Heartbreak fuels Renardo Sidney’s new sense of purpose

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Mississippi State v Vanderbilt

Renardo Sidney no longer wanted to be one of The Best That Never Was. We’ve heard that before, again and again, but this time it was different. This time he had a daughter on the way, due to be born in the summer of 2014. Sidney’s paternal instinct kicked in. He wanted to support her, provide for her, take care of her. “She’s the reason I got back out there to start working out,” Sidney said. “Having a kid, I wanted her to have anything [she wanted].”

On June 28, 2014, Madison Olivia Sidney was stillborn.

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Photo via Renardo Sidney

“That was my first little girl,” Sidney said. Her name is now tattooed on his arm. He was heartbroken. “After she passed, it just felt like a light that came on that told me to get up off my butt. I’m still young. I could still keep trying.”

He couldn’t be the can’t-miss prospect that missed, a cautionary tale of all that can go wrong in grassroots basketball. He couldn’t keep watching guys that were once ranked below him by every recruiting outlet in the country — guys likes John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Kawhi Leonard and Eric Bledsoe — make a lasting mark in the NBA while he watched on TV, his only lasting impression being the grooves he made in the couch.

The kid everyone once knew as Big Sid was up to 340 pounds, a year removed from a stint with the LA Defenders of the NBA’s D-League, and he was finally ready to make his comeback.

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Renardo Sidney is anything-but a household name, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way.

His name may conjure up memories of an NCAA suspension or a brawl in the stands during a game in Hawaii. Some of the more dedicated college hoop fans out there may remember the season and a half that he actually played at Mississippi State before going undrafted in 2012.

What you may not know, however, is that Sidney was a surefire lottery pick before he ever set foot in a high school classroom. He exploded onto the recruiting scene in 2005 as a rising freshman at Sonny Vaccaro’s famed ABCD All-American Camp. Here was a 6-foot-8, 230 pound, 14-year-old from Jackson, Miss., blessed with the physique of a college senior before he could grow a mustache.

And he was torching everyone at the best summer camp in high school hoops.

“Of all the players I’ve ever seen in the summer, I’ll put Renardo Sidney against any in the last 15 years,” said ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman, then a National Recruiting Analyst for Scout.com. “He was probably one of the top five talents I’ve ever seen at that stage of their career.”

The setting for these showcase camps are tailor-made for players with perimeter ability. Free-flowing, back-and-forth basketball with limited defense, one-on-one play emphasized and a priority made on highlighting the matchups that will draw the most attention. It was all about exposure and Sidney’s unique skill set made him impossible to ignore. He could handle the ball, he could shoot, he could lead the break, he could throw no-look passes, he could back you down and dunk on you. He was a right-handed Lamar Odom, another Chris Webber. Some thought him the second-coming of Magic Johnson.

The camp’s all-star game is where the Legend of Sidney really began to grow. As Goodman put it, “it was the Renardo Show. No one could handle him.”

“You never know how a player will eventually develop,” said Mark Gottfried, “but it’s hard to imagine there have ever been better, more skilled [prospects] at that age. He also had a high basketball IQ for his age. It was like, ‘Man, this kid is really advanced.'”

Gottfried is now the head coach at N.C. State, but back then he was coaching Alabama. Prior to Sidney’s arrival at ABCD, Gottfried had Sidney on campus for the Alabama team camp and actually landed a verbal commitment from the young star.

“At that point in time, it wasn’t taken very seriously,” he said. “You kind of knew that there was going to be a lot of twists and turns, and this thing is going to be all over the place.”

And all over the place it was.

Sidney didn’t play as a freshman at Piney Woods HS in Mississippi after being ruled ineligible due to illegal recruiting. Still, his stock continued to soar, as he teamed with with Pat Barrett’s Southern California All-Stars, a Reebok-sponsored program that some believe is the most talented AAU team ever assembled. It featured the top player in the Class of 2007 (Kevin Love), 2008 (Brandon Jennings) and 2009 (Sidney, at the time) while also featuring Taylor King (Duke and Villanova), Daniel Hackett (USC) and Malik Story (Indiana and Nevada). Sidney’s father, Renardo Sr., would eventually sign on with Reebok as a consultant, a job that reportedly paid him $20,000.

