Love and Basketball: Top Recruit Billy Preston Taking Family Values to Heart

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagJuly 28, 2015

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Before he became one of the top-ranked high school basketball players in America—earning scholarship offers from UCLA and Connecticut before his 17th birthday—Billy Preston spent much of his childhood on a skateboard.

Wearing skinny jeans and a Neff shirt, Preston could be seen almost daily snaking throughout the sidewalks surrounding California's Redondo Beach, often videotaping tricks that would later be posted on YouTube.

Shortly after beginning the sixth grade, though, the fun ended for Preston.

As he coasted down a hill, Preston lost his balance, fell backward off his $200 board and bashed the back of his head against the concrete. Rushed to the hospital, Preston winced as doctors used 10 staples to close the wound on his scalp.

Soon after, Preston's skateboard was gone.

"I threw it in the trash," Preston's godmother, Timicha Kirby, said. "I told him, 'Skateboarding isn't going to get you anywhere in life. You need to focus on basketball.'

"It was a decision we made for the long term."

Preston heeded the advice.

Kirby, after all, wielded more influence than the typical godmother. Along with being a former college basketball player, Kirby is also the longtime partner of Preston's mother, Nicole Player. The couple has been together since Preston was five.

"It's non-traditional," Player said, "but I'm not going to make any excuses. You love who you love. A non-traditional family is still a family."

Having both women in his life has been a positive for Preston. He refers to Player and Kirby as his "parents" and credits them for a rise to national prominence that has been anything but ordinary.

PASADENA, TX - MAY 16:  Billy Preston #40 with the finder roll during Adidas Nations Houston on May 16, 2015 at Pasadena High School in Pasadena, Texas. (Photo by Kelly Kline/Getty Images)
Kelly Kline/Getty Images

Whether it was his transition from skateboard fanatic to basketball star, his family structure, his hop-scotching between three high schools or his chiseled 6'9", 225-pound frame—gargantuan for a player who spends as much time on the perimeter as he does in the paint—unconventional circumstances have become a trademark of Preston's career.

And they've made him one of the most fascinating stories in prep basketball.

The 20-point games, lofty recruiting rankings and scholarship offers are nice. But the highlight of Billy Preston's career occurred when he opened a Twitter message.

It was early May when Preston clicked on a video link sent to his account of NBA MVP Steph Curry personally inviting him to attend his elite camp in Oakland June 29-July 2.

"He said he'd heard about my size and the unique skill set I had for a guard," Preston said. "Just hearing him say my name was enough to give me goose bumps."

Especially after Curry led the Golden State Warriors to the NBA title over the following weeks.

That Preston garnered an invite to Curry's prestigious camp is even more impressive considering his relatively late introduction to the game.

Like many kids, Preston had dabbled in basketball in his early years, playing pickup games with his friends at recess or in the park. But it wasn't until he gave up skateboarding that Preston started taking the game seriously.

Much of that was because of Kirby.

Shortly after she threw away Preston's skateboard, Kirby formed an AAU team called the Cal Players. Once having earned a preseason invite to play with the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, Kirby had seen enough of Preston playing recreationally to know he had a future in the sport.

For starters, Preston was abnormally large for his age, standing 6'1" as a seventh-grader. His voice was so deep and his arms were so chiseled that Preston said some of his classmates in middle school assumed he was a "big, mean dude" and shied away from him.

LONG BEACH, CA - AUGUST 4: Billy Preston #35 brings the ball up the court during the 2014 adidas Nations championship game between 2016 adidas U.S. Lillard and 2016 U.S. Wall on August 4, 2014 at Long Beach City College in Long Beach, California. (Photo b
Kelly Kline/Getty Images

Preston's stature, though, wasn't the only thing that impressed Kirby.

"He'd watch a game and then go out and emulate a move or a shot on the very first try," said Kirby, who played for Vivian Stringer at the University of Iowa. "Or I'd show him how to do something, and he'd pick it up right off the bat.

