At age 35, Reggie Evans has carried multiple names.
There’s “Evans,” the moniker emblazoned on the jersey of an NBA rebounding machine who spent 13 seasons with seven teams, posting some of the best rebounding seasons ever. That same name glistens on a placard along with the key to the city of Pensacola, Fla., which the mayor awarded him for the time and help he has given to his childhood home.
But as Evans waits in perhaps futile hope of seeing the name of an NBA general manager pop up on his caller ID, giving him one more shot to extend his career, he has had time to reflect on his biggest, and perhaps most unlikely, rebound: from a time when he was known as “Slim” and he peddled crack cocaine to support his family as his mother struggled to meet monthly bills.
“As soon as my mama would get a check, she had enough to pay the rent, enough to pay the light bill, and whatever she had left over, she had to use a lot of that to catch community transportation to get to work and back,” Evans remembered. “So, I got with my cousin, and I just started buying dope.”
Evans grew up with three siblings in Pensacola housing projects, where his daily existence could have been lifted out of urban crime cliches.
“When I was growing up poor, that was just a way of life,” Evans remembered. “That was normal. We was just numb to it. We were just trying to make ends meet.”
Evans would purchase crack from a supplier in town. If he bought it for $100, he would try to “double-up” and sell it for $200.
“I’d tell them my name was Slim, just in case someone asked, they’d say, ‘That kid Slim sold it.’ Nobody would know who Slim is,” explained Evans.
Pensacola police sergeant Marvin Miller, who works in the department’s narcotics unit, calls the city’s drug scene today “out of control,” and yet still improved from the days of Evans’s youth. Evans’ career as a dealer was relatively short, curtailed when he saw his cousin arrested twice within a week for attempts to sell drugs.
“I quit then. I cold-turkey quit,” Evans said. “I felt like that was a sign for me to quit.”
Evans moved on from his past in Pensacola. A prized basketball prospect during high school, he ended up attending Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. He transferred to Iowa for his final two collegiate years before signing with the Seattle Sonics as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2002-03 season.
None of those places is close to Pensacola. Evans knew he had to get away in order to make it on his own.
“I would’ve been selling dope,” Evans hypothesized about his fate if he had stayed closer to home. “I probably wouldn’t be in the position where I am now. I would’ve been weak-minded. I would’ve been doing stuff; I pretty much would’ve been a follower.”
Still, rather than forget his roots, Evans used his newfound legitimate income to deepen them. During each NBA offseason, he returned home, this time as both hero and healer. Slim was long gone, but Reggie Evans never forgot where he came from. Why return to the site of so much early struggle and pain?
“I enjoyed that time, to be honest with you,” Evans said of his childhood. “I had fun. I cherished that time. Now that I’m in a position to [help], I go back. I do a lot of stuff for my neighborhood through my charity [the Reggie Evans Foundation] and stuff. There were some great times. I appreciate it so much. I value that time because it helped me be the person I am now.”
Still, reality offered grim reminders. In August 2014, Pensacola police discovered the body of Evans’s nephew, Tyler; his death was rule a homicide.
“My lowest point is probably when my nephew got killed,” Evans said. “That was probably the time I felt at the bottom. Even when I went to Sacramento, I had to fight through it to overcome that whole feeling.”
Today a more mature Evans is no longer just a basketball player. He’s a husband to his wife, Joi; a father to his three girls and one boy; a real-estate investor in properties from Boulder, Colo., to Newark, Ohio. And to the city of Pensacola, he’s a local community builder.
“Whenever I’ve been around Reggie Evans, it hasn’t been about Reggie Evans, the NBA star. It’s been about the people of Pensacola and how he can give back,” said Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, who gave Evans the key to the city this past summer at one of Reggie’s many local charity events.
“It’s always selfless with Reggie,” Hayward added. “And I think that’s the testament of a great team player.”
Evans, whose family couldn’t afford true Thanksgiving dinners when he was growing up, has organized annual turkey giveaways to feed local families for the holiday. He puts together food drives throughout the rest of the year, some specifically for the housing projects in which he was raised. His annual charity softball game has brought stars like DeMarcus Cousins, Trent Richardson and Michelle Snow to Pensacola, a city they may never visit without Evans’s encouragement.
“He’s not one of those guys that just is going to sit back and let the people who help with his foundation kind of do it and put his name on it,” explained Monica Kim, Evans’s personal attorney who is a contributor to many of the Reggie Evans Foundation’s events. “He actually personally invests his time and effort in doing it. He’s a big part of all the planning and how he wants to structure each event.”
Evans makes sure to show up, too. When he was with the Brooklyn Nets in November 2013, he rushed onto a redeye flight after a game in Minnesota to catch a plane to Pensacola for his turkey giveaway. He stayed for a few hours, handed out some turkeys and got on another plane later that day to return to Brooklyn for the Nets’ ensuing game.
“It’s amazing because it didn’t affect him on the court at all,” remembered Brook Lopez, a teammate during Evans’s time with the Nets. “He’s out there grabbing 15, 16 rebounds a game, doing his thing, and the next day, he’s helping people in Florida. And then he’s back on the court meeting us somewhere else in the Midwest or wherever we were. It was a sight to behold.”
Evans’ playing days might finally be over, but gone are the days when he let society influence him. He is now the one influencing society.
“The first thing that struck me about Reggie is that he was just so down to Earth and really interested in what was going on in his community where he grew up,” Hayward said. “He didn’t have an easy road. I can promise you that.”
Fred Katz’s writing has been published at FOX Sports, ESPN and Bleacher Report among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.