Deandre Ayton, ‘son of the soil’
The No. 1 pick goes back to his Bahamian roots
NASSAU, Bahamas — Slaves were allowed three days off during the Christmas holidays in the Bahamas to dance and play music from their native Africa. They donned elaborate and colorful costumes made of newspaper and other litter during the celebration called Junkanoo. Even after slavery ended in the Bahamas in 1834, Junkanoo continued during Christmas holidays and other special occasions.
The arrival of Deandre Ayton back to his native Bahamas in July, his first trip home since he was in high school, was deemed one of these occasions worthy of a modern Junkanoo band.
At a private pool club illuminated by purple lights, a band dressed in fluorescent colors got in position as word spread that their native son was near. One member blew a whistle to start the tempo. And as the 7-foot-1, 250-pound center approached his welcome party, he smiled and danced when he heard the beating of goatskin drums and the blaring of brass horns and whistles.
“It was just amazing,” Ayton told The Undefeated. “You can’t describe Junkanoo. But once you hear that beat, your body will just move. You’re going to feel it in your chest too.”
American hip-hop music soon replaced the native Junkanoo band, and the party was underway. Mychal Thompson and his sons Mychel and Klay were some of the first partygoers to greet Ayton.
The elder Thompson is a legend in the Bahamas. As a teen talent, he was discovered when a high school basketball scout from Miami was accidentally sent to his house in search of a different Thompson boy.
Bahamians love Thompson for opening basketball up to the country. He began his career with the Portland Trail Blazers before playing alongside Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy with the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers. He even has a street named after him in Nassau that leads to a gym where Houston Rockets players worked out in September.
But the No. 1 pick in the 1978 draft said the attention he received back then pales in comparison to the attention being given to Ayton, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, whom Thompson believes will be “the face of Bahamian sports for the next 15 years.”
“You’ve got to think back to those times,” Thompson said. “We had no cellphones, no social media, no [ESPN reporter] interviewing me in a hotel room with all this fancy camera equipment. I remember I went to New York, met with the commissioner. They announced the pick, I shook his hand. Some guy had a Polaroid, took a picture of us.”
The Bahamas has produced a number of NBA players. Thompson is a two-time NBA champion. His son Klay stars for the reigning champion Golden State Warriors. Another son, Mychel, has also played in the NBA. Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield is from Freeport, part of another island in the Bahamas. Former NBA players Dexter Cambridge and Ian Lockhart are from the Bahamas, while former three-time NBA champion Rick Fox has Bahamian roots, as does current Rockets guard Eric Gordon.
No matter where you go on the island, NBA games past and present are on TVs (even in the offseason) and debated over games of backgammon. There was even a charity game shown live on local TV on July 20, pitting island celebrities against pastors to promote peace on the streets.
Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told The Undefeated that he hopes to one day change the national sport from cricket to basketball.
“Every kid growing up in the Bahamas, they want to be a basketball player, a baseball player. And now you hear them talking about football. But basketball has always been No. 1,” Minnis said.
People from all over the Bahamas tuned in to ESPN for the 2018 NBA draft on June 21. There were six media members from the Bahamas at the draft, along with Michael Pintard, then the Bahamian minister of sport. After NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced the Phoenix Suns had selected Ayton with the first pick overall, an island cheered.
“Nobody, nobody expected me to do this,” said Ayton.
Ayton is ready to continue exceeding expectations, but he has dealt with recent challenges. Last week, the Suns fired general manager Ryan McDonough, who drafted Ayton. Moreover, while testifying in federal court in New York a week ago, former Adidas consultant Thomas Gassnola said the shoe company paid Ayton’s family before or during his college career at Arizona. Gassnola, however, did not divulge any details about the alleged payments.
Ayton, meanwhile, told reporters in Phoenix last week that he was surprised by the accusation.
“I don’t know why my name is in that,” Ayton said. “For me, my family and friends have been supportive of me my whole career. I don’t think they’d do anything like that. I just know my main goal right now is just my first game as an NBA player Wednesday coming up.”
Before these events, Ayton allowed The Undefeated and ESPN to follow him during his trip to his native Nassau in July. The following is a look at his return to his roots.
hoops camp, full circle
There was a nervous energy among the kids at the Jeff Rodgers Basketball Camp as word spread that Ayton was about to arrive. It was at this same camp, years ago, that Ayton’s love for basketball began when he himself was a youth.