"Some kids have to be told over and over again. But Billy had such a natural feel."

Still, that wasn't always enough.

Preston loved playing in games—but he didn't always work hard in practice or individual workouts. It wasn't so much that he was intentionally trying to rebel, Kirby said. He just didn't understand the commitment that was needed to improve his game.

To get her message across, Kirby never hesitated to remove Preston from the starting lineup and often kept him on the bench for the majority of a game.

"I had bad habits," Preston said. "I didn't want to work. I'd been dedicated to something [skateboarding] and it was taken away from me. I wasn't feeling the new thing right at first.

"I'd played before, but I had never been to the gym by myself to work on dribbling and shooting and conditioning. I had never gotten up at the crack of dawn to go run. It was uncomfortable."

Preston paused and smiled.

"But T.K. kept pushing me," he said, "and I believed in her."

Indeed, by the time Preston reached high school, he'd blossomed into one of the top young players in California.

Despite being one of the biggest members in the Class of 2017, Preston is listed as a guard. He's a scoring threat from both the perimeter and the paint. His blend of ball-handling skills and quickness enables him to blow past defenders on the perimeter and slash to basket for easy layups—and rim-rattling dunks.

PASADENA, TX - MAY 17: Billy Preston #40 brings the ball up the court during Adidas Nations Houston on May 17, 2015 at Pasadena High School in Pasadena, Texas. (Photo by Kelly Kline/Getty Images)
Kelly Kline/Getty Images

Preston is the sixth-ranked player in the Class of 2017 by lists him at No. 8.

"He's a monster talent," said ESPN's Fran Fraschilla, an instructor at Curry's camp. "There aren't five better players in his class. There just aren't. I can't believe he shoots the ball so well for a guy his size. He looks like Zach Randolph. There's not much he can't do.

"The scary thing is that he's only going to get better—as long as he keeps working."

With Player and Kirby in his corner, that shouldn't be a problem for Preston.

Originally, Preston said he was a bit confused when his mother started dating Kirby when he was five, thinking the relationship wouldn't work. When Kirby came to pick him up at school, he told his friends Kirby was his aunt.

By the time he was seven, though, Preston said he'd changed his mind and that "it hasn't been an issue ever since."

"I have no problem telling people my mom has a girlfriend," Preston said. "I'm proud they're my parents. I'm grateful to have one and the other—not one or the other. It's a win-win.

"They"re all about what's best for me."

Even if that's sometimes tough to accept.

The slur was written in black spray paint, showing up the morning after Billy Preston left his school's basketball team.

In the week after Preston decided to transfer from Redondo Union High School last January, he was called a traitor countless times on Twitter and ridiculed in Internet chat rooms for being "spoiled" and "a mama's boy."

But none of that compared to the three-letter word graffitied on his locker—a message he never saw but heard about from a reporter.

"FAG," it read.

Preston understood why people were frustrated that he left the school. But the transfer wasn't his choice.

Player said it was her decision to withdraw her son from Redondo Union, marking the second time in 12 months that Preston had withdrawn from a school in January. The previous year, he'd transferred to Redondo Union from St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California.

This time, Player said, the reasoning had mostly to do with academics rather than basketball. She said Redondo Union uses block scheduling, meaning students go to fewer classes every day but spend more time in each class.

"He was in those classes two hours a day," Player said. "We're dealing with a kid that has attention-span problems. It's harder for him to flourish in those situations. I don't believe in staying anywhere where it's counterproductive or unhealthy.

"If people want to be mad about him leaving, they can be mad at me."

Now seeking a third school in less than three years, Player and Kirby opted to move to Dallas to enroll Preston in Prime Prep Academy. Co-founded in 2012 by former NFL star Deion Sanders, Prime Prep's list of basketball alumni includes 2015 NBA draft picks Emmanuel Mudiay and Jordan Mickey and current players such as Terrance Ferguson, who both Rivals and 247Sports consider the 11th-best prospect in the Class of 2016.

