In a simpler time, a man in a “Born Fly” T-shirt made a breathless phone call from an Alabama gym. It was the afternoon of April 18, 2015, a Saturday. Lamont “Pat” Johnson knows the date, because he was so excited that he had to take a picture. Johnson, who stands 5-foot-7 — “on a good day,” he jokes — posed in the photo next to James Wiseman just to prove he wasn’t exaggerating. The kid was 6-foot-8, and Johnson had just seen him dunk, shoot 3s, and make hook shots … gasp … left-handed. The kid had just turned 14.
“I am looking at the future No. 1 draft pick,” Johnson said over the phone to Corey Frazier, coach of the St. Louis Eagles, a Nike-sponsored grassroots program.
Wiseman towered over Johnson like a sprouting plant. His legs were spindly; his stare was earnest. He was shy, awkward and had no idea where basketball would take him.
His mom was in the stands that day, and Johnson, a youth basketball coach who dabbles as a recruiter for the Eagles, approached her.
“That’s my baby,” Donzaleigh Artis proudly told him.
The family lived in Nashville, Tennessee, and Artis drove a school bus. She bragged more about her son’s grades that day than his jump shot. Wiseman would eventually join the St. Louis Eagles (now called Bradley Beal Elite), and, soon, the teenager had many college suitors.
It could be said that Wiseman’s life became more complicated when Penny Hardaway entered it, but that’s the nature of basketball for the young and elite. The bigger you get, the harder it is to hide.
Wiseman joined Team Penny in 2017, starting a successful, albeit controversial, run with the former NBA superstar that was supposed to peak this season with the University of Memphis Tigers, where Hardaway is now head coach and Wiseman was the top-rated freshman in the country. Together, the expectation was they would make a run for the national championship and bring a winter of excitement to the city of Memphis.
Wiseman’s NCAA career ended Thursday after just three games and 69 minutes on the court. The 7-foot-1 center, who had been serving an NCAA suspension since Nov. 14, announced that he’s withdrawing from Memphis to prepare for the 2020 NBA draft, where he is projected to possibly be the No. 1 overall pick.
The NCAA ruled Wiseman ineligible Nov. 8 after it determined that Hardaway provided Wiseman’s family $11,500 in moving expenses from Nashville to Memphis in the summer of 2017. Though Hardaway wasn’t yet Memphis’ coach when he made the payment, he had donated $1 million to his alma mater back in 2008, so he was considered a booster. Wiseman’s punishment was a 12-game suspension and repayment of the $11,500 to a charity of his choice. He was expected to return Jan. 12.
They weren’t officially linked until after Wiseman’s sophomore year of high school, but Hardaway no doubt crossed paths with Wiseman long before that. It’s tough to miss a redwood in a forest of Tennessee dogwoods. Still, the relationship that was years in the making, connected from AAU to high school to college, is abruptly over. Was it worth it? Will there be more fallout? The answers won’t come today, four months away from the NCAA tournament, and even longer until the NBA draft in June.
“We wish nothing but the best for James in his future endeavors as he follows his dreams,” Hardaway said in a 22-word statement Thursday. “He will truly be missed.”
Hardaway, a native son of Memphis, was involved in the city’s youth basketball scene. His son, Jayden, was on the grassroots circuit at the same time as Wiseman, and is currently a freshman reserve guard for Memphis. Though Wiseman played three hours away in Nashville, his grassroots teams made frequent trips to Memphis.
But in those early days, he was not known for much outside of being tall.
“Everybody sees James as this great, athletic kid, someone who can shoot the ball, handle, put it on the floor,” said Todd Day, the former Arkansas star and NBA guard who coached Wiseman with the Team Penny program. “When we met James, he couldn’t tie his shoes up good. He’s a testament to a kid that’s really worked his butt off.”
The St. Louis Eagles didn’t immediately pounce on Wiseman after Johnson’s exuberant endorsement back in 2015, when Wiseman was in eighth grade. St. Louis was 4½ hours away from Nashville, and Tim Holloway, the president/director of the Eagles, figured it would be a logistical nightmare. But he eventually went to Nashville and met Wiseman’s mother and his AAU coach, Don Wynn.
Wynn, according to Holloway, said he’d taken Wiseman as far as he could go, and he wanted him to have the chance to learn more on a bigger platform.
“A lot of these grade-school coaches, they want to hang on to these kids for dear life,” Holloway said. “They want a meal ticket. That’s why I speak so highly of Don. Don is just a guy who’d always been there for him.”
