How Jalen Brunson was shaped by his father’s lessons—and his scandal
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 30, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The white BMW 750 sedan pulled out of the Wachovia Center and headed toward the Walt Whitman Bridge, leaving the lights of downtown Philadelphia behind. It was Oct. 25, 2006, and the 76ers had just beaten the New Jersey Nets in their last exhibition game. After the final horn 10-year-old Jalen Brunson retreated to the Philly locker room while his father, reserve point guard Rick Brunson, joined Sixers general manager Billy King in a back office. Later Jalen thought it strange when his dad left the arena without saying goodbye to anybody, trudging silently to the car, but the boy wasn’t concerned. The regular season started in a week, and for the first time all of the Brunsons would spend it in one city. On the drive home to Cherry Hill, N.J., Jalen talked excitedly about opening night. Finally Rick interrupted the dream. “Son,” he said, “I’m not going to play for the Sixers. I got cut again.”
It was the eighth time. Or the ninth. Rick had lost track. He had played for the Magic, Knicks, Blazers, Heat, Celtics, Bulls, Raptors, Clippers, SuperSonics, Rockets, Blazers again, Knicks again, Bulls again, Clippers again. He had spent nine seasons in the NBA, all on one-year make-good contracts, counting the days until Jan. 10, when those tenuous deals became guaranteed.
Jalen was disappointed, but he tried to remain upbeat. His father would catch on somewhere else. He always did.
“No,” Rick said. “This is it. I’m done.”
The 76ers had been the first team to cut him, in favor of Elmer Bennett before the 1995–96 season, and they’d be the last. At least they didn’t ask his wife to deliver the news, as the Knicks once did when it was she who picked up the phone in their White Plains, N.Y., hotel room. Rick glanced at his son in the passenger’s seat. The boy looked like he was about to cry.
Jalen used to sit courtside in his stroller while Rick worked out. He rode his bike while Rick ran on a nearby track. He wore suits to games, like his dad, even when the games were on plastic hoops in his grandparents’ kitchen. He cut the sleeves off his T-shirts, because that’s what the pros did, and he carried toys in a roller bag, as if he were forever en route to a charter. He shot imaginary jumpers at Madison Square Garden, impersonating Allan Houston’s jab step. When he rocked a Michael Jordan jersey at a Wizards game, Jordan asked, “Would you like me to sign that?”
“No,” Jalen replied, backing away. “You’ll mess it up.”
As Jalen grew older, friends offered primo tickets, but he turned them down, explaining that he didn’t like sitting in the stands. He preferred to be with the towel boys. Basketball was not entertainment. It was work.
Rick gave Jalen after-school chores: Sink 100 layups righthanded, 100 lefthanded, dribble two balls around the block, then do 30 minutes of box jumps. Rick lowered the rim on the backyard basket to eight feet and banned Jalen from attempting three-pointers, for fear he’d develop poor mechanics. But the kid still found his shots. Once, Rick returned to Cherry Hill during All-Star Weekend and watched Jalen chuck his way through a pickup game. Horrified, Rick walked onto the floor and chewed out his son in the huddle. “None of these people came here to watch you play by yourself,” he hissed. “Pass the ball or get out of the gym.” Jalen sobbed. Parents muttered: What a nut. Rick could be brutal, but he wasn’t going to raise a gunner. Jalen learned to dish.
Retired athletes often take years to discover a second act. Rick found his that night in 2006 before he crossed the Delaware River into South Jersey. “I don’t want you to live how I lived,” he told Jalen, who blinked back tears. “If you really want to be a ballplayer, listen to what I tell you, and you will take a different route.”
Villanova has finished practice on a Monday evening in mid-October, and the only people still on the court at the Davis Center are Jalen Brunson and Jay Wright. Jalen, the most vaunted freshman point guard in college basketball, and Wright, the Wildcats’ decorated head coach, are discussing whether to split the defense in transition or skip the ball to the weak side. Jalen, 19, became the country’s top point guard recruit and the latest Chicagoland phenom largely because of his ability to attack the rim. Wright, who has spent 14 years deconstructing Big East defenses, wants him to drive and kick. Jalen nods.
He is a precocious 6'2", 199-pound playmaker who grew up with a Steve Nash Fathead on his wall, studied YouTube clips of Steph Curry and Chris Paul, and interviewed Kyle Lowry and Deron Williams while deciding between Villanova and Illinois, their respective alma maters. Unlike many modern floor generals, Brunson is not a one-man fast break. He manipulates screens, exploits angles and probes gaps, all with the dead-eyed expression of an underground fighter. “It’s a stoic, nasty look,” Wright says. “He never, ever smiles. He plays with a scowl that’s inspiring to teammates but puts fear in opponents and hatred in fans.”