Sidney’s summer in 2006 pre-empted the family’s relocation to Los Angeles, where he finally played his first season of high school hoops. But as the hype grew, Sidney’s ability began to stagnate. He put on weight, he got overwhelmed — or swallowed up, depending on who you ask — by the amateur hoops scene in LA. Things began to spiral.

“I could honestly say I probably was ‘Hollywood,'” Sidney said. “I just thought I made it. I thought that my talent would get me to the NBA.”

“The worst thing he did was move to California,” said Wayne Brent, who coached Sidney in high school in Mississippi. Brent is now the head coach at Jackson State.

Sidney’s ranking fell. He tried to commit to both USC and UCLA; neither school would allow him admission. He ended up at Mississippi State, where he was suspended for the entirety of the 2009-10 season and the first nine games of the 2010-11 season for illegal benefits the NCAA determined that he and his family received. After he was finally ruled eligible to play in college, he got in a fight with teammate Elgin Bailey in the stands of a nationally televised game in a Christmas tournament in Hawaii:

He averaged 9.7 points and 5.2 boards for the Bulldogs in 2011-12 before turning pro. He went undrafted and spent a short time in the D-League before his professional career stalled. He wouldn’t suit up against until he made the move to Canada in the fall of 2014.

“Just trying to find myself,” he said of his time away from the game. “I let a lot of stuff go on as a kid and it bothered me as a man. I just took a couple months off just to get myself together. Find out what I really want to do, if I really want to play basketball or not.”

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The only person that’s ever stood in the way of Renardo Sidney is Renardo Sidney.

His attitude, his work ethic, his inability to keep weight off. Talk to him now and Sidney will freely admit that he thought that he had made it when he was 16. He thought the free shoes and the cross-country flights and all the attention and adoration he received as a high school phenom meant that his matriculation to the NBA was simply a waiting game. Kill time until you’re old enough to go pro, become an international mega-star.

That was the way it played out in his head.

“You’ve got to stay humble and stay hungry,” Sidney said. “I wish I could have told myself or someone would have told me that coming up.”

“I was getting all kinds of gear and clothes and shoes and I was No. 1 in the country. The internet and the TV. It kind of got to me, and as a young kid at that age, you just feel like you’ve made it already. I stopped working.”

Work ethic has been a struggle for Sidney, dating all the way back to his time back in Jackson. Brent has coached a number of highly-touted recruits during his time as a high school coach in Mississippi. In addition to working with Sidney during his one season at Piney Woods, Brent coached LaQuinton Ross, who was once the No. 1 recruit in his class, and Malik Newman, a top five prospect in the Class of 2015, at Calloway HS in Jackson. He also was an assistant at Ole Miss in the late ’90s.

And Sidney, Brent says, was far and away the most talented player he’s ever coached. The problem? He never committed to getting into shape. He never wanted to work hard.

“He was so talented and it was that his downfall was work habits,” Brent said. “He couldn’t sustain anything for a very long period of time. The talent was there. Is was just, can he push through the grind to really become something special?”

That issue was exacerbated by his move to Los Angeles, where Sidney latched on with teams and coaches that enabled him.

“He played for two or three teams where he didn’t practice,” Brent said. “If Renardo said he didn’t want to practice, he didn’t practice.”

“I’ve been around a lot of kids. If you let them do that, than that’s what they do. You have a 15, 16 or 17-year old that already doesn’t want to work that can just say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to work today?’ [It would have been different] had he went somewhere where they had said, ‘if you ain’t gonna work, you need to get your stuff and leave.'”

The circus that was surrounding his recruitment only added to the problem. Not his college recruitment, but to a shoe company. Would he play for a Reebok, Nike or adidas AAU team? His father told the Washington Post at the time that his job as a consultant with Reebok was simply to “make sure he gets to [ABCD Camp] and Las Vegas” for the company’s tournament in July, and that he received repeated offers from rival shoe companies and competing tournaments to shuttle the younger Sidney to those events.

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Renardo Sidney at the 2009 McDonalds All-American game (Getty Images)

Sidney said the hype started to weigh on him, the pressure of having a target on his head every time he stepped out on the floor became hard for him to handle. He was his family’s meal ticket before he had a driver’s license, and it made the game less enjoyable.

