DeKALB – Nate Rucker doesn’t believe in superstