Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
(David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images)
Alonzo Gee is seated on a bench after a vigorous scrimmage, heart pounding, body sweating, a smile creasing his face as talks about the love of his life.
Darlene, his mother.
Darlene Gee is the single parent who raised him on small wages in Riviera Beach, Fla. The nurturing soul who fed him and two older siblings while she fought rectal cancer. The devoted saint who took the kids to church while she underwent chemotherapy. The motivating force who lifted his spirits when he went undrafted out of the University of Alabama.
"She’s a beautiful person," Alonzo says.
Darlene is a 55-year-old cancer survivor, a nurse technician who is working to become an RN. Her youngest is a 23-year-old shooting guard, a promising scorer who hopes to impress on the Spurs’ Summer League team in Las Vegas.
"I’m a momma’s boy," Alonzo says, and he’s proud of it.
Momma taught Alonzo good manners and the virtue of hard work. She taught him to avoid trouble, eliminate distractions and focus on school and basketball.
"I can hear her right now," Alonzo says, pointing to a voice inside his head. "‘Stay focused. No matter what.’"
That admonition carried Alonzo through a difficult youth. So did the Bible verses momma made him memorize. One from Isaiah 54:17 is tattooed on his muscled, right shoulder: "No weapon formed against you shall prosper."
Beneath the verse is the tattooed face of a lion. The bold markings capture the life of a man who faced poverty and hunger with a momma who fought for her life.
Darlene began receiving radiation treatments in 1988, a year after Alonzo was born. Caring for three children through sickness and nausea wasn’t easy. Feeding them was challenging, too. Sometimes the kids got oatmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. On a good day, they might get grits and bread.
"We hardly had any food," Darlene says. "I wasn’t working and paying for rent and a car and caring for the kids was real hard."
Relatives helped when they could. The church provided some meals. The family got by on faith and charity until Darlene returned to work and began nursing school.
On the playground, young Alonzo grew and flashed his athleticism. He wanted to emulate his brother, Lonezo Hatten, who earned a football scholarship to a small school in Texas. "I was a wide receiver, defensive back, linebacker – I played wherever the coach wanted me to," Alonzo says.
Football didn’t last long. Alonzo didn’t care for the pounding, Darlene says. And Lonezo didn’t think the sport suited his younger brother. "You’’re getting tall," Lonezo said. "You’d be better off in basketball.”
Alonzo heeded the advice and became a star. He took care of school, focused on his game and
led Dwyer High to back-to-back state championships. Off the court, Darlene made certain he followed the Good Book, especially the admonition to honor and obey.
"I didn’t have any trouble with him smoking or doing drugs or any of those kind of problems," Darlene says. "He had his own ways but he was never disrespectful. He did just about everything I asked him to."
He didn’t stray at Alabama. Alonzo earned his degree in 3 1/2 years, averaged 12.7 points and dazzled at the rim. ESPN named his 360-degree dunk against Coppin State in 2006 the play of the night. The video has generated more than 15,000 views on YouTube.
On the night of the 2009 NBA draft, the Gees settled in, wondering which team would call Alonzo’s name. No one did, and the rejection pierced. “I felt his pain,” Darlene says. “It was devastating But I kept telling him, ‘You are all right. You are going somewhere. You are NBA material. If God be for us, who can be against us.’ I went on and on.”
One moment momma sounded like a preacher, the next like a prophet. Within months -- after her son became a Development League All-Star -- momma’s words came to pass. Alonzo signed a 10-day contract with the Wizards, averaged 7.4 points and dropped 19 on Charlotte in his first start. “I was so happy,” Darlene says, “I felt like I could jump off the top of a house.”
The elation has not worn off. Alonzo signed with the Spurs in March, and though he he hasn’t played in a game, Darlene feels good about the organization. So does Alonzo, and he let’s his momma know. “I call her every day,” he says.
Sometimes three or four times a day.
Sitting on the bench, Alonzo’s mind wanders, his imagination taking him beyond basketball. He considers how he might use an NBA contract to bless momma.
A new home would be nice, Alonzo says. A new car. He’d like to give momma security and joy, and when Darlene hears this, she’s touched. She says Alonzo should give to himself first. Why?
Because he’s already given her a gift. A fine young man she’s proud to call “my son.”