“It’s scary. You can’t live your life as a teenager,” he said. “You can’t have a normal life as a normal kid. I couldn’t go to Universal Studios like I wanted to. I couldn’t go to the movies or go bowling. All you’ve got to do is basketball, basketball, basketball. It’s tough as a kid because you see all your friends going out and you’ve got to get up and go to the gym. It’s kind of overwhelming.”

Sidney became an example used for the ills of AAU basketball. The excess, the instant celebrity, the marketability of hype, the prioritization of the grassroots circuit over the high school season. To the casual observer, he was the personification of all that’s wrong with American basketball, a teenager who was surrounded by adults trying to find a way to get a cut of his future earnings.

It only got worse in college, as Sidney’s off-the-court issues exacerbated his declining skill set.

“Once I got to college and my dad wasn’t around a lot, I felt like I could do what I wanted to do,” Sidney said, taking the blame for his tumultuous three-year stop in Starkville. “I stopped listening to the coaches. That’s when the immaturity kicked in.”

From there, it snowballed. Every mistake he made — and there were plenty — resulted in another story vilifying him, and perhaps the biggest mistake he made was to read every one of them. It was too much for Sidney to handle.

“I didn’t play for two years and people were still writing negativity about me, and I haven’t even played in two years,” he said. “I just wanted to fall off the face of the earth. Because it was stressful. It was very stressful. To think that a lot of people think you’re a headcase, which I’m not.”

“A lot of people just think I’m a bad person and all I wanted to do was play basketball. It was overwhelming.”

That’s what led to Sidney ballooning up to 340 pounds. That’s what led to his two-year hoops hiatus. That’s what led to a basketball prodigy refusing to watch NBA games — refusing to watch guys he still considers friends, still talks to on a regular basis — because he couldn’t handle the stress or the disappointment.

“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s tough knowing you’re supposed to be in the league and you’re not.”

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Renardo Sidney made his return to professional basketball this past fall. He had already dropped 35 pounds when he was signed by the Island Storm of Canada’s NBL, the same team that had sparked former Arizona guard Josiah Turner’s return from basketball exile. It was Sidney’s chance to prove to everyone that this change in attitude that he’s been promising was actually coming to fruition, that the life-altering moment of having a stillborn child had turned him into a different person.

Sidney lasted five games with the Storm before being released.

That sounds bad, but Storm head coach Joe Salerno insisted that the issues that precipitated his release had more to do with Sidney’s conditioning than with his attitude.

“It was a good experience, better than I had anticipated,” Salerno said. “When his name came across my desk this summer while we were recruiting, I had read all the baggage and kind of knew his history but it was just too big of a talent not to take a risk on. I certainly had some reservations before we signed him and I was curious to see how it went.”

“It was fun working with him. As a person, I was pleasantly surprised. He had a great character. All the guys on the team enjoyed him off the floor, and he certainly came in with all the right intentions.”

source:
Photo via the Island Storm facebook page

The issue was that, despite losing those 35 pounds, Sidney just didn’t have his “basketball wind”. He couldn’t play long stretches without having to take plays off. He couldn’t be on the court for eight or nine minutes at a time without becoming a major liability on the defensive end of the floor. “When you’re trying to still get in shape during the season, it’s difficult to do,” Salerno said. “He wasn’t in horrendous shape. He was in decent shape for what he was.”

It created a conundrum for Salerno and his staff. Sidney was too talented offensively to simply cut ties with — he scored 17 points in 17 minutes in his first game with the Storm — but he still had a long way to go until he was in good enough shape to play an entire game. Eventually the coaching staff settled on a rotation for Sidney: three minutes on, three minutes off.

That didn’t work out.

“When any frustrations came out,” Salerno said, “it was because he wasn’t able to play long shifts,” noting that he believed Sidney had put in the effort, he just needed more time to get into shape.

And right now, time is all Sidney has. He’s still living on Prince Edward Island in Canada, training with a former teammate as he prepares for workouts that he hopes will lead to a spot in an NBA Summer League which, in turn, will land him a contract with a team in the NBA D-League.

At least that’s the plan.

Sidney says he is down to 290 pounds. His goal, according to his agent, Zachary Charles of 3pt Sports Management, is to get down to 275 pounds. Charles, who is at least the fourth agent that Sidney has had since leaving school, believes that this time it will be different. He believes that this is a new Renardo Sidney, that all he needs is an opportunity to prove it.