Wright suggests that Jalen’s unyielding approach was inherited, passed down from an NBA father who got cut eight times—or was it nine? Wright remembers coaching at Hofstra in 1998 and staying up late one night to watch the Blazers play the Lakers. Rick scored 19 points for Portland. Early the next morning, when Wright ambled into the Hofstra gym, Rick was there shooting. Wright did a double take. Rick, who lived on Long Island then, had hopped the red-eye from LAX for the All-Star break and driven straight to campus. Jalen describes the sight of his dad after those workouts, cutoffs drenched with the desperation of a man churning for one more contract. Jalen is indeed a product of the many trials his father endured. But he is also a product of the many trials his father put him through.
Rick played at Temple, for coach John Chaney, who rode him so mercilessly that Rick decided he would transfer to Boston College after his freshman season. “The man is crazy,” he told his mother, Nancy Linton. Rick grew up in the projects of Syracuse, N.Y., sharing a two-bedroom apartment with his mom and four siblings. His father didn’t try to be in his life until Rick was selected to the McDonald’s All-American game. “So what if Coach Chaney screams?” Nancy said. “If you can’t make it with him, you’re not going to make it in life.”
Rick played three more years for Chaney and fell in love with an Owls volleyball star named Sandra Davis. Sandra was polished and sophisticated—everything Rick was not. When she delivered the couple’s only son, in 1996, Rick was in Australia, running the point for the Adelaide 36ers. I’m going to raise this child, he told himself, the way Coach Chaney raised me.
Shortly after Rick retired as a player, the family moved from Cherry Hill to Charlottesville, Va. There Rick embarked on what he believes are the two best jobs he’s ever had: managing basketball operations at the University of Virginia and building a point guard who would never, ever get cut. John Paul Jones Arena was brand new, but Rick rarely let Jalen play there. He trained the boy on an outdoor court at Charlottesville High, taping Jalen’s right thumb to his palm so it wouldn’t interfere with his lefty stroke. He fitted Jalen for a weighted vest to wear while running hills in 100º heat, and he flooded his ears with trash talk: “You don’t want to be a basketball player! You don’t understand what it takes! You can’t spend the night at your friend’s house! You have to sacrifice everything!”
Jalen practiced with the Virginia women’s team and enrolled in youth leagues. When he shied away from a physical defender, Rick left the gym and told him to hitch a ride home with his mother. “He yelled at me, barked at me,” Jalen says. “I didn’t realize what he was doing. I hated him. I wouldn’t talk to him.”
Jalen sat glumly in his bedroom at night until Sandra came in and consoled him. Tired of being the buffer between father and son, Sandra warned Rick that his methods were too extreme and threatened to stop attending their sessions, video camera in tow. She didn’t need her kid playing basketball, anyway. She envisioned another life on waivers.
If he can take it from me, Rick reasoned, he’ll be able to take it from anybody. The boy would either break or crystallize. Privately Rick did worry about his relationship with Jalen and sought counsel from Bob Hurley, the famed coach of St. Anthony High in Jersey City, who raised two exceptional college point guards: Bobby (Duke) and Danny (Seton Hall).
“He’ll eventually figure out when you’re being his father,” Hurley assured Rick, “and when you’re being his coach.”
In 2010, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau hired Rick as an assistant, and the Brunsons moved to the northern suburbs of Chicago, a city that treats high school basketball like a pro sport. When Rick had a free hour after practice, he called Sandra to bring Jalen to the Berto Center to train alongside Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. But most of the Brunsons’ work took place at Life Time Athletic, an upscale gym in Vernon Hills, Ill., three miles from their home in Lincolnshire.
The modern point guard must be able to run the pick-and-roll, so Rick arranged folding chairs as screeners, and Jalen mastered drills attacking the trap, the hedge, the show. The modern point guard must also be able to shoot from outside, so Rick introduced a drill called 5-4-3-2-1, in which Jalen had to sink five straight threes from five spots on the arc, then four, then three and so on. If Jalen grew frustrated, Rick bailed, dispensing parting shots such as, “You don’t want to be the best player in the country! You don’t want to be great!” Jalen would finish the drill by himself and walk home.
He enrolled at Lincolnshire’s Stevenson High, and during the summer before his freshman year coach Pat Ambrose tossed him a set of keys. “I can’t drive,” Jalen said, missing the symbolism.
“I know,” Ambrose responded, “but you’re driving this car.”
Jalen had a habit of looking to Ambrose after running plays. “How do you want me to do that?” Jalen asked.
“Well,” Ambrose replied, “just exactly how you did it.”
