Even Tom Izzo tried to get Miles Bridges to go to the NBA, he wouldn't

The Bridges home in Flint, Michigan, is humble and welcoming. When I arrive, Cynthia Bridges, tall, with a gentle voice and a deliberate way of speaking, chides me for not parking in the driveway. She invites me in and offers a water from the 3-foot-high stack of bottles common in kitchens in Flint. She and her daughter, Tara, nine years Miles’ senior, are happy to tell me stories about Miles’ childhood.

There was the way he used to wake up and play basketball in the driveway at 8 a.m., so early a neighbor had to ask Cynthia if she could do something about it. There was the way he used to rouse Tara out of bed to play one-on-one before breakfast. And when she would beat him, he would keep demanding more games. Eventually she had to physically pick him up and remove him from the court.

And, of course, there was the time he was one of the most talented players in the country, and instead of going pro and being able to help out the family that helped him all those years, he decided to spend another year playing basketball for free.

Cynthia comes across as bewildered as anyone when she tries to explain why her son made this decision. “He said God,” she tells me. “You know, he prayed, and God told him.” Even after he had broken the news to her, she found herself telling reporters he was undecided. She was hoping he would change his mind. “‘There’s things I want to accomplish at MSU,'” Cynthia remembers her son saying. “‘I want to win a championship.’ I said you can win a championship and get money. What does he tell me? He says, ‘Money is the root of all evil.'”

It is the permanent curse of parents that their adult children will make choices that vex them to no end. Some get unfortunate tattoos, some take questionable spouses, some forgo their education to live on organic communes outside of Portland. For Cynthia, the situation is similar. Only exactly the opposite.

“I worked hard to get his shoes. All those sacrifices and he’s like, ‘You’ll be all right.'” She shakes her head. “I’m happy the way he is. It was just a shock.”

When Cynthia leaves the room for a moment, I take the opportunity to ask Tara what she really thinks about her little brother’s decision. “I like it,” she confides. “I was excited because I’m not ready for that lifestyle, just as much as he’s not.”

Her son may at times vex her, but Cynthia Bridges is also quick to say, “I’m happy the way he is.” Al Goldis/AP Photo

I finally sit down with Bridges himself in the film room of the athletic complex on campus, and the truth is he doesn’t have much to say. He is clearly uncomfortable talking about himself. Nonetheless he is unfailingly polite and good-natured. He tells me what everyone else has told me. He has personal goals. He wants to win a championship. He wants to be really, really ready for the NBA. He has faith.

Since we are meeting directly after practice and workouts, a team assistant has procured him a chicken sandwich from his favorite place. He thanks the guy no fewer than three separate times.

I want to talk to Bridges about how great he is, what wonderful things are ahead for him, but it is not long before he’s telling me about last November’s game against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden, the second game of his college career.

“I wanted to prove to them that I was better than any player they had on their team,” he tells me, reliving it. “And that I made out-of-the-ordinary plays, shot out-of-the-ordinary shots.”

Carmelo Anthony was at that game. John Wall. It was the biggest stage he had played on. And his worst game: six points on 2-for-11 shooting, with nine turnovers. Bridges says he is not a crier. But that night he cried. He told the team the loss was his fault.

Afterward he talked late into the night with Josh and Tum. They told him he could not get the game back. They told him they loved him. He told himself to believe that even at his lowest point, God could bring him to his highest.

The next game he scored 21 points in the first half.

The other thing Bridges and I find ourselves talking about is purpose. It’s been on his mind since Bible study. “I feel like my purpose is to use basketball as a platform to help people get closer to God,” he says. “I feel like I could reach a lot of people once I get to the NBA.”

The cynic in me feels the need to protect him from disappointment. I gently point out that the NBA as I’ve seen it is not a place that is particularly religious.

“I’m not religious,” he points out quickly, and perhaps a little defensively. “I just have a great relationship. It’s not about religion; it’s about the relationship. The relationship that you have with God. Everybody in the NBA knows about God. They just feel like if they express it then they wouldn’t get cool points from that.”

After that we sit in silence for a long while. I want to see if he breaks it. He does not. So I ask him if he has any questions for me. He does.

“How are you able to speak so well?”

Bridges’ player efficiency rating is 23.1. Jayson Tatum had a 22.0 PER and De’Aaron Fox a 22.6
PER as freshmen. Dennis Smith was also at 23.1. All were top-10 draft picks. Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports

If you really want to know why Miles Bridges declined the NBA, you have to sit in a room with Tum, Josh and Xavier and ask them to tell you stories.

