Chasing Nojel

Nojel Eastern free throw
Nojel Eastern takes a free throw for Evanston Township High School against Niles North in March 2016.

By Julia Cardi

When the final afternoon bell rang in Evanston Township High School at 3:35, a rush of teenagers and their cacophony of end-of-day chatter flooded the hallways. The open space adjacent to the school’s various athletic facilities clogged with kids heading to practices; in the locker rooms, they traded Timberland boots and jeans for workout clothes in the high school’s signature navy and orange. Members of the Wildkits boys basketball team loped into Beardsley Gym a few minutes before 4 p.m., and stretched and jumped rope until Coach Mike Ellis called them together.

The jewel of Ellis’ squad is first recognizable by the “20” emblazoned on the back of his practice jersey. During a break in running drills, positioned well behind the half-court line, Nojel Eastern scrunched his six-and-a-half-feet of lean basketball body like a coiled spring and released, sending the ball in a graceful arc to swish through the net. Eastern punched the air in celebration before looking around at his teammates to see who had noticed, but during the lull most had scattered to drink water and chat or practice their own shooting.

That unrequited basket, seen by few of his teammates and away from recruiters and the click of camera shutters, was a rare moment of unrenown for Eastern, for whom scrutiny of his every pass and shot during games by scouts hungry for the next LeBron James is the norm. The rising senior point guard’s basketball prowess has garnered him over a dozen offers from Division I colleges, from the University of Southern California to Ohio and Michigan States, and now recruiters, coaches and college fans turn blue in the face as they hold their breath for Eastern to choose which school he’ll play at after finishing high school in 2017.

Eastern’s backstory and looks suit him as a wholesome media darling: the humble kid raised by a single mother, launched by his prodigious talent and drive on a trajectory that ostensibly points straight to the NBA. Caramel-colored skin, and expressive brown doe eyes to complement a megawatt smile – a face that glows with the mischievous merriment of a teenager but can just as easily contort with despair after a bad call by a referee or a missed free throw. Put emphasis on the first syllable of his name, and the whole thing rolls effortlessly off the tongue: NO-jel Eastern.

But the crumbled aspirations of countless shooting stars as bright as Eastern, taken down by injuries, their own egos and bad breaks, litter his path. For every basketball prodigy who’s just a kid from Akron, Ohio, there’s an Anthony Bennett, the 2013 green room invitee now blasted as the most disappointing No. 1draft pick in NBA history. Or Greg Oden, the one-and-done Ohio State star taken ahead of Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah in the 2007 draft but derailed by nagging knee injuries. Or William Gates, the St. Joseph High School player chronicled in “Hoop Dreams,” a varsity starter since his freshman year and hailed by some as the next Isiah Thomas but plagued by knee problems and disillusioned with basketball by midway through college.

Eastern tasted his own mortality in April 2015 when he dislocated his ankle playing in an AAU game for Nike’s MeanStreets team, and while the injury didn’t beat him, it jarringly reminded this titan of the courts that he’s human after all. So the nurturers of Eastern’s dreams, the ones who understand fallibility through their age-acquired wisdom, have tempered their encouragement with teachings about humbleness and prioritizing education.

To really understand Eastern’s story of humility, grit and apparently inevitable triumph, you have to look beside him, at the fiercely protective force that is his mother, and at the men who have stepped in for his often-absent father. And you have to look at him, at the exuberance that turns Eastern from another kid with lofty aspirations into a shooting star who just might reach them.

Early 1999. In her third trimester of pregnancy, Tamala Reed went for a routine ultrasound. But in a situation perhaps indicative of the ADHD that would affect him later, the baby boy wouldn’t hold still long enough for the technician to get a reading on his heartbeat.

Due at the beginning of June, the baby pushed his way out on May 26. For his name, his father, Lejon Eastern, came up with a palindrome of his own: Nojel. The name is perhaps the most conspicuous mark Eastern’s father left on his life; his presence in the years since has been consistent only in its inconsistency. But Eastern hasn’t grown up without strong male figures to look to.

