Terry Rozier’s long outside shot
The speedy Celtics rookie outran a lot to get to the NBA: a turbulent childhood, a father behind bars most of his son’s life. Talent and love — including his father’s from afar— saved him.
Terry Rozier Sr.’s bunk at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution is adorned with pictures and news clippings about his son. After the younger Rozier was drafted in the first round by the Celtics last June, one of the father’s fellow inmates even made him a Boston T-shirt with Terry’s face airbrushed onto it.
But Rozier’s support continues to come from a distance. Inmate No. A494-214 has three years remaining on a 13-year sentence for manslaughter, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery.
So for now he will await nights when a television in the prison’s common area is turned to a Celtics game. He will look forward to making a phone call the next morning to hear about how Terry played.
Just the thought of one day seeing his son play basketball in person, finally being able to hug him after a game, is overwhelming. As Rozier thought about that prospect recently, he began to cry and could not stop. An employee at this prison in Conneaut, Ohio, stepped in.
“He just needs a minute,” the woman said. “He’ll be OK.”
It is not that dreams die in Youngstown, Ohio, it is that they often never sprout to begin with. Once a bustling steel town, it has deteriorated like many others in the Rust Belt. One of the primary industries now is incarceration, as there are three correctional facilities within the city limits. The area long had one of the nation’s highest murder rates.
“In Youngstown, it’s like you’re stuck there,” said Rozier Jr.’s mother, Gina Tucker. “You’re stuck there because it’s all you know.”
Tucker had three children with three different Youngstown men. One of the fathers was murdered, and the other two ended up in prison.
Tucker and Rozier Sr. had been friends since childhood. Rozier’s father died when he was 2, and a youth-league coach who was a father figure passed away when he was in eighth grade. The losses left him desolate.
“So then I picked the wrong lane,” Rozier said quietly. “I picked the wrong path.”
When young Terry was born on March 17, 1994, his father, just 18 years old, was there to hold him. Less than two months later he was arrested for aggravated robbery, and was imprisoned for the first eight years of his son’s life.
Gina, left to raise young Terry with the help of her mother, dropped out of high school and passed a GED test. She worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken and lived off of welfare checks, all while trying to rein in her mischievous son.
Terry would climb atop cabinets. He would throw rocks at other homes. He would look around his house for the guns he knew his mother kept hidden. He was just a boy, but the streets already seemed inescapable.
When Terry was a toddler, Gina’s mother, Amanda, pleaded with her to let him live with her in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, where the possibility of a better life waited. She had already taken custody of Gina’s eldest daughter, Tre’Dasia, who has cerebral palsy.
When Terry came home from kindergarten one day and said he had been struck by his teacher, Gina finally relented.
“I realized I just had to get him out of Youngstown,” she said.
At 6, Terry was too young to understand the complicated dynamics, too young to understand why his father was not there and why his mother had sent him away.
He took his anger out on his grandmother, throwing tantrums and calling her names until she cried.
Amanda tried reasoning with him and punishing him and holding him until he calmed down. She took foster parenting classes. She tried everything.
Most nights, Terry would sleep in the large duffel bag where he kept his clothes, always hoping he could just pack up and return to Youngstown.
Gina eventually tried bringing him back to live with her, but the environment was toxic. Gunfire was a common soundtrack on summer nights. Once, a former boyfriend sprayed shots through the walls of Gina’s home.
Gina owned three guns. One was kept above a kitchen cabinet, one under her mattress, and one under a couch. She always had to have a gun ready, she said, so there was no time for lockboxes. Terry knew where the weapons were kept and even played with them when his mother and her friends were distracted.
“When I say I saw shotguns and pistols in the house, I saw them,” Rozier says. “It was what I grew up around. And I was just so hyper. Anything could have happened to me.”
* * *
After his father had been released from the nearby Trumbull Correctional Institution, the two spent several months making up for lost time.
Rozier Sr. taught Terry, then 9, how to box, and Terry taught his father how to play video games. Terry finally had a dad at his youth football practices, a dad to shoot baskets with. Terry still refers to it as the best summer of his life, even though the warm moments were fleeting.
“I pushed it all to the side, everything I had going on, for something that I regret every day,” Rozier Sr. said. “I lost so much for what I did.”
