P.J. Hairston‘s biggest NBA challenge is his past

jjones@charlotteobserver.comJune 25, 2014 

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— P.J. Hairston is an NBA-ready shooter who plays above-average defense and has the size, at 6-foot-5 and 229 pounds, to make an immediate impact.

In all those ways, he’s just what the Charlotte Hornets need. They have the ninth and 24th picks in the first round of Thursday’s NBA draft and have shown interest in Hairston by bringing him in for two workouts.

The questions about Hairston aren’t whether he’s physically ready – but whether he’s mature enough to overcome his troubled past.

In the past 13 months, he’s gone from the leading scorer of North Carolina’s basketball program to being arrested for drug possession to permanently losing his college eligibility after an NCAA investigation.

Speaking two days before the draft, Hairston and his parents say Charlotte would be an attractive NBA destination, but also playing about 90 minutes from home could be a distraction.

It’s a short drive for Hairston’s family — his grandparents, parents and his two little brothers who look up to him. But it’s also close enough to the people who have long pulled and tugged at one of Greensboro’s best basketball products in more than a decade.

“That would be lovely and my family could come to games and it’d be convenient, but at the same time I don’t want people to have the idea of, ‘Can he focus?’ ” Hairston said Tuesday. “ … I feel like if I got drafted in Charlotte, people would be more worried about me than the basketball side. That’s the only question, because I want people to watch basketball and not be worried about my personal life.”

Those close to Hairston believe he’s learned from his mistakes – the ones that ended his collegiate career at North Carolina midway through his junior season. They say he’s been humbled by his tenure in the NBA Development League and that he’s prepared to make smart choices.

“You’ve got to surround yourself with people who are trying to move toward the same goals you are,” said William Turner, Hairston’s stepfather. “Because really if you don’t, they’re just pulling you the other way. And they might catch you weak.

“It’s rough, but I’m sure he’s learned. He’s going to learn. He has to.”

Always in a crowd

Wendy Mailey had Hairston when she was 19, less than a year after her parents died.

After dropping out of school to care for Hairston, she knew she couldn’t tell him he had to get a college degree if she didn’t have one. She went back to school a decade later and eventually earned her undergraduate degree from Guilford College and a Master of Public Administration from Capella University, an online accredited school.

Mailey, a 41-year-old mother of three, has been the director of government affairs at the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce for four years.

She’s better off now than she was when Hairston was growing up, she said. But something that hasn’t changed is how many people the family has around.

“When we would have his little brother’s birthday party, we lived in a 1,800-square-foot house and we’d have 100 people in that little house. He comes from a family like that,” Mailey said.

Hairston’s family is hosting a draft watch party at a Greensboro restaurant and has about 160 people on the guest list.

“People ask us about keeping our circle small, but the 160 people on that list right now, that is our small circle,” Mailey said.

Promise interrupted

At Dudley’s Chester L. Bradley Gymnasium, state championship banners hang from the rafters and pictures of title teams are bolted into the walls.

“Nothing of P.J.’s is in there,” a woman at the school’s front desk tells a reporter.

Of the trophy cases and framed jerseys, of laminated press clippings and plaques for former Tar Heels Will Graves and Brendan Haywood, Hairston’s name can’t be found.

Dudley has been a North Carolina power, winning back-to-back state titles in 2005 and 2006. Hairston once offered the promise of a return to glory.

Turner, Hairston’s stepfather whom he calls Dad, had for years been talking up his son’s potential to longtime Dudley coach David Price. He’d tell Price, “I got one coming to you” when he saw the coach around town.

Price knew Hairston would be special when he first saw him play AAU ball in middle school. Hairston became the first freshman to start on the Dudley varsity team in 2007 and scored 26 points in a loss to perennial national power Oak Hill Academy. As a sophomore and junior, he was named the city’s top player. He committed to play at North Carolina.

Then, just months before his senior season, Hairston and his family made a controversial decision for Hairston to transfer from Dudley to Hargrave Military Academy, a prep school in Virginia also known for its athletics programs.

The decision didn’t go over well. Price says he’s still not sure why Hairston left.

“I remember telling one of my girlfriends at the time,” Mailey said, “if it was still legal to tar and feather people and run them on a rail out of town, that probably would have been my plight.”

Mailey and Turner say it was more related to personal discipline than academics. Hairston had started reading his press clippings, Mailey said, and he needed to get away from Greensboro and into a more controlled environment.

“I didn’t want to leave at all, but I felt like it was for the best, not just for basketball but for the maturing stages too,” Hairston said. “I was a kid still at heart and I was about to be a senior. I didn’t want to go into my freshman year of college with these kid tendencies.

“From waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and little things like keeping my bed made and keeping my tie a certain way, that helped me a lot as far as a person more than basketball.”

When a Hargrave cadet received a demerit, he would have to walk in the “stupid square” for hours. A cadet would walk in a square – about 20 feet by 20 feet – with a rifle on his shoulder

“I had seen guys with 18,” Hairston said. “They had to walk it every day til they get to 18. I think the most I had was two. It was something silly like talking in class. I just spoke out loud or didn’t raise my hand. It was always something petty like that.”

End of college career

For Hairston, everything changed at a Durham checkpoint a year ago.

He had been the Tar Heels’ leading scorer his sophomore season with 14.6 points per game. He decided to return for his junior season after being projected as a late first-round to early second-round draft pick.

