Back when the football field was a backyard behind his home in Suitland, Md., and stretched long enough for a Hail Mary toss, and the basketball court was a driveway out front with his two older brothers waiting for him at the rim, Wynston Tabbs would play ball until the daylight wore out and the street lights started burning.
Basketball brought out all his friends from around the neighborhood. They would run as many games as they could and shoot until their arms got tired. Their only concern was not banging the basketball off the garage.
“Every time the ball hit the garage, we’d get scared because my dad would come out in the window,” Tabbs said.
The elder Tabbs would give them a stern look only a father could give, one that still sticks out in Tabbs’s mind.
“Then he’d tell us to go in the back,” Tabbs said with a smile.
Wynston Tabbs had the kind of father everyone knew. Chris Tabbs was a middle school physical education teacher. At 6 feet 4 inches, he had the stature to command a room, but also the sense of humor to keep everyone at ease.
“Everybody knew him,” Tabbs said. “He was always trying to help kids get on the right path.”
He was no different with his own sons. Tabbs remembered the wakeup calls at 5 a.m.
“I used to be so mad because I was a kid at the time, I didn’t want to get up,” Tabbs said, grinning at the thought as a 20-year-old.
But Chris Tabbs saw the future Wynston had ahead of him, from a young boy bouncing a basketball off the garage in Maryland to a young man with the potential to follow in the line of dynamic guards at Boston College, and wanted him to walk a straight line.
“I was sitting on the couch, and he told me one day, ‘You can be as good as you want,’ ” Tabbs recalled. “He had already seen it before I was even thinking about it.”
Those words left an impression as lasting as the vivid memory he has of a day four years ago when he found out his father had died. It was as normal a day as any. Tabbs was at basketball practice at St. Mary’s Ryken High School, a private Catholic school in Leonardtown, Md.
His father was at school, playing basketball with some of the students. He went up for a rebound, came down, and had a heart attack. A friend got a call from Tabbs’s mother and immediately found Wynston. They got in the car and made the hour-long drive to the hospital in Virginia.
“It’s quiet,” Tabbs said. “We’ve got the radio on. I’m driving back and I honestly could feel something was wrong. I even started crying before I even knew anything. I got to the hospital, see my mom, and it was just crazy from there.”
At that moment, Tabbs knew his life would never be the same.
“It made me grow up 10 times faster,” Tabbs said. “It changed me. It definitely changed me.”
Tabbs arrived at BC last year ready to set The Heights on fire. He earned a spot in the starting lineup as a freshman and his eyes lit up at the idea of playing in the backcourt with Ky Bowman.
For the first two months, he showed flashes of the player he could be. He scored 28 points at Sacred Heart, 19 at Columbia, 20 versus Fairfield, earned Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Week honors, and established himself as a genuine scoring threat.
“I was passing with flying colors,” Tabbs said. “I was doing everything — dishing the ball, scoring, I was at my peak. I definitely feel like I haven’t touched my limit yet as far as getting better. I feel like I wasn’t even playing my best basketball yet.”
Still, he could sense something wasn’t quite right. Against Sacred Heart, he was coming downcourt and bumped knees with someone. When he tried to run back on defense, his knee was killing him. He played on it for a month before sitting out against Notre Dame in January. He figured that was enough time to allow a minor injury to recover.
He gave it another shot against Florida State. He hit a 3-pointer with 24 seconds left to seal an 87-82 upset.
“That was a good feeling,” Tabbs said. “I was playing hurt and I was still making some noise.”
But he still had a sense that something was off.
“After the Florida State game, I’m like, ‘I need to get my knee checked. I can’t be playing like this,’ ” he said.
He got an X-ray after the Florida State game and it revealed that his kneecap was chipped. He went through arthroscopic surgery. “The X-ray kind of sealed the deal,” he said.
He held out hope that he could return for the ACC tournament, but that never happened after he missed the final 14 games of the regular season.
