Prep star Jennings a unique positive out of summer hoops

By Gary Parrish
CBSSports.com Senior Writer

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Summer basketball has ruined the American basketball player.

That's the common theory among talking heads, and I can't say I totally disagree. The extensive travel limits practice to almost nothing, statistics are deemed more important than wins and runners for agents lurk from one event to the next. No doubt, the summer circuit is a breeding ground for bad habits and folks with bad intentions. Anybody who claims otherwise is lying. So if you want to curse it all, that's fine and reasonable.

But first let me tell you the story of Milton Jennings.

It's a story that shows the other side of things.

"In a way summer basketball saved my life," Jennings said. "It really did."

Unless you are a recruiting enthusiast or Clemson fan you've probably never heard of Jennings. Likewise, you probably have no idea how close you were to never hearing about him at all because you have no idea how close he was to never amounting to anything, on or off the court.

"I had a terrible childhood," Jennings said over dinner the other night, and the bluntness was striking. We were tearing through an order of wings at and the conversation turned from basketball to the Olympics, from my life to his.

"I didn't have any friends until I was like 12 years old," Jennings said, and I couldn't help but press the issue. It's not everyday that an elite basketball prospect -- Jennings is committed to Clemson and rated by Rivals.com as the ninth-best player in the Class of 2009 -- tells you everything hasn't always been quite as promising. So I was intrigued by the dialogue and started talking to anybody I could about Jennings to find out more.

Here's what I learned: Jennings has a black father and white mother who was 16 when she gave birth. That's a difficult place to start, especially in the South where bi-racial couples aren't always embraced. So Jennings had the odds stacked against him from the moment he entered this world, which is why nobody was surprised when he failed third grade before limping through fourth, fifth and sixth.

School was hard.

Nothing came easy.

But the kid did get one break in life: Good genes.

Jennings was always a little taller than the other kids, making basketball an obvious hobby. He played in a church league yet wasn't all that skilled or good. But when Rufus McDonald decided to start an AAU team for his youngest son, Tyler, he remembered the tall kid he had seen in that church league and thought it might be worth reaching out to see if he was interested in playing.

Naturally, Jennings jumped at the opportunity.

What else did he have going on?

"He was sort of uncoordinated at first," McDonald said. "But we worked every weekend. He'd get there on Friday and go home on Sunday."

Things continued like this for months, and because the importance of education was always stressed in the McDonald home -- Rufus' wife is a teacher; his oldest son is in law school at Florida A&M -- the conversation would often turn to class work. Jennings was guarded at first, mostly insisted things were OK. But around Christmas during his seventh-grade year he acknowledged he was struggling. McDonald went to Colleton County Middle School to see the counselor.

"She brought two of his teachers in with us and we talked," McDonald said. "They told me Milt was on target to fail for the second time. He was going to fail. But I begged his guidance counselor and those two teachers to not give up on him. I told them to send me e-mails every Friday and that we'd go over everything he needed to go over, and they did everything they promised they'd do.

"That guidance counselor and those two teachers took a personal stake in Milt's life," McDonald said. "They changed his life."

Jennings made it through seventh grade. The following year he enrolled at Pinewood Prep.

The change of environment changed everything for him.

"It was the best thing of my life," Jennings said between games at the Nike Global Challenge. "I hated being a bad person, but it was almost forced upon me (in grade school). It wasn't a good area and if there were 30 kids around, 28 or 29 of them were bad kids. So you couldn't have good intentions.

"Even if you knew something was wrong you'd still do it most of the time because if you did the right thing people would look at you funny. It was easier to do wrong. But when I got out of there I got to see what life is really about, and it's been great for me. It opened up the world and I got to meet and interact with new people. Now it's like 28 or 29 of the people I'm surrounded by are good people and that has helped me be a good person."

Fast forward to today, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who doesn't describe Jennings as a good person. Not only is he a likely McDonald's All-American, he's won academic awards at Pinewood Prep, his core GPA is better than a 3.0 and he qualified for college so long ago that Stanford was heavily involved in his recruitment before Trent Johnson moved to LSU.

This year, Jennings is taking an AP Biology class. In the spirit of not falling behind, he has requested advanced work because he will miss the beginning of school while traveling with a group of elite prospects to Brazil this week for a Nike-sponsored series of exhibitions.

"Academically, he has just thrived," McDonald said. "I'm so proud of him."

On the court, the development has been similar.

Jennings has gone from an "uncoordinated" tall kid to a sharp-shooting inside/outside threat destined to do great things at Clemson, and the best part is that he might be the most humble and engaging "star" I've ever met on the summer circuit.

All he wanted to do all weekend was talk and listen and he expressed disbelief at how some fellow Class of 2009 standouts (read: DeMarcus Cousins) reject instruction because they think they're already fast-tracked for the NBA.

"People don't even want to talk to the directors or coaches at these events, but I run up to them like a little kid," Jennings said. "I don't know everything. I want to learn. That's why when I was at (the) LeBron (James Skills Academy) I worked with (Duke graduate and TV analyst) Jay Bilas over and over again. There were other guys who wouldn't even listen to him. But I was like, 'That's Jay Bilas! He knows what he's talking about.' So I listened and asked questions and tried to learn as much as I could."

I contacted Bilas to see if he remembered Jennings this way, or even at all.

His response?

"I not only remember him, he impressed me as much as any kid I worked with all summer," Bilas said. "He is smart, outgoing, energetic and really eager to learn and to be a really good player. Milton is willing to push his limits and step out of his comfort zone, and he will get better and better. ... Clemson got a great prospect and a great kid."

So anyway, that's the story of Milton Jennings.

Pretty neat, huh?

From failing third grade to qualifying for Stanford.

From small-town South Carolina to touring South America.

It's been quite a ride, and none of it would've been possible without the AAU coach who stepped in and helped make that guidance counselor and those two seventh-grade teachers pay special attention.

That's where the turnaround began for Jennings. So if you want to continue thinking summer basketball has ruined the American basketball player, like I said before, that's fine and reasonable. But it's not a stretch to suggest it has also saved at least one, and that one will be in Brazil the rest of the week further expanding his horizons a long way from his desolate beginnings.