Jeff Rodgers, who started the camp in the Bahamas 31 years ago, did not play in the NBA. But he is just as much of a basketball legend in the Bahamas as Thompson and Ayton.
Rodgers says his Seventh-day Adventist Church challenged its members to do something special for the Bahamas in 1986, so he started a summer camp in Nassau to give kids something positive to do.
“Young people have a way of getting into some crazy things, and trouble, whatever you want to call it,” Rodgers said. “I look at it as an opportunity for me to see how I can empower young people to believe in themselves, [as] I was able to do for myself.”
To earn respect for the camp early on, Rodgers persuaded then-Atlanta Hawks guard and dunk champion Spud Webb to attend. Webb then asked Rodgers if he could bring along a teammate, who just happened to be eventual Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins.
With Wilkins and Webb in tow, Rodgers’ basketball camp was a hit from the start. Later on, Mychal Thompson became a camp counselor along with Mychel, Klay and his youngest son, Trayce, who is an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox.
“I remember — like 7, 8, my earliest memories — going to Jeff Rodgers camp, actually,” said Klay Thompson. Gordon and Hield also attended the camp as youths.
Ayton, whose stepfather introduced him to basketball and forced him to attend Rodgers’ camp, said he received motivation from Klay Thompson when he was one of the camp counselors.
After catching the basketball bug during his first camp, Ayton wanted to go to camp the next year but did not have the money to go. To earn the fee, he had to work as a plumber with his father for a week.
“I look at him. I say, ‘Let’s go to work. No camp for you this year,’ ’’ Alvin Ayton said. “And he was more than happy to come to work that week. He worked very well. I paid him $20 a day. That Friday I come in and I give him that hundred dollars, and he say, ‘OK, Daddy, I can tell you something now.’ I say, ‘What?’ He say, ‘I ain’t coming back to work Monday.’ I say, ‘What you mean you ain’t coming back to work Monday?’
“He said, ‘I can pay for my camp.’ ”
Rodgers, who remembers when Ayton first attended his basketball camp as if it were yesterday, recalls Ayton being clumsy with no basketball skills to start.
“This young man comes from a small little island with like 350,000 Bahamians,” Rodgers told the kids at the Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium. “He goes into one of the biggest countries in the world where they have millions of people … and this young man makes a statement to the world, ‘I’m going to be No. 1.’
“Let no one discourage you from your dreams and goals in life.”
Ayton followed that up with a motivational speech of his own and spent the next half-hour playing with a rotating group of boys and girls. Some of the kids chanted, “Dunk it! Dunk it!” And Ayton did just that, to the delight of his adoring crowd and their phones.
“It just brought me back,” Ayton said. “How they looked at me was the same way I was looking at Klay when he was talking to us. I was really speechless. I didn’t even want to say anything at first because I’m looking and they are not blinking at all when they were looking at me.”
The next day, Rodgers put on an annual showcase so family and friends of the participants could witness their basketball growth, followed by a celebrity game. Klay Thompson starred in the celebrity game, which also included Mychel Thompson and Memphis Grizzlies guard Shelvin Mack. Ayton was asked to play, but a source said the Suns denied him permission to participate. Even so, a source said Minnis asked for Ayton to make an appearance. After learning of the prime minister’s request, Ayton quickly arrived during the first half while Klay Thompson was showcasing his 3-point shooting prowess.
Ayton sat next to Minnis, and the crowd had one eye on them and the other on the game. After Minnis departed, Ayton left shortly thereafter, signing autographs and taking pictures outside before exiting.
the prime minister’s chambers
On the third day of his visit, Ayton was dressed in a black button-down shirt and slacks for a meeting with the Bahamian government, which wanted to welcome him back. Ayton and his father were excited as they arrived at a mansion next to Rawson Square, their SUV parked behind a black Lexus sedan that had the letters “PM” (for Prime Minister) on the license plate. Ayton’s mother, Andrea, followed along via FaceTime.
Ayton, who would turn 20 years old three days later, marveled at the room where major Bahamian government decisions were made. The teenager was directed to his seat at the long wooden table.
Everyone in the room stood out of respect when Minnis arrived. After Minnis sat down, he welcomed the group and focused on Ayton.
