Chris McCullough’s long and winding journey to the NBA Draft
The occasional wince is commonplace in Chris McCullough’s life. As the Syracuse one-and-done recovers from an ACL injury that limited his sole collegiate season to just 16 games, he simultaneously prepares for one of the most important days of his life: Thursday’s NBA Draft at Barclays Center in his hometown of New York City.
This isn’t the first time a grimace has graced the 20-year-old’s face, though. He has practice, dating all the way back to when he was growing up in the South Bronx. For a kid who had his own son just a few months ago, who witnessed gang violence during childhood, who was dismissed from prep school before eventually getting into college, a mere injury seems like nothing.
McCullough spent his early childhood in the Jackson Houses, housing projects up by Yankee Stadium. His parents, though, made a concerted effort to get him out of the area.
"It’s the hood. It is what it is. It’s bad regardless," a jaded McCullough said.
His mother and father, Brenda Ryer and Albert McCullough, fostered a positive environment around a kid who could’ve been surrounded by negatives. He stayed late after school to make sure his homework was done so he could have the grades to get into prep school at an early age. Clearly, the parental influence showed.
By age 13, he had packed up his things to head to Salisbury School in Connecticut.
"At first, I was like, ‘Mom, why are you sending me away?’" McCullough said. "I was like, ‘You don’t love me anymore.’ My first year, I did not like it. I didn’t like it the first two months. I wasn’t used to it. I was used to living with my mama."
It’s the hood. It is what it is. It’s bad regardless.
But he eventually got comfortable. And that was hardly the most difficult moment of McCullough’s young life. It was right around that time when he had to cope with the loss of his best friend.
They called him ‘Squeeze,’ a kid three years McCullough’s elder, but still just that: a kid. He would hang around Chris’ home. For an easily influenced adolescent without any brothers, Squeeze — whose real name was DeAnthony — was the closest thing McCullough had to one.
Until one summer night when Squeeze decided to take a trip out of the Bronx.
"That same night he asked me to go to Brooklyn, and I just had a bad feeling," McCullough recalled. "Brooklyn was too far in the first place. He went on his own, and he never came back."
McCullough never truly found out what went down that night, but he learned the painful outcome.
"I got a call at two o’clock in the morning that he’s dead."
McCullough’s mother, Ryer, has her own memories of the tragedy.
"Christopher, at one point, he stopped staying with [Squeeze], hanging around with him," she remembered. "My daughter asked, ‘Why are you not hanging around with him anymore?’ And he said, you know, he’s getting into a little trouble. So I said, ‘You know what? Things will work out like they always do.’"
They didn’t — in the most horrific way.
"It hit the family pretty hard, because we took him in like he was a part of our family," said Ryer, who lived just downstairs from Squeeze and his adopted mother.
The details of his death were sketchy, but we do know a car was somehow involved, whether he was hit by it or thrown out of one and then run over by others.
That didn’t stop hearsay from spreading around the area: His attackers cut him up. They sliced up his tattoos. They shot him.
None of that was ever confirmed.
"I know his mother, his birth mother, was able to identity him by his tattoos," said Ryer.
To this day, McCullough has to imagine how his life would’ve been different if he had ventured to Brooklyn that evening while also feeling as blessed as ever that he decided to stay home. He was only 14 at the time.
It was just one example of the gang violence that affected McCullough’s childhood, part of life in which he fortunately never participated.
"They knew that I played basketball, so they were like, if you’re going to be around, don’t be around this area," said McCullough, who does point out those who had his back growing up. "Something’s going to go down, go home."
That philosophy is a common practice inside such environments. Some feel trapped by the buildings around them, but many can recognize those who are capable of finding a more fruitful life. McCullough showed that early with his basketball talent.
It was a talent that got him into Salisbury and one that later got him into New Hampshire’s Brewster Academy at age 17, one of the most renowned post-grad basketball programs.
It’s basically basketball Julliard. Alums include the likes of Jeff Adrian, Will Barton, Mitch McGary, Thomas Robinson and more current NBAers. But even though McCullough went there, that doesn’t mean he attained alum status.