They have just come from a long practice, but I ask each to share a story that to them is the quintessential Miles Bridges story. They light up. Tum starts: “Him and Josh, I feel like we came out of the same womb. That’s how close we are.” There is much laughter and head-shaking. “If I tell you the actual stuff that happened to us,” Josh tells me cryptically, “you’re not going to believe it.”

Tum offers a more believable story instead. One night they’re in the dorm room “talking about the things of God,” he explains. It is early in the season, and the three of them are just getting to know one another. Here is Tum Tum, the stalwart hustle point guard, sitting with two McDonald’s All American recruits. He’s feeling them out. Will they be filled to the brim on their own press clippings? Things get deep as the conversation continues into the night. Tum looks over at Miles.

“He was crying,” Tum recalls. “Like, he just couldn’t stop crying.”

A blue-chip recruit, a kid known for thunderous dunks, sitting in a dorm room feeling the spirit so deeply that it moved him to tears. Tum took notice: “I saw that and was like, ‘There’s something about him that makes him different.’ It’s that he understands that he is a spirit.”

Josh’s story is a little different.

“One day, me, Tum and Miles — nobody in the gym. Coaches were gone and we’re just going to play one-on-one. It was our first time ever playing against each other. Summer. Wasn’t nobody there. And I knew Miles was good, but he won like four games straight. I’m like, ‘I got to step it up.'”

It feels to Josh like they played all day. Miles would win a game. Tum would win one. Josh would win one. Afternoon turns to evening. But just like Miles used to do with his sister when he was a little kid, he keeps pushing them. He’d win one game, then say he needed to win two. He’d win two, say he needed to win four. Evening becomes night.

Miles is not a big trash-talker, they tell me, but that day he was on fire. “We were talking to each other like we just seen each other on the street,” Tum tells me, “and he started it!”

It’s the day they came to actually know one another, to bond. Three boys who made their way through the ceaseless churn of summer leagues and prep schools and big-time collegiate recruiting and were now in a place where they met equals. Where they had found not just teammates but family.

“The last thing I’ll say about Miles,” Tum adds: “Miles tells me he loves me every day. Every day. I’m not exaggerating. Every day.”

Imagine you are 19 years old. You grow up feeling like an outsider, only to discover you have size and power that sets you apart and makes people sniff around your family and call your house.

Imagine that you come to a school to play ball and you find three people who love and embrace you as you discover your deepest and truest meaning. People who share with you everything from the glories of God to the glories of running it back infinitely while trash-talking until you have nothing left, until you have burned through your second, third and even final winds and your body ceases to be a body, becoming instead a vessel, a spirit.

How much money would it take for you to give that up and join the world of adults?

I ask Xavier if he has anything to add.

“No,” he tells me quietly. “I don’t want to ruin it.”

MILES is still thinking about the question of what is your life’s purpose. And the farther away I get from East Lansing, the more I think about a moment during the Bible study. Xavier, the 6-8, 260-pound 19-year-old father, is holding his baby daughter in his arms. Throughout the evening, she had been falling in and out of sleep, but she has finally succumbed to rest with a delicate little tremor and a sigh. Tum is holding forth to rapt attention about the nature of God and how to steer clear of temptation. Suddenly he is interrupted by a startling laugh that escapes from Xavier’s body. Tum stops midsentence. We all wonder what he said that was so funny.

“Miles tells me he loves me every day. Every day. I’m not

– Lourawls Nairn Jr. on his brotherhood with Bridges

“Oh, my bad,” he says sheepishly. “She just, like, smiled at me in her sleep. It was so cute. She just was looking up at me in her sleep and she smiled.”

The room breaks out into hushed approving giggles and restrained awwws.

The baby is swaddled in pink. Xavier is dressed in dark Spartan green. Thinking back on this moment, I swear I remember another color: a very faint but unmistakable golden light shining up from the baby’s face and casting a honeyed glow onto Xavier.

I’m sure that didn’t happen. But you have to understand: To be in that room? At that moment? It feels like it did.

These boys are holding something special. Something fragile and beautiful. They are holding it in their arms the way Xavier holds his daughter and, OK, sure, the way Mary held the baby Jesus. And the one thing they seem to know better than almost anyone else, better than parents, coaches or even journalists, is how to stop and look at it. How to smile at it. How to let its beauty and innocence affect every cell in their bodies. One thing they know better than all of us is how to truly appreciate it.

Carvell WallaceWallace is a writer, editor and father in Oakland, Calif.

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Even Tom Izzo tried to get Miles Bridges to go to the NBA, he wouldn't
Even Tom Izzo tried to get Miles Bridges to go to the NBA, he wouldn't