You Can Call on Miles Bridges

He's got the whole world buzzing. Draymond hits him on FaceTime. LeBron gives him Netflix recs. And that's just the beginning. B/R Mag goes behind the scenes with the guard the entire NBA is talking about.
photo of Yaron WeitzmanYaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistPhotography by Casey RearickJune 20, 2018

Miles Bridges looks a bit, well, bored. Or, rather, eager to take the next step. It's late May, and his days of training have started bleeding into one another. He has just finished the strength portion of his morning workout—boxing drills, planks, Olympic lifts, some one-legged strength work—and it's almost time for the basketball part of his daily workout to commence. But before it does, he takes a brief moment on the first row of the gym's bleachers to rest.

His iPhone begins buzzing. It's Warriors star Draymond Green. The two go way back—or as way back as anyone can go with a 20-year-old, like Bridges. Bridges grew up in Flint, Michigan, about a 30-minute drive south from Green's hometown of Saginaw. Like Green, he attended Michigan State.

They FaceTime for about 15 minutes. The conversation sounds like one between two old friends. "What you up to?" Green asks. Bridges asks Green about his team's win over the Houston Rockets the night before in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. "Man, that was a tough series," Green says, sounding relieved. Still a curious fan, Bridges asks Green about Andre Iguodala's lingering knee injury. Green asks Bridges which teams he's planning to work out for prior to Thursday's NBA draft. Bridges tells Green where he watched Game 7.

About that: Spend some time with Bridges and you quickly learn that he's not wanting for NBA Big Brothers, a group he's leaned on even more over the past year as he's readied himself for entering the league. There's Green, and there's Lakers wing Kyle Kuzma, who also grew up in Flint. There's also a whole contingent of former Spartans stars Bridges keeps in contact with, including Denzel Valentine and Steve Smith. But Bridges has recently been welcomed by a new crew too. In late March, he chose Rich Paul of Klutch Sports to be his agent. Paul is a longtime friend of LeBron James—and his agent—and based in Cleveland. So Bridges has been living there for the past, oh, two months, working out at various gyms, like at Case Western Reserve University, where he is now, and spending time with some of Paul's local clients, like Cavaliers guard JR Smith, whom Bridges says he's learned a lot from.

Expected to be among the first 10 players drafted Thursday, Miles Bridges has received a steady stream of advice from some of the NBA's most iconic stars.
Expected to be among the first 10 players drafted Thursday, Miles Bridges has received a steady stream of advice from some of the NBA's most iconic stars.Casey Rearick

But one of the benefits of signing with Paul is the invitation into LeBron's inner circle. That means offers to watch pivotal playoff games with LeBron in his Bath Township mansion, an experience Bridges is now recounting to Green.

First, there was the house tour, Bridges says. Next, the pair of red Jordan 11s that LeBron gifted him—kicks the future first-round draft pick made sure to wear the next day for his photo shoot for this story. Then, an evening in the basement theater to watch the game. When it started, Bridges found himself in awe, more so than he'd been all evening—including when he walked inside LeBron's shoe closet, a space Bridges describes as larger than his current apartment—as he watched LeBron, like an oracle, correctly call out every one of the Warriors' moves.

"He knew all your plays," Bridges, still astonished, tells Green. Green laughs. By now he's familiar with the depths of LeBron's greatness, so to him, this comes as no surprise. To Bridges, though, it and the entire night served as the latest example of just how much his world is about to change.


By now you're likely familiar with Bridges' story. Or at least parts of it.

How he was born in Flint—a city laden with crime, poverty and a highly publicized water crisis—which he broadcasts via the large letters tattooed over a picture of the city's skyline across his back. How he developed into one of the best high school players in his class. How he earned a scholarship to Michigan State, was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and enamored NBA scouts with his blend of skills and strength. He could shoot a little bit and run the floor. Some foresaw a future dunk contest champ. He was a sure-thing NBA player, maybe even a top-five pick. He could make millions and fulfill his dream—and his father's—and buy his mother, who worked as a receptionist, a house outside of Flint and a ticket to early retirement.

All he had to do was leave Michigan State.

The choice appeared to be an easy one, so easy that it didn't seem like a choice at all. His mother, Cynthia, wanted him to leave. Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo did too. To them, it was a risk-reward thing. How could any sane person justify staying in school and risking a serious injury when the sort of money that could change not only a person's life but also their future children's and future grandchildren's was just sitting there for the taking?