For the first time in his life, Charles says, there’s a plan of action, there’s a structure that Sidney is buying into.

“When it comes to work and dedication,” Charles said, “sometimes it takes a kick in the pants to understand what you had and what you lost.”

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Renardo Sidney has fooled us before.

He’s told us that he’s getting in shape. He spent time working out with John Lucas, readjusting his attitude and his work ethic. He’s turned over a new leaf so many times that we’ve stopped counting, and he understands why there are people that won’t believe what he has to say. He knows that another story about his return to hardwood glory will be met with skepticism.

He knows he has to prove it before people will start paying attention.

“All I can say is just watch out for me,” he said. “I’ve been saying this over the last couple of years. A lot of people are tired of hearing it, but I’m tired of saying it. I can’t really tell you, because all I’ve been doing the last couple of years is talking. Now I’ve got to do the walking.”

“Just look out for me. That’s all I could say.”

Miami picks up Florida Gulf Coast transfer

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The transfer train continues to run to Miami this spring.

The U picked up their third commitment from a transfer Thursday when Zach Johnson, formerly of Florida Gulf Coast, pledged to coach Jim Larranaga and the ‘Canes.

“I would like to thank my FGCU family for everything during my time there. The relationships I have built will never be forgotten,” Johnson wrote on social media. “With that being said I am proud and happy to announce that I will be attending the University of Miami for my grad year.”

Johnson joins Kameron McGusty (Oklahoma) and Anthony Mack (Wyoming) as players from other programs joining Miami. Unlike the other two, who will sit out under NCAA transfer rules, Johnson will be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer.

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 16.1 points on 46.9 percent shooting overall and 39.2 percent from distance. He averaged career highs in scoring, rebounds, 3-point percentage and steals during his junior campaign with the Eagles.

Johnson will help ease the transition for the Hurricanes with Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker gone to the pros, Dewan Huell testing the waters and Ja’Quan Newton gone to graduation.

Big Ten releases matchups for new 20-game league slate

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The Big Ten’s 14-team structure has made for some unwieldy scheduling with unbalanced schedules and long-time rivalries relegated to a single matchup in some seasons.

The conference’s move to a 20-game league schedule is being made in part to alleviate those issues. Teams will play seven opponents home-and-away and the remaining six in one-off meetings – half on the road and half at home.

“The new schedules ensure that all three of the Big Ten’s in-state rivals – Illinois/Northwestern, Indiana/Purdue, and Michigan/Michigan State-will play twice on an annual basis,” Big Ten assistant commissioner Kerry Kenny said in a statement. “Additionally, there will be regional rotations in both the east and in the west. Rather than protecting a single opponent on a yearly basis for the remaining eight teams, annual rotations involving the four eastern teams (Maryland, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers) and the four western teams (Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin) have been strategically developed to optimize travel, academic and recovery impacts while encouraging increased competition among institutions that are near each other geographically.

“Increasing the frequency of conference competition allows the Big Ten to compete across a larger footprint, while respecting history and balancing the needs of our students, coaches and fans.”

The Big Ten released the scheduling matrix Thursday (see below) while the full schedule will be released at a later date.

 

2018-19 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Opponents

ILLINOIS

Home: Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers

Away: Iowa, Maryland, Purdue

Home/Away: Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin

INDIANA

Home: Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin

Away: Maryland, Minnesota, Penn State

Home/Away: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers

IOWA

Home: Illinois, Maryland, Michigan

Away: Minnesota, Penn State, Purdue

Home/Away: Indiana, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Rutgers, Wisconsin

MARYLAND

Home: Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern

Away: Iowa, Michigan State, Rutgers

Home/Away: Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin

MICHIGAN

Home: Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue

Away: Illinois, Iowa, Rutgers

Home/Away: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State, Wisconsin

MICHIGAN STATE

Home: Maryland, Minnesota, Northwestern

Away: Illinois, Penn State, Wisconsin

Home/Away: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue, Rutgers

MINNESOTA

Home: Indiana, Iowa, Penn State

Away: Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State

Home/Away: Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Purdue, Rutgers, Wisconsin

NEBRASKA

Home: Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin

Away: Indiana, Michigan, Rutgers

Home/Away: Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Penn State, Purdue

