KINSTON — Reggie Bullock lives near downtown, where many of the once-teeming Queen Street stores stand mostly empty, plywood covering many of the old storefront windows revealing the stores' bare-bones interiors.
Although he loves his hometown, he also remembers his late father urging him to find a way out of Kinston to pursue his dreams. He was 6 years old when his father Reggie Bullock Sr. died, and much of Bullock's youth since then has been spent on a basketball court, heeding those instructions.
Cars crammed with beachgoers still pull in at the super stores along the Highway 70 corridor linking the Triangle to the Crystal Coast, yet little of that traffic diverts a few blocks north to downtown, or beyond that to Kinston High, where Bullock, a splendidly talented, 6-foot-7, 195-pound junior guard, has carved a place in one of the state's most storied high school basketball traditions.
Bullock likely will draw his own crowds this holiday weekend, however, playing in front of Triangle basketball fans seeking glimpses of the next generation of great players at the Tournament of Champions. Bullock already has committed to UNC and continues to hone his game in preparation for a senior year of high school that could elevate him among the top recruits in the class of 2010.
"He has a chance to be one of the top players in the country next year," said recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons, who is hosting Bullock's CP3 club team this weekend.
Wherever his basketball travels have taken him this spring -- Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia -- he proudly has told people that he is from Kinston and that he plays for Kinston High School, the same school that produced NBA veteran -- and former UNC standout -- Jerry Stackhouse.
Bullock continues to work at basketball as a craftsman. He enjoys his work, but he pursues improvement with a surprising diligence, a seriousness in pursuit of more skills. He plays basketball, but he doesn't play at it, still mindful of his father's words.
"If you don't work hard at it, you're not respecting the game," he said Tuesday after walking out of the dark wood gym with 8-foot banners celebrating his school's state and conference championships.
Bullock has had that determination since he moved in with his grandmother, Patricia Williams, soon after his father's death.
He remembers taking the game more seriously when he was about 10 years old, when he started walking 10 minutes to the Holloway Recreation Center. His stroll was really a 10-minute drill of crossover dribbles and ball-handling routines. At home there was no hoop, just a milk crate with the bottom cut out.
He played with the older kids at the gym and invariably was chosen for the pickup games where the winners kept the court and losers walked. A schoolteacher later got him involved with the Wilson Bulls club team, and Bullock began to sense that he could be good at the game.
"When I was 11, I thought that maybe basketball would help me go to college," he said. "Maybe basketball would help me do what my daddy told me I needed to do."
The more time he devoted to the game, the better he became. Yet there were still difficult decisions.
"I wanted to play basketball," Bullock said. "I had to change friends sometimes because I wanted to play basketball, and they wanted to do other things. Sometimes they got in trouble."
By the time Bullock was in the eighth grade, his basketball prowess was drawing large crowds to games, he recalled.
The game he remembers best is an all-star rec league game from his eighth-grade season. The day of the game, he dropped his book bag off at home after school and went straight to the gym, four hours early.
"I shot the whole time," he said. "I wanted the game to start."
He opened the game by faking a crossover and hitting a long 3-pointer. He hit another on the next possession. He finished with 36 points, including six 3-pointers.
That was the first time Kinston High coach Wells Gulledge ever saw Bullock play, and the sharpshooter made quite an impression.
"He saw I could shoot," Bullock recalled. "He's always let me play on the wing. He didn't see me as a 6-7 guy that had to go inside. Coach has always encouraged me to develop all my game."
The following year as a freshman, Bullock leaped into national prominence with his play at the GlaxoSmithKline Invitational.
"He can be tremendous," Gulledge said at the time.
Gulledge said Bullock has a maturity that is almost never seen in high school players.
"He works at basketball every day," Gulledge said. "He enjoys making a pass, or getting a steal or shutting down his man as much as he does scoring.
"He can score. He can go on a tear and light it up if we need for him, too, but he is very aware of how you're supposed to play the game. You make passes. You play defense. You rebound. Basketball isn't just about shooting, although he is a great shooter."
Bullock admires the play of former Carolina player Wayne Ellington, another tall wing shooter. But Gulledge said Bullock is far more than just a wing shooter.
"He is one of the most complete players you'll find," Gulledge said.
Scout has Bullock ranked behind Raleigh Word of God's C.J. Leslie in North Carolina, and Rivals.com has Bullock second in the state behind Luke Cothron of Red Springs Flora McDonald.
Gibbons, the All-Star Sports analyst, disagrees with both assessments.
"Unequivocally and absolutely, Bullock is the best junior prospect in North Carolina," Gibbons said. "He has the potential to be among the very best prospects in the nation
"And there is a gap between him and whoever else you want to say is No. 2 in the state."