Brandon Jennings’s Roads Not Taken

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Brandon Jennings has long been a wanderer. At 16, he left Compton for Appalachia; at 18, the United States for Rome. He rocketed to the NBA’s stratosphere as a teen and plumbed the league’s depths in his 20s. He has ridden unconscionable hot streaks and dysfunctional benches. He has talked trash in Kevin Garnett’s face and (reportedly) been sucker-punched by rapper the Game in his own.

His talent has served as a key, unlocking worlds and experiences most humans will never know. And yet, when Jennings, now 28, reflects on the arc of his life and career, on the path that took him to the NBA, to other side of the world, and then back again, he thinks first not of an arena or a practice court, but of a small room, with little more than a bed and a TV, in the eastern Chinese city of Taiyuan. It was there, this past winter, where Jennings spent hours sitting by himself, staring at the walls. “Just thinking,” he says. “That’s all I did. I can’t remember ever having that much time to just sit and think.”

Jennings had traveled to China in search of something. Exactly what, he wasn’t sure. There was the money, of course: $1.5 million for one season with the Shanxi Brave Dragons. There was the sight of watching the ball travel from his hands to the bottom of the net time and again, night after night, something that had become increasingly infrequent during his last two years in the NBA. There was the food (“My chopstick game is crazy,” he says), and the culture (“Hard work, no drama, no guns”), and the throngs of the basketball-obsessed (“They treat you like a god”). He spent occasional mornings watching the world through the windows of China’s bullet trains and afternoons getting lost in its urban sprawl. He ate bullfrog. He dropped 40 points in a game. He scrapped with opponents and luxuriated in the love of fans.

What he treasured most, though, was the solitude of his room. He thought about his family life and his basketball career, about the Achilles injury that had robbed him of what he believed could have been his best years. “I had to find myself,” he says.

Within the past six months, Jennings has played in China, in the G League, and finally, in the NBA. Nearly a decade removed from announcing his arrival in the league with a 55-point game two weeks into his career, Jennings finds himself in a far different role. He worked his way back to Milwaukee, but with Bucks guards Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova now healthy for the playoffs, Jennings was left inactive for Game 1 of the first-round series against Boston on Sunday. In a league that has moved toward an emphasis on pace-and-space and 3-point shooting, Jennings’s one-on-one scoring ability can feel almost anachronistic. And yet he’s shown during this stint with the Bucks that he’s still capable of changing the complexion of a game. He had 16 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds last month against Memphis, then 16 points, five assists, and four boards later in the month at Chicago. “He’s been really good in terms of filling that backup role for us,” Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty told reporters after the team signed Jennings to a multiyear deal following two 10-day contracts. “He’s a guy that can help us.” After Jennings’s first game back, Milwaukee’s John Henson said, “I don’t think it’s a question whether he can play in the NBA. He can clearly play.”

A few days before Jennings’s March 11 call-up from the developmental league to Milwaukee, I travel to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to see Jennings try to work his way back to the NBA as a member of the Wisconsin Herd. One afternoon, in between sips of lemonade and bites of salmon salad, Jennings beams as he imagines what might lay ahead.

“I’m excited right now,” he says. “I feel great. I feel motivated. And one of the biggest reasons why is because everyone is saying I’m trash.”

Well, a few people, at least.

After suffering a torn Achilles in 2015, Jennings spent two seasons bouncing from Detroit to Orlando to New York to Washington, playing sporadic minutes and posting abysmal shooting numbers, rarely capturing the form that once made him a folk hero in Milwaukee. “Honestly,” he says, “I went into, kind of like, a depression.” When the 2016–17 season ended, Jennings entered free agency and grew impatient as he waited for the offers to arrive. “I didn’t want to wait around,” he says. “I was sitting at home, trying to figure things out. Then I saw what Derrick Rose got.” (A one-year deal with Cleveland for the veteran’s minimum.) “And then I saw what Dwyane Wade got.” (The same thing.) “And I thought, if that’s what they’re getting, it’s over for me. I called my agent and said, ‘I need to get away.’”