Reed wanted Eastern in Evanston’s school system because of its academic superiority to Chicago Public Schools, so she transferred him in elementary school. But her job with the Chicago Transit Authority had her working nights, often forcing her to take Eastern to Evanston in the small hours of the morning for school. Reed would drop him off with Travis Ransom, a family friend who had met Eastern a few years before while coaching the High Ridge Chargers, a team in the United Youth Football League that Eastern played in. So he lived with Ransom from fourth through eighth grade, when Reed moved to Evanston.

An ETHS graduate himself like most of the Wildkits basketball coaches, Ransom leads the Freshman A boys team. A gray-streaked beard and stoic countenance give him a fatherly bearing, complemented by a disciplinarian nature that makes him perfect for keeping freshmen boys in line and commanded Reed’s trust to look out for Eastern. Because for so publicized a young athlete, immense talent brings along those ready to exploit it.

Ransom insists that his ability to let go where Reed can’t gives Eastern crucial balance. Like the mother rabbit in the children’s classic “The Runaway Bunny,” Reed goes where her son goes; she’s considering moving to the area of whatever college he chooses.

Strong male mentors in his life also give Eastern guidance for things teenage boys probably don’t talk to their mothers much about. For his longtime athletic trainer, Octavius Parker, schooling Eastern on how to behave around young ladies is always a laugh, and at 17, life revolves around basketball, school and girls.

But Ransom isn’t a replacement for Eastern’s father, because to him, no amount of nurturing and mentoring can take the place of a father’s constant presence. Not even Ransom or Parker know if Lejon’s inconsistent presence bothers Eastern, because he doesn’t talk about his father. The possibility that it doesn’t trouble Eastern out of numbness disturbs Ransom even more than if it does.

It’s hard to imagine there’s anything Eastern doesn’t get from Reed, with her constant protective presence in his life. Her ever-present bulky dark winter clothes and rare smile mask a chatty, approachable demeanor. She drives the Wildkits’ bus to away games, and the players high-five her as they climb on, but at the games Reed tends to sit apart from the team, often on the opposite side of the court from their bench. Between Eastern’s high profile and her experience on the refereeing circuit – she officiates basketball at the high school and college levels, and refereeing is the second-best part of her life after having her son – people know her, and there’s always a steady stream of coaches, friends and parents passing by to chat.

On a snowy February night, she sat on the sideline at Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena, a cavernous space that dwarfs the high school’s own Beardsley Gym, during Evanston’s practice. Reed’s eyes traveled up and down the court, tracing her son’s movement intently.

When she comes to practice, Eastern bumps fists with her during breaks in running drills, and she’ll occasionally call out instructions to him from the sideline. This time, though, he turned away bashfully when she beckoned him over. He is, after all, a teenager, obliged to occasional embarrassment that his mother exists.

Reed has a heavy hand in Eastern’s recruiting as a liaison between him and college scouts, with a mother’s pitch-perfect B.S. detector for insincere coaches and shady promises they may make about her son’s role on their team. With the gravity of the choice in front of Eastern, she sees no reason to rush it. And as anticipated as it is, any hints about his decision remain as elusive as a pair of limited-edition Jordan sneakers. If he has any idea where he wants to go, he hasn’t said, and neither have recruiters from the schools after him; per NCAA rules, they can’t talk to the press about uncommitted players they’re courting.

Eastern’s choice will represent the pinnacle – so far – of a white-hot stretch of fame, one of those that seems like it will last forever. He scored 43 points in a championship game for Baylor Basketball in fourth grade. In June, he headed to Colorado Springs for his third visit to Team USA – he was invited to tryouts last year and attended the minicamp in October 2015. Parker hopes his favorite memory of Eastern will be the day he signs his national letter of intent for college.

