NEW YORK -- Chris McCullough rolls up his sleeve.
The Brooklyn Nets' rookie has 21 tattoos, but there is one tattoo in particular -- the one that covers his entire right bicep, the one that features a cross, birds, clouds, the dates "3-9-92 to 7-28-08" and the words "RIP Ant." -- which is most meaningful to him.
The tattoo commemorates the tragic death of his childhood best friend, DeAnthony Clark. "When I got the tattoo, I felt like he'd always be with me."
McCullough, 20, who has yet to play this season after tearing his right ACL while at Syracuse nearly a year ago, grew up in the Andrew Jackson Houses -- a section of housing projects in the Bronx riddled with crime, violence, drugs and gangs. He was one of the few who made it out -- having gone to three different out-of-state boarding schools in a five-year span since he was a young teenager -- and made it big.
"Most of the people I grew up with are locked up now or probably dead," McCullough says. "I was the one that always wanted to play basketball and be successful. That's what I did, and now I'm in the NBA. That just always kept me motivated."
On this particular day in December, McCullough happens to be sitting in the shoe section of the Modell's Sporting Goods store across the street from Barclays Center, having just rewarded each of 10 deserving kids from his old middle school with a $300 shopping spree before Christmas.
"It means a lot for me to do this," McCullough says. "I didn't have someone do this for me when I was younger, so I figure I should be a role model, and why not do this for people that come from the same place I come from?"
Overcoming adversity is nothing new for McCullough. He's been doing it his whole life. Now, he's providing hope for his community -- and, hopefully, sooner than later, Nets fans.
Losing a great friend
The gut-wrenching call came at 2 a.m. McCullough, then 13, had just lost his best friend -- the best friend he often referred to as his cousin.
McCullough and Clark grew up together. They lived in the same building. Their families were extremely close.
Typically, they could be found playing sports, riding bikes or talking to girls.
Everything changed on July 28, 2008 -- the night Clark, 16, decided to go to Brooklyn.
McCullough remembers having a bad feeling about the whole thing. It was late. It was dark.
Why Brooklyn? Why now?
"Ant went anyway," McCullough says, "and he never came back."
Clark had been found dead. Details of what exactly happened are unclear.
"It affected me a lot," McCullough said. "Me and my friends. We just had to get past it."
For McCullough, "getting past it" meant getting away. He naturally had gravitated to basketball because, well, everyone in his family played basketball -- his dad, Al, and his uncle, Andre, among them.
"To tell you the truth, every McCullough was a big-time player. Chris just went further out of all of us," says Andre, who lives with Chris at his condo in Edgewater, New Jersey, and played several years overseas. "It's in our bloodline."
Against Chris McCullough's wishes, his mother, Brenda Dyer, decided to send her son to boarding school. He started at Salisbury in Connecticut and felt homesick at first, but eventually he grew from a 6-foot guard to a 6-6 forward in a three-month span as a freshman. From there, it was onto Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, where he was dismissed for undisclosed reasons, and then IMG Academy in Florida. Academics, at times, were a struggle, but McCullough improved in the classroom.
"She's definitely my mentor in everything I do," McCullough says of his mom. "School and basketball-wise. She's just always there, telling me if you work hard you can get what you want."
By the time he was a five-star recruit, McCullough stood 6-9 -- long, athletic, skilled and able to handle the basketball, an NBA future in his sights. The New York City kid thought briefly about attending St. John's, but ultimately the allure of playing in the 2-3 zone for Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim at the Carrier Dome proved to be too enticing.
"It was my dream school," McCullough says.
But it didn't take long before adversity struck again.
McCullough has watched the play too many times to count.
Jan. 11. Florida State. The 16th game of his college career.
The Orange are on the fast break. McCullough jumps high to catch a pass. He lands awkwardly. His knee buckles.
"I felt a pop and then it felt like it snapped back in," McCullough says. "At first, I thought I dislocated my knee, but I got an MRI the next day and they told me I tore my ACL. ... I mean, I was out [mentally] for like two weeks. I didn't talk to anybody. I shut my phone off."
McCullough, who averaged 9.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.7 steals as a freshman, was being talked about by many people as a potential lottery pick in the upcoming draft.
"He was down, and when I say 'down,' I mean 'down, down,' Andre McCullough says. 'I was calling, but he wouldn't pick up. And then finally he called me back and I heard it in his voice. Everything was different. He wasn't himself. ... When I went up to see him, he was in a brace already and I told him this is nothing. This is a small setback that'll make you better than you were."