Shanxi, a midtier Chinese Basketball Association club, offered a seven-figure salary and the chance to helm an offense. Jennings accepted. It was the second time he’d uprooted his life in America and set off for another corner of the world, rejecting convention in favor of his own path. Nearly a decade earlier, he’d become famous for signing a professional contract in Italy out of high school, the first prospect in the one-and-done era to reject even a brief stint in the college game, ultimately going 10th in the draft to the Bucks in 2009 after one season abroad.

Back then, some had hailed him as a trailblazer, while others blasted him as immature and naive. This time, he was neither celebrated nor criticized. His departure barely registered as a major story. Yet Jennings believes the two experiences are linked — separate sabbaticals, both necessary for him to become the person and player he believes he can be.

He first got the idea from the radio.

Jennings was 18 years old and coveted by every college coach in the country, a silky lefty with a stroke that compensated for his lack of size, with instincts and craftiness that masked his unremarkable athleticism. He’d grown up in Compton, raised on Kenny Anderson highlight tapes and afternoon trips to Rowley Park. When Jennings was a toddler, his older cousins had let him play ball with them as long he managed not to cry. As a 13-year-old, he’d signed his first autograph while playing his way toward an AAU national championship with DeMar DeRozan. At 16, he’d moved across the country to join the best high school program in the country, Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. By 18, he was regarded as the best high school player in the country.

He’d signed to play college basketball at Arizona, but the College Board had flagged his SAT score, and he hadn’t yet been cleared to play. He rode around Los Angeles, listening to sports talk radio, where Mychal Thompson was interviewing Sonny Vaccaro, the long-time shoe-company executive and enthusiastic villain of the NCAA. “I’m just listening,” Jennings says, “and Sonny is saying, ‘I don’t know why these kids don’t just go overseas and get paid right out of high school.’ And right away, it just clicked.”

Jennings’s mother called Vaccaro, whom Jennings knew from the camp and AAU circuits, and asked: Could her son play overseas? Yes, Vaccaro said. Absolutely. He flew the family to Las Vegas, then took Jennings to Impact Basketball, a gym where some NBA players train in the offseason. On the floor, Jennings remembers seeing J.R. Smith and several other NBA players, along with high-profile college stars and overseas pros. In the stands, there sat coaches and executives from Israel, Spain, and Italy. Jennings stepped on the floor and showed that he belonged. “I looked ready,” he says. “I was ready.” The next night, he had dinner with Vaccaro and a representative from Lottomatica Virtus Roma. The next week, he was on a plane to Rome. While classmates DeRozan, Kemba Walker, and Tyreke Evans prepared for college, Jennings signed a three-year, $1.65 million contract that included a buyout clause allowing him to leave after one season for the NBA. Between that and a deal he signed with Under Armour, Jennings says he made $1.2 million in his first year out of high school.

“Brandon had no desire to go to college and get a degree,” says his coach at Oak Hill, Steve Smith. “His whole life was about being a basketball player. I thought it was kind of a far-fetched idea and that he might not make it the whole year, but when he had an opportunity like that, why not go for it?”

He arrived in Italy, awed and overwhelmed. The first time he went to the bank and withdrew euros, he realized he had no idea how much money he held in his hands. He felt dizzy walking the street, signs and voices in a foreign language. On the court, he stepped into a limited role, playing far fewer minutes than if he’d gone to Tucson. “In European basketball, it is very rare,” says Ibrahim Jaaber, an American who spent five seasons playing overseas, including that season alongside Jennings in Rome, “for someone that age to be treated as anything other than a kid.”

The European game has opened up in recent years, but at the time, teams played rigid, slow-paced half-court offense, running precise sets. “He came in with one set of expectations,” says Jaaber, “and I think the experience ran counter to those expectations. As a young player with a microscope on you, under those circumstances, that’s incredibly difficult. He had a lot of barriers.” Jennings’s team played two games most weeks — one in the domestic league and one in the EuroLeague. Jennings often rode the bench in Italian League games but found opportunities to play against competition from the rest of the continent, particularly in games against teams from weaker leagues.


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Across both competitions, he averaged six points and two assists in 18 minutes a game. An Italian League power who knew Jennings would bolt for the NBA the moment he could, his club had little incentive to throw him into the fire. “We were an established team with experienced players,” says Jaaber. “Coming there from Oak Hill, where’s it’s an open road, a green light, shoot anytime you want, it’s your show completely — that’s almost an impossible adjustment. If I were his reps, I would have looked for a situation that was more similar to what he was used to. Where he could have a similar kind of freedom but still develop as a player.”

