Jeremy Tyler sat fidgeting in a shopping mall, the sort of sterile and charmless building where teenagers dawdle away their days. This was the largest mall in Israel, he said, and also the one with the most American-sounding name: "Grand Canyon." It had a McDonald's and a Sbarro and stores selling Nike and Adidas, and if you ignored the Hebrew script and the teenagers with guns on their backs, you could almost imagine you were in Anywhere, USA.
Tyler didn't get out of the house much, he said, but when he could get a ride, he came here.
He came to work out in the gym, to wander around for a bit, and occasionally to catch a movie if he had a friend in town. But two days before Christmas in 2009, he'd come to defend himself, to talk about a decision and an experiment that many had already labeled a failure.
Tyler made headlines earlier that year when he dropped out of high school after his junior year to play professional basketball with Israel's Maccabi Haifa. By this time, word had already spread to the United States that Tyler was lazy and immature, with little idea of how to properly play the game. Tyler had grown desperately lonely and increasingly frustrated as his season in Israel continued, but as he sat in the food court, his massive legs stretched underneath the table, Tyler expressed no regret for the path he chose.
"I have to face reality," he said. "Everyone is looking at me to see what's going to happen. They want to see if I'm going to succeed or fail. They're curious. I'm curious too. The only difference is that I get to control what happens."
Eighteen months later, consider the results mixed.
Once, Tyler was seen as the top prospect in his high school class. Now, he's just hoping to be selected in Thursday's NBA draft. Tyler is projected in some mocks as a late first-round pick, but questions remain about his attitude, talent and maturity.
But as he prepares for the chance to enter the league, Tyler insists he has no regrets over the path he chose. "I know it was the best decision for me," he says. "I wouldn't trade the experience for anything."
Yet there were moments -- when he sat idle on the bench in Israel, when he passed day after day by waiting for 4 p.m. to arrive and his friends from home to wake up and call, when he made decisions that fed his image as a petulant and immature kid -- when second thoughts likely would have crept in to anyone's mind.
Israel turned out to be nothing like Tyler had hoped. He struggled against advanced competition, no longer able to rely on the athleticism that carried him through high school. The family members who were supposed to move in with him had their visits cut short, leaving him with no friends, no mode of transportation, and nothing to do away from the basketball court. Media reports labeled Tyler as lazy and immature, unable to adapt to life as a pro.
All the while, Tyler received less attention from his team's coaches than from its marketers. He starred in a team-sponsored reality show and had his face plastered on signs all over the city, all while he struggled to get off the bench. There were moments in practice when Tyler looked like the best player on the court, tipping in dunks in transition and swatting the shots all over the floor. But those moments were interspersed with spells of ineptitude -- dropped passes, missed layups, struggles to make rudimentary offensive moves.
When asked at the time, an NBA executive praised Tyler's move to Israel because overseas leagues don't restrict practice time like the NCAA, but in reality, Tyler received little individual instruction. "If he just gave me a little confidence, said something to me in practice, it would make a big difference," Tyler said of then-coach Avi Ashkenazi. "But he doesn't. He just ignores me."
Maccabi Haifa owner Jeffrey Rosen expressed desire to make his franchise the preferred destination for elite American prospects who want to head overseas rather than attend college. When asked how he would handle the situation differently in the future, Rosen said nothing about the way the organization should handle teenagers. Instead, he just said they should pick players more mature than Tyler.
As the months passed, Tyler's season turned disastrous, reaching bottom when he left the bench at halftime of a game, frustrated over his lack of playing time. Soon thereafter, team officials said he wouldn't dress for the rest of the season. A short time later, he bought a ticket back home to San Diego.
To all outside observers, Tyler's experiment appeared a grand failure.
Bob Hill, the former San Antonio Spurs coach, took a job coaching the Tokyo Apache in Japan's BJ-League, largely for the chance to work alongside his son Casey. The Apache signed Tyler and he went to San Antonio several weeks before moving to Japan, where he began receiving the individual instruction he'd rarely gotten in Israel.
