Nearly 10 years ago, Jason James crossed paths with a talented yet troubled teenager at Central High School in Memphis. Poor academics and attendance had kept the sophomore off of the basketball team, but he had raw potential that needed polishing. James decided to keep an eye on him. This week he watched the same teen become the newest member of the Boston Celtics.
Jason James wouldn’t give up on Lester Hudson.
He knew Hudson had made mistakes and didn’t graduate from the high school where they had first met. He was aware Hudson didn’t receive his GED until his first semester at Southwest Tennessee Community College. He also knew Hudson failed to graduate from that school as well.
But in spite of his shortcomings, James, then an assistant coach for the University of Tennessee-Martin’s men’s basketball team, strongly believed Hudson could change if presented with the right opportunity.
“It was his heart. He’s got a really, really good heart,” James, now the head coach at UTM, said in a phone interview. “He’s a good kid. He’s a good person. He wants to make people happy. Sometimes at a young age he did not know how to go about doing that.
“But the thing that I saw through all the rough exterior, I saw through to his heart and I saw that not only was he a great player, but he’s a good kid and he wants to be successful.”
James sold then-head coach Bret Campbell on the powerful guard with the physical game and team-first mentality. Hudson came to UTM without a scholarship and without playing time. He enrolled on his own dime and watched from the bench as he redshirted his first season.
While he waited for his chance, Hudson hit the gym with a strict regimen of a 1,000 jumpshots a day. It was a humbling experience that forced him to grow up on and off the court.
“He didn’t complain, didn’t whine,” James said. “He just got in the gym everyday and made himself a better player, and that’s just kind of how he is. I think the year he sat out really kind of helped him grow up. It matured him because he knew there were things he had to do to play basketball and he knew there were things he had to get better at.”
The following season Hudson prepared to make his mark on the Skyhawks. At a kick-off potluck dinner, UTM Athletic Communications Director Joe Lofaro handed Hudson a flip card of the team’s roster. He had never met Hudson before and asked him to pick out the best player. Hudson pointed to himself.
“He can do everything,” he told Lofaro.
Three games later, Hudson recorded the first quadruple-double in NCAA Division 1 history with 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 steals against Central Baptist College. It was Lofaro who realized Hudson was closing in and prompted him to snag the final two steals -- not necessarily because he wanted UTM to win but because he wanted Hudson to succeed.
Lofaro, like so many members of the UTM community, was sold on Hudson. It was easy when Hudson embraced the Skyhawks staff and fans with open arms.
Chris Brinkley had been calling UTM men’s basketball games on WCMT for years before Hudson joined the team. He had never seen a player make such an impact on the school – and the entire Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) – like Hudson did in just two years.
“Off the court he was a class act,” Brinkley said. “One of the things that impressed me the most was my seven-year-old son had gone to a University of Tennessee-Martin event and I glanced over and Lester was teaching him how to shoot a bank shot off the corner of the block off the backboard. He was paying as much attention to him and the little details with a seven-year-old shooting a shot as anybody I’ve seen.
“And he was like that with everybody. We’re a small town and he would go to Walmart and people would ask questions and want to know if he was going to the NBA after that first season. Lester would always just give them his utmost attention.”
While Hudson was making an impact on the town of around 10,000, he was making waves on the national level. Last season as a sophomore, he averaged 25.7 points per game, ranking first in the OVC and second in NCAA Division 1 in scoring behind Stephen Curry, the seventh pick in this year’s draft.
He led the Skyhawks in nearly every statistical category and also led the OVC in free throw percentage and steals. Hudson was one of just 13 D-1 players to average more than five points, four rebounds, four assists, and two steals per game last season.
“On the court he’s a competitor,” James said. “He plays hard every second, doesn’t take plays off. He’s a hunting dog. He’s a tough, tough kid. He’ll do whatever he’s got to do to win, whether that’s grab a rebound, whether that’s make a pass, whether that’s take a shot, whether that’s take a charge.
“Whatever it takes to win, he wants to win. He’s got a lot of pride in his team, a lot of pride in himself, and he will do whatever it takes to win a basketball game.”
Brinkley echoed James.
“Lester impressed me early on,” he said. “I would watch some of the practices prior to his first season and a lot has been said about how he never takes a possession off, meaning that he gives 100 percent on every possession, in practice, in games.
“The thing about Lester is, if he were to turn the ball over on a possession, it’s like he would work twice as hard on the defensive end to force a turnover and to get it back. And I never saw him discouraged. Even through animosity, he stepped it up to a higher level.”
Hudson went for 40 points in a pair of wins last season, including a career-high 42 against Tennessee Tech off of 8-for-13 three-point shooting in the OVC Tournament quarterfinals. Games like that did not surprise Brinkley, who was consistently impressed by Hudson’s step-back jumper and ability to fight through double teams to get his shot off.
James remembered those games for a different reason.
“He had 42, but it was not only the way he got 42 but how quietly he got them,” James said. “He was efficient in that game and he was making a bunch of shots. That’s a great memory I’ll have. Another memory I’ll have is, we played Jacksonville State and how unselfish he was while playing.
“It’s those memories where he’s made his teammates better and he’s not only gotten his but he’s gotten his other teammates points. Those are the ones I’ll remember the most.”
This week, a new memory was made when the UTM coaching staff gathered in Lofaro’s office to watch the NBA Draft. Hudson had created buzz with impressive pre-draft workouts and there were talks of him going in the late-first to mid-second round. But with just three picks left, his name had not been called. Then came the Celtics at No. 58.
“You would have thought we had won the NCAA Tournament,” Lofaro said.
James spoke with Hudson shortly after he had been taken by the Celtics. He was already looking forward to learning from a competitive group of veterans.
“He was very excited, ready to get to work, ready to work out, ready to get to Boston and meet everybody,” James said. “He’s a basketball junkie, loves basketball. He loves to play, he loves to win. I kind of thought he’d be in the gym last night but I think he took yesterday off. But I guarantee he’s in the gym today somewhere.”
Like his first season at UTM, playing time is not guaranteed as a rookie on the Celtics. (In Hudson’s case, neither is a contract.) Head coach Doc Rivers preaches that minutes are earned, not granted, and rookies often end up in the NBA Development League or at the end of the bench for most of the season.
But Hudson is used to waiting. After all, he waited long enough to reach the NBA at 24 years old. James believes Hudson’s defensive toughness, court vision, and offensive range will be a fit for the Celtics once he adapts to their system and speed of the NBA. In the meantime, he expects Rivers will enjoy working with his former player.
“He is a very coachable young man,” James said. “He takes criticism well. He understands that you may get on him but you’re not necessarily getting on him as much as you’re getting on what he did. He wants to please you so he’ll do whatever he can to fix it.
“You know, because of what he’s been through in his life, it takes him a second to learn to trust you. But once he trusts you, even as his coach, he’ll do anything in the world for you.”
Hudson starts by thanking James for believing in a talented yet troubled teen nearly 10 years ago at a Memphis high school.
“All the time, he does it all the time,” James said. “With me and him now, we’ve known each other for so long that it’s kind of a look, a nod, and he says thank you, and I know what he means. So it’s amazing now and days in the English language when you have a relationship with somebody that two words -- thank you -- can just mean so much.”
The Celtics may be thanking James someday, too.