By ANDRE JOHNSON
He enrolled at the oldest public school in Memphis in Central High, where students are encouraged to live up to the school’s longstanding motto of Enhancing A Tradition Of Excellence. But Lester Hudson, it seemed, could care less about catchwords and slogans.
For two years, he skipped classes, roamed the halls, routinely played hooky, and hung out with the wrong crowd. When he often found his way to the classroom, he paid no attention to his instructors. He hated school with a passion. His priorities were so screwed up he flunked ninth grade.
Sure, it is safe to say that Hudson dodged high school the way a quarterback eludes defensive linemen. But unlike most of his peers with whom he ran the rugged and crime-stricken streets of South Memphis, this incredibly talented kid was blessed with a gift that has, in a number of ways, produced a golden opportunity for him to erase the memory of the setbacks he endured as a teenager.
For years, whether he was partaking in pickup or organized games, Hudson 's presence on the basketball court was too difficult to overlook, particularly by those who worked vigorously to help him reach greater heights in the sport. And, if things turn out the way many draft experts predict during the June 25 NBA Draft, the ex-Tennessee-Martin star combo guard could wound up savoring the hefty paychecks that come with appearing on basketball's grandest stage.
For the 24-year-old Hudson, who is projected as a mid-to-late second-round pick, earning a spot on an NBA roster would be the greatest off-the-court accomplishment since he earned his GED four years ago. After all, his willingness to clear a few educational hurdles is the No. 1 reason the Associated Press All-American (Honorable Mention) and two-time Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year is just weeks away from potentially embarking on the biggest break in his life.
One moment, he is a high school dropout with fading hoop dreams on the brink of being all but forgotten, just like so many others who have put their skills on display in high school gyms throughout this basketball-rich city. Today, he is one of college basketball’s biggest success stories, the face of the UT Martin basketball program, not to mention the guy who seized national headlines time and again since arriving in the small, rural northwest Tennessee town of roughly 11,000 two years ago.
In fact, college hoops fans and national basketball writers couldn't help but pay close attention to all the hoopla surrounding college basketball's version of the Comeback Kid, whose game has drawn comparisons to Atlanta Hawks combo guard Flip Murray. All he did during his final season at UTM was share the national spotlight with fellow mid-major phenom and First Team All-American Stephen Curry of Davidson by finishing second in scoring nationally at 27.5 points per game.
The 6-foot-3 Hudson picked up where he left off after quickly coming under the radar in his first full season of Division 1 basketball a year ago. For instance, he was the only D1 player to manage 20 or more points in the first 26 games of the season. Additionally, he scored 30 or more points 11 times, including a 42-point outburst against Tennessee Tech in the opening round of the OVC tournament. On the flip side, he's proven he could compete against the nation's big boys.
Let's not forget his coming-out-party last year against Memphis—the eventual national runner-up—when he scorched the Tigers for 35 points and 10 rebounds in his return to the Bluff City. Or his impressive showings against NCAA-tourney bound Vanderbilt (36 points, nine rebounds, and six assists) and Mississippi State (27 points, 11 rebounds).
Furthermore, let's not forget when Hudson became the only player in D1 history to record a quadruple-double with 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 steals in a 116-74 win over Central Baptist College three games into the 2008-09 season, a performance that raised even more eyebrows among the college coaches who passed up the chance on a scoring whiz with the lengthy history of academic issues.
Nevertheless, UT Martin was willing to a take a gamble on, shall we say, Central’s damaged goods and, boy, did the Skyhawks cash in.
"Coming to Martin was the best decision I’ve ever made," Hudson said. "I guess angels were looking over me."
His former high school coach, Andre Applewhite, was among those watching him intensely. Applewhite, who coached Hudson for one season at Central, is among those for whom Hudson credits for helping steer him in the right direction. Applewhite walked in the school’s gymnasium one day and noticed Hudson—a sophomore at the time—having his way with his varsity players. Fully aware of Hudson’s academic misfortunes, Applewhite yanked Hudson off the court and explained to him the importance of getting an education. He then invited him to try out for the team, but only if Hudson promised to do away with the foolishness.
"Coach Applewhite said, ‘If I was to give you the opportunity to play, would you change?’ Hudson recalled. "He said, ‘Would you go to class? Would you come to school? Would you stay out of trouble?’"
Hudson, of course, held up to his end of the deal and, as a result, went on to have a stellar junior campaign for Central. However, because he repeated one grade and turned 19 months later, he was ruled ineligible to play as a senior. It wasn't long afterward that Applewhite began noticing the Hudson of old.
"That was devastating to him," Applewhite said. "He basically reverted back to his old self. That set him back for a while. I told him he's still got to come to school and he's got to do this for himself."
Without basketball, Hudson eventually quit school and returned to the dangerous streets of South Memphis. His dreams were apparently gone, his talent was seemingly wasted, and there was no one to rescue him out of what appeared to be a dead end situation.
Well, no one, except Applewhite.
"He told me he wasn't going to let me waste my talent," Hudson said. "He took me to (his old) junior college and coach (Southwest Tennessee Community College's Vertis) Sails put me in the GED program and helped me get ready for classes. He gave me the opportunity to play basketball."
Today, it is evident that basketball isn't Hudson's top priority, considering he earned his degree in University Studies on May 9. That, in a nutshell, was monumental for a kid who went against his family's wishes and put off entering the draft after a memorable season last year. Quitting school wasn’t an option this time around.
"I told them, 'We've been poor all this time, so another year won't hurt," Hudson said, laughing.
If things turn out the way draft experts predict in the coming weeks, this comeback kid could very well find himself laughing all the way to the bank, with a college degree being his top reserve.