Terry Rozier had been cautioned that free agency would be a whirlwind. By the time it ended, he had whiplash.
The evening before NBA teams spent more than $3 billion in free-agent contracts in just over 24 hours, Rozier found himself with friends imagining an impending move to the Knicks. He was willing to bet on himself. We're about to turn New York up, his friends cheered. "A night before free agency, I was a Knick," Rozier envisioned.
He spent much of the night dreaming of what it would be like to light up Madison Square Garden. By the following night, not only the Knicks but also Phoenix had offered a contract. A bigger, better one. We gonna have to take that one, he thought.
Then the Charlotte Hornets beckoned. Rozier remained inclined to accept Phoenix's bid. That was when, Rozier said, Michael Jordan, the Hornets' principal owner, intervened. "Mike was overseas, and I can just picture him probably having a cigar in his mouth and the words he told Mitch [Kupchak], the GM, was like: 'Get him over here. Do what you need to do to get him over here.'"
Rozier was sold. "I'd be a fool if I was to go anywhere else or turn down that," he said. "I look at it as just a team, organization believing in me. Knowing that I want to prove myself in this league and giving me that chance is bigger than anything and [their willingness] to pay me a right amount of money, it was just big and the guy that was behind all that was Michael Jordan. It's still surreal to me."
The Hornets acquired Rozier in a sign-and-trade deal that sent Kemba Walker, their homegrown All-Star point guard, to Boston and deposited their new starting point guard in Charlotte with a three-year, $58 million contract. After a trying season with the Celtics, Rozier, 25, will now be asked to lead a somewhat perplexing Charlotte roster—filled with players on questionable contracts but with the potential to sneak into the playoffs if things break their way. And while the Rozier signing holds the promise of gambling on someone young just entering his prime, the cost guarantees a level of scrutiny the four-year veteran has rarely experienced.
"I'd be lying if I told you there's no pressure," Rozier said. "But pressure's part of the game. Pressure is something that I deal with on a daily basis, but I'm always finding ways to get past it. That's not easy going in, replacing a guard like Kemba. He's pretty damn good and the franchise's leading scorer, like that's crazy. But it's something I've always wanted. I always live by if the opportunity come knocking, you gotta be ready to answer, and this is the opportunity for me, so I was born ready for this, and I'm not looking back."
Winning in Charlotte may not be easy for a team Las Vegas predicts will have the worst record in the NBA, but Rozier is familiar with turning challenges into opportunities.
The Zelma Watson George Recreation Center in Cleveland's Woodland Hills neighborhood is bustling with activity. Music blares. Kids chase one another, dashing past colorful walls painted in yellow, blue and purple. One side hosts a skating rink. The other features a fieldhouse-like basketball gym with sunlight beaming through high windows.
The court is closed for now. Curious kids poke their heads past gates to spot Rozier, dressed in a blue Puma sweatsuit. He cannot walk a few steps without saying hello to a child, greeting an old friend or running into Arlette Wright, one of his first youth coaches.
"That rec center is in the middle of so many different neighborhoods, so many different hoods," Rozier says. "Kids come up there it was like we was at peace. Maybe when we stepped out of here it was a little different."
Rozier spent much of his childhood inside this place. Amanda Tucker, Rozier's grandmother, usually skipped breakfast and headed straight to the recreation center. Amanda would sell Gatorade and hot dogs in the concession stands and play cards and dominoes during down time. Terry would be there for hours.
"I used to eat lunch in the little community room, try to sneak two boxes, sometimes I only have one, got to eat what's in there and I be playing basketball, football, whatever sport," Rozier said. "I'd be running around all day, basically just dirty, sweating, fighting."
Rozier found the center at a transitional time.
He had spent the summer with his father, who had just been released after an eight-year prison sentence. Rozier moved in with him. The two bonded over sports. Rozier would run beside his dad's car with a weighted vest. "I was training for football," he said. "Football, football, football, and that was one of the best times of my life, just being with my dad. We didn't even have to do much, but just having my dad...some people have their dad, some people didn't. Just to have that connection with him after was just so dope. We always put on the gloves and box, play pool, just do regular stuff. It meant a lot to me, then, obviously, some things happen when I was living with him ... so he never got to see me play."