“You are sitting in the prime minister’s seat. That’s where I sit,” Minnis told Ayton. “So I don’t know if that is some premonition for what is to come, because when I was your age, I would have never even dreamt that I would be sitting up here just like you in the cabinet office and even becoming prime minister one day.”
Minnis spoke in glowing terms about Ayton’s and the Bahamas’ love for the game of basketball and the NBA. He told Ayton that Bahamians were proud of his ability to come from the island and become the No. 1 pick. Minnis, however, also mentioned that with that success came a responsibility.
“Always remember that wherever you go, you will continue to represent Bahamas,” Minnis said. “You must continue to always being on the top and remind the public that you are son of the soil. And you will always carry that being and flying high and mighty.”
‘once i’m in the village …’
Church service at Real Harvest Seventh-day Adventist Church had already begun, but the churchgoers were distracted by the pending arrival of their star member who was back in town. After a lengthy drive from the Baha Mar hotel area, Ayton, along with several family members and friends, arrived at the small church he grew up in.
Hanging over the door the 7-footer had to duck under was a sign that read “WELCOME HOME DEANDRE. Congratulations!” with a picture of him wearing a Suns hat while making a No. 1 hand sign on draft night.
The morning sermon was entitled “Keep Hope Alive,” from a bowtie-wearing evangelist named Newton Joseph — Ayton’s childhood friend. Joseph’s sermon centered on Ayton and also included motivational and inspiring words. After the sermon, Ayton shared some words with the congregation about his time at the church as a kid. He then was asked to sit in a tall wooden chair with artistic engravings as four members laid hands on him in prayer. “Be with him, dear God. Stay with him and his family,” a member said while praying over Ayton.
“He’s a good friend,” Joseph said. “Obviously, he’s still a man of faith, so that’s good to know that he still believes in God and holds him as important in his life. He’s a great young man and we’re rooting for him, that he does well in the NBA and success follows him wherever he goes.”
Ayton was in no rush to leave after the service, as he enthusiastically spent time talking to the members he’s known since he was a child.
“It was good being recognized,” Ayton said. “As a young kid, people didn’t expect much from me.”
After a long goodbye, Ayton and his family got back into their SUV and headed toward their family home nearby in Nassau Village. The neighborhood has had its share of violence and crime throughout the years. Ayton said he once got into a fight at the nearby park as a child and his father told him he was not allowed to go back. According to Tribune 242, in the summer of 2015 residents of Nassau Village feared that even an expected improved police presence could not quell the crime and violence.
“It’s just a rough neighborhood,” Rodgers said. “You’ve just got to be tough to walk the streets. To survive in there and to come out to be a young man whose life is focused, didn’t get caught up into the bad things out there, it’s a miracle.”
Ayton’s parents told him and his siblings to play in front of their two-bedroom house, where they could be watched. And when they didn’t, they were disciplined. Ayton eventually told his father that he wanted a rim and basket put in front of the house. Ayton and his father worked together to build a basketball court in the driveway with a backboard made out of wood. Many of the neighborhood kids ended up wanting to spend time playing basketball at the Aytons’ rather than find trouble elsewhere.
The rim, backboard and pole are still intact today, despite the many hurricanes, storms and dunks that have damaged it in recent years.
Ayton’s father does not plan on moving anytime soon and did not seem eager to sell the place either.
“Deandre just sign a contract, before then we have no money,” Alvin Ayton said. “So somebody have to stay home and work. That’s what I did, you know? So the moving process will be soon, but we just taking it one step at a time.”
The small living room was filled with family pictures and achievements. There were also several of Ayton’s basketball awards and memorabilia, including a Suns hat. The lone bathroom had an adjusted shower to fit Ayton.
Ayton eventually made his way into his old bedroom, which included a twin bed used by Ayton’s sister and a bunk bed used by him and his brother growing up. Ayton somehow managed to curl up and fit on the top bunk as a preteen before departing to the United States.
Ayton then took off his shoes and dove his giant frame onto the bottom bunk, which nearly broke the bed during his landing. Forget the five-star hotel, restaurants, swimming pools, nightclubs, casinos and beach. He was much more comfortable and at peace in his childhood home.
He asked if his luggage could be retrieved. Then one of his cousins ordered the Chinese food takeout they often got after church.
“I told the guys, ‘Y’all, I’m spending the night here, ’cause I ain’t moving.’ Once I’m in the village,” he said, “I’m in the village.”