- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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WELLSTON, Mo. -- Poverty knows no boundaries.
The rubble on some of the streets makes it seem like you are driving through a war-torn land in the Middle East. But when you walk through the neighborhood, meet the people who are putting together their lives day by day, and interact with the families and friends of Ben McLemore, you realize there is hope here -- especially for the youth.
The people of Wellston have all rallied around McLemore's cause. They knew he and his siblings were hungry. They were well aware that his single mother was working late into the night. They talked about his brother, Keith Scott, who is five years into a 15-year prison sentence for armed burglary, as if he were the one who had the most basketball talent.
They all want to see McLemore succeed in the NBA.
The question for McLemore is: How will he handle his hometown and his family going forward?
His house on Wellston is in disrepair. Yet, at its height, there were upwards of 15 people living there in a 600-square foot home. It is still occupied by his mother, sister, brother and extended family at times. McLemore wants to fix it up, build on to the current structure. There are too many memories for him to tear it down. But there will be pressure to move everyone out. To expect anyone to stay put would be naive.
How McLemore manages the next few months and the following three years of his life off the court will be as important as his on-court play.
"Ben went to school just to eat, then he learned. But he went to school every morning to just eat," said Wellston mayor Linda Whitfield, who has known Ben and his siblings since they were small. "That's the honest truth. He was hungry first and then he learned second."
Whitfield said if McLemore needed money he got a dollar or two. She said coaches helped him and took him to AAU games. The local church helped him, too.
"A lot of people believe in God and if you don't have food you go to Mr. Jones' or Mrs. Jones' house because if the food is not in your house it's in someone else's," said Whitfield. "You don't have to be hungry but you've got to ask. This community helps each other out."
McLemore's high school was shut down because it lost its accreditation. When that happened, McLemore said it changed a lot of peoples' lives. It could have ruined his.
"A lot of people went to the streets, stopped going to school and dropped out," said McLemore. "The school was like a part of everybody and people knew it was closing down and it was just tough. It meant a lot to a lot of people."
McLemore had help from his high school coach and, with the aid of Kansas, ended up at Oak Hill Academy, an established prep school in Virginia which has produced countless pros, including Carmelo Anthony.
This is common practice when a school recruiting a player helps direct him to a new school. Ultimately, the move to Oak Hill Academy and the subsequent dismissal there for an honor code violation led him to Christian Life School in Texas, where he finished. He had to sit out a year academically at Kansas before he stuck it out and became an All-American.
McLemore could have easily bolted from Kansas after one season on the sidelines, much like Providence's Ricky Ledo did this year without ever playing for his school. But he didn't. Because loyalty is a character trait McLemore hasn't lost.
McLemore has pride, too. You can see it when he's at home. You can hear it when he's around his friends and family. You can tell from his agent choice, Rodney Blackstock, who has been a lightning rod of discussion, that McLemore is sticking true to his relationships. McLemore has taken the side of Blackstock, not his former AAU coach Darius Cobb, who told USA Today that Blackstock had paid him two cash payments of $5,000 each to direct McLemore to Blackstock.
So instead of a more traditional agent-player route, in which the player spends time in a workout gym and then goes to visit teams, McLemore's early draft process was a bit jumbled. But two weeks ago, an attorney who is familiar with NBA players and has worked with them in the past, Rudy Freeman of Los Angeles, was hired by McLemore's advisors to straighten out his draft process. Freeman ended up organizing the final few workouts and getting McLemore where he needed to go in advance of the draft this week.
"We made it clear to the league that Rodney wasn't flying blind here," said Freeman of Blackstock, who is also embroiled in a controversy regarding whether he provided any extra benefits to North Carolina's P.J. Hairston. Freeman has nothing to do with Hairston, he said.
"I represent Ben," said Freeman. "I'm helping him with this process. He has shown great maturity. He is maintaining counselors and advisors to help him through this. Ben is making the decisions that will suit his life. I have every confidence he has the maturity and those around him will give him the best advice so that nothing jeopardizes his hard work. He has no intention of going backwards."
I'm never going to forget Wellston. It's where I grew up. It's my heart and my pride. I want to build it back to how it was and be a happier place than it was.
”-- Robert McLemore
McLemore said he wants to rebuild his community, which is a sub-section of St. Louis County that looks like it was forgotten on some street corners. Still, Whitfield and many others haven't left and are trying to make a difference.
But it would take plenty of commitment from McLemore, both financially and emotionally, to repair what can be fixed. That's a big responsibility for a 20-year-old who used to worry about food in his stomach, who couldn't wait for the free breakfast and then the lunch and had no idea whether he would get dinner.
"A lot of people try to give us a bad reputation and they know it's a hard place to live and grow," said McLemore. "It's not that bad though. People try to give us a bad rep and that's just how it is and we feed off that and get stronger. If you say you from Wellston, they give you that look. It's just the reputation people try to give us."
Everyone knows he will be a millionaire Thursday night. How he handles that will be one of the toughest challenges going forward in his life. He will have to do well enough in the league to give back as much as he would like in the years to come. And he will have to show up, as much as he can, to offer hope to the kids.
McLemore is also about unity. He convinced his mother to have his estranged father, Ben, at the draft, since he had rekindled the relationship.
"It was hard to tell my mom [Sonya Reid] that I wanted my dad to come to the draft," said McLemore. "But she texted me back and said that this was 'your day.' I feel like the only missing piece is not having my older brother there.
"When I walk across that stage, I know I've made it and I can provide for my family. It's a blessing. It's an opportunity and I've put a lot of thought into it."
McLemore said the odds weren't high for someone like him to get out of Wellston. It would be easy to forget his roots but he said he won't.
"I'm never going to forget Wellston," said McLemore. "It's where I grew up. It's my heart and my pride. The people are great here. I'm going to give back. I was born and raised here. I'm a humble person. The community knows that. I want to build it back to how it was and be a happier place than it was."
Whitfield believes in him.
"He said it two years ago [when he went to Kansas]," said Whitfield. "I believe him, but he's got to do it. 'Cause he's a humble person, he's the humblest basketball player I've ever seen in Wellston. I believe him, and I'm going to be on him to do it too. He don't owe us, but please come back and pick one up at a time."