Yet it was clear, even as he found opportunities lacking, that Jennings had the makings of a star. In practices, he showed an ability to take any defender one-on-one. In games, he flashed a playmaking vision rare for any player, regardless of age. “He was fearless,” says Jaaber. “You have to be to do what he did. He had this confidence that you saw instantly. He had a little flash in his game, and he wasn’t afraid to show it.”

Jennings now sees his Italy experience as crucial to his development. He learned how to hustle and to run the pick-and-roll, to move without the ball and to gamble smartly on the defensive end. “I knew nothing about how to play the pro game,” he says. “They really did teach there.” He spent his newfound cash buying Gucci bags and Louis Vuitton loafers, designer items that he saw as a ticket to another culture. “I embraced it,” he says. “I tried to blend in, to feel like an Italian. Wearing the suits, crossing my legs, changing my whole style. I loved it.”

He felt a pang of longing watching friends in March Madness, all of them getting an experience he’d never have. But when it came time for predraft workouts, he found himself vindicated. “I felt like I was more advanced than anybody,” he says. “You just learn things as a pro that you’re never going to learn in college.”

In the decade since Jennings boarded that first flight to Rome, few players have followed his lead. The next season, big man Jeremy Tyler left after his junior year of high school to play two seasons overseas, in Japan and Israel. Tyler was drafted in the second round by Charlotte and traded to Golden State, but he played only 104 career NBA games, averaging fewer than four points. Emmanuel Mudiay had more success when he skipped college to play a season in China. Denver selected him seventh overall in 2015, and he’s been serviceable, if underwhelming, in his three seasons as a pro. “I never really thought about myself as a trailblazer,” Jennings says. “It’s hard to leave because of what the NCAA can do for you. You’re on TV. Your friends and family can see you play. You get famous. You get March Madness. That’s a lot to give up.”

Yet Jennings takes some measure of pride in rejecting the college game’s veneer of amateurism. “These kids should be getting paid, man,” he says. “The fact that you can score 30 on national TV, but then an alum can’t take you out to a nice dinner? To me, it’s like the schools are pimping these kids. It’s completely unfair.”

When the 2009 draft arrived, Jennings still had no clue what to expect. He’d been invited to the greenroom. He bought an Italian suit and flew to New York, ready to shake David Stern’s hand. But on the day of the draft, his agent Bill Duffy prepared him for the possibility that he might slip deep into the first round. Duffy’s calls and texts to team executives had been going unanswered. In the media, Jennings remembers, “all of a sudden, we’re hearing I might go 21, 22, 23.” Rather than risk being the last man left in the greenroom, cameras capturing his mounting frustration as he fell, Jennings decided to watch the draft from a nearby hotel.

He went 10th, to the Bucks. A lottery pick, exactly as he’d always planned. After he heard his name, he sat in his hotel room and he wept.

In both Milwaukee and Rome, Jennings found one constant: a coach who chewed his ass. He joined a Bucks team led by Scott Skiles, the bellicose and red-faced former point guard, a ball of anger in search of an outlet. In the 2009–10 season, Skiles found the perfect object of his ire: the rookie point guard. “Scott got after him,” remembers Jerry Stackhouse, who joined that team midseason. “Anytime you have a coach who played your same position, they’re always going to go after you even harder.”

Jennings remembers a practice, in a gym in Philadelphia, the day before the Bucks’ season opener against the 76ers. “We’re running through the offense,” he recalls, “and I’m just dragging. I’m like, ‘This is pointless. Why are we running these plays?’” Skiles stopped practice. The gym went quiet. “Yo, rookie!” Jennings remembers him screaming. “You’re bullshitting right now! I’ve got you starting tomorrow night in the season opener, and you’re out here fucking around!”

Jennings stopped, cold, a little stunned. He was stung by Skiles’s anger, and yet he could barely repress his smile.

“‘Yo,’” he remembers thinking. “‘I’m starting? OK then, let’s go.’”

