The 1994 NBA Draft took place on June 29 and featured top names like Grant Hill, Glenn Robinson and Jason Kidd. Milwaukee was picking first, followed by Dallas and Detroit. That’s where the NCAA stars would end up landing. All of them were Consensus NCAA All-Americans – the honest honor for a college basketball player, even though the selection process is a bit complicated. There are four official NCAA All-American teams: three are chosen by journalists and one by the coaches association. An average is compiled from the four teams to make up the Consensus NCAA All-Americans – five players on which all can agree. Hill (Duke University), Kidd (California), Robinson (Purdue), Donyell Marshall (UConn) and Clifford Rozier (Louisville) were on the First Team with Eric Montross (North Carolina), Lamond Murray (California), Khalid Reeves (Arizona), Jalen Rose (Michigan) and Melvin Booker (Missouri) making up the Second Team. All of them would go on to have an NBA career and all of them were drafted – except for one. “My draft night was one of the worst nights ever. I was with my family back home. I felt like and thought I would be drafted,” recalled Melvin Booker nearly 20 years later on theundefeated.com. The point guard from the University of Missouri had good reason for his confidence after averaging 18.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 50.4 percent from the field including 40.5 percent on three-pointers as a senior. The Big 8 Conference selected him as Player of the Year. His Tigers a few weeks earlier had reached the NCAA Final Four, where they lost to Arizona. The 1.85 meter guard scored 14 points in his final college game: a bitter 92-72 loss. The NCAA loss didn’t hurt that long because Booker started to prepare for the next level. He probably wouldn’t become an NBA star but his scoring instincts and smooth three-point shot should have been enough to give him a solid career. “It’s unheard of for a player of the year in his conference and a second-team All-American to go undrafted for reasons I don’t even know today,” Booker says today. Maybe he was just ahead of his time. In today’s NBA, his skillset would be warmly welcomed. But small guards were seen as problematic because they could be taken into the post on defense. The best basketball league in the world was a different one. But Melvin Booker did not give up.
The father’s dream
He would end up with the Grand Rapids Mackers of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), which before the D-League (today the G-League) was founded in 2001 was the NBA’s official development league of the NBA. It was in Grand Rapids, Michigan where Booker would continue his journey towards the NBA. It is also where he met Veronica Gutierrez. They came together and on October 30, 1996, Devin Armani Booker was born. At the same time, father Melvin got his chance in the NBA.In the 1995-96 season, he played 11.9 minutes with the Houston Rockets, averaging 4.0 points for the team from Texas. The following season, Booker played 21 games for the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors, even starting four of them. He scored 5.8 points but his three-pointers were not falling, hitting just 32.4 percent. He had failed at the highest level. Melvin Booker was at a crossroads. He was 25 years old, a father who didn’t live with his son’s mother but wanted to be there for both and wanted to support his family back in Mississippi. He only knew basketball, so he decided to head overseas. Booker earned his money in Europe from 1998 to 2008. He went from Sony Milano to Scavolini Pesaro in Italy and then from Ülkerspor to Khimki Moscow before his career ended back in Italy at Armani Jeans Milano. It was difficult to maintain contact to his son. The internet was still in its infant stages. Emails were possible but there was nothing like video calling such as FaceTime or Zoom. And there was the time difference too. Booker only saw his son in person during the summers in deep Mississippi. “It was tough,” Devin Booker remembered. “The only real time with communication I had with him were the two to three months out of the year when I would go down to Mississippi. It was hard for me to understand then why we couldn’t communicate so much.”
Summers in the south
When Devin Booker was with his father, almost everything was about basketball. The son wanted to be like his father, become a professional. The old man passed along his wisdom and tried to show the youngster the right way in those summers. “He always shot with the perfect form,” Melvin Booker recalled. Melvin said he owes Gutierrez the “world” for giving him the chance to see Devin every summer after he turned 8 years old. “I was trying to make up the time I couldn’t be there for him.” Gutierrez believed it was important for the relationship between the two to remain strong. Maybe she also wanted Devin to see another part of the United States and grow with that experience. Grand Rapids is in northern United States in Michigan with nearly 1 million people. More than 1,650 kilometers to the south is Moss Point, where there is not much other than hotels, fast food restaurants, lots of water and the marshlands of the Pascagoula River. About 13,500 people live in the city, with the number dropping. Hurricane Katrina hit Moss Point hard in 2005, with flooding that destroyed massive areas. But it’s still home for Melvin Booker. When Devin Booker was in Mississippi in the summer, he was working on his game with his father. And Grand Rapids was far away. Mississippi in the summer is hot, humid and uncomfortable. It’s sticky in the gyms, most of which have no air conditioning. The unemployment rate in Moss Point is double the US average. There are hardly any good paying jobs with 23.1 percent of the people living under the poverty level and 70.6 percent of the residents being African Americans. It’s a different world. A harder one. Melvin Booker ended his career in 2008 even though he still had offers from Europe. He retired at age 36, returned to Moss Point and became an assistant coach at his former high school. It was then easier for him to stay in contact with his son. Melvin started to sense that his now 12-year-old son would be taller than he was. He saw that Devin understood the game better and his shot was clean. Melvin Booker would coach his son from afar during the school year. “Sometimes I would call and ask him, ‘What did you do after practice? Did you get extra shots up? Did you get to the weight room?’ the father said. “He didn’t understand. He would say, ‘So you want me to practice for two hours and then you want to do more stuff?’ I said, ‘That’s what you need to be great.’ I kind of knew he didn’t have an idea, so that’s when he came to me.”
