Sports

A Soaring N.B.A. Star Brings His Friends Along for the Ride

Mark Daigneault thought he had his first day in Hamilton, Ontario, all mapped out: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the star guard he coaches on the Oklahoma City Thunder, would make his morning rounds to shoot hoops and lift weights, and Daigneault would ride along.

There was only one problem.

“I don’t have room in my car,” Gilgeous-Alexander told him, “because I pick up all my friends.”

Sure enough, once Daigneault hopped out of his Uber at Gilgeous-Alexander’s preferred gym in nearby Burlington, Daigneault found him working on his shooting as several young men in matching Thunder T-shirts rebounded for him.

Gilgeous-Alexander soon introduced Daigneault to his “super close homies,” five childhood friends whose coordinated outfits that morning were no coincidence. They knew Daigneault was in town.

“We wanted to make a good impression,” said Sunday Kong, a former high school teammate.

In Oklahoma City, Gilgeous-Alexander, 24, has established himself as one of the N.B.A.’s most dynamic players. On a young team with promise, he ranks among the league leaders in scoring, averaging a career-best 31.4 points a game, while shooting 50.5 percent from the field — supercharged numbers that hint at his abilities as a 6-foot-6 guard who can absorb contact at the rim and create space on the perimeter.

Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging a career-best 31.4 points per game while making about half of his shots. That puts him among the N.B.A.’s elite scorers.Credit…Garett Fisbeck/Associated Press

Back home in Hamilton, a small city about 40 miles southwest of Toronto, five of Gilgeous-Alexander’s pals — a crew that also includes Mark Castillanes and Maurice Montoya, two of his best friends since elementary school, and Vincent Chu, who sat next to him in ninth-grade homeroom — practically fall off their couches whenever he crosses up a defender.

“Anytime I see him do something on the court, I’m like, ‘Hey, we practiced that!’ ” said Devanté Campbell, who played youth soccer with Gilgeous-Alexander.

Gilgeous-Alexander is always trying to improve, said Daigneault, now in his third season as the Thunder’s coach. That makes him an ideal fit for Oklahoma City — the same place where a young Russell Westbrook became a triple-double machine, Kevin Durant honed his perimeter game and James Harden crafted his step-back jumper. Each summer, Gilgeous-Alexander devises his own to-do list.

“Shai’s got every resource available to him,” Daigneault said. “If he wanted to hire a staff and move to Hawaii in the off-season, he could do it. Instead, he parks himself in Hamilton and works with friends who have been in his life forever.”

In Gilgeous-Alexander’s self-styled basketball lab, where a sneaker salesman and a restaurant manager throw defensive traps at him, and a college student and an aspiring doctor feed him passes, he prepares for his future by returning to his past.

“Those guys give me a sense of home,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They give me back a piece of myself that feels like so long ago.”

‘I’ve got to get better’

Before he was getting buckets at Madison Square Garden and walking the runways at fashion week in Paris, Gilgeous-Alexander was someone else: the new kid at Regina Mundi Catholic Elementary School.

After moving to Hamilton from Toronto when he was 11, Gilgeous-Alexander met Montoya and Castillanes on his first day of sixth grade. Castillanes recalled showing him around.

“Kind of quiet,” Castillanes said. “But once you got to know him, he became himself.”

Gilgeous-Alexander impressed on the basketball court, Castillanes said, by being able to dribble and make layups with both hands. But as an undersized ninth-grader at St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School, Gilgeous-Alexander was cut from the equivalent of the junior varsity and wound up on a team of other freshmen.

“I wasn’t hurt by it,” he said. “It was more a feeling of, I’m not good enough, so I’ve got to get better.”

From left, Sunday Kong, Maurice Montoya, Vincent Chu and Devanté Campbell on the outdoor court at Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School, their former high school in Hamilton, Ontario.Credit…Cole Burston for The New York Times

In his spare time, Gilgeous-Alexander would hoop with Montoya and Castillanes at their Filipino basketball league — the start of a basketball odyssey. Gilgeous-Alexander spent his sophomore year at Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School on Hamilton’s west side before he transferred again, this time to Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn., as he sought better competition.

Gilgeous-Alexander eventually landed at the University of Kentucky, where John Calipari, the team’s coach, knew he needed to be tough on him. Otherwise, Calipari was going to hear about it — from Gilgeous-Alexander’s mother, Charmaine Gilgeous, a former Olympic runner for Antigua and Barbuda.

“When he played well, she would call me and say, ‘Don’t you let up on him,’” Calipari said.

