Before Michael Jordan was making Bryon Russell fall with a killer crossover and draining the go ahead jumper to win his sixth NBA title with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan was a skinny, determined athlete dominating the competition at Laney High (Wilmington, N.C.).
Before Adrian Peterson was trucking opposing defenses and racking up 2,097 yards in a single season for the Minnesota Vikings he was shining bright under the Friday night lights at Palestine High (Palestine, Texas), averaging 12 yards a carry and scoring 32 touchdowns.
Before any athlete can become legendary they have to lay their foundation in the high school ranks.
Each week I’ll chat with a high-profile athlete’s former coach, mentor, family member, etc., and reminisce about their high school playing days; everything from the greatest moment to the wackiest story.
This week I caught up with Atlanta Braves left fielder Justin Upton’s high school coach at Great Bridge (Chesapeake, Va.) Wiley Lee, now an assistant baseball coach at Norfolk State.
Jason Jordan: What’s your best memory of Justin on the field?
Wiley Lee: I would have to say it was during the playoffs; a tight game against Robinson, who were the defending state champions at the time. Justin hit a ball opposite field, which was about 390 feet and it ricocheted off the wall. That helped us win the first baseball championship in the city of Chesapeake. We’ve had some great players that have come through this city, but Justin was the first one to seal his name on that state championship. That was his sophomore year too!
JJ: What’s your best memory of Justin off the field?
WL: It was the way he included all the guys. I remember during Draft day in 2005 he wore his high school jersey and only allowed his teammates to sit in the background. The day was all about him being the No. 1 pick, but he just wanted to hang out with his teammates and make them a part of it. It could’ve been the 18th guy on the roster, but Justin treated all of them like brothers. He’s just that kind of guy. He was in a high school of about 2,400 students and everyone wanted a piece of him, girls yelling for him every game and guys wanting autographs and you’d find him hanging out with a special needs kid or someone who wasn’t as well known. He’s really a great guy.
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JJ: Did you always know he’d be a pro?
WL: Yeah it was easy to see it in Justin because he had this rare competitive edge in him. You only had to pull him back, but you never had to make him go. If there was some top pitcher in the state or in the Tidewater area, he was more than willing to take a shot at that guy on the mound. He was very, very competitive.
JJ: What was the craziest interaction he had with a fan back then?
WL: His car was parked in deep left field off to the side one day and when he was leaving practice he had thongs all over his car from girls. That was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen fans do in my life. From then on we had him park his car in a more secure area!
JJ: How good can Justin be?
WL: Well, Justin is never gonna back down from competing in the 162-game process that’s called a season; that gives him an opportunity to be really special. I think over the next five years you’ll start to see how special he is even more. Thus far he’s done some really special things with his 100th homerun and his 500th RBI which puts him in an elite group. At some point he’ll have to continue to reinvent himself as guys start trying to get him out more and more. Thus far, he’s had a really good start to his career and he’ll have to be that guy that makes the adjustment at the midpoint of his career to stay fresh and on top and he’s absolutely capable of that.
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