The two men who were overseeing Jalen’s career took opposite tacks. As a freshman, Jalen staggered from the court at Stevenson after a lackluster game and Rick told him, “Don’t even take off the uniform.” They played one-on-one for the next 90 minutes.
“I promised Jalen I would be the balance,” Ambrose says. “I’d be the steady one.”
In 2012, Rick landed another assistant’s job, in Charlotte, but Sandra, Jalen and daughter Erica stayed in Lincolnshire. Rick watched Jalen’s games on The Cube, a website that streams high school sports, and called his son afterward. You’re not playing hard. You’re not covering anybody. He often left Charlotte right after practice, flew to Chicago for a game, then flew back the next morning. On one of those jaunts he saw Stevenson lose after an opponent nailed a three-pointer to go ahead by one with 10 seconds left. Jalen threw up his arms in exasperation. “You had 10 seconds!” Rick moaned later. “But the moment you did that, it was over!”
When Rick returned to Charlotte he made Jalen a DVD of Kobe Bryant’s game-winners, which often followed defensive slipups. He wanted Jalen to see how Kobe reacted when the Lakers allowed a bucket, how he stuck out his palm to calm his teammates. The DVD included a message from Rick: You can never hit one of these because you’re afraid to fail!
During a tournament that Christmas, Jalen drained a game-winner, then spotted his mom in the stands and pressed an imaginary phone to his cheek. “Call Dad!” he mouthed.
The Bobcats’ staff was fired after one season, and when Rick moved back to Lincolnshire, his dynamic with Jalen was different. They still scrapped, but when Rick hollered at him to initiate action in the first quarter, Jalen stuck out his palm. “I want my teammates to get confidence,” he explained. “Then I’ll take over.” With Rick at home full-time, they talked about the Eagles and the Bears, music and girls—finally, topics other than hoops. Jalen discovered Bob Hurley’s line separating father and coach. “There were so many days we were [nose to nose],” Jalen recalls. “I’d roll my eyes, give him attitude. He constantly told me, ‘If you don’t want this, let me know, and I’ll stop.’ But I never said stop. I always wanted it.” Assigned an essay in school about his role model, he picked his dad.
When Jalen was a junior, Rick yanked him under the bleachers after a game and accused him of hunting shots, as if he were back at the Burlington County YMCA. “You mother------!” Rick erupted. “I see you chasing points. You do not f------ chase points!” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, on the recruiting trail, heard every word.
“You’re right,” Jalen said. “It was my fault.” He knew better than to curse back at his father, who parented according to a Chaney credo: Do as I say, not as I do.
Even Rick’s most vicious tongue-lashings were tinged with high praise, predictions that Jalen’s critics would “watch him in the McDonald’s game” and “beg for money in 10 years.” By June 2014, Rick looked prophetic. Jalen led the U.S. team to the gold medal in a FIBA Americas under-18 tournament in Colorado Springs; the average margin of victory was 55 points. Jalen was about to enter his senior season as a five-star recruit, the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois and the heir to the Chicago schoolboy throne. The city that reared Rose, Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor was priming its next hardwood prodigy. Jalen could exhale. He had met every challenge his father put in front of him.
Then the Vernon Hills police knocked on the door.
After the championship game in Colorado Springs, Rick and Sandra drove through the night. When they arrived home the following afternoon, Rick went upstairs and took a nap. He was awakened by his wife’s cries. Police arrested Rick on charges of attempting to sexually assault a female masseuse at Life Time Athletic.
According to an eight-count indictment, Rick allegedly grabbed the masseuse and tried to force her to commit a sex act. Rick knew the woman. Two months earlier, when a Life Time manager informed him that detectives came to the gym asking questions about Rick, he sat down with Sandra, Jalen and Erica, who was then 13. Rick admitted to having had a sexual relationship with the masseuse, which began three years earlier. “I made a huge mistake,” Rick says. “I committed a moral sin. I let my wife down. I let my kids down. But I never did anything criminal.”
After being arraigned, Rick was released on bail. The story mushroomed in Chicago, less because of Rick’s celebrity than because of Jalen’s. “Every time you turned on the TV there was something else,” Sandra says. “It was earth-rattling. For me it wasn’t, This is an affair. It was, This is the fight of my life with my family.” Sandra, a paralegal, stayed in their house for most of the first month when she was not working. When she did go out, it seemed as if somebody asked about “the situation.” She came to hate the word. She asked Jalen if he wanted to move back East for his senior year and escape the scrutiny. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
In Stevenson’s first road game of the season, at Lyons Township, Jalen was serenaded with catcalls about masseuses. Jalen scored 30 points in a 71–39 blowout. Afterward, when Lyons Township fans swarmed him for autographs, he snapped, “Get away from me!”