Tabbs spent the summer rehabbing. He felt normal when he came back for summer workouts. By the third practice, his knee started to swell. He got another X-ray. Doctors told him his knee needed cartilage replacement. He needed surgery that would force him to sit out the entire 2019-20 season.
“Mentally, it’s a burden,” Tabbs said. “Going from playing, you’re ACC Freshman of the Week, then not playing, not working out. It [stinks] because I’m working, I feel myself making progress now and I can’t show it. But everything happens for a reason.”
Looking back, Tabbs can see a point after his father’s death when he was at a crossroads.
“I was going towards the wrong path,” Tabbs said. “I was just going a completely wrong direction and kind of caught myself.”
Even though he no longer had his father to lean on, he had someone who wouldn’t let him fail.
Stanley Hodge had known Tabbs since he was a 14-year-old playing on his AAU team. Hodge made a name for himself as a star guard at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C., before going overseas to play professionally in Germany. He saw a lot of himself in Tabbs.
“He was super raw as a player, but just oozing with talent,” Hodge said. “Athleticism, really good defender, good feel for the game.”
Hodge also had been close with Tabbs’s father. When they talked about Tabbs, Hodge made one promise.
“One of the things I told his dad was to make Wynston Tabbs the best Wynston Tabbs he could be,” Hodge said.
When Hodge found out about the death of Wynston’s father, “It really broke my heart,” he said.
Hodge knew he could never take the place of Tabbs’s father.
“I never wanted, and never will try, to be his dad — ever,” Hodge said.
But he knew how crucial the moment was in Tabbs’s life.
Hodge remembered telling his now-wife, “I don’t know necessarily what my calling is, but I feel like God’s telling me I need to be there for him. At that time, manhood, as you know, is a serious thing that I don’t take for granted.
“And around those years — 15, 16, 17 — those are very important years to have a strong male in your life. That’s what I felt at the time.”
The first chance Hodge had to work out with Tabbs was a test of how much Hodge could push and just how Tabbs would respond.
Before Tabbs picked up a ball, Hodge ran him through conditioning drills, ladder drills, jump rope, heavy rope. From there, they went through a series of ball-handling drills. Then they got into the shooting drills.
“I didn’t know if Wynston was going to come back because it was so hard,” Hodge said. “He probably shot the ball so much that day that his arm hurt.
“It was exhausting, but he responded. Wynston, he’s a real tough-minded kid. He came back the next day.”
Showing the way
That’s how the bond was built and the routine was started. When Tabbs told Hodge he wanted to start at BC, Hodge drew up a game plan to make the goal attainable.
What Hodge realized, though, was that everything he did mattered.
If Hodge told Tabbs to eat right, that meant Hodge had to eat right, too. If Hodge suggested Tabbs should read something to stay engaged, Hodge would read the same material to keep himself motivated. Whatever he preached, he had to practice.
“He helped me, too, to become a way better person,” Hodge said. “One of the things that happened in me stepping in after his dad passed was I had to be completely accountable for everything. And one thing that I learned from dealing with him on a day-to-day basis is they pay attention to what you do, not what you say.”
Since Tabbs has been rehabbing, Hodge has had a little jewel of motivation waiting for him every day. It might be a podcast. It might be an audiobook. Recently, it’s been a YouTube series on Damian Lillard’s road from small-school underdog to NBA star. Tabbs identified with Lillard being sidelined for six months because of a fractured foot and using that time to hone his skills.
“Those six months pushed him past people,” Tabbs said. “When he got everything else back, he just excelled from there.”
As the BC basketball team pushes through another grueling ACC season, Tabbs is waiting patiently to make an impact again.
Life will challenge him. It already has. Perseverance is his default setting.
“When I lost my dad, that was the hardest thing,” Tabbs said. “So I feel like now I’ve been through all of this, I’m starting to see a little light at the end of the tunnel, now just keep working to the point that when it comes, everything I worked for is going to show when I hop on the court.
“Knowing that and remembering that, it just comforts me. Now I’m just going to put my head down and work until whatever God has planned for me comes up.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.