Terry Rozier Sr. was arrested again, charged with involuntary manslaughter in a robbery attempt gone awry and sentenced to another 13 years in prison nine months after his previous release. Rozier still kept in touch with his father. "I was feeling at one point where I couldn't tell nobody nothing but him," Rozier said. "I could only tell him stuff that was going on in my life, and that was kind of weird for me, but that's just what it was."
Rozier's father finally got to see him play in person last fall a few months after his release from the Lake Erie Correctional Institution.
"After them fifteen years, he getting out now, and I'm in this business that I'm in now and I feel like he blessed," Rozier said. "He been through some stuff, but it's kind of like getting sent back humble him and now he's got a son out here that's really trying to do things for the family, and for himself, so I feel like he knows he's got to get his act together. I feel like his head on straight.
"And you know, that's my dad. At the end of the day, I don't do the, 'He ain't been around all my life, so it's F- him.' He made a decision, and he had to live with it. I'm pretty sure if he had a choice to be in his son's life, he would. I don't respect people that's not in jail that's not in their son's life. Just saying, he had to go to jail. He made sure I came in to visit, and that's what it was."
With his father absent, his mother and grandmother stepped back in to fill the void.
"They were my grandbabies," Amanda Tucker said. "I have nine with two great-grands, and I'm the same way today."
When her 15-year-old daughter, Gina, struggled through a protracted labor, Tucker was asked by an attending doctor whether her daughter or granddaughter should be saved. Amanda left the room to pray when a pastor inquired on her situation. You won't have to choose between either, the pastor predicted.
Tre'Dasia, Terry's older sister, weighed just two pounds, 14 ounces at birth and could not breathe without a ventilator. She remained hospitalized for several months.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, she has outlasted forecasts that she would not live past her first few years. Gina, Terry and B.J. Carter, the youngest brother, often gave her piggyback rides. They had one another's backs. Life still presents daily obstacles but also solvable problems—like the time Terry would not quit bothering her. "I don't even remember what it was, but whatever he did, he had to pick with me, because I am not a violent person," Tre'Dasia said. "I just snapped, and I beat him with the Pringle bottle, and I'll never forget, he had to pick up all the Pringles off the floor."
She laughs. "I cannot believe he told you that story. But he didn't tell you about the time he left me on the top of a bunk bed for hours, right?"
Gina preached resiliency to her children. Terry practiced it. He had been a hyper child before finding a sanctuary in the rec center. He'd shoot at the baskets, whether they were up or down. Where once he transitioned from football to baseball to basketball and volleyball, hoops became his sport. He'd practice shooting while falling like his hero, Dwyane Wade—colliding hard enough with the court to frighten Amanda. He joined an AAU team, traveling outside Ohio for the first time.
"I was definitely [the] brokest guy on my team, by far," Rozier said. "I played with a lot of rich kids. My grandma and my mom could never give me transportation. So, I used to always ride with somebody, and we used to go to D.C., anywhere you could think of. I'd never been out of the city before, so it was like, damn. I treated it like I was in the NBA back then. Every city we going to I'm treating like it's an NBA game, and that's when I started liking basketball."
He stood a wiry 5'7" as a high school freshman. He started on junior varsity and scored 25 points a game. "I think we chose the wrong kids for the varsity," recalled Danny Young, then Shaker Heights High School's interim head coach. "We brought him up. The first two nights, 16 one night, 17 second night; then from there, his legacy began."
Generations of Terry Rozier's family gather inside Gina Tucker's home a few miles from the rec center. Salmon cooks in the kitchen. A movie plays in the living room. Someone throws shots at a basket outside.
Terry describes the setting as surreal, a dream believed into existence.
Blessings come through lessons and storms, Gina advises her children.
She knows better than most.
"Youngstown?" Gina, sitting inside on an L-shaped couch, asks of the industrial city she lived in about 65 miles southeast of Cleveland. "First thing that comes to mind is home, roots, violence, murders. It's home, you love it. I wouldn't trade it. I think that's what shaped me. Youngstown shapes the person…guarded, morals, respect. But I endured a lot at a young age. I love it, but it's a lot of things that happened. It's deep-rooted with my pain as well, but it's home."
Gina just wasn't sure she wanted it to be her kids' home.
"Us living in Youngstown with all the violence, I knew that I didn't want him or my kids … [Terry] saw a lot when he was young. He was around guns. People that were around us would be murdered the next day. We had a lot of family members we lost to gun violence."
