Late Sister Inspired Speights to Keep Fighting and Stay Motivated

Playing in Orlando has allowed Speights to be near family
by John Denton

ORLANDO – The basketball gods sometimes have a mysterious way of working, but Marreese Speights is more thankful than ever that they led him, at long last in this 10th NBA season, to the Orlando Magic.

As it turns out, being back in his native Central Florida allowed the 30-year-old Speights to be around to support his tight-knit family during a time of terrible tragedy.

Speights’ oldest sister, LaShonda Glenn, lapsed into a coma last November and ultimately died on Feb. 11. Glenn, 39, had been in a wheelchair since was 14 years old following an accidental injury, but she never lost her cheery disposition, zest for life or the delight she took in watching Speights play basketball.

Because he signed a free-agent contract with the Magic last July, Speights was close enough to his St. Petersburg roots to visit LaShonda in the hospital all throughout her final months, weeks and days of being alive. Also, he was there to help offer support to his mother Regina Glenn-Speights and siblings Wilbur Jr. and Wilena Speights during LaShonda’s funeral on Feb. 24.

The Magic (22-51) have suffered through a frustrating and forgettable season and Speights has fallen out of the rotation of late as Orlando has turned its focus toward playing more of its young players. However, Speights couldn’t be happier about playing for the team he grew up rooting for because it allowed him to be there for LaShonda and the family at their greatest time of need.

``I always say that things happen for a reason with God. God does everything in our lives for a reason. For me to be here in Orlando this year, and this sort of stuff happen, I was able to be there for my family,’’ said Speights, who has played for Philadelphia, Memphis, Cleveland, Golden State, the Los Angeles Clippers and Orlando in his well-travelled pro career. ``If I was somewhere else, playing for a different team, I probably would have never been able to be there. For me to be this close and be able to be there to support my mom and what she was going through was so important. That was her first-born child and it was difficult her and for all of us.

``And I was able to be there to help keep my family together during a rough time,’’ Speights said. ``It was a blessing to be able to be there, but you don’t ever want anything like that to happen. At the same time, (LaShonda) is in a much better place now.’’

`I LOOKED AT HER AS AN ANGEL’

When a family member took the microphone at New Faith Free Methodist Church and told one particular story during LaShonda’s funeral, Speights had both a big, toothy smile on his face and tears in his eyes. And when he closed his eyes, causing those tears to stream down his cheeks, Speights could almost hear LaShonda’s screams from the concourse level at the Amway Center or at the University of Florida a decade ago when she used to attend his basketball games.

``She came to a lot of games. She’d always come to all of my games when I was back in Orlando,’’ Speights recalled. ``She’d always talk to my grandmother about basketball and to me about shooting more. A lady at the funeral told a story about her watching me play ball and always yelling, `Marreese, shoot the ball!’’’

Recounting that story brought another smile to Speights’ face, which was appropriate because LaShonda was usually always smiling herself despite her difficult situation. A teenager at the time, LaShonda nearly lost her life when she and a friend were playing with a gun that they found near their St. Petersburg home and it discharged, hitting LaShonda near one of her eyes.

As LaShonda lay motionless in a coma for months, a 4-year-old Speights was devastated because of the high regard he held his oldest sister in. To this day, he still remembers the horror of seeing one of the people he looked up to the most being paralyzed and in peril.

``She was always a role model to me and someone I looked up to,’’ Speights admitted recently. ``She got a second chance at life, so I almost looked at her as an angel. She was so sweet and was never mad about anything and always smiling.’’

LaShonda lived the rest of her life with a bullet lodged in her brain and confined to a wheelchair, but it never dampened her spirits. In her own sort of way, LaShonda was able to motivate Speights while he was winning a national championship at the University of Florida and later a NBA championship while playing for the Golden State Warriors.

``After the accident, she wasn’t ever able to walk again. For me, seeing that, it motivated me while growing up,’’ Speights recalled. ``When I’d see her and what she was going through (in the wheelchair), it wasn’t like I could go out there and be lazy with basketball and it always made me work harder. So, she was always kind of like my role model.