Attention from recruiters started coming around Eastern’s eighth-grade year, but if he’s at all tired of talking about college, he isn’t letting on; he knows he better get used to it. So far, Eastern has over a dozen offers from Division I schools. By contrast, Harry Giles, ESPN’s number-one-ranked high school player for the class of 2016, chose among just five. For players as sought-after as Eastern, so many offers can mean enormous pressure – regardless of how many they receive, NCAA guidelines dictate that high school basketball players only get five official visits in their senior years. Any campus visits before then are considered unofficial and the players’ families pay out-of-pocket.

His coaches, trainers and mentors talk easily about Eastern’s unselfishness as a player – he’ll pass the ball for an assist before he’ll score himself and logs more double- and triple-doubles than 40-point games – and his humility that stands in stark contrast to the constant spotlight on him. Talking to him betrays no sense of ego, untempered by age and experience, that could come with being the biggest man in the room – Parker doesn’t think Eastern fully understands how good he can be. He has humility in his blood, to be sure, but it also comes from the lessons of those close to him. Reed teaches him to put God first, family second, school third, and basketball fourth.

Andre Patrick, a stony-faced, blunt-natured coach of the high school’s Evanston Pride feeder basketball program, who at 30 is more of an older brother to the players than a father figure, is one who isn’t buying that raw talent alone can get Eastern through college the way it has in high school. One afternoon early in April, Patrick lopes around ETHS’s outdoor track, his hood pulled up against the biting chill. He doesn’t doubt Eastern’s potential; in fact the opposite, but at nearly twice his age, he understands the punishing pressures of a top-tier Division I program in a way that Eastern perhaps doesn’t yet.

The challenge he’ll face is akin to the shocks so many elite students receive when they enroll at the best colleges: Suddenly on a team full of other young men with his level of talent, Eastern will need a work ethic bordering on maniacal to set him apart. Patrick worries that Eastern’s body never fully bounced back from his dislocated ankle, and he’ll need to put in months of relentless training, because in a year’s time he’ll leave to start summer workouts with the college team he chooses. The best players put in work day in and day out, in the weight room, the gym, the pool. They’re the first ones shooting in the gym in the morning and the last to leave at night.

To Patrick, Eastern’s most endearing quality, his unselfishness, is also his biggest flaw. He wants to see him come into his senior season with a killer instinct, in attack mode every single game. By token of his sheer ability, the selfish Eastern is best for whatever team he’s on. He has ADHD, but as a player even that helps him; basketball moves at a pace that keeps up with his frenzied mind. Well before a play completes on the court, Eastern has already finished it mentally and also played out alternatives. Focused, he has the potential to be the next Jalen Brunson, the Stevenson High School point guard who won the Illinois state championship his senior season and the national championship as a freshman at Villanova this past April.

Ransom doesn’t talk about basketball much anymore with Eastern, because he figures enough people in his life do that. He talks to him about life beyond it, urges him to make school a safety net because of the limits to his invincibility; Eastern is considering studying sportscasting in college. Basketball seldom comes up in casual conversation with Parker either – he couldn’t tell you who Eastern’s favorite player is.

Ransom asked Eastern what ran through his mind the moment he dislocated his ankle. Eastern thought that was it for him, the injury would end his bid to reach his hoop dreams; Ransom said good, you need to know that feeling so you’re prepared for what comes after. Because for an athlete of Eastern’s caliber, an injury as serious as his dislocated ankle can easily mean more than surgery and a few months of rehabilitation. It has the possibility to threaten the remainder of his high school basketball career, scholarship offers and professional league prospects in a domino collapse that reduces Eastern to a sliver of the player he is now.

But for now, he’s the prodigy that can sink a jump shot from behind the half-court line. That barely acknowledged basket in practice is one of a thousand like it he has to make before he’ll be able to do it in a packed gym, back in front of recruiters, coaches and fans watching his every move. If Eastern makes it the way shooting stars like him are supposed to, if his path takes him to the NBA, those with their eyes trained on him can brag that they’ve watched him play since high school.

Photo at top: Nojel Eastern takes a free throw for Evanston Township High School against Niles North in March 2016. (Julia Cardi/MEDILL)