Even though Preston and Ferguson had become friends on the summer circuit—Player said Ferguson's mom helped convince them to make the move—Preston wasn't excited about uprooting his life and moving to Dallas just two weeks after leaving Redondo Union.

Immediately upon his arrival at Prime Prep, Preston was thrust into the starting lineup. Off the court, though, he tended to rebel. Preston said he hardly spoke to his parents for weeks and didn't even attempt to make new friends.

"I was devastated," Preston said. "I knew everyone in California and everyone knew me. My family is there. My friends and girlfriend are there. It's always going to be home."

Six months later, Preston said he still "wishes things could go back to how they used to be. Outside of my team, I really don't talk to people. The only friends I have in Texas are my teammates."

GARDEN GROVE, CA - AUGUST 3:  Billy Preston #124 puts up the jumper during the 2014 adidas Nations on August 3, 2014 at Next Level Sports Complex in Garden Grove, California. (Photo by Kelly Kline/Getty Images)
Kelly Kline/Getty Images

But there's also a part of Preston that's beginning to warm up to the move. He's on a high school squad filled with future Division I players such as Ferguson and Baylor commit Mark Vital. He's flying all over the country to play in high school basketball's most high-profile games and events. And he's flourishing academically.

Shortly after his arrival last winter, Prime Prep's doors were shuttered because of financial issues. But instead of transferring, its basketball players agreed to be home-schooled and will compete in 2015-16 as Prime U.

"He's done a complete 180," said Player, adding that she plans to buy Billy a dog later this summer to help alleviate some of his loneliness.

Just like her son, Player had to make adjustments in her life, too. Moving to Texas meant giving up a lucrative career as the bar manager at H.O.M.E. Beverly Hills, an upscale restaurant near Rodeo Drive. Player now works as a bartender in Dallas, a job with flexible hours that allows her to travel with Kirby to nearly all of Preston's summer events.

"As long as he does what he's supposed to do, I'll run through a wall for my son," Player said. "I know the move was tough on him, but Billy does not make a decision in my household. He's still a minor.

"A lot of things can go awry when kids start making decisions for the household because they're supposed to be the breadwinner eventually. He's not making a dime today. I'm just a parent trying to put my kids in a good situation."

More and more, it appears Player made the right decision for her son. Baylor, Kansas, Connecticut, Michigan and Michigan State are among the schools that have extended scholarship offers. Preston said he hopes programs such as Kentucky, North Carolina and Syracuse follow suit.

With two more years of high school remaining, Preston and his parents plan to take their time with their decision.

"When it comes to my baby, you have to earn my trust," Player said. "I'm not the type of person to just ship my son anywhere. Everyone is a nice guy with their suit and tie on. Everyone is a nice guy when they're recruiting your son. I like to know about people's family structure. It means a lot to me.

"My goal isn't to get Billy to the NBA. My goal is to get him to college and have him be able to self-sustain."

In the meantime, Preston hopes to continue to improve his game. Whether it means working on his perimeter skills in Oakland, California, under the instruction of Steph Curry or swishing NBA three-pointers at the Under Armour camp in Charlotte, North Carolina, Preston appears humbled by his opportunities and driven to capitalize on them.

"When he's revved up, he's a freight train," Fraschilla said.

Indeed, gone are the days when Preston's work ethic was a concern.

"People used to say, 'Billy Preston doesn't go hard. Billy Preston doesn't have a motor,'" Preston said. "I'm dispelling those rumors. My motor is getting better and better.

"Me and my godmom have a saying: 'All of the people who don't believe in me, all of the people who talk down on me, we'll see you at the finish line.' We don't want anyone to change their tune on me. The people who say I won't make it because I don't work hard, I want them to keep saying it, because I want to make them eat their words."

Preston smiled.

"And the two people who have been there all along," he said, "obviously, I want them to stay the same, too."

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.


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