``She was fighting her whole life, really, and it made me want to be a fighter, too,’’ said Speights, who considers himself somewhat of a survivor for sticking the NBA for 10 seasons. ``You never really know what people are going through. She was a pretty girl, but it was a freak accident one day that changed her life.’’

`A REALLY GOOD CULTURE FIT FOR US’

Speights had a strong start to his first season with the Magic, giving the team some instant offense off the bench. On Nov. 30, with the Magic struggling in New Orleans and looking at an almost-certain second loss in a row, Speights torched opposing center DeMarcus Cousins for 18 points and six 3-pointers – 16 of those points and five of the threes coming in the fourth quarter – to lead Orlando to a stirring come-from-behind victory.

``He really knows how to play the game, he comes in every day ready to work and he doesn’t complain about minutes or anything like that,’’ Magic point guard D.J. Augustin said. ``He’s always cheering guys on and he’s always ready to play. Mo is a great shooter and he’s always ready to shoot and score. He’s just been a great asset to our team.’’

Months later, Speights was there again for the Magic when starting center Nikola Vucevic went down with a hand injury, scoring 16 points, grabbing five rebounds and drilling two 3-pointers in a defeat of Detroit. And on Jan. 30 and 31, Speights again showed off his scoring and shooting prowess with 17- and 21-point performances as he made a combined seven 3-pointers.

That second game, a 127-105 defeat of the Lakers, came a night after the Magic suffered a heartbreaking loss in Houston. Also, it came on the heels of a long road trip, giving the Magic plenty of excuses to lose. Speights would have none of it, addressing the team prior to the game and talking about playing with professionalism and pride.

Speights’ off-the-charts basketball IQ and his ability to mentor younger players on the Magic has been a welcomed addition to the team, head coach Frank Vogel said.

``He’s got a great IQ and, quite frankly, he’s backed it up with his play,’’ Vogel said of Speights, who has averaged 7.8 points and 2.6 rebounds a game while making 37 percent of his 3-pointers in 12.9 minutes a night over 50 games. ``You have a lot of guys at the end of their careers who can’t play anymore, and they can say all the right things – really, it’s no different than if it’s coming from a coach or a front-office member – but when you can step on the court and still back it up, your word means a lot. He’s led with his voice and his play and he’s been a really good culture fit for us.’’

`ALL THIS IS FOR YOU’

Incredibly, Speights played most of the season knowing that his sister likely wouldn’t live much longer. And he did it without anyone around him knowing much about what was going on in his life because of his introverted ways. Augustin, one of Speights’ closest friends on the team, didn’t know about the dire family situation until Vogel addressed the team on Feb. 11 and telling the players about Speights’ sister passing away.

``For me, I don’t really show emotion. It happened in November, but nobody really knew until a week or two before she passed,’’ Speights said of dealing with the tragedy on his own terms. ``I’m the type of person who keeps a lot of stuff to myself because I understand that everybody is going through their own things. But I have definitely had her on my mind all the time. She’s motivated me to play for her.’’

Speights still remembers LaShonda’s happiness of this past summer when she would visit his St. Petersburg-based restaurant, ``Rush Hour Chicken and Waffles,’’ every Tuesday and when the family was all together at his Clearwater house in September while riding out Hurricane Irma as it came ashore in Florida.

The Magic were en route to Chicago on Feb. 11 when Speights learned of his sister’s passing and he somehow summoned the strength to play the night after her death, scoring 10 points and hitting two 3-pointers. Two nights later, and after spending time with his grieving family in St. Petersburg, Speights scored 16 points against the Charlotte Hornets. Following each of the four 3-pointers he drilled, he pointed to the sky as a way to honor his fallen sister who always wanted him to shoot the ball more.

``I always pray for her before games, and when I’m just sitting around chilling, I talk to her and I know she can hear me,’’ Speights said candidly. ``Or in games, I’ll tell her, `All this is for you.’’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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