NORTHWESTERN

Home: Minnesota, Penn State, Purdue

Away: Maryland, Michigan State, Nebraska

Home/Away: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Rutgers, Wisconsin

OHIO STATE

Home: Minnesota, Penn State, Wisconsin

Away: Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska

Home/Away: Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers

PENN STATE

Home: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State

Away: Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State

Home/Away: Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Purdue, Rutgers, Wisconsin

PURDUE

Home: Illinois, Iowa, Rutgers

Away: Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin

Home/Away: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State

RUTGERS

Home: Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska

Away: Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin

Home/Away: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State

WISCONSIN

Home: Michigan State, Purdue, Rutgers

Away: Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State

Home/Away: Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State

New Mexico’s Chris McNeal transferring

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Chris McNeal is heading to his fourth school in four years.

The New Mexico guard has asked for and received his release from the school to transfer, the Lobos announced Thursday.

“Chris has truly been a great person to have in our program,” head coach Paul Weir said in a statement. “We wish him nothing but the best in his future.”

McNeal began his career in 2015 at Western Kentucky, where he played one season and set the freshman assist record, before heading to Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Ia., becoming a junior-college All-American on his way to New Mexico.

In his one season with the Lobos, McNeal started 19 games and averaged 9.5 points per game.He shot 37.2 percent from the floor and 31.5 percent from 3-point range. He had three games of at least 20 points, including 29 against Tennessee Tech in which he connected on 7 of 11 3-pointers.

New Mexico went 19-15 and finished third in the Mountain West.

McNeal will have one year remaining of eligibility and also has a redshirt year still available to him after his stop at Indian Hills.

Syracuse transfer Matthew Moyer headed to Vanderbilt

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Bryce Drew’s already sterling group of 2018 newcomers got even better Thursday.

Matthew Moyer, a former top-100 recruit, committed to transfer from Syracuse to Vanderbilt to add to an impressive haul of talent Drew has brought to Nashville.

“I am so blessed to announce that the next step in my academic and athletic journey is to Vanderbilt to play for Coach Drew!!” Moyer wrote on social media.

Moyer was a four-star recruit in 2016 and redshirted his first season with the Orange. Last year, his first on the court, he played just 16.8 minutes per game, averaging 3.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8 Ohio native chose Vanderbilt over the likes of Texas and Xavier.

While Moyer will be expected to sit out the upcoming season under transfer rules, he’ll still be part of a major transfer infusion for the Commodores. Drew already has two five-star recruits in top-15 prospects Simisola Shittu and Darius Garland, plus four-star recruit Aaron Nesmith, a top-60 prospect. They’re also still in the running for Romeo Langford, a top-10 player in 2018.

Vanderbilt took a significant dip last year in Drew’s second season after an NCAA tournament appearance in Year 1, but their work on the recruiting trail looks to be ensuring that’ll be a momentary drop in performance. Vanderbilt moved on from Kevin Stallings to Drew in large part because of languishing results, but Drew looks to be reinvigorating the program in the best way possible – with serious success on the recruiting trail that seems likely to be followed by wins on the floor.

Report: Pilot involved in last year’s Michigan crash went against protocol, saved lives doing so

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The pilot of the plane that was scheduled to carry the Michigan basketball team from Detroit to Washington D.C. for the 2017 Big Ten tournament broke protocol by aborting takeoff and, in the process, potentially saved the lives of everyone on board the plane.

Here’s what happened, according to a transcript of the cockpit recorder that was obtained by The Detroit News: The mechanism that an airplane uses to take-off is called an elevator, and one of the two elevators on the plane that the Michigan team was on was stuck in a position that would not have allowed the plane to get into the air the way it needed to.

By the time the pilot of the plane realized this, the plane was already past the speed that would have allowed them to abort the takeoff without damaging the plane. Generally speaking, when that happens, the protocol is to get into the air and then find a way to land safely. The pilot on this flight slammed on the brakes, reverse-thrusted the engines and hoped for the best.

What eventually happened was that the plane skidded to a stop off of the back-end of the runway, leaving the people on board with bumps, bruises, scratches and, in the case of Derrick Walton Jr., stitches in his leg.

The alternative?

Well, we don’t have to think about that.

Because the pilot of that plane, Mark Radloff, went against what he was taught to do.

I’d suggest you read the entire story here. It’s wild and frightening.