Gilgeous-Alexander had arrived at Kentucky with a hitch in his jump shot — Calipari compared it to Charles Barkley’s herky-jerky golf swing — and spent the early weeks of the season mostly coming off the bench. By the middle of January, he was blossoming as a starter. By June, he was the 11th overall pick in the 2018 N.B.A. draft, headed to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Gilgeous-Alexander played so well as a rookie that the Thunder put him on their wish list. That summer, when the All-Star Paul George wanted to be traded to the Clippers from Oklahoma City, the Thunder insisted that Gilgeous-Alexander be included in the deal.

Now in his fourth season with the Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander is the face of a franchise that should come equipped with training wheels. Although Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 draft, is out for the season with a foot injury, the Thunder have a core that includes Josh Giddey, 20, and Luguentz Dort, 23. Even amid his emergence, Gilgeous-Alexander has never sought to separate himself from his teammates.

“I might have sworn at Lu before,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, “but me and Lu lived together, and we’re like brothers so it doesn’t count.”

Luguentz Dort, left, and Gilgeous-Alexander bonded as teammates and roommates in Oklahoma City.Credit…Alonzo Adams/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort, who are also teammates on the Canadian men’s national basketball team, are candid about their bromance. When Gilgeous-Alexander was vaccinated against the coronavirus, Dort held his hand. (Gilgeous-Alexander is afraid of needles.) When they were roommates, Dort accepted the perils of sharing space with someone who was recently voted GQ magazine’s Most Stylish Man of the Year.

“I don’t want to say his clothes are everywhere,” Dort said. “But he has a lot of clothes — clothes that have a lot of volume to them.”

But while life in the N.B.A. is rewarding — Gilgeous-Alexander is in the first year of a five-year contract extension worth about $180 million — it can also be disorienting. So he dodges complacency as if it were a traffic cone, supplementing his time with the team by working with Olin Simplis, a high-profile skills coach.

And, of course, he heads to Hamilton at the start of each off-season to work out with friends who neither expect nor ask for anything in return.

‘Just something that friends do’

After his first season in Oklahoma City, Gilgeous-Alexander wanted to make his summers more structured. So he hit up his buddies: Would they help him out five mornings a week?

“It wasn’t even something that needed to be said,” said Campbell, who works full-time at a Kids Foot Locker and assists with a girls’ basketball league. “It was just something that friends do: If we want to see this guy grow and succeed, we need to be there for him no matter what.”

Last summer, Gilgeous-Alexander would text his friends a few minutes before 7 a.m. to let them know that he was leaving his house — his hoops-centric version of flashing the Bat-Signal.

“You get that text, and you know you have about 15 minutes to get ready,” said Chu, a student at Toronto Metropolitan University.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s friends help him with shooting and passing drills during the summer in Ontario.Credit…Cole Burston for The New York Times

Gilgeous-Alexander would retrieve his friends, one by one, in his pale brown Mercedes-Benz G-Class. Castillanes was typically the first stop.

“He always got the front seat,” Chu said.

Once assembled, they often had enough time during the ride to Burlington to cram in a homespun version of “Carpool Karaoke.” In June, Jack Harlow’s album “Come Home the Kids Miss You” was on repeat. By July, they were tearing through Burna Boy’s latest tracks.

“It’s a refreshing start to the day to see all your friends,” Chu said, “even when you’re mad tired.”

At the gym, they would warm up and stretch, then Gilgeous-Alexander would polish his shooting for about an hour as his friends rebounded for him. He usually filled the second hour with drills — footwork, defense, passing — before transitioning into half-court games of 3-on-3 with a lopsided feel.

“Shai takes all the shots,” Campbell said.

His court work complete, Gilgeous-Alexander would drop his friends off so he could lift weights — in another buddy’s two-car garage. Nem Ilic, 27, who describes his work as “athlete development,” spent last summer building Gilgeous-Alexander’s lower body: lunges in the garage, weighted sled pushes in the cul-de-sac out front. (The neighbors always knew when Gilgeous-Alexander was around.)

“Guys in my position, you usually have to work your way up from high school to college to the pros,” Ilic said. “And I have a unique timeline. It went straight to Shai.”

In their own way, the friends are a part of it all.

A poster of Gilgeous-Alexander is seen on the doors of Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School.Credit…Cole Burston for The New York Times

“I think the N.B.A. is so crazy that he wants to come here and feel grounded,” Chu said, “and we’re all so grounded up here that we want to hear about N.B.A. life.”

They can see Gilgeous-Alexander’s progress — and feel it, too, whenever they try to defend him on those early summer mornings.

“I want to say it’s never really that much of a fun time,” Campbell said.

They have busy lives of their own. Montoya, for example, manages a Hamilton-area restaurant. Castillanes recently relocated to Oklahoma City after Gilgeous-Alexander asked him if he would help manage his day-to-day life. And Kong works in public health while he prepares for medical school.

“You know how they say commitment will pay off if you improve by 1 percent every day? It’s something you see in real time with Shai,” Kong said. “And it’s something I can apply to my own life.”

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