He lit the league on fire. All these years later, sitting at the restaurant in central Wisconsin, he still remembers damn near every detail of every night. He can recount his stat line in the opener: 17 points, nine rebounds, nine assists. In one night in the NBA he put up bigger numbers than almost any game he’d played in Europe. “Right away, it hits me,” he says. “I can do this. I can play at this level.” Then there was the 24-point night at home against Detroit. (“I had this one move, this behind-the-back layup, that was crazy.”) Then the 25 points in Chicago and the 17 at home against New York. He neglects to mention the 4-for-16 night against Minnesota but reels off his numbers (“32 and 9”) a few nights later against Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups’s Nuggets.

And then, on November 14, back at home in Milwaukee, he took the floor for warmups before the game that he would still be known for, around Milwaukee and around the league, nearly a decade later. He was the first player on the floor that night, three and a half hours before tip against Golden State. In a near-empty arena, he shot with assistant coach Kelvin Sampson. “Everything,” he says, “felt good.”

Everything until the opening tip. He missed a 14-footer on the first possession of the game, then an 8-footer a few minutes later and a 17-footer about a minute after that. “I think I was like 0-for-5” — fact check: He was 0-for-3 — “when Skiles pulled me,” Jennings says. “He was like, ‘You’re not being aggressive! Get your head out of your ass!’” Jennings ended the first quarter scoreless but found a rhythm in the second. A layup over Anthony Randolph. A wide-open 3 off a pass from Roko Ukic. A transition tip-in in the midst of a group of ball-watching Warriors bigs. By halftime, he had 10 points, the Bucks down 57–49.

“And then,” he says, pausing for a moment as he thinks back on that night, “well. You know. All of a sudden I just couldn’t miss.”

In the highlight tape of that third quarter, many of the Bucks’ possessions look exactly the same. The Bucks set a high screen, the Warriors bigs drop back, refusing to show, and Jennings pulls up for a jumper, an opposing guard trailing him as the ball drops through the basket. First came a jumper at the right elbow, then another at the left, then a catch-and-shoot 3, then a sweeping lefty lay-in, all in a span of three minutes. The quarter wound on and Jennings kept cooking: more pull-ups (some from 2 and others from 3), more lay-ins (some with a foul and some without), more shots that refused to veer from their path to the bottom of the net. He scored 29 in the quarter, then another 16 in the fourth to finish the game with 55. He became the youngest player in NBA history to score 50. He finished just three points shy of Wilt Chamberlain’s rookie record of 58 in one game.

Two weeks into his NBA career, Jennings was averaging 25.6 points per game. His talent seemed undeniable, his feel for the game beyond reproach. “It still didn’t hit me,” he says. “I didn’t know nothing. I was just like, ‘All right, I got 55.’ And, I mean, that was 55 in three quarters. But it just felt normal. I remember talking to other rookies after that, and they’re looking at me like, ‘Shit, bro, you’re on fire.’ I’m like, ‘I’m just hoopin’, man.’”

The career-launching hot streak didn’t last. Jennings fell to earth, ending his rookie season averaging 15.5 points and 5.7 assists per game, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting behind Evans and Stephen Curry. “Those first couple weeks,” he says, “the scouting report wasn’t out on me.” This, perhaps, is why the Warriors neglected to show hard against him on the pick-and-roll the night he dropped 55. “Once the book is out on you,” he continues, “all those easy buckets go away.”

Over the next several seasons, Jennings maintained a similar level of production. He could be counted on for 15 to 19 points and five to eight assists almost every night. He was crafty and smooth, better at creating shots than making them, likely to make a few plays on the defensive end but just as likely to give up a few buckets that bigger and more physical guards would stop. After several seasons hanging around the playoff bubble, Milwaukee fired Skiles, drafted future superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, and blew up its roster. Jennings was shipped to Detroit.

He joined a young and oddly stitched-together roster. Andre Drummond was not yet an All-Star. Greg Monroe was not yet a stiff. Josh Smith was sitting on a near-max contract and showing the world exactly why Atlanta let him walk. (“I don’t want to take shots at Josh,” Jennings says, “but you can’t make everyone a franchise player. He got a big contract, and everyone’s wanting him to do the things he did in Atlanta, but in Atlanta he was right next to Al Horford, next to Joe Johnson in his prime. He came from a team that’s always in the playoffs, and now we’re saying, ‘All right Josh, take us there.’ But that just wasn’t him. And it’s not really his fault, either.”)