The Eagles practiced on weekends. Holloway said he was impressed with Wiseman’s mom, whom he described as a “single parent raising this kid, doing the best she can. She was just happy. It wasn’t this, ‘Oh my God, we don’t have anything.’ It was their life.”
Wiseman and his mom would somehow make it work. Wiseman, under Wynn, had been taught well. Wynn never put him in a big man’s box. He encouraged him to dribble and shoot 3s, in a way that prompted comparisons to former NBA All-Star Chris Bosh.
But Wiseman was going through another growth spurt when he joined the Eagles, and he struggled to adjust to his body, a jangled mess of even longer arms and legs.
“The first year, James is a shy, sweet kid who really fits like a glove,” Holloway recalled. “He fits perfectly with our culture. By the end of the season, he’s on the radar, he’s identified as a top prospect.”
His freshman year, Wiseman attended the Ensworth School, a private school in Nashville that resembles a college campus. Ensworth touts that 100% of its graduates go on to a four-year college, and tuition, according to Ricky Bowers, the associate head of the school, runs upward of $26,000 a year.
Asked how financially challenged families afford tuition, Bowers said that financial aid is available from the school.
Bowers, who coached the basketball team when Wiseman was there, called him a “strikingly kind person.” His basketball skills were not polished at that point, but they didn’t need to be because Ensworth had a player on the team named Jordan Bone, who went on to Tennessee and was drafted in the second round by the Detroit Pistons this past summer.
Wiseman was timid that first year, like most freshmen, and former teammate Brett Barnett said he occasionally had to be coaxed into being more aggressive.
Wiseman’s mother was a fixture at Ensworth’s games and usually came with a cheering section. (Wiseman has a sister, Jaquarius Greer, who is seven years older.) One day, after Wiseman’s sophomore year, Donzaleigh Artis told Bowers that the family was moving to Memphis.
Wiseman had recently joined Team Penny, a grassroots team on the Nike circuit sponsored by Hardaway. And now he was transferring to Memphis East High, the school at which Hardaway was coach. Bowers said Wiseman’s mom never told him where he was transferring. When he found out Wiseman was going to Memphis East, “My reaction was, ‘Well, that makes sense.’
“I think every kid that plays AAU is influenced by their summer experience to some degree. And in this case, I think, wasn’t Penny his coach in the summer?”
But Wiseman couldn’t say he was transferring to East to be coached by Hardaway, because that would bring eligibility questions from the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA), which has a “coaching link” rule designed to prevent recruitment of athletes from one school to another.
And Hardaway also repeatedly said he never coached Wiseman on Team Penny — Todd Day was the coach — and that he served only in a sponsorship capacity. “One would think if it’s called ‘Team Penny’ that he would have some affiliation with it,” Bowers said. “There’s a logical connection with it. I bet you can even find photographs of James and Penny in the summer of his sophomore year sitting on the bench together or in team photos.
“It’s Team Penny. I mean, are people denying that? I just thought, ‘It is what it is.'”
In November 2017, Wiseman and East teammate Ryan Boyce were ruled ineligible because of the coaching link rule. Five days later, the Shelby County Board of Education filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ruling, and a month later, a Shelby County chancellor ruled in their favor. That spring, his junior season, Wiseman led East to the state championship.
Around that same time, Wiseman was deposed in a civil lawsuit, involving the Shelby County Board of Education and the TSSAA, on the matter. He was 16 years old. When questioned about Hardaway’s role on Team Penny, and why Wiseman came to Memphis East, the young prospect’s answers were inconsistent. In Hardaway’s deposition, he said he did not read the TSSAA handbook and did not recruit players.
By then, the lawsuit was less relevant. Wiseman was no longer playing for Hardaway — who had accepted the job to coach the University of Memphis a few days earlier.
When you walk into Memphis International Airport, you immediately notice the tangible presence of Hardaway in the city that reared the former Memphis and NBA star. As the official spokesman for the airport, he and his smile anchor a poster welcoming you to the city.
A few miles away, there is a billboard promoting the value of public schools and Hardaway’s graduation from Treadwell High School. And his financial investment into his hometown — The Penny Hardaway Hall of Fame on the Memphis campus, a popular barbershop and a must-have local BBQ sauce, to name a few — is also evident. “He’s the king of the city,” said Courtney Roby, a local bartender.