On July 27, 2003, Rozier Sr. and three friends lured a couple to a home to purchase car rims, intending to rob them. When one of the victims got into a struggle with one of the attackers holding him at gunpoint, the gun discharged, killing one of Rozier’s accomplices, a 17-year-old boy.
Since a person was killed while a crime was committed, Rozier and the two surviving accomplices were charged with murder. They pled guilty to kidnapping and robbery and a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter, and in 2005 Rozier was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
“There’s a lot of what-ifs I could make up,” he said. “It’s just at the time, I made a bad decision. I made a bad decision and I have to live with that.”
For Rozier Sr., prison provided a kind of safe haven from those seeking retribution. But Gina began to hear whispers that her family was in danger because of his misdeeds.
“They threatened to kill my son,” she said. “They wanted Terry [Sr.] to feel the pain that they felt. And sometimes that can sound like just a threat, but in Youngstown, when someone says that, you’d better know they’re serious.”
She packed her son’s belongings, called her mother, and said Terry was returning to Shaker Heights.
* * *
For young Terry, the readjustment was difficult. He had violent outbursts, family members say. He would get into fights with other children and once broke a television when he lost a video game. He was enrolled in a school for students with behavioral issues.
This time, his anger and sadness were tinged by the fact that the father he had waited eight years for was gone again.
“You could see the pain in his eyes when other kids would be playing with their dads,” Gina said. “Or if I had a boyfriend, he’d really latch onto him. You could tell he yearned for that relationship.”
“Other people had their dads around,” Rozier said, “and I just wanted my dad to be out.”
When Terry was in fourth grade, his grandmother took him back to Youngstown for Thanksgiving. One terrifying night that weekend helped him finally understand the life he had escaped.
Gina was at a bar with her cousin; Amanda was home with Terry and other children. A dispute broke out between the cousin and some others at the bar, and they threatened to shoot up Gina’s house that night.
When Gina called home in a panic, Amanda rushed the children to a back room and barricaded the door as they hid under a bed, crying. She says she was prepared to have them jump from a window if needed. No gunman came, but the moment shook Terry.
“That’s when I realized that my grandma always just wanted the best for me,” he said. “That’s when I realized how much she loved me and wanted to protect me.”
* * *
Back in Cleveland , basketball gave Terry a focus. He went from rolling up socks and throwing them into laundry baskets to spending endless hours at a recreation center. His grandmother used to sit outside and sell hot dogs and soda, making extra money while Terry began to chase a dream.
He was just 5 foot 3 inches as a seventh-grader, but he embraced his stature, dressing up like former 76ers guard Allen Iverson and throwing his body around the court like it was made of rubber. He often stayed at the rec center past sunset, leaving only when his mother bribed him with hamburgers and orange juice from McDonald’s.
At home, he created his own drills. He would tie a string to a moving ceiling fan and train his eyes on it as he dribbled. He would put a plastic bag over the ball to practice his handling.
Shaker Heights coach Danny Young was an assistant principal at the middle school, and one day he was summoned to the gym to see this dazzling seventh-grader.
“I got there and thought, ‘This little kid?’ ” Young said. “And then he started scoring on everyone.”
Rozier was on the JV team for just three games as a freshman before he was called up to the varsity, where he thrived. He committed to the University of Louisville but did not have a qualifying standardized test score. So after graduating, he enrolled at Hargrave Military Academy, a private boarding school in Chatham, Va., that now counts 23 NBA players as alums.
Rozier was miserable. He woke up to the blare of horns at 5:45 each morning. There was no television in his room, and lights were out by 10 p.m. He worked in the mess hall and attended chapel and went to study halls. Many nights, he sat in his room and cried.
That January, he was caught cheating on an exam, so he had to march on campus in uniform while carrying a rifle for 25 hours. It took him several days to complete the punishment. A day after he finished, he scored 68 points in a game.
“Hargrave made me mature,” Rozier said. “It made me grow up, and I needed that.”
And Louisville still wanted him. He needed that, too.
* * *
Gina Tucker, who worked as a home health aide, picked up a graveyard shift doing hospital security so she could afford to travel to Cardinals games. She did not want to miss a moment.