Recognized throughout much of Flint, Michigan, because of his father, Bridges yearned to find separation from him and the pressure to live up to his reputation.
Recognized throughout much of Flint, Michigan, because of his father, Bridges yearned to find separation from him and the pressure to live up to his reputation.Casey Rearick

       

Bridges considered making the leap. Originally, that was the plan. But in late January, he began having second thoughts. He was worried about all that serious stuff that comes with officially beginning adult life. Paying bills. Maintaining his spirituality. Avoiding the pitfalls of the celebrity lifestyle. And there was still so much left for him to learn about basketball. He wanted to get better at watching film. He wanted to rely less on isolation plays. He wanted to get leaner and stronger. Also, he loved everything about campus life in East Lansing. Being surrounded by fellow students. Sharing an apartment with friends. Chasing a national championship.

"Miles has an incredible ability to honestly self-evaluate," Michigan assistant coach Mike Garland says. "Most people can't. It makes him mature beyond his years."

When Bridges made the decision to return to Michigan State, the choice was met with shock and ridicule, especially from those close to him. Izzo, who urged Bridges to enter the NBA, called him a "weirdo." Cynthia all but begged her son to change his mind. Miles says he respected their opinions, but he knew himself better than they could know him.

"Just entering into the real world," he says. "I won't say I wasn't ready for it—I just didn't feel like it. And I really didn't see any reason for me to leave."

All of which is likely the story you've heard. It's the one that led to profiles in both ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated last year. It's the story that was shared by numerous broadcasters during myriad broadcasts of Michigan State games. It's the story that NBA scouts and executives have discussed and that draft experts have referred to when analyzing Bridges' current draft stock and wondering whether leaving for the NBA then as opposed to now would have left him better off.


But there is more to it, of course. A collection of instances that had prepared Bridges for that challenge.

Take his relationship with his dad, for example. Raymond Bridges was a two-time state champion who wanted nothing more than for his son to reach the peaks he never did. And Miles wanted nothing more than "to live out his dream for him." Raymond put a ball in Miles' hands when Miles was just four years old. The two would discuss Miles' future NBA career, even when Miles was just an elementary school kid.

     

But as Miles grew older, he began questioning whether he wanted to be known as "Lil Ray," the nickname bestowed upon him by his Flint neighbors. He loved how, because of his father, all the OGs around Flint knew who he was. And he felt blessed to learn the game from a man who meant so much to their city.

He was also beginning to wilt underneath all the pressure. "He used to be really hard on me," Miles says. Raymond, who separated from Cynthia when Miles was 11, would shout criticisms from the stands during Miles' games. So one day, when he was a young teen—Miles believes he was around 12 or 13; he can't remember the exact age—he confronted his dad. "All that yelling is only making me play worse," he recalls saying.

His older sister, Tara, remembers Miles addressing Raymond somewhat differently, with a bit more bite.

"He told him," she says, "that if he can't be positive during games, then don't come."

(Klutch Sports said Raymond wouldn't be available to be interviewed for this story. Multiple attempts to reach him by phone, through a listed number, were unsuccessful.)

A few years later, Cynthia received a phone call from Rob Fuller, the basketball coach at Huntington Prep in West Virginia. He'd been turned on to Miles by one of his players, also a Flint native, and wanted to know if Cynthia was open to sending her son to boarding school.

Cynthia was hesitant. West Virginia was a long way from home. Miles was still growing homesick during AAU road trips. The opportunity felt like a bad combination.

         

"Coach, he's not mature enough to leave," Cynthia told Fuller, who over the phone could hear Miles in the background pleading. The conversation ended. "In a way it seemed like he was proving her point and acting like a little kid trying to get his way," Fuller says. "I left that saying we'll check in again around his junior year."

Two weeks later, Fuller's phone rang.

"Coach," Cynthia said, "I've decided to let Miles come."

Cynthia says Miles' reasons for desperately wanting to leave changed her mind. Miles told her that Huntington Prep would introduce him to better competition. He said that he'd have the opportunity to land on the radars of bigger schools. But most importantly, he explained, moving would offer an escape from his life as Lil Ray. It wasn't that Miles had an interest in writing his father out of his life—the two remain close and, according to Miles, share a "mutual respect" for one another. It's just that he wanted to pave his own path and be free to do so with fewer distractions surrounding him.

So, you see, Miles Bridges has always been capable of making decisions for himself, of following his instincts, even when loved ones were telling him otherwise. That's the ironic part about his decision to return last year to East Lansing: His ability to recognize that he wasn't ready for adulthood was proof he was more ready than he knew.