She made a decision to send her children to live with Amanda in Shaker Heights, a leafy, middle-class, inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. Gina wanted her children. She also wanted to shield them. Word had traveled that people wanted retribution for Rozier Sr.'s crimes.
The back and forth created conflicts between mother and grandmother. Meanwhile, Terry struggled to understand why he could no longer live with his mother.
"It was heartbreaking," Gina says.
"He hated me because he wanted to be back in Youngstown," Amanda says.
"Not that we hated you," Gina counters.
"Well, he didn't know any better," Amanda says. "He rejected me. I used to have to take foster parenting classes to deal with him because he didn't like me. I couldn't understand why because I loved him and I didn't want him back in Youngstown because of what was going on."
"He would end up in trouble," Gina picks up. "It's rare that any young black guys even make it past a certain age in Youngstown. It was scary for us. I think, even though I wanted him back home, I kind of got into it with her a lot about that. I wanted my son home, but also I look back now, and it wouldn't have probably been the best move."
The arrangement left Gina a lot of time to think on her solitary drives between Shaker Heights and Youngstown. Her visits with her kids left her conflicted and disappointed about how things had turned out.
"I guess the path that I went through, the guys that I chose to have kids by, they were all violent. I figured it was kind of my fault ... why he had to go to Cleveland.
"I was very emotional. I always wanted them to be with me, and [my mother and I] kind of feuded a lot because she fought me on that. They were never taken from me, but she fought me when I would want them to come back home, and I never wanted to fight her in court about it. Now that I'm looking back, it was the best decision. I didn't get that, I didn't think that way then.
"I love my mom to death, and I know she had my kids' best interest at heart. But … we still have a little wedge, where we go in and out because of that."
Gina Tucker watched as the Brooklyn Nets hosted Boston last season. She noticed how downtrodden her son looked. Invisible signs for others that were prominent signals of distress for a mother. She had seen Rozier emote frustration on the court before. But this was something different. He struggled from the field that night, missing seven of his eight shots as Brooklyn rallied for a blowout win. "Like, he's losing it," she recalled. "I saw pain, frustration, disappointment. I just felt like that moment in itself, he was done."
She sent him a text after the game.
"I don't think I smiled, cracked a joke that day," Rozier said. "And that's not me. I'm always smiling. I'm always enjoying the time and being in a moment. But I was just out of it in general, dealing with a lot. I feel like that was one of my breaking points. I had a couple of them during the season."
Boston entered last season with expectations to step into the vacuum created by LeBron James' departure to the Western Conference. The young Celtics had reached the Eastern Conference Finals the previous two seasons and had done so without a lot of superstar power.
Rozier was one of the reasons why.
Before the 2018 playoffs, Celtics coach Brad Stevens visited Rozier as he lofted shots late one night. Stevens, Rozier said, told him that he could play just as good as anyone out there and to take advantage of the opportunity.
I'm ready for it, Rozier thought. I got to roll with the punches. If I fail, I know I did my best trying, but failing is not an option. Stay levelheaded, stay in the moment.
He averaged 16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game in the postseason and brought Boston to within one game of the NBA Finals.
"Didn't try to get too high, then let the stuff get to me," Rozier said. "Didn't try to get too low, when things weren't going my way. Just try to stay right there in the moment, and it worked out for me. Then a lot of people that wasn't on the Terry Rozier train, talking all that B.S., hop on. That's just how I go."
But the roster last season never coalesced. Players like Rozier were asked to adjust to supporting roles behind now-healthy stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and once an NBA player finds lightning, it's hard for him to be asked to bottle it back up. The uncertainty of Irving's looming free agency also shadowed the franchise.
Boston's soaring hopes came crashing down with a collapse against Milwaukee in the conference semifinals. Rozier finished the regular season with averages of just 9.0 points in 22.7 minutes a game. His frustration poured out in interviews shortly after the playoffs.
"Not liking how me being positioned and me being used as a person, player and I just feel like things could have been done better, could've been handled better on Boston's end and on my end," Rozier answered when asked what went wrong last season. "I feel like things could've been a lot better, and it wasn't."
There is no straight line to the NBA. Rozier certainly experienced his share of detours, and he learned while watching others navigate their own. Like Isaiah Thomas, whom Terry played alongside in his first two seasons.
"I just respect him probably more than I respect just about anybody in this league, just seeing it," Rozier said.
Thomas would watch film, critiquing himself on the plane no matter his performance in the game.