Rozier had sprouted into a freakishly athletic 6-2 guard with a competitive fire that was rarely matched. But he was not initially considered a surefire NBA prospect. When he was a freshman, scouts usually came to campus to see Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell.
“And they’d leave with a new name on their list,” said former Cardinals assistant coach Kevin Keatts. “We’d see it every day.”
During the summer before his sophomore year, Rozier exploded in the summer camp circuit, shining against elite competition. He decided then that he probably would leave for the NBA at season’s end.
After guiding Louisville to the NCAA tournament’s Round of 8, he declared for the draft, and during a pair of workouts with the Celtics, he was dominant.
“We have one drill where a ball-handler has to dribble upcourt against two defenders,” Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca said. “Terry was the only guy I’ve seen in about 10 years of doing it who just went through two guys like they weren’t even there.”
There was also a difficult conditioning and shooting drill that is known to exhaust players after their first attempt, but Rozier completed it three times in a row.
“I spoke to a lot of NBA people,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said, “and if the Celtics had waited until their second first-round pick, [28th overall], they were going to lose him.”
Boston selected Rozier at No. 16. When his name was called, he jumped into a swimming pool at his draft party in Cleveland wearing a full suit. About 75 miles away at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, Rozier Sr. started screaming with joy. The moment was so overwhelming that the world seemed to go suddenly silent around him, he said, like he’d lost his hearing. But it was also bittersweet to celebrate alone, without his son.
* * *
Throughout high school and college, Rozier’s connection with his father endured. He visited the prison about once a month during the offseason, and his father would sometimes call three times a day.
“I’d always tell him to take my difficulties and use them as motivation,” Rozier Sr. said. “I’m sorry for what I did. I wish I could have been a better father. I tried to encourage him not to be like me. Be better than I was.”
Despite the tangible distance between them, Rozier felt more comfortable opening up to his father than anyone else. He harbored no resentment for the years without him.
“I think what I saw in Youngstown made me understand what he might have got caught up in,” Rozier said. “I knew he wished he could be with me.”
Last year, as a reward for good behavior, Rozier Sr. was transferred from the Trumbull Correctional Institution to Lake Erie, a lower-security prison. He now lives in barracks-style housing rather than a cell, and he enjoys some basic amenities, like access to a television to watch his son play.
Over the years, he has learned trades for when he reenters society: welding, building maintenance, sewing, and cooking. He is scheduled to be released on Aug. 22, 2018, but is optimistic that date will be moved up because of his progress.
“I’m very much mature now,” Rozier Sr. said. “I understand my responsibilities as a man and a father. I have a family to take care of. I’m a totally different person . . . These last 12 years really hurt me. Every day I understand, I realize what I did, what I took away, what I gave up.”
* * *
Terry Rozier is sipping a bottle of water while sitting on a barstool in his Watertown apartment, which sits in a quiet complex that feels so far from the bustle of Boston. He is still just 21 years old, and though he has been away from home before, this is the first time he has truly been on his own.
There is a pile of trading cards on the countertop that he must autograph for a trading card company. An air mattress serves as his living room couch, and a big-screen TV is humming in the background.
Rozier usually stays here and watches Netflix or goes to the Celtics’ training facility in Waltham to work out. Although playing time might be at a premium during his rookie season, which begins Oct. 28 against the 76ers, he believes he can eventually become an All-Star.
Now, though, Rozier can mostly navigate Boston without being recognized. When he was furniture shopping recently, a salesperson asked his friend if Rozier was a rapper. Rozier is eager to make a name for himself in this city and to make his family proud.
He has a 2-year-old son of his own, Justin, and during the season the boy will mostly be back in Ohio with his mother — a former high school classmate — and Gina and Amanda Tucker. Justin is energetic and rambunctious, just like Rozier was at that age.
Rozier Sr. has not met his grandson, but he hopes to have a relationship with him. He regrets that he set such a poor example as a father.
But the younger Rozier said he learned from those mistakes, those distances. He learned what he wants from a father-son relationship, and he hopes this is the start of one special bond and, eventually, the renewal of another.
“Just being able to be around your kid, I don’t think anything can beat that,” Rozier said. “It’s not too late.”