In Memphis, any criticism of the homegrown head coach at times yields a cult-like, unified message of support in a city of 652,000 that’s tucked into Tennessee’s left pocket — a city that views its food, music (Elvis Presley, Stax Records, W.C. Handy, Justin Timberlake, Al Green) and sports teams as its prized beacons to the rest of the world. The fear of falling back into irrelevance drives the support as well.
“Memphis has an inferiority complex, being in one corner of the state, being the latest part of the state to be developed,” said Dr. Charles W. Crawford, who teaches local and state history at the University of Memphis. “Tennessee, the western part, has felt discriminated against. That’s why they put a great deal on being able to excel in sports.”
It could be part of the reason Hardaway looked at James Wiseman and could see himself. Hardaway did not always wear Louis Vuitton belts and designer suits. He was reared by his grandmother in a house in the downtrodden Binghampton neighborhood of midtown Memphis. Hardaway was young and soft-spoken once, too.
“I’m sure he can see himself … in what these kids are going through and what he went through,” longtime Memphis booster Leonard Draper said. “That’s why he can be a big help: He can get them out of that system and get them where they need to be.”
Hardaway played in the NBA for 15 seasons, but coaching wasn’t anywhere on his to-do list when he retired in 2007. He made $120 million playing in the NBA and has his own signature shoe line, the Nike Foamposite, that sells for $230 a pair. But in 2011, a childhood friend named Desmond Merriweather was diagnosed with colon cancer. Merriweather was coaching the basketball team at Lester Middle School, in inner-city Memphis, and enlisted Hardaway to help as a volunteer coach.
The Lions won three championships, and Merriweather followed his Lester kids to Memphis East High. His condition deteriorated in his first season, and he died in February 2015. Hardaway took over that next fall and led East to a state championship.
Hardaway started the Team Penny program on the Nike grassroots circuit, complete with flashy vans sporting a giant “1 cent” logo, and his celebrity in the grassroots basketball community grew quickly.
During AAU trips, Hardaway would fill up the Team Penny van with Foamposites and other Penny shirts and jerseys. When kids and families would come up to Hardaway in hotel lobbies or at restaurants, he would have them grab something from the van and give it to them for free, even sign it if they asked.
One of Hardaway’s failings, friends say, is his inability to say no. Here he was, surrounded by so many children with so few resources, and it made Hardaway think about his childhood and the fact that now he had everything.
“Penny’s biggest weakness is he’s nice,” said DuJuan Taylor, who has known Hardaway since high school and helped run Team Penny. “He wants to see everybody happy.”
When Hardaway took over for Tubby Smith at Memphis in 2018, his overarching task was to bring excitement back to the city. It would start with recruiting, more specifically getting Memphis involved with elite players again, something that had waned in the previous few years under Josh Pastner and Smith. And at the top of that list was Wiseman, who, at the time, was widely expected to end up at Kentucky. John Calipari made him the Wildcats’ top priority in the 2019 class and it seemed inevitable Wiseman would land in Lexington. Memphis was an afterthought in his recruitment before Hardaway’s arrival.
Hardaway extended a scholarship offer to Wiseman 18 days after taking over at Memphis, and he conducted an in-home visit a week later.
Seven months after Hardaway’s introductory news conference, in November 2018, Wiseman announced his commitment on ESPN’s SportsCenter. He was staying home, sort of, and playing for Memphis instead of Kentucky.
“We were all excited,” said Mike Parks, who was a starter for Memphis last season before graduating. “We had a little group chat, and it was like, ‘Oh, you guys are gonna go crazy [next year].’ At the UC [University Center] on campus, they were excited. It was all over TV. The campus was really buzzing.”
Exactly one year to the day that Wiseman committed to Memphis, the NCAA handed down its 12-game suspension.
Instead of November being the start of a potentially special season for the Tigers, it was filled with controversy and questions about Hardaway’s relationship with Wiseman.
Hardaway has previous links to many of the players who have enrolled at Memphis since he became head coach. Sophomore point guard Alex Lomax played for Hardaway at East and for Team Penny, and flipped his commitment from Wichita State to Memphis shortly after Hardaway took over. Ditto for Boyce, who flipped from UAB to Memphis. In addition to Wiseman in the 2019 class, Hardaway coached freshman forward D.J. Jeffries on Team Penny and coached big man Malcolm Dandridge for both East and Team Penny. Wiseman, Jeffries and Dandridge continued to play for the Bluff City Legends program after Hardaway’s departure forced a name change.
