Path to the Draft: PJ Hairston's NBA D-League Detour (Part I)

A storybook basketball career gone awry led the North Carolina star to turn to the NBA D-League.

avid Price, like so many in Greensboro, N.C., went to Boss Hog’s Bar-B-Que for the soul food. Former NC State wide receiver William Turner’s family had been running the restaurant for about as long as Price had been coaching the Dudley High school basketball team two miles down English Street.

But while Price stayed for the ribs, collard greens and peach cobbler, Turner would inevitably start pitching Price on his ball-playing stepson, who’d been bussing Boss Hog’s tables and counting change since age six. Price listened politely, but had his doubts. “You know how people tell you that kind of stuff,” he recalls. “You’re reluctant.”

That is, until he laid eyes on the boy, who looked more like a man despite being in middle school. “I told my wife, ‘That looks like Marvin Williams to me,’” says Price.

This was how PJ Hairston’s road to professional basketball began, back when things went as smoothly as one of his now-signature three-point strokes. The game came naturally to Hairston, who Price watched play AAU the next two summers. Though coaches forced him to play down low, he owned an outside touch that belied his bulky frame.

To that point, Hairston had split his athletic talent between basketball and football. His mother, Wendy Mailey, pushed him from the gridiron to the court as an eighth grader. “It was like, ‘OK, basketball it is,’” recalls Hairston, who soon began making constant trips to the local YMCA to play pickup against the older kids.

He opened high school not only as the first freshman ever to start for Dudley’s varsity team, but also as a widely regarded top recruit in the Class of 2011. On a December trip to sunny Arizona, he showed why.

Five days after turning 15, Hairston scored 26 points in a 102-91 loss to Arizona commit Brandon Jennings’ Oak Hill team. The headline-grabbing showing improved his six-game scoring average to 22 points. It was then that Price understood that the sky was the limit.

Hairston was thinking even bigger.

“Hairston could grow into the type of player he compared himself to: Kevin Durant,” reported that day.

“Already standing 6 feet 5 inches tall with a mature 204-pound body, Hairston said he still has yet to hit his last growth spurt, one that could put him in the range of being a seven-footer with a lights-out jumper by the time he’s ready for college basketball.”

hose humble roots and that innate ability made Hairston’s personal troubles at the University of North Carolina hard to believe for those close to him; success had come so easily to the pride of Greensboro.

Perhaps, some could theorize, it was a classic case of a teenager thinking he was invincible.

“He’s not a bad kid -- not at all. He’s a good guy and he made a mistake,” says Brennan Wyatt, who used to drive Hairston home from their Dudley High practices. “Sometimes if [kids] are put up on this pedestal when they’re young, they don’t think they can get in trouble.”

Less than two months after his stellar sophomore season ended in the NCAA tournament -- just after he had begun to fulfill the expectations thrust upon him -- Hairston endured a troublesome offseason that led Tar Heels coach Roy Williams to suspend him indefinitely.

“He always had that fire in his eyes. He realized that this is just a setback, just a minor bump in the road to something even greater.”
- James Michael McAdoo
Was it a case of too much, too soon? Getting in with the wrong crowd? Price sees some of both, but like Wyatt, does not see Hairston as “a bad kid.”

“He’s a good kid,” echoes Price, who retired from Dudley in 2012. “In Greensboro, it’d be tough to find somebody that could say something bad about him.”

By the time he was 16, Hairston had grown into a local star. Price delighted in designing alley-oop plays for him. Wyatt marveled at his limitless range. Williams frequently made the 50-minute drive from Chapel Hill to watch. Fans viewed him as next up in a long line of North Carolina kids to light up the Dean Dome.

An epic scoring duel with friend and UNC commit Reggie Bullock (now with the Los Angeles Clippers) in the 2009 state playoffs all but sealed the deal. On August 2, UNC offered Hairston a scholarship. He called Williams back to accept the next evening.