The team was a disaster. Detroit won 29 games under Maurice Cheeks, then brought in Stan Van Gundy. They started 2014–15 with five wins and 23 losses. Unable to trade Smith, Van Gundy waived him. “That,” says Jennings, “is when I finally started to become the player I was supposed to be.”

In his first 15 full games after Detroit waived Smith, Jennings averaged 20 points and 7.2 assists on 44 percent shooting (well above his career mark of 39 percent). “For the first time in my career,” he says, “it felt like I was seeing things before they happened. I’d been watching so much film. I had the ball in my hand a lot, because in Stan’s offense the point guard dictates everything. So as a point guard, you come in every night, and you know it’s on you. It’s on your shoulders. And you either want it or you don’t. And I wanted it. I was thinking, ‘This is my time.’”

On January 4, 2015, Detroit played at Milwaukee. Jennings was back at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, playing before a crowd that still showed him love. Late in the third quarter, he applied full-court pressure on an inbounds to Brandon Knight. As the two jockeyed for position, Jennings stumbled back, then crumpled to the floor. While the Bucks played five-on-four, Jennings writhed on the other end of the court, smacking the hardwood, grasping his ankle, eyes closed, in agony.

He’d torn his Achilles.

“It was over,” he says. “Right then, it was over for me.”


AP

The next two years were a haze. There was the surgery, then the rehab. There was the news, that summer, that the Pistons had signed another point guard. Reggie Jackson. Five years, $80 million. “That summer,” Jennings says, “guys were getting crazy money.” He returned to the court in December 2015. “I wasn’t right,” he says. “I wasn’t myself.” He’d built his entire life around basketball — moving across the country as a high-schooler, then across the world at 18, all so he could become an impact player at the highest level. “I was thinking, ‘Why is this happening to me?’” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. After the injury, I really started to wonder, ‘Am I done? Am I ever going to be the same again? What if I’m not?’” Detroit traded him to Orlando, where he was reunited with Skiles. “That should have been cool,” he says, “but I still wasn’t right in my head. I was just like, ‘Yo, whatever, I’ll play. Whatever, whatever, whatever, man.’”

That summer he signed a one-year deal with the Knicks, joining Rose, Anthony, Joakim Noah, and Kristaps Porzingis. “A mess,” he says of that team. “Just a complete mess.” New York waived him and he latched on with the Wizards, backing up John Wall. He enjoyed Washington, but by the time the Wizards were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, Jennings felt lethargic, adrift. “At that point, I’m like, ‘Yo. Where am I going? What is happening with my career?’” he says. “I’m not myself. Not on the court and not in my head.” In addition to his basketball struggles, Jennings had grown estranged from his mother and other members of his family over issues related to money, he says. “I love them,” he says, “but I needed some distance.” When he got the chance to make NBA-level money on the other side of the world, Jennings barely needed any time to say yes.

Jennings arrived in Taiyuan, a blue-collar city of about 4 million, and stepped into a team with fellow NBA vets Willie Warren and Luis Scola. He spent his days sitting at home or wandering the city alone, his nights getting buckets like he hadn’t since his rookie year. “There’s something about just watching the ball go in the basket,” he says. “I needed that.” He averaged 28 points and seven assists per game, and he traveled from city to city, encountering mobs of fans with a passion unlike any he’d ever seen. Some wore his rookie Bucks jersey. Others asked him to sign pairs of his original Under Armour signature shoes. One night, he stepped onto the court against Stephon Marbury, the kid from Coney Island who’d grown up to be one of China’s greatest sporting icons, whose Chinese experience has culminated with a statue in his honor and a musical about his life.

“You love it, huh?” Jennings remembers Marbury saying.

“Yeah,” Jennings responded. “This shit is crazy.”

“Keep embracing it,” Marbury told him. “And the people will embrace you.”


