Having just completed his rookie season for the Sacramento Kings, Ben McLemore talks to Alywin Chew about swapping poverty in Missouri for the chance to play in China as part of this month’s NBA Global Games
The NBA can perhaps claim more rags-to-riches stories than any other sports league in the world, but Sacramento Kings shooting guard Ben McLemore’s account of his poverty stricken past still makes for compelling listening. Dressed in the sports gear and tattoos that come as standard in the NBA, the 21-year-old is remarkably composed as he reflects on a whirlwind few years that have taken him from free school meals and sporadic hot showers to sitting in the Portman Ritz-Carlton hotel in Shanghai to promote this month’s NBA Global Games.‘Those tough times growing up helped me mature a lot and my coaches in college did a good job with helping me grow,’ says the St Louis, Missouri-born star. ‘I really didn’t see myself becoming an NBA player when I was young. I only played [basketball] because my brothers, sisters, uncles and dad did. I got better every day and it turned out good for me. And now I’m here [in China].’
Despite the rapid ascent, so far McLemore’s NBA story hasn’t quite been the fairytale he’d hoped for. Having enjoyed a stellar college career with the Kansas Jayhawks, McLemore became embroiled in a financial scandal when it was alleged that his coach had received thousands of dollars of impermissible benefits in return for guiding the player towards certain agents in the run up to the 2013-14 draft. Widely tipped to become the first choice in that draft, McLemore ended up seventh, while his first NBA season saw him fail to live up to expectations.
‘As a young kid coming into the NBA, it’s a different ball game,’ he says, seemingly unfazed by his difficult start to life in the league. ‘You got to learn how to adjust to it. I want to just keep working on my game, keep getting better as a player, and be able to learn more. I played every single game last season. I felt great, man. We didn’t get the win but I think I ended my rookie season on a strong note.’
Despite a disappointing start to his NBA career, McLemore remains committed to improving his performance, a mindset he credits to his background and his family. In particular, he pays homage to his mother, for whom he bought a house with his first month’s salary; ‘she was quite excited,’ he says, smiling. He also talks affectionately about his brother, who is currently serving a prison sentence for armed robbery. ‘Sometimes as a ball player, you don’t always want to talk about basketball, but when it’s coming from my brother, who is in prison, I love hearing it,’ he says. ‘It gives me more motivation to go out there and play my hardest.’
McLemore is committed to giving back to his community. In July, he returned to Kansas to participate in the first ever Sir McLemore Summer Slam, a charity dunk event. The event helped raise funds for his charitable organisation All4Kids, which works to combat childhood hunger and provide support for underprivileged children in the city of Wellston and its neighbouring areas. Although he usually seems mature beyond his years, McLemore does allow himself a moment of giddiness and awe when reflecting on where he is today. ‘Oh man, it has changed the lives of everyone in my family,’ he says. ‘I mean, having this opportunity to be here in China, to be talking to you, to be meeting fans – it’s a blessing. I have always told myself that if I keep working hard every day, something good will come of it. And that’s been my motto since I was little – go hard or go home.’