How Miles Bridges Became the Latest to Emerge from Flint’s NBA Hotbed

By Sam Perley
by Sam Perley

There’s a certain reputation that exists about the city of Flint and frankly, it’s one that’s fairly negative. Over the last few decades, Michigan’s seventh-largest city has encountered a number of issues related to economic downturns, increased crime rates and most recently, public water contamination that has stricken countless residents with illness.

What many don’t know about the city though is that it’s become a breeding ground for not only NBA players, but a number of other professional athletes across a variety of sports. If you ask any one of them, most would say it’s not a coincidence by any means, as the city’s rough exterior taught many to claw and scratch every inch in order to get out.

And one of the latest to harness some of that Flint magic is Charlotte Hornets rookie Miles Bridges. His hometown is never too far away (especially when it’s boldly tattooed across his entire upper back) and its lessons taught have molded him into a true embodiment of the city.

Both Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma and Denver Nuggets point guard Monté Morris grew up with Bridges in Flint. The pair (each an NBA sophomore and a bit older age-wise than the Charlotte rookie) remember Bridges getting his start in basketball at the local YMCA, a facility that would unknowingly at the time have a profound impact on his life.

“He just wanted to hoop,” recalled Morris. “We just started hoopin’ and then got cool. He was playing for our younger team and he just blew up.” Kuzma also added, “I’ve known him since he was like in sixth grade. We always used to be at the local YMCA all the time playing basketball. From there, we gained a relationship and friendship.”

“We always went up to the YMCA,” stated Bridges. “That was the only time we could get away from the streets and all that type of stuff. We didn’t want to get too involved in that. Any time we had a chance to go play basketball, we did. I always wanted to play with the older guys, so I was playing with Kyle, Monté. It was very competitive and that’s how I got better. If I didn’t go to those kinds of open gyms, I wouldn’t be here now.”

It didn’t take too long for the older guys and others to realize that Bridges was more than just a good player – he had the potential to be a great one.

“When he was 15, we kind of already knew,” stated Morris. “Those dunks he’s doing now, he was already doing when he was like 15 and 16 years old. We already knew he was going to be special for sure. As long as he stayed on the right path, we knew he’d be up on this level for sure.”

Flint had already produced many high-level collegiate and professional athletes (more on this later), but none more memorable or influential than the “Flintstones”, a famous foursome from the city that helped lead Michigan State men’s basketball to three consecutive Final Fours and the 2000 NCAA Division I Championship.

The origin of this phenomena began in 1995, when Flint natives Morris Peterson and Antonio Smith both joined the program (Peterson would redshirt his freshman season). The following year, Matten Cleaves became a Spartan and in 1997, so did Charlie Bell. Jason Richardson then enrolled in 1999, although he hailed from Saginaw, which is about 35 miles north of Flint.

Together, Michigan State made the Sweet 16 in 1998, the Final Four in 1999 and then knocked off Florida to win it all in 2000 (although Smith had already graduated). Bridges was just two years old when the Spartans were crowned the new kings of college basketball, but says the impact this team had on the city of Flint and Michigan State program still resonates loudly today.

“They were definitely a big influence on everybody in Flint, especially basketball players,” he said. “It just gave us hope that we could make it out because it’s so small. We were looking at other guys from like L.A., Detroit making it out. It just gave us hope that we could make it out of Flint.”

Peterson, Cleaves and Bell all grew up together, a three-way kinship that began in elementary school (not totally unlike the relationship shared by Bridges, Kuzma and Morris, although each attended a different collegiate program). The Flintstones were a resilient group forged by a difficult upbringing, which meant they were relatable. Through adversity, they never went down without a fight, much to their hometown’s approval.

The hometown Detroit Pistons took Cleaves 14th overall in the 2000 NBA Draft, while Peterson went 21st to the Toronto Raptors. After leading Michigan State to another Final Four the following season, Richardson landed in Golden State with the fifth overall selection in 2001, going on to play 13 years in the NBA. Bell went undrafted, although grinded his way to a decade-long professional career, which included seven seasons in the NBA. Smith never made it to the league, but did play overseas and in developmental associations for a handful of years.

The Flintstones were arguably the most popular college basketball story since Michigan’s Fab Five in the early 1990’s. More so though, they represented the typical, hard-working, put-your-nose-down-and-grind Flint resident. Simply put, they put the city on the map in a way it never had before.