“He said, 'Well do you want me to guess or do you want to just tell me?'” Hairston told of their conversation the night of his commitment. “He goes, ‘Are you going to Gonzaga?’ and I said ‘No.' Then he said, 'Are you going to Indiana?' and I said, 'No, but you are getting closer.' Then he said, 'Are you going to West Virginia?' and I said 'No.' Then he goes, 'Are you going to North Carolina State?' and I said, 'No, it’s right around the corner.' Then he said, 'Are you going to be a Tar Heel?' and I said, 'That’s what I want to do.'"

After an even more spectacular junior season -- 25.4 points per game, including a school-record 53 against Southern Durham -- Hairston’s mother decided he needed a new challenge. Thinking the headlines may get to his head, or he would fall too far in love with his jump shot, Mailey sent her son to boarding school: storied Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. 

Soon he was just another heralded athlete to have stepped foot on the beautiful campus -- Larry Brown, Torry Holt and David West are among his predecessors. “Build His Future,” reads the school’s tag line. “Academics, athletics, military and the spiritual areas of the Academy focus on a young man’s character in development of the Whole Person,” reads its website.

That development included 6 a.m. wakeups, organized marches to the cafeteria, regulations on cell phone use and mandatory study halls, according to then-Hargrave basketball coach Kevin Keatts.

In the regimented environment, Hairston still managed to stand out, becoming a McDonald’s All-American after posting 25.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. Keatts, now head coach at UNC Wilmington, recalls his 2010-11 star as a kid who always wore his uniform correctly and “never turned down a pickup game.”

“I loved him. He worked extremely hard and was a model citizen,” he says.

“Typically, when they leave, I can tell who I think could be pros. He was one of those guys.”

he preordained PJ Hairston story would have culminated in a Final Four berth and a lottery pick, not three months in Frisco, Texas. It was Mailey, more PJ’s best friend than his mom, who ensured that the alternative route was nearly as constructive. And it’s Mailey who’s the primary reason people continue to believe in him.

"She's a great lady, a no-nonsense lady," says Keatts. "She wouldn’t take any stuff from him and made sure he stayed the course."

The crossroads her son faced at 21 years old was nothing compared to what she’d endured.

Months before PJ was born, Mailey’s father killed her mother and took his own life at their Yanceyville, N.C., home, as detailed in a 2013 Inside Carolina Magazine story. Mailey, a 19-year-old student at North Carolina A&T at the time, began abusing drugs to cope; she stopped when she discovered she was pregnant, according to Inside Carolina.

“When I found out I was pregnant, I had to stop,” Mailey told the magazine. “That’s why I tell PJ he saved me.”

Their bond made the abrupt ending to Hairston’s college career that much more emotional. Hairston, his teammates and coaches spent the first two months of the school year believing he would rejoin a team that had conference title aspirations. An NCAA investigation brought up red flags.

“Probably the most difficult and saddest thing I've ever gone through as a head coach,” Williams told reporters after the school’s ensuing decision not to seek reinstatement for Hairston, which brought both coach and player to tears.

Still a part of the Tar Heels family, Hairston consulted teammates for advice. “I told him I felt like [the NBA D-League] was a much better opportunity now than maybe it was 3-4 years ago,” says Lakers guard Kendall Marshall, who teamed with Hairston in 2011-12 and began the 2013-14 season in the NBA D-League. “I feel like the D-League is used a lot more and is looked upon not so much as a demotion, but a stepping stone.”

“He always had that fire in his eyes,” says fellow 2014 Draft prospect James Michael McAdoo, who’s known Hairston since eighth grade. “He realized that this is just a setback, just a minor bump in the road to something even greater.”

It was ultimately a phone call from Mom that sold Hairston on the NBA D-League. He could stay on the Draft radar and take UNC online courses, just as Mailey had returned to school for a B.S. and Masters en route to a career at the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.

The stunning reversal of fortune has turned Hairston’s once-promising UNC career into a running “What If?” question. In an alternate universe, he’s an All-American with a storybook background. But, “Who knows?” says Price. “This might be the best thing that ever happened to him.”