All the work and the disappointment and getting out of Roseland on the South Side to Peoria, where there were cheers but nobody knew his name, and the passport stamps in Hungary and Germany and Greece and Turkey and the bus rides from Fort Wayne, Portland, Me., and then from Hoffman Estates, and then it seemed like maybe it was all over for Walt Lemon Jr., 26 years old and a one-game playoff elimination loss in New York this week. So now what?
"When we lost to Westchester in New York, I was pretty out of it because my season was over in the G-league," Lemon related. "I didn't know what was next. Honestly, in my first mind, I was like, ‘OK, I'm going home and will take a couple days off and get right back to work and try again for next year.'"
But it all felt so empty and uncertain.
Then Lemon's agent called and it felt like the end of ET when he got up and saved Elliott, when Forrest Gump met up with Jenny again, when all the characters held hands in Toy Story, when Rudy was going to play.
"I actually cried," Lemon admitted to reporters after his first practice with the Bulls Thursday. "My agent called me and told me that the Bulls were going to sign me. It's a dream come true for me to get a chance to play in the NBA again (a 10-day contract with New Orleans last year). For me, I don't really care if it's five games or two games. For it to be my hometown, that's special enough.
Walt Lemon Jr. is going to play for the Chicago Bulls.
He's going to the Show, the NBA, his team, expected to be in the lineup Saturday when the Bulls host the Toronto Raptors in the United Center. Right there where his idol, Derrick Rose, starred, where he dreamed against reality he'd be one day.
"Oh man, it's a dream come true," the 6-3 point guard said. "I grew up watching the Bulls all the time, guys like (Michael) Jordan, Derrick Rose, D-Wade. Me coming from here is a dream come true to play in front of my hometown and family and friends. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. Derrick Rose is my favorite player, still is to this day. My first time seeing him he was a junior at Simeon and it was actually at the United Center. After I seen him dunking on everybody just going crazy, I was like, ‘I want to be just like that guy.' Ever since then, I've been following him. I had a chance to see him up close a couple of times. I was watching how he moved, how he carried himself, how he went about everyday life and how he goes about the game. He continued to have confidence in himself.
"Where I came from and where I started (to get to the Bulls), anything is possible," said Lemon. "I know if I can at least have a chance to put on a Chicago Bulls jersey and play on the United Center floor, I think anybody can. Especially considering my circumstances of how I grew up and where I came from. It's definitely a blessing and an example of if you just continue to work hard, stay out of trouble and keep God first and do all the right things, it will work in your favor."
Well, being an elite ball handler, passer and penetrator helps.
Lemon was the star of the Windy City Bulls this season, helping the team turn around from a 5-12 start when they acquired him to its first playoff experience. Lemon averaged 20 points and was second in the league in assists. But even as lesser talented players began getting 10-day contracts with NBA teams, Lemon was overlooked and it seemed reaching a career impasse.
"I wouldn't be real if I didn't say it didn't bother me," Lemon admitted. "It bothered me more than once. A lot of guys were getting called up and I'm just itching and yearning for my turn, wondering when is it going to be my shot. Sometimes I'd get discouraged and didn't think it would happen for me. Other times, I'd be like, ‘Just keep working. Control what you can control. Follow God's plan.'"
Lemon's story is familiar to Chicago, if not Lemon himself.
He grew up in a tough South Side Roseland area, which is near Pullman and the split of interstates I-94 and I-57. He went to Julian High School, but was not highly recruited as a small scorer, though an explosive jumper. He went to Bradley, where he was an honor student, earned a degree in psychology, was a volunteer at hospice and worked with children who'd lost parents or relatives to disease like he had. He was the kind of kid always trying to give back.
And then they made him a point guard, a position he hadn't played in high school.
"My whole life it was just, ‘Put the ball in the basket,'" Lemon said. "I was a scorer. For me to play point guard, my first time my sophomore year at Bradley, it was tough. It was bad. I'm not going to lie. I had a lot of turnovers. I didn't know how to distinguish being a scorer and getting guys going. So that definitely took a lot of time. I'm grateful my coach put me in position to play point because I'm not 6-6, 6-7. I had to work for the position that I'm going to be playing."
But playing four years at a mid-major and not being drafted (in 2014) is usually the unspoken message to try another profession. And Lemon knew hard times. His father died of cancer when he was 15 and he faced the rigors of South Side Chicago.
"Chicago is a cutthroat city. It's tough to live here," Lemon acknowledged. "If you don't do the right things, it's tough to get out. It's easy to get sucked into violence and drugs. Just everyday life with me growing up in a bad neighborhood where I lost my father at 15…,that was a tough time for me. I had to grow up really fast. Losing my father and growing up in a tough city like Chicago, I can't express enough how hard that was.
"(The) journey is definitely humbling," Lemon added. "It made me be more hungry and to want more. I went to a small school in Bradley. I didn't get drafted. I didn't expect to. When I went overseas, it was definitely a piece of humble pie. Over there, it's like a whole other world. It made me appreciate what I do have. That was my first time out of the country. I was battling a lot of stuff besides basketball. I was away from family, the time difference, the food. No one really spoke English."
Lemon was signed by the Bulls for the rest of the season, but don't ask him anything else.
"To be honest, I'm not thinking about that right now," he said, still practically bursting. "You guys don't understand. Just being at a practice with these guys and coach hollering at me is special enough for me to know I'm a part of an NBA team even if it is for a couple games."
Lemon, he had a problem. Now he's landing at home despite the doubts and odds.