People around Hardaway are emphatic the connections he built weren’t part of a yearslong scheme to get the Memphis job. As proof, Corey Jeffries — D.J.’s father — pointed to his son’s commitment to Kentucky in early March 2018, just a couple of weeks before Hardaway took the Memphis job. Jeffries had played for Hardaway with Team Penny and ultimately flipped from Kentucky to Memphis in October 2018.
“That’s a bunch of crap,” Jeffries said of the suggestion Hardaway was making connections with players with an eye toward becoming the Memphis coach. “D.J. committed to Kentucky a month before Penny got the job. I know he didn’t know two years ahead … he would’ve said something. He told us he wanted to be [the coach at Memphis], but he did tell us it’s not solid. At that time, it wasn’t solid. We couldn’t bank on that. He didn’t know at the start of the month, let alone two years ahead of time.
“It was nothing malicious, he didn’t know that. No way he knew that.”
The Memphis locals who love Hardaway also don’t seem to believe he did anything wrong when he helped Wiseman. They, instead, think he did what he’s always done: He offered help to someone in need, rather than launch a plan to increase his odds of getting the Memphis job after Tubby Smith was fired last year by tying himself to a top recruit.
“That’s just the way Memphis is: It’s a helping town,” said Darryl Exum, chairman of the board at Early Grove Baptist Church, where Hardaway attended Sunday services with his mother when he was a child. “James Wiseman and Penny didn’t realize he was gonna be head coach at Memphis.”
But the school’s decision to fight and appeal the Wiseman ruling — his attorneys successfully filed for a temporary injunction that allowed him to play after the NCAA announced its investigation — seemed foolish to those unaffiliated with the program, especially years after Final Four runs under Dana Kirk (1985) and Calipari (2008) were vacated over high-profile NCAA scandals.
By playing Wiseman while the NCAA said he was ineligible, it seemed as if the school was taunting the power brokers in Indianapolis.
The resistance seemed even more perplexing in the wake of the FBI investigation that has rocked the sport. Rick Pitino was fired by Louisville after he was allegedly tied to wiretaps related to the recruitment of former five-star prospect Brian Bowen Jr. Kansas coach Bill Self could face a show-cause penalty after the NCAA accused him of violating rules related to coaching-responsibility standards following an FBI investigation. Coaches at Auburn, USC, Arizona and LSU remain in the crosshairs of the NCAA, which seems determined to prove its power after the FBI had to step in and address corruption within the sport.
Memphis, a school that lost its appeal of the NCAA decision that forced the program to vacate games due to Derrick Rose‘s alleged violations in the late 2000s, understands the stakes as well as any program.
“The university fought the NCAA over that 10 years ago and that’s why I kind of thought, having done that one time, you don’t win against the NCAA very much,” said Jimmy Ogle, a local historian who gives walking tours of the city and a former scoreboard operator for Memphis basketball. “That was pretty, pretty ballsy right there, I guess you’d say.”
Donzaleigh Artis, who could not be reached for this story, did an interview with ESPN’s Memphis radio station, WMFS-FM 92.9, in the months before Wiseman committed to Memphis in 2018. She said she had another son, who would’ve been older than James, who drowned at age 5. She said she learned that nothing in life is promised, so she wanted James to go to prom and have a girlfriend and experience life for himself.
On his 17th birthday, she said he rolled around town on a party bus with his teammates.
“He’s got to be the one who says … ‘This is what I like, mama,”’ she said on the J&J Show. “And I have to be the one to say, ‘Well, I ain’t gonna live my dreams through you. I’m going to live my dreams with you.'”
Wiseman is on the verge of achieving his dream of playing in the NBA. There, the controversies, questions and promise tied to his short time with Penny Hardaway and Memphis will continue to fade into the rearview. The $11,500 the NCAA asked him to repay amounts to tip money.
Leonard Draper, who is close to Hardaway, said he hadn’t talked to him about the news as of Thursday night. Draper wondered whether Wiseman saw what happened to North Carolina’s Cole Anthony, how he was injured and is expected to be out for at least a month, and didn’t want to take any chances.
“If he felt he didn’t want to take the chance,” Draper said, “I can respect that.”
Wiseman’s college career is over before it really began. The news came Thursday afternoon on his Instagram account. In the pictures accompanying his news, Wiseman is no longer a skinny child hidden in a faraway gym.