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And yet, Jennings didn’t feel ready to commit to playing the rest of his career abroad. A return to the NBA — and more than that, a return to the level of play he’d once shown — became his goal. With a nagging hamstring injury, he left China last winter, midway through the season. He went back home to California to work out on his own. A few weeks after he returned, Bucks vice president of basketball operations Dave Dean, who serves as the general manager for the G League affiliate Wisconsin Herd, caught wind of the fact that Jennings was back stateside. Dean remembered what Jennings had done years earlier in Milwaukee, and believed that, if nothing else, he deserved a shot at the G League. “I’d watched some film of him in China,” Dean tells me before tip one night in Oshkosh. “I didn’t need to see much of it. It was clear that he could really play.” He called Jennings’s agent, who relayed the message.

“It’s basketball,” Jennings remembers thinking. “Of course I’m gonna say yes.”

And that’s how he found himself here, on this February afternoon in Oshkosh — living out of a hotel, traveling to road games by bus, playing against guys who’ve chosen five-figure salaries in exchange for proximity to the NBA. “He acts like anyone else,” says Marshall Plumlee, a Bucks two-way player who spends most of his time with the Herd. “From the moment he got here, he blended in.”

In the locker room and on the practice floor, that is. In games, Jennings spent his G League stint doing the same things he did in China, toying with defenders, showing himself to be a talent unlike most any other player in the league. “He’s an NBA player,” Dean says. “You can see that within five minutes of watching him. By the end of this season, we expect he’ll be on an NBA roster.”

No one involved necessarily expected that roster to be the Bucks’. Milwaukee already carried four point guards: Eric Bledsoe, Brogdon, Jason Terry, and Dellavedova. The organization made it clear to Jennings that joining the Herd was less an audition for a spot in Milwaukee than a chance for him to show what he could do in front of scouts from across the league. Jennings himself declined to get sentimental about his return to the state of Wisconsin. “I really don’t think about it like coming full circle or anything,” he says. “I’m just trying to show what I can do and get back to the NBA.”

One night in March, Jennings was sitting in his hotel room, preparing to head to the Herd’s 3,500-seat arena for a game, when he got a call from Dean. “Don’t go to the game,” Jennings remembers Dean telling him. “We want to sign you to a 10-day with the Bucks.” Brogdon and Dellavedova had both been dealing with injuries. Milwaukee needed another point guard. Instead of riding the bus to the gym, Jennings boarded a plane to Memphis. The next night, he’d be back in the NBA.


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The night before his return, Jennings couldn’t sleep. He told himself to be calm, to let the game come to him, to avoid the bad habits of his youth. “I really wasn’t expecting them to call me up,” Jennings told me in a phone interview last week. “So I was anxious. I didn’t know if I was going to play. I felt like a rookie again. I just told myself, if I do get in, even if it’s just two minutes, just be ready.” Just like when he was a rookie, Jennings stepped on the floor and looked immediately like he belonged. In his first game ever in a Bucks uniform, Jennings had gone for 17 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists. In his first game back, he went for 16, eight, and 12. Ten days later, the Bucks signed him to another 10-day deal. Ten days after that, they locked him in for the rest of the season on a multiyear contract. (The terms have not been disclosed.)

Brogdon and Dellavedova have both returned, further crowding the Bucks’ backcourt and making playoff minutes tough to earn. Jennings, though, is grateful to find himself on a playoff roster just months after setting off for China and mere weeks after stepping onto the court in a G League gym. “I’m so hungry,” he says. “I feel like a rookie right now.” And yet, for at least the first game of the series, Jennings was rendered a mere observer, not yet a part of the Bucks’ playoff plans.

He’s 28 years old. He believes his career is far from over. He believes this run with the Bucks is only the next step in his return to becoming the player he still believes he can be. Physically, he says, he feels good. Mentally, he adds, “I’m myself again.” He believes he just needs the right opportunity to show all that he still knows he can do. And when that moment arrives, he’ll think back to those hours spent sitting in his room in China, staring at the four walls around him.

Twice, he’s left this country in search of his own path. The first time, he returned a star. This time, he’s returned a little less famous, a little more weathered, but now, he believes, a little more fully himself.

He thinks back on those two sabbaticals. “First,” he says, “you had the 18-year-old kid who was so excited about life. A kid in a candy shop. Didn’t know what was coming. Didn’t know nothing. Just trying to find his way. And then you have the older, mature version. Who got lost a little bit. But he was trying to find his way back to who he should be and who he is.”

He smiles.

“And he did.”

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