"I might be joking around with some of the older guys, some of the veterans, we all playing around, but it wasn't a game to him," Rozier said. "And he let it be known that he wasn't messing around, because it shows in the game. First quarter, he probably just runs off 13 points, and it just like, Damn he's the smallest guy out there, but how is he doing it? I'm pretty sure it come from hard work and watching that film."
Though he doesn't state his outright disappointment about the Celtics' decision to trade Thomas after the 2016-17 season, the move left an impression on him that's impossible to ignore.
"You got to own your own space in this league because he did a lot for us," Rozier said. "He was a true warrior, a true Celtic. Six-hour surgeries on his tooth, sister died, playing the next day, scoring 53 points. Leaving his heart out there, crying on the court and all. Anything you can think of, him getting shots in his hip right before the game, taking away the pain.
"I done seen so much, and that's why I say, I don't speak on so much, I just take it in, and I try to move how I'm going to move. Help me with the way I go about things, but I won't let nobody make my own decisions for me. I won't let nobody. I'ma get everything I want out of this. Just with the opportunity because I done seen so much."
Rozier was playing pickup basketball in Miami a couple of days before the trade along with Celtics teammate Marcus Smart and Irving. "Who knew that Kyrie, two days later, would be on our team?" Rozier said. "It kind of hit me out of nowhere."
Rozier labeled himself a fan of Irving even before they became teammates. He recommended that a rookie Jaylen Brown enjoy watching Irving play whenever the Celtics played Cleveland.
"I'm going to sit right here and have the best seat in the house, and I'm going to watch him do his thing," Rozier said. "And I was a fan like that. But, of course, I still wanted the Celtics to win. But that's just me loving the game. And it was just like, Oh let me see what I could take from his game and see the type of person, see how wired he is.
"A lot of people don't know how great of a person he is. A lot of people think I hate Kyrie. And a lot of people think that me and Kyrie not cool, but we text, and I text him right before free agency. I sent him the eyes, and he sent the eyes right back, basically like you know what it's going to be."
The ink had yet to dry on her son's new contract, Gina Tucker said, before her phone started ringing.
"Everybody has lost their God-damn mind since his contract numbers have come out," she said. "I have people, family that I haven't known, friends, just everybody lost their mind. We're a very humble family. You'll never know meeting us, that I have a son in the NBA, because we are very humble and very good people. … He has this contract, and he hasn't made a dollar of it yet. Everybody wants a piece of it for some reason, and it's sad."
A panel of ESPN insiders selected Rozier's sign-and-trade as one of the offseason's most questionable moves. Doesn't make any sense, wrote one. Mind-boggling, wrote another. Another ESPN survey of 20 anonymous coaches, executives and scouts listed Rozier's acquisition as the third-worst of the summer, behind his other would-be suitors—the Knicks offseason in totality and Ricky Rubio's signing in Phoenix.
"I embrace it," Rozier said. "I'm going to work hard and be a competitor, and I know a lot of people are going to fall in love with me. I know a lot of people that got negativity to say about me, they be a lot of Celtics fans, and I got love for Celtics fans, love for Boston. I guess that things just didn't end right, and you know when things don't end right, everything else that happened before goes out the window. Like all the good times.
"I basically just got to make a name for myself again, and that's fine. That's how I want it. That's how it should be."
Rozier cited a Jay-Z line. "They love you. They hate you. They love you again," he said. "That's just how everything be."
An opportunity awaits Rozier. His cheering squad will be present too.
"I feel like he gonna be a superstar in a couple years," said his brother, B.J. "He'd be an All-Star with two years max."
"You giving it two?" Tre'Dasia asked.
Terry's already looking beyond that, to how this opportunity in Charlotte will shape what he gets in his next contract.
"I work my butt off cuz that's all I know," Rozier said. "I want to break the bank. I want the best deal I can possibly get after this, so it ain't about the money. I feel it's always going to be there. I feel like I'm a guy that deserves a lot, and I'm gonna get everything I deserve, but I've been in the league for four years and for me to actually get a starting job, I don't even know what to say. I'm more excited that I can really just show my talent every night. I can show my talent, show what I'm about. To me, that's what's going to bring anything I want. Me just having my opportunity to go out there and show the world who Terry Rozier really is."
(Editor's note: The details of Rozier's free agency timeline have been revised from an earlier version of this story.)
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.