiting for Bullock. Other diners approached him, hoping for a conversation or an autograph from the famous coach, but he rebuffed them as best he could. He was watching the draft. He was watching for Bullock.
When the Clippers went on the clock for the 25th pick, Williams was nervous. He had to go then, or to the Timberwolves at 26, the coach thought, or he would fall out of the first round. The seconds ticked by, the five minutes seeming an eternity, and then Williams heard it: Reggie Bullock.
Williams smiled. He always does when he hears that name.
It was perfect, the coach thought. He had heard the Clippers were interested, and with Doc Rivers in place as head coach and a solid core, Williams was excited for his former player’s prospects. He didn’t even think of Bullock’s connection to fellow North Carolina native Chris Paul, whose AAU team he played on; that was just an added bonus. Bullock had made it. He had kept his promise.
Williams rushed out of the restaurant and stood on a sand dune overlooking the Atlantic. Away from the noise, he dialed Bullock’s phone number. Nothing. Again. Nothing. On the third try, the two connected; each had been trying to call the other, getting sent to voicemail or a busy signal each time.
Williams told Bullock how proud he was. Bullock thanked him. Fans continued to approach Williams on the beach. Williams waved them off. This was his moment, Bullock’s moment, and that call to Kinston was what mattered.
Gulledge isn’t sure when he’ll see Bullock play in person next. He’ll have to wait until his kids are a bit older to plan a trip to Los Angeles, but he’s already thinking about it. He already knows he’ll keep tabs on Bullock through his friendship with Chris Paul’s brother, C.J. He’s telling himself how California isn’t that far away, how television and cell phones erase the distance.
Until then, Brinkley and Baker will cheer. Gulledge will tune in to game after game, as will many of Kinston’s residents. Convention would dictate that Bullock will move on and Kinston will not, but this is not a story about convention. Remember that tattoo, that draft party; this is a story about connection.
Reggie Bullock will remember Kinston as much as it remembers him, another world away.