"He was extremely raw," Casey Hill said of Tyler. "He just hadn't been taught the finer points of the game." In high school, Tyler dunked over inferior athletes at will. In Israel, he languished on the bench. In San Antonio and Japan, he finally learned fundamentals.
Bob and Casey approached Tyler from both sides. "Coach played the bad cop," Casey said, "and I played the good cop." They worked to refine his offensive game -- polishing his jumper, teaching him to effectively use a drop-step in the post -- and helped him see there was more to defense than standing around waiting for the chance to block shots.
"Coach [Bob] Hill just wanted the satisfaction of seeing a young man get better," Tyler said by phone earlier this month. "I couldn't have been in better hands. He became like a father figure to me."
They moved to Japan and Tyler emerged as a contributor. He still showed immaturity -- "He didn't handle criticism well at first," Casey said -- but every time Bob chided him, Casey stepped in with encouragement and gentler advice. In practice, Tyler toughened up by going against Robert Swift, a 7-foot-1 former NBA player who is now an MMA fighter. Coaches told Tyler they wanted him to become defensive beast, and he delivered, fueling his elite athleticism with solid effort on both ends. After he developed a drop-step, he instantly became an offensive force. "When he developed that move, he had an anchor to focus on, and he would just rip it and go, dunking on people all over the place," Casey said. Off the court, Tyler took to Japan quickly, exploring Tokyo and adapting to the ex-pat life unlike he ever did in Israel.
One night in March, Tyler exploded for 24 points and 14 rebounds. "He was a dominant force," Casey Hill said, "making jump shots, dunking on people, doing everything." The next day, a 9.0 earthquake brought Japan to its knees. The Apache never played another game.
In the lead-up to the draft, Tyler has impressed in interviews and workouts, and he gained attention at the combine by measuring 6-feet-10 ½ inches. His talent is apparent, but Tyler's NBA success will hinge on his ability to keep refining it. "The staff that drafts him needs to stay on him and continue to teach him exactly what it is they want from him," Bob Hill wrote in an email from Taiwan. "If that is done on a consistent basis, he will be fine."
Hill added: "Five years down the road, he could become an outstanding player, because he really wants this and has a very good motor."
Throughout the last two years, people around Tyler have questioned whether he loves the game, whether he's made decisions based on his ability to improve as a basketball player or his ability to become a star. "Jeremy comes from a world of putting the cart before the horse," Casey Hill said. "He's been looking at the NBA since before the NBA was even a possibility. He didn't realize how much work he had to do when he decided to go pro, but over time, he's cultivated a love for the work, a love for seeing the results that come from the work."
On a cool December night in Israel, Tyler sat idle on the bench, watching the clock tick down as his teammates put the finishing touches on a blowout win. "I'm fixing to lose it," Tyler told a teammate, furious he still hadn't entered the game. "I can't take this anymore."
And then, 50 feet away, they started singing.
There were dozens of them -- the teenagers and 20somethings that comprised Maccabi Haifa's most rambunctious cheering section, crowded together in the first few rows of the 3,000-seat arena's balcony. Some were shirtless, while others were clad in Maccabi Haifa green. Some beat drums, while others pumped their fists to the rhythm. Some jumped. Others danced.
But all of them sang.
"Jeremy, Jeremy Tyler," they cried, their Israeli accents turning the J into a Y. "Jeremy, Jeremy Tyler."
Sufficiently swayed, Ashkenazi inserted Tyler into the game. He responded with four minutes of dazzling and baffling play, ripping down rebounds and then watching as the ball slipped out of his hands, struggling to show consistency while the crowd kept singing his name. And then, just like that, it was over. Haifa won, proving Tyler's impact on the game frivolous.
In that moment, Tyler was months away from abandoning his team mid-game, a year away from emerging as a force in Japan, and light years, it seemed, away from proving himself worthy of the NBA.
He walked off the court, waved at the fans, and for a moment, he smiled.
"If I make it, this will show people, this is what you need to do," he said later. "If I don't make it, then it will show them, this is what you shouldn't do. So either way, yeah, it's a sign of being a trailblazer. And no matter what, it will always be the greatest story to tell."