New start and new home
After his freshman season, a 14-year-old Devin Booker decided to leave everything in Michigan behind him: his mother, his 9-year-old half-sister Mya, his friends, his life and head to Mississippi. It was a big change, going from a predominantly white suburb to a town made up mostly of African Americans. Melvin worried from the beginning that his son would not want to stay in Mississippi. And Devin certainly doubted his decision initially. “I didn’t like it all,” Devin Booker said. “I called my mom (one) night telling her that I might be back soon. Of course, her being my mother, she said, ‘Just let me know when [you’re] coming back. I’m ready for you.’ But I stayed because of the mindset I had my whole life was just never giving up. I gave it some time.” Things were different for the Bookers, who until then had a part-time father-son relationship. Now they had to function together under different conditions with the focus on Devin’s basketball future. All the while, there was catching up for lost time. “When I dropped my son off at school, it was the first time, and he was 15 years old,” Melvin said. Devin appreciated everything and had built a second home. The relationship with his father deepened. They would play one-on-one, NBA 2K and billard – competing at everything. In the end, it was all about Devin getting to the NBA to realize his father’s dream.“ I was fortunate enough to have a dad that was basically a blueprint for me,” Devin said. Devin Booker for three years in high school in Mississippi was a longer version of his father. He is 1.98 meters to his father’s 1.85 meters, and it’s 2014 instead of 1990 with a different style of basketball. The skills his father was giving him were more important. Devin was recruited by big colleges including Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri and the local Mississippi State. In the end, Devin Booker would end up going to Kentucky and coach John Calipari.
One of many
In Lexington, Booker is by far not the only NBA talent on the roster. Tyler Ulis, Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns all arrived with him as freshmen. And they were welcomed to Kentucky in 2014-15 by Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. All of them would reach the NBA. In his sole college season, Booker lost just one game. It was the last one of the season, the semi-finals of the NCAA Tournament against Wisconsin. And Booker did not do extremely well, picking up just 6 points and 1 rebound and not attempting a single three-pointer in a 71-64 loss. Regardless, Booker entered his name into the draft. He wasn’t a Consensus All-American or Player of the Year in his conference. Still, he showed everybody what he could offer at the next level. His 10.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists with 40.0 percent shooting from downtown were just a sampling. But it was more about what he can do … the times had changed. According to draft experts, Booker did not have the potential to be a superstar but he was not a risk. He would at least be a solid NBA player with his nearly perfect shot and understanding of the game. And there was potential for plenty more at just 18 years of age. The Phoenix Suns saw the same thing and selected the shooting guard with the 13th pick.
The son’s dream
Devin Booker’s dream became a reality on draft day. And it was the end of a trauma for Melvin Booker. “I could sense that it still hurt him,” Devin said. “(My dad) said, ‘God had a plan,’ and it was for me to make it to the NBA. He is not living through me. But he said that me being drafted is better than him being drafted. It brought tears to my eyes. It’s hard to explain. It’s a feeling like no other. It’s a night I will never forget,” Melvin Booker said. Everything that the father passed on to his son during those humid summer days in Mississippi turned him into one of the superstars of the league – one of the best scorers in the world. It was a long way from Moss Point, Mississippi to 70 points against the Celtics – becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score at least 60 points in a game. Devin Booker was named an All-Star for the first time in 2020, averaging 26.6 points and 6.5 assists. And experiencing his dream. “It means a lot to me. I am a very proud father and I know my son is living his dream,” Melvin Booker said. “To see it turn out the way it turned, the process is quicker than he expected and now to see him having the success he’s having on this level is amazing. Me knowing Devin, he’s going to continue to work hard and continue to try to get better.”
And the journey is not yet done.
by FIVE Magazine #175 – Devin Booker – Text: André Voigt