Chris McCullough wasn't much of a believer until he read a Players' Tribune story written by Shaun Livingston, who rebounded from a horrific knee injury in 2007. McCullough read it again. And again. And again.
"That was my motivation," says McCullough, who was able to spend some time with Livingston earlier this season.
McCullough underwent surgery and began rehab. The first three months were the toughest. He had to learn how to bend his knee before he could learn how to walk again. It was a mental grind.
Despite Boeheim and others advising him otherwise, McCullough, who may have gone in the lottery had he stayed for his sophomore season, elected to declare for the 2015 draft.
"I just felt it was my time," McCullough says, adding that it was always his plan to be one-and-done.
#TheySleep became his mantra. He hashtags many of his social media posts with it.
"It's basically self-explanatory," McCullough says. "Everybody sleeps on me. Everybody says you can't do this or you can't do that, but you just go out there and do it."
Questions arose about his motor and his strength, but the Nets came away impressed by McCullough during their predraft interviews and decided to take a chance on the hometown kid with the No. 29 pick in the first round. A potentially high-risk, high-reward move.
"It was amazing to hear my name called and walk across the stage," says McCullough, who, like most kids born and raised in the city, grew up rooting for the rival Knicks. "It's my hometown, and I wanted to play for my hometown team, so it was a big thing."
Initially, the feeling was that McCullough would probably have a kind of redshirt season. But that doesn't appear to be the case anymore.
Time to get ready?
McCullough doesn't feel rushed.
He doesn't feel any pressure to come back too soon.
The Nets, who have one of the NBA's best medical staffs, have been very cautious with his rehab.
In October, Brooklyn GM Billy King gave a broad statement to reporters, saying, "the goal is to get him back on the court this season." McCullough, though, has been doing individual workouts on the court at practice for a while -- shooting, even, yes, dunking.
"I can basically do everything, but I'm not going to put it out there what I can and can't do," McCullough says.
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, assuming everything continues to progress without any setbacks, a broad timetable suggests that McCullough ends up returning to practice sometime before the All-Star break and then ultimately making his NBA debut sometime after its conclusion.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the team's other rookie from the 2015 draft class, is currently recovering from an ankle injury and should return around that time too, giving Nets fans some hope. The team's record currently stands at 9-22, and it doesn't have total control over its own first-round pick until 2019.
"I haven't really thought about it yet because I don't want to make myself too nervous when the time does come and my name gets called," says McCullough, who has developed a strong friendship with reserve big man Willie Reed. Like McCullough, Reed was rehabbing from his own injury before finally making his NBA debut on Dec. 4. "I'm just going to take it slow, and once I'm on the court just play my game. I have a good system. I've been handling it pretty good, not rushing it, just taking my time with everything."
McCullough, who -- assuming he's able to fully recover from his ACL tear and be just as productive as he was before the injury -- projects as a stretch power forward with a solid face-up game, has been working on all facets of his game for months while also hitting the weight room to improve his strength. He says his go-to move is a jab-step, pull-up like Carmelo Anthony, though he patterns his game after LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay.
"Rudy and I had a similar body type when we were in college," says McCullough, now listed at 6-11, 200 pounds. "He's about 6-9, and the same wingspan as me (7-3). And the same thing with LaMarcus, I just like everything he does."
His uncle, though, provides proper perspective.
"I believe it's going to take him truthfully between 5-10 games [to get back] -- and the reason I say that is because he didn't get any Summer League time," Andre McCullough says. "He still needs to figure out the plays, figure out his spots on the court -- practices and games are two different things. But when he starts clicking, that's when the smile on everybody's face is going to come."
Just getting his feet wet at basketball's highest level seems like it would be a win.
This Christmastime was different but very special for Chris McCullough and his family. It was the first Christmas he got to spend with his 8-month-old son, C.J.
"Just looking at my son, he looks exactly how I did when I was a kid," McCullough says.
The whole family was at his Edgewater condo. His parents have left the projects now and live in New Jersey now.
McCullough is making $1.1 million in the first season of his multi-year, rookie-scale contract. Sure, he's treated himself to some things, such as a Porsche. Still, he hasn't forgotten where he came from.
"Nothing's really changed. I live in New Jersey now. My address has changed. But that's it. I'm still the same person," McCullough says.
"He's still willing to take pictures with fans, talk with somebody or help somebody," says Andre McCullough. "And that's what I love about him. He still goes back to the old neighborhood and talks to the kids. I don't have to tell him to do it, he wants to do it."