Memphis – Ceiling hangs so low that Steph Curry won’t be able to warm up. The walls are wood-paneled and adorned with banners. The last time someone went up, here was James Wiseman, ending a decorated but controversial high school career.
It’s East High, about 15 minutes east of Beale Street, where Wiseman went with his NBA teammates on Monday night to watch his jerseys go into the roof at his humble high school gym. A lot has changed in three years.
“I was revealing it when I was a little kid. Just to be able to be here in this moment, it’s crazy,” Wiseman said after the halftime ceremony, surrounded by a crowd of local press. “It just means a lot to be here.”
Wiseman, who spent the last two years of his high school here and eventually became embroiled in a recruitment scandal after moving to the University of Memphis, arrived after tipoff and headed to a safe area in the second level of wooden bleachers overlooking the court. Grown up. Curry, in addition to his face mask with a low-slung beanie that obscured his identity, was part of a caravan of Warriors teammates and coaches in attendance.
Below, prep players walking down the hallway with Wiseman as freshman now chase the court as seniors against an outstanding opponent from another nearby high school. Wiseman moved here to play for Penny Hardaway, a former NBA player from Nashville and a legend around these parts, who moved after one season for the job in Memphis and, when Wiseman graduated the following year, So he recruited them there with them.
This is where a teenage Wiseman made his way to the NBA. This is also, arguably, the last place he was on the court consistently. The two state championship banners of 2018 and 2019 represent that time. His newly retired jersey, which he hoisted over his head after receiving it, honors Wiseman’s personal achievements. No. 1 Recruitment, No. 2 Draft Pick.
It’s a milestone coming to the NBA to go back to your high school alma mater, where local politicians, community leaders and an old basketball coach or two will claim credit for your success.
Wiseman enters a precarious moment at this stage of his professional career.
The Warriors made Wiseman the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, betting on his raw talent and physical attributes despite playing only three games in his lone season in Memphis. On Tuesday, when he goes to the FedEx Forum — home to the Memphis Hoops in addition to the NBA’s Grizzlies — Wiseman will take a seat on the bench and assume a viewing angle that has become so customary.
Wiseman hasn’t played a game since April 10, when he tore the meniscus in his right knee while going for a dunk against the Houston Rockets in the 39th game of his rookie season. He still hasn’t been cleared for contact in practice, except for the timeline for his return, nine months after the injury.
“There’s a lot of doubts out there,” Wiseman said. “I’m working out now. I’m about to prevail. That’s what matters.”
Wiseman’s appearance in Memphis was a milestone in itself. Coach Steve Kerr said that he only began traveling with the team on his most recent road trip, and that was because the team’s performance director Dr Rick Celebrini had traveled as well.
According to Kerr, Wiseman was “bouncing around in practice” on Saturday before the team left for Memphis.
“Just being with the team in a full practice setting has been very rare,” Kerr said. “I think it’s good to have him back with the team everyday now, to include him in what we’re trying to do, get used to all of our actions and our vocabulary because it’s been a long time since he played Is.”
On Monday night at East High, police cars occupied a packed parking lot. Security chased away the hopeful people at the door. Eight speakers, everyone from the mayor to Wiseman’s final preparation coach, addressed the crowd before finally handing over the microphone to Wiseman.
To one side of Wiseman stood almost all of his warrior teammates. In front of him were players with whom he had won banners here, two of whom went to play with him in Memphis. Directly to his right was his mother, Donzaleigh Artis (“Mama Dee,” for those in the program), who drove here from her hometown of Nashville to move and pursue her son’s basketball dreams.
A local artist presented each of them with a painting, one of many presents on Monday night. Two versions of his number 32 jersey – one maroon, one black, with block letters on the chest – were produced for the school to hang. The 28th of this month in Memphis will be James Wiseman Day, a city councilor declared. After that, the warp of Wiseman’s time here will be in the threads of those jerseys.
“I don’t know what to say,” Wiseman said as he began to address the crowd. “I’m in shock right now. First of all I want to thank everyone for coming out. It’s really a blessing, really a special night to testify with my teammates – my East High teammates, Memphis, and of course my Warriors teammates – I am blessed to be in this position.”