But on June 4, 2013, Hairston and two passengers were charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession. Hairston was also charged with driving without a license. He was driving a rented 2013 GMC Yukon that was paid for by Haydn “Fats” Thomas, a Durham resident, felon and party promoter.

Charges against Hairston were dropped in June 2013 after he showed proof of a driver’s license and took a drug assessment course.

Hairston’s teammate Leslie McDonald was also found to have used cars rented by Thomas, and he was reinstated after the investigation found he received nearly $2,000 in impermissible benefits, most of which came from Thomas’ cars.

McDonald and Hairston were ineligible to play as the season began.

McDonald missed the first nine games before rejoining the team. In McDonald’s reinstatement request by UNC, school officials wrote another UNC player – presumably Hairston though the name was redacted – drove some of the cars three times as often as McDonald.

On Dec. 20, the school announced it would not apply for reinstatement for Hairston.

“We’ve all been hopeful the entire time that he would be able to play again,” UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham said at the time. “But by the time we gathered all the information and worked with the NCAA, it just wasn’t there.”

Mailey made it clear she still likes UNC coach Roy Williams (“he’s a man of his word”) and she still cheers for the players and the program. But she didn’t like how her son’s collegiate eligibility was handled.

“When they decided not to file the paperwork, he was essentially suspended for that year, and he couldn’t come back (to play) for his senior year either. For doing some of the same things everyone else was doing,” Mailey said.

“I’ve never been one to preach that my kids are perfect. I know my kids are not perfect. I had an NCAA investigator ask me, ‘If you found out P.J. was driving these rental cars, would you be surprised?’ I’m like, no, no I wouldn’t be surprised. Because he’s probably not the only one doing it, and I’m sure he didn’t come down here and create how it is.”

Less than a month after learning his college career was finished, Hairston was drafted by the Texas Legends of the NBDL. In 26 games he averaged 21.8 points and shot 35.8 percent from 3-point range.

There in Frisco, Texas, he rode buses in the D League instead of flying on private charter planes at North Carolina. He lived in an extended stay hotel for weeks. And he says he learned from his mistakes.

“Definitely. I learned from it as soon as it happened,” Hairston said. “I didn’t want to be in handcuffs. It was a situation I put myself in that I regret. It was a mistake I made by being around the wrong crowd.”

Earlier this month, Hairston tweeted: “One year ago today, my life changed. I can honestly say it taught me a lot and I have learned from it. Just want to say thank you to everyone that stuck with me and did not give up on me.”

Hornets: Pros, cons

On Tuesday, Hairston shows up at the family-owned Boss Hog’s Bar-B-Que in his black 2015 Cadillac Escalade after watching his brother Tre’ play two summer league basketball games at Ragsdale High.

Turner, his stepfather, who opens and closes Boss Hog’s five days a week, says he lost a few customers when the family decided to send Hairston to Hargrave.

Born in Alabama, Turner, 43, has lived in Greensboro most of his life. He went to Page High before going to N.C. State to play football. When he couldn’t remain academically eligible in the early 1990s, he came back to Boss Hog’s and put on an apron.

Turner loves seeing his sons together, and he knows that will happen more often if Charlotte drafts Hairston. Still, there are mixed emotions.

“It’d be great because we’d be able to see him much more,” Turner said. “But it also leaves the door open for everyone else right here to reach him. … That’s kind of scary.

“Just seeing how it was just yesterday we were in so much trouble we didn’t know which way we were going, and now we’re here. I don’t want to regress any.

“I do think it would be easier for him to learn how to manage his own money farther away from home than being right here where everybody can pull and tug.”

Hairston’s mother says she understands the pros and cons of her son playing close to home. She said she’ll be managing his money, which would range from $1 million to $2.1 million for the first year if he’s picked between Nos. 9 and 24. She’s not concerned with the people with whom her son will surround himself.

Hairston didn’t even need a curfew when he was younger because he knew when to be home, Mailey said, and she believes he’s learned from his mistakes.

“Anybody being a hometown kid being an hour and a half away, it gives people direct access to you,” Mailey said. “It puts a lot of pressure on you. As a 21-year-old man, it’s hard to say no to people you’ve known since you were a small child. But for him and his friends, I’m not really too worried about it.”

Derrick Partee, a former Dudley assistant coach who’s now the head coach at Greensboro’s Smith High, has been close to Hairston since before high school. He doesn’t believe Hairston would have an issue being anywhere in the NBA so long as he keeps a tight circle of trusted friends.

“He’s a super kid, and to be under all that scrutiny was really tough,” Partee said. “He’s learned from whatever mistakes he’s made. And I think most of his mistakes were being too nice. Now it’s about people trying to hang out and when you need to say, ‘No, I don’t know you.’ 

Hairston says he’s already cut some people out of his life that he needed to. He simply stopped talking to them, and he felt they would understand.

He knows there will be questions about his hometown connections if he goes to the Hornets, but he believes he’d be fine being right down the road.

Hairston knows who and who not to give game tickets to, he says. He says he knows how to turn down people with their hand out.

“I know I’d be OK,” he said. “If that weren’t the case I wouldn’t have made it through high school. I grew up in the hood.

“I’ve always had the all the attention. I’ve always had people around me. I’ve always had people asking me for stuff. I know how to handle the situation.”

He’s convinced. Now, on draft night, an NBA team will likely pick him in the first round, bringing wealth and increased celebrity. Wherever he ends up, P.J. Hairston will have the chance to prove himself all over again.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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