This standout point guard chose right direction
Lue took brave stand as freshman at Nebraska


by Truman Reed / special to Bucks.com

Tyronn Lue has two NBA Championship rings and a history of being a standout person as well as basketball player. (NBAE / Getty Images)
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January 12, 2009

The word “standout” is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary as one that is prominent or conspicuous especially because of excellence. When used in a sports context, it is usually applied to an athlete whose exemplary actions put him in a class by himself.

Basketball coaches look for a number of attributes in a point guard, but one of the foremost qualities found in most prototypical ones is the ability to make good decisions, particularly when confronted with difficult situations.

There are about 450 players on National Basketball Association rosters right now, but you would be hard-pressed to find one who has personified the characteristics of a standout or made a better decision in the face of adversity than Tyronn Lue of the Milwaukee Bucks.

The 31-year old Lue, who was signed by the Bucks as a free agent last July 17, is in his 11th NBA season, which ties him with Damon Jones for the longest league tenure on the Milwaukee roster.

He also owns two NBA championship rings – more than anyone else on the ballclub.

But three years before Lue ever played a second of NBA basketball, his hoops career reached a pivotal crossroads – one that required him to show the courage to drive against traffic in order to make the right turn.

The stage of Lue’s story was set a few years earlier.

The first native of Mexico to play in the NBA was Horacio Llamas, who saw action in 20 games for the Phoenix Suns in 1996. Llamas was born in El Rosario, Mexico, in 1973.

The second native of Mexico to reach the Association would be Lue. He was born in Mexico, Missouri, in 1977 and went on to become a basketball star at Raytown (Mo.) High School.

Lue made his way onto the radar of basketball recruiters from near and far. He piqued the interest of such national powers as Missouri, Kansas State, Arkansas, Memphis, Kansas (before the Jayhawks landed local star Ryan Robertson) and Oklahoma (then coached by current Bucks assistant coach Kelvin Sampson).

"A lot of schools were recruiting me,” Lue said. “But I didn't pass my ACT test the first time, so a lot of schools stopped recruiting me.

“But Nebraska said it would take me as a Prop 48. I felt a lot of pressure on that first test because we had a tournament at another school on a Friday and the test was like at 8 o'clock on Saturday morning. Once we got back home, it was really late. I said, 'I'll pass it the second time.' They said, 'If you don't we'll take you as a Prop 48.'

“The second time I took the test, I passed. A lot of the other schools tried to start recruiting me again. But I stuck with Nebraska, because they stuck with me."

Lue, who scored a school-record 658 points in his senior year at Raytown, remember his recruiting visit to Nebraska’s Lincoln campus well. It pretty much blew him away.

"We went to a football game,” he said. “It was unbelievable. The football team had Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips and those guys back then. They were No. 1 in the country, and they won it that year. They won it in '94 and '95.

“I went to Nebraska, they treated me well, the guys were cool, so I didn't take another visit. That's where I ended up going."

Nebraska has lost prospective basketball recruits over the years because they realized football has always been No. 1 there, and they weren’t willing to take a back seat.

When Lue arrived on campus to begin his college career, he realized there was a rivalry between the football and basketball players.

"There was when we got there,” he said. “But the football team kind of took a liking with the guys who came in with me. I heard that they never really even talked to the basketball players before we got there.

“But it was a whole different ballgame after we got there. They respected us. Vincent Hamilton (one of Lue’s Cornhuskers teammates) ended up being a roommate with one of the football players, Octavius McFarland. So it changed a lot after we got there."

Lue discovered, too, the obsession that Nebraskans had for their Cornhuskers in a state without an NBA, NFL or MLB team.

"The fans get behind you, especially when you win,” he said. “We started to win and had an exciting team."

Lue’s presence helped turn around the Cornhuskers’ fortunes. Coach Danny Nee put an enormous amount of responsibility on his shoulders when he installed him as a freshman starter, and Lue was determined to reward his coach’s faith in him.

“I was fortunate that I got a chance to go to Nebraska and play the way I was capable of playing,” Lue said. “Coach Nee turned the reins over to me as soon as I got there, so it was a big plus being able to come in as a freshman and start on a team that was mostly seniors.

"There was a senior guy who had started at point guard in his sophomore and junior years, and I came in as a freshman and took his spot when he was a senior. So things really worked out for me."

 

Things began working out for Nebraska’s team, too. The Cornhuskers were doing extremely well at one point before encountering some turbulence in February of 1996. And it rocked the team to extremes.

Players became disenchanted over playing time, their roles on the team, would-be promises that they claimed weren’t kept and other matters. Their dissension boiled over.

“The team tried to boycott the coach, Coach Nee,” Lue recalled. “I was the only one who showed up for practice for three days.

“Our athletic director said that if the other guys didn't show up, he'd have myself and the guys from the football team finish the season out.”

When issued that ultimatum, the boycotters returned, and the Cornhuskers went on a late-season roll that resulted in them winning the National Invitation Tournament at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

“We wound up winning like seven games in a row,” Lue said.

Nee later said the walkout was not a low point of the season, considering what happened after it. He considered it a story of triumph over adversity.

He should consider himself fortunate that he had a freshman point guard that was willing to stand up for what he believed was right, and to reward the loyalty that his coach had once shown him by recruiting him.

Lue considers his Nebraska years a positive experience.

"It was a great experience, playing with Jaron Boone, Mikki Moore, Bernard Garner, who was junior-college player of the year; and Vincent Hamilton, who had played at Oak Hill Academy with Ron Mercer,” he said. “My freshman year, I think we underachieved. My sophomore year was OK. Then in my junior year, we went to the NCAA tournament and played Arkansas."

Among Lue’s most vivid memories of his college years were those annual clashes with Big 12 Conference rival Missouri, his home-state school.

"Yeah, especially after I went to Nebraska, because, you know, I got away,” he said.

The rivalry only intensified the following year when a player with an unforgettable name joined the Nebraska program.

“In my sophomore year, Cookie Belcher came, and he was from Mexico (the one in Missouri), also,” Lue said. “So when he went to Nebraska, it became a big rivalry. We caught a lot of flak when we played at Missouri."

 

Lue did just fine, though.

Following up a successful freshman campaign in which he averaged 8.5 points and 4.1 assists per game, he bumped his numbers considerably to 18.8 ppg and 4.3 apg as a sophomore. Then as a junior, he pushed them even higher, to 21.2 ppg, 4.8 apg and even 4.3 rebounds per game.

Lue finished his Nebraska career ranked third on the Cornhuskers’ career list in assists (432), fourth in 3-pointers made (145) and attempted (407), fifth in steals (154) and seventh in points scored (1,577). He tied Dave Hoppen for the most games with 30 or more points (seven).

Tyronn was selected by Denver in the first round of the 1998 NBA Draft with the 23rd overall pick. He won championship rings with the Lakers in 2000 and 2001, his second and third professional seasons.

And Lue is still reaping the rewards, some 13 years after making his memorable turn. He has played over 500 NBA games, 20 playoff games, scored nearly 5,000 points and handed out close to 1,700 assists.

Maybe when his playing days are over, the standout point guard will be able to steer someone else in the right direction.

Maybe he already has.