Rick charged at his son. “You can’t ever react!” he shouted. “I made the mistake! You can’t make another one!”
The rest of the season Jalen was accompanied to road games by school-appointed security guards, but they could not muffle the crude chants and jeers. When Lake Forest High took the unusual measure of threatening to suspend any student who heckled Jalen, Rick was so moved that he personally thanked the athletic director. “I could have lost it every game, gotten a technical every game,” Jalen says, “but I got to the point where I was almost waiting to hear something, daring them to say it.” Stevenson coaches charted Jalen’s stats before and after the taunts. They noticed that his performance spiked.
Jalen mined the Twitter feeds of upcoming opponents to see who was cracking jokes about his father. In private moments he acknowledged that the jabs bothered him, but on the floor he betrayed no emotion. His face remained locked in that perpetual snarl. Rick was right in at least one regard: He had prepared Jalen to absorb anything from anybody.
“I’ve never seen a kid who can mentally break down adults the way he does,” Wright marvels. “He has this killer mentality that just ... never ... stops.”
Jalen’s preferred colleges were Villanova and Illinois, but Temple had talked to Rick about an assistant coaching job. After the arrest Temple backed away from Rick, freeing Jalen to make the choice he had wanted all along. No program develops point guards more meticulously than Villanova, and no coach handles personal issues more delicately than Wright. “Things got so bad, so deep, it really had nothing to do with whether we got Jalen,” Wright says. “It was, How can we be there for this family?” Wright would call the house and talk more about the case than about the season.
Jalen became a McDonald’s All-American, Mr. Basketball in Illinois, a state champion. He had the senior send-off every player wants—and no player wants. He saw his dad dress up for hearings and said, “I know you’re going to court today,” but Rick didn’t respond, for fear he’d be more of a burden than he already was.
Rick and the masseuse both testified to a consensual but sporadic sexual relationship. According to the masseuse’s testimony, it ended in the summer of 2013. According to Rick’s testimony, it was still ongoing on April 2, 2014. That day Rick got a massage at Life Time, and the masseuse testified that he tried to force her to engage in sexual activity. Rick testified to activity that was consensual. He also claimed that the masseuse, who admitted having filed for bankruptcy, had been pressuring him for money (which she denied). “I was so stupid,” Rick says, “because I put myself in that position.” He had to beg for his family’s faith after betraying it.
“I trusted him,” Jalen says, “because everything he ever told me in my life always came true.”
On May 29, Rick was acquitted of all charges. The bench trial lasted one day. After the verdict Rick drove to Stevenson and found Jalen. “You don’t have to worry about this anymore,” he said.
Rick kept his family together, and they are starting over back in Voorhees Township, next to Cherry Hill. But Rick still wants to coach, preferably in college, and that will be more difficult. Thibodeau raves about Rick’s work with the Bulls, but Google searches do him no favor. “People look at you like, What really happened?” Rick says. “What did he do? Did he have a good lawyer? He definitely looks crazy.” He recently inquired about a job as video coordinator at Temple, where he is a member of the school’s Hall of Fame, and was rejected.
Rick, 43, still coaches the one player he knows best. After a Villanova scrimmage in October he sends Jalen a text message that fills two screens: You gotta get nastier on the court.... You give up too many rebounds.... If you don’t change your attitude toward defense and what type of player you are right NOW it will be a long season for you. He harps on Jalen to hang a list of athletic and academic goals on his dorm-room wall, a childhood tradition. “Does your roommate laugh?” Rick asks. “He’ll beg for money in 10 years.” Rick fumes when he calls Jalen’s cell and hears female voices in the background. “Remember,” he says, “one girl!” Jalen explains that the Wildcats are developing a Midnight Madness sketch with the dance team.
Rick says he does not want to intrude, but occasionally he is compelled to drive the 30 miles to Villanova. After practice he waits for Jalen on the sideline and asks if he wants to work out later. It is already 6 p.m. Yes, Jalen says, he will be back in the gym tonight. “Sometimes he asks me that on an off-day, and I’m like, O.K.,” Jalen says with a sigh. “There are times I feel like I need a new voice. But I always go back to that voice, because nobody cares as much as he cares. Nobody pushes me as much as he pushes. Even if it’s hard, I know it’s the best thing for me.”
He is a child of the NBA who once joined Jay Z onstage at a concert and wore Christmas sneakers gifted by Kobe. But there is nothing pampered about Jalen Brunson, and whatever the student sections have in store for him at Butler or Georgetown or Marquette, he’s probably heard much worse. Villanova’s first on-campus game outside of Philadelphia will be Dec. 19, at Virginia, appropriate because this meandering father-son journey began on the blacktop just down the road, with a weighted vest and a taped hand.