In the middle of his school year, Brewster dismissed him, though it never announced why.
"I went to an off-campus party," said McCullough, who was on probation at the time of his transgression. "So, basically, that’s violating school policy. Leaving school grounds after check-in was like, you can’t do that."
The probation was for a related offense, he says. A teacher found him among other students at a dorm-room party where there was alcohol present, though McCullough is adamant he consumed none of it.
"Everyone’s just sitting around and stuff, drinking," McCullough remembered. "And once I come in, the teacher walked right behind me like a minute later and everybody got busted. I happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time."
A Brewster representative declined to comment when reached for statement.
"I didn’t believe him at first … I knew that the next day, he was going to be coming home and we would go from there," said a surprisingly even-keel Ryer, who is a clinical social worker. "I really try to live with what I have tried to help some of my patients with."
A dismissal from Brewster didn’t stop him from becoming one of the top recruits in the country, and he later attended IMG Academy in Florida before heading to college.
St. John’s wanted him. Connecticut wanted him. Kansas wanted him. The Rivals 150 recruit rankings had him listed as the 19th-best high school player in the class of 2014. It was a résumé impressive enough to send him into college knowing he would be a one-and-done player, and he took that mentality to the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse made sense for the 6-9 McCullough, who stretches out to a wingspan longer than 7-3, according to DraftExpress. The Orange are notorious for finding long, athletic forwards to roam around their famous 2-3 zone defense. It seemed like a mutual fit, one so perfect that Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim actually told his prized incoming freshman that he could turn into a top-five pick.
But Boeheim, who has been known for being publicly hypercritical of his players in the past, changed his song midway through the season.
"He’s a lottery pick, I don’t know how he could possibly struggle against Colgate," Boeheim said back in December after previously taking issue with ESPN’s Chad Ford reporting McCullough could hear his name called in the lottery. "It just doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve got a better chance of winning the lottery, and I don’t buy tickets."
"Honestly, I really didn’t pay close attention to that," said McCullough. "It was out in the media, and people were tagging me on Twitter and stuff and Instagram."
It’s a bit eye-opening when a player indirectly compares his coach to the "haters" on Instagram and Twitter. The Internet is not exactly known for its compassion. And neither is Boeheim, one of the harder coaches out there whose philosophy dictates directing basketball more than actual personalities.
"I liked him, but sometimes, we didn’t see eye to eye," said McCullough. "That’s what it is. We didn’t see eye to eye a lot. But I liked him. He was cool. He would yell at you, but that’s what a coach does."
Now, as he rehabs his ACL at Hospital for Special Surgery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, McCullough has more important things to worry about than an imperfect but hardly unrecoverable relationship with his former coach.
He’s only a few months removed from major knee surgery which will likely keep him out of the start of his rookie season, an operation which has dropped his draft stock to "End of the first round, beginning of the second round" status. And more importantly, he has to provide for a family now.
McCullough’s son is only a few months old.
An infant, just another obstacle your average 20-year-old doesn’t have to hurdle. And although rumors have said Chris Jr. is one of the main reasons the injured Syracuse star left school early, the reality is that McCullough made his decision to leave ‘Cuse before he ever even got there.
So, his girlfriend of three-and-a-half years, Breeah, and little Chris anxiously await the results of Thursday night’s selection process from their newly rented place in White Plains, NY, far enough from home that he doesn’t have to deal with the stresses of New York City.
"I just feel like there’s so much jealousy in New York," McCullough said. "Once people see you on top, they don’t want to see you succeed, so I think there’s a lot of jealousy going around. I don’t personally like that."
"Everybody. People I grew up with. People on the street … That’s how it is in New York, though."
It’s easy to imagine why someone with McCullough’s story would live in a different New York than Woody Allen’s. It’s the lasting effect of his environment, of losing his closest confidant while his worldview was still warping, of being around Syracuse fans who have the audacity to curse him out on the street for leaving school early.
After going through all that, merely tearing an ACL is nothing.
Follow Fred Katz on Twitter: @FredKatz.