Bridges left Flint after his freshman year of high school, enrolling at basketball powerhouse Huntington Prep School in West Virginia, which has also produced NBA players Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Thomas Bryant. When it came time to make a college choice though, the decision was pretty easy for Bridges.

“I really just wanted to come back to Michigan,” he said. “I wanted to come back my senior year of high school and go back to [Flint Southwestern High School where] I went to my freshman year, but I didn’t have a chance to do that. So, I wanted to go to Michigan State and have some kind of culture there.”

After winning the 2017 Big Ten Freshman of the Year and much deliberation, Bridges returned to school to refine his game a bit more, despite the fact he was a projected lottery pick at the time. He led the Spartans to a 30-5 record last year and a Big Ten Regular Season Conference Championship, picking up Second-Team All-American honors in the process.

Having now officially entered the league, Bridges has joined the growing list of Flint’s NBA fraternity that also includes Lakers center JaVale McGee, three-time Charlotte Hornets All-Star Glen Rice, Trent Tucker (played mostly with the Knicks from 1982-93) and Eddie Robinson (1999-2004).

“[We’re] a byproduct of that environment,” said Kuzma. “It’s always been a rich basketball tradition going back to Jason Richardson, Mateen Cleaves and all those Flintstones that played in the NBA. We grew up going to those guys’ camps and learning from them. From there, it was us playing basketball in a tough city. Everybody from that city always has a chip on their shoulder.”

It’s probably no surprise that a handful of successful boxers hail from the city as well, including former World Champion siblings Chris and Tracy Byrd. Also included are 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Andre Dirrell and the country’s first-ever back-to-back Olympic medalist Claressa Shields, who won gold in the Women’s middleweight division in 2012 and 2016.

On the gridiron, Baltimore cornerback Brandon Carr and New Orleans running back and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram Jr. are both natives. You can also throw in linebackers Carl Banks (a two-time Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants) and Jim Morrissey (a starter on the 1985 Chicago Bears title team), as well as Super Bowl XXXI winning-wide receiver Andre Rison and 14-year NFL lineman Jon Runyan.

Even in hockey, 2011 Stanley Cup winning Boston Bruins goaltender, Tim Thomas, is from Flint as is four-time champion, Ken Morrow, who played on the ‘Miracle on Ice’ 1980 U.S. Olympic team. And for good measure, add one-handed, 10-year MLB pitcher Jim Abbott to the list, who threw a no-hitter for the Yankees in 1993.

“It’s tough. It produces a lot of athletes because there’s not really that much to do,” said Bridges. “It’s either you go to the NBA or you stay at home and do a nine-to-five in a bad environment. A lot of people just choose to just go to the NFL or the NBA. That’s why people go so hard from Flint.”

Not surprisingly either, Bridges, Kuzma and Morris have all become the same sort of figures the Flintstones and others represented to them when they were growing up.

“It’s crazy. You’ve got Terry Armstrong going to Arizona. You’ve got Jalen Terry,” said Bridges, referencing the third-ranked point guard in the high school class of 2020 who is considering Michigan State amongst other schools. “There’s a lot of guys coming out of Flint now. Us making it to the NBA just makes little kids want to make it even more. They look at us.”

There’s no denying that Flint is a difficult place to grow up, but what gets overlooked is that it’s a tight-knit community with a lot of love and support spread amongst its citizens. Often times, it’s easy to focus on what problems a place has and use them to solely form opinions, while not taking into account any of the positives.

“It’s so small. Everybody knows everybody,” said Bridges. “There are bad areas, but they love basketball players. If you play basketball and you’re from Flint, you won’t really have any problems growing up there. I was treated good there. Kyle was treated good. They love Monté because he won the state championship. That’s the great thing about being a basketball player from Flint.”

Kuzma added, “It’s a really hard-knock place to grow up. Tough environment because of all the violence and for the new generation, the water crisis. Outside of that, it’s really a tight-knit community where people really care about each other. I feel like everybody knows each other because it’s so small. Everybody that’s from there has a high sense of pride being from there.”

If given the option, it’s highly unlikely that Bridges, Kuzma, Morris or any of the Flintstones would have chosen to grow up anywhere else other than Flint. The trials and tribulations mixed with the support the city provided is a major reason why they’ve each had the success that they’ve had so far in their respective basketball careers. With all that being said, it’s past time to stop seeing Flint for what it isn’t and more for what it is.