By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Over the first nine games of his college career, Lester Hudson scored 35 points against the nation's third-ranked team, recorded the first quadruple-double in Division I men's basketball history and amassed a higher scoring average than all but two players in the country.
During a season in which several high-profile freshmen have excelled, none has accumulated better statistics than Hudson, an obscure junior at the University of Tennessee-Martin whose long journey to Division I college basketball stands almost without peer.
"It is one of those stories you could do a movie about," said his former high school coach, Andre Applewhite.
Instead of being nationally ranked like many teenage recruits, Hudson was discovered during a gym class and only played one season of high school basketball. Instead of being flown around the country during the summer-league basketball circuit, the 6-foot-3 Hudson never played AAU basketball and flew for the first time two weeks ago.
Academic problems long delayed the Division I debut of Hudson, who, at 23, is five months older than LeBron James. If academics were never an issue, Jason James, an assistant at Tennessee-Martin, said Hudson would likely be at a high-profile school "helping someone get to the NCAA tournament, maybe get to the Final Four."
That Hudson is enrolled at any Division I school is largely because a few influential figures in his life never gave up on him. He spent some of his childhood in what his father, Lester Hudson Jr., called "project-type apartments" in Memphis, with gangs and drugs consuming friends on street corners. Hudson remained protected with the help of family, mentors and basketball. His second home became community centers and gymnasiums, where he developed a reputation as "roughneck tough" playing against current and former University of Memphis players. But Hudson neglected school, repeated the ninth grade, and his basketball prowess became little more than rumor.
By Hudson's junior year of high school, fellow students were bombarding Central High basketball coach Applewhite with stories of his exploits. Applewhite was leery but eventually decided to check out Hudson in a gym class, during which Hudson dominated a game that featured several players from the high school team.
"He was just toying with them," Applewhite said. "You know how you play with your little brother?"
Afterward, Applewhite pulled Hudson aside and said, "If I give you an opportunity to play, would you come to school every day?" Hudson obliged and completed what would turn out to be his only year of high school basketball.
Academic problems reemerged the following year after he was not allowed to play because his eligibility had elapsed. Instead of trying to get Hudson on an AAU team, Applewhite faced a bigger challenge: keeping him in school.
Hudson recalled often skipping school or going to school to merely hang out in gym class all day. Raymon Terry, who has known Hudson for 15 years, said Hudson sometimes pretended to go to the bus stop only to turn around and head home.
Hudson said he nearly dropped out. James, the Tennessee-Martin assistant who has known Hudson for six years, said: "He was done, man, and Coach Applewhite would not let him do it."
Applewhite pestered Hudson with phone calls; he picked him up for school when needed. Without that support, Hudson said, "I would be on the streets -- no career, no hope, nothing. I thought about quitting and just playing in the neighborhood and being known as a neighborhood legend. They [family and coaches] always believed in me, but I had to get in school."
Applewhite helped place Hudson at Southwest Tennessee Community College, where Applewhite had played two decades earlier. It also was the only school that showed interest in Hudson, who did not earn his GED until early in his first semester at Southwest.
Academics remained an issue for Hudson, who said he lacked both the motivation and ability to study. Verties Sails, the Southwest head coach, said: "Look, we had to almost break a hammer over his head to get him to sit down and understand" he had to study. "Lester is a product of the streets, let's face it."
Hudson played two seasons at Southwest, averaging 18 points his second year and attracting some interest from Colorado and others. But schools backed off once they learned Hudson would have to sit a year at a Division I school because he did not graduate from Southwest. Coaches said he left with a 2.5 grade-point average but lacked the requisite core classes.
Largely because of his relationship with James, Hudson landed at Tennessee-Martin, an Ohio Valley Conference school less than three hours north of Memphis that Hudson had never even visited. While sitting out last season, Hudson counted the days until his debut against Memphis, where he always wanted to play. Then-No. 3 Memphis won, 102-71, but Hudson scored 35 points in 29 minutes. Two games later, Hudson had 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals against Central Baptist College. He is averaging 26.4 points per game, third best in the nation.
Hudson holds great appreciation for his current and former coaches who, he believes, rescued him from the streets. Bret Campbell, the Tennessee-Martin coach, said: "You wonder how many kids don't get the opportunity, or don't take advantage of opportunity, and how many Lester Hudsons are on the street."
Hudson dreams of a professional career, if not in the NBA then overseas. He also hopes for something that was improbable a few years ago: a college degree. And he is determined to make the most of a long-awaited chance to make a lasting impression on a national stage.
"I try my best not to mess up in any class," Hudson said. "I never want to go without basketball any more."