When I meet him in late May, Bridges' life is in a bit of a Groundhog Day cycle. This is often the case with blue-chip prospects in the months leading up to the NBA draft. No longer chained to the rigorous schedule of an NCAA Division I athlete, Bridges says he's been spending his days working out, watching playoff games, attending playoff games, playing Call of Duty, laughing at SpongeBob and binging on Marvel movies. Black Panther piqued his interest, even though he didn't love it. ("I think most people liked it because [the hero is] black," he says.) He's since watched Iron ManIron Man 2, Captain America and The Avengers. He's pretty sure he's now seen every one of the franchise's films. He says he's plunged through the Wikipedia pages too, which becomes apparent when I ask his thoughts on the (spoiler alert!) death-filled ending to Avengers: Infinity War.

Bridges has spent much of the time he hasn't been preparing for the draft by catching up on movies and music that speak to him or at least come with LeBron James' seal of approval.
Bridges has spent much of the time he hasn't been preparing for the draft by catching up on movies and music that speak to him or at least come with LeBron James' seal of approval.Casey Rearick

"It hurt me," he says, "but, I mean, they didn't die; they just disappeared into the Infinity Stone."

It's a little after noon. Bridges has completed his on-court work for the morning (he'll return to Case Western Reserve later this evening), a routine consisting of crosscourt, one-handed passes off pick-and-rolls. He was inspired by what he had seen during the Warriors game the previous night. "That was my first time really doing it," Bridges admits.

He's now driving to his regular lunch spot, an indoor eatery with a hospital cafeteria setup where the menu is so expansive he can order almost anything. He's wearing a black T-shirt with the word KUZMANIA written in yellow—a gift from his good friend Kyle. His brawny 6'7" frame slumps into the driver's seat of his Mercedes rental. He's sifting through various songs on his phone. He starts talking about how much he loves music. He says he recorded a couple of rap songs when he was in high school, though he was then, and remains today, too shy to share the finished products. "I keep them in my vault." But he also studies the art of making beats. And the stories behind his favorite lyrics. He likes watching videos about how rappers come up with lyrics. It's why he has such admiration for J. Cole.

"He talks about, like, real-life situations, like…" Bridges pauses to think as a car speeds by. "There's a song called 'Window Pain' [and another called] 'Too Deep for the Intro.' He talks about, like, what does he talk about?" He pauses again. "I don't know. I'd play it right now, but I don't have it. But he talks about, real-life situations of people going through, like, struggling, having problems with money, having problems with family stuff."

It's doesn't take much armchair psychology to discern why these themes speak to Bridges.

In two seasons with the Spartans, Bridges averaged 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.
In two seasons with the Spartans, Bridges averaged 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.Casey Rearick

"Making decisions for myself—I actually learned that from music. Like, listen to a lot of his songs. He talks about making decisions, becoming a man, that kind of stuff. That's when I stopped being a follower and started being a leader. Like, trying to do things my own way."

I ask Bridges whether he has always been this self-confident. He says no. He says he has stories, especially from childhood, that he's not proud of. Mostly foolish exploits: following the older Flint kids and chucking eggs at houses. Staying out too late, defying Cynthia's curfews. Others close to Bridges confirm his tendency to occasionally run around with crowds he probably shouldn't have. But Bridges insists that there was something to be learned from the people around him—no matter the type of crowd.

"I've always stayed with older kids, just so I can learn, pick their brains," Bridges says.

Over the years, he's learned that there are smarter "older kids" with better brains to pick, so he seeks out mentors and advice wherever he can: Draymond Green. LeBron James. The Klutch Sports publicist he peppers with questions about how the agency's other clients set up their homes.

Bridges also has started seeking out hobbies he believes adults should have. "I'm trying to get into books," he says. "But I gotta find the right books." Recently, he asked Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr., one of his best friends from Michigan State who is three years his senior, to recommend some reading material he should check out. Tum Tum suggested two titles by Dr. Myles Munroe, a Bahamian evangelical minister. "I haven't been to the bookstore, though," Bridges says.

Bridges demonstrated a growing sense of independence in deciding against the advice of his mother and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and returning to play for the Spartans last season.
Bridges demonstrated a growing sense of independence in deciding against the advice of his mother and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and returning to play for the Spartans last season.Casey Rearick

But this reminds Bridges of something else: During the game the night before, LeBron recommended a Netflix show to him, some story about a guy who enters a bank with a bomb strapped to his neck. The problem is that Bridges can't remember the show's name, and now he's asking for help.

"Damn," Bridges says, "he just told me and said it's a must-watch." He pauses. "Once he showed me his closet, I guess I went blank."

I ask Bridges if he ever finds himself in awe as he spends all this time with guys like LeBron and Draymond and other NBA stars and as he prepares to make this leap from pupil to peer.

"Yeah," he says. "I look over and, like, it's, 'Yo, LeBron's over there,'" he says. "But I mean I kind of got used to it."

In other words: His new life is growing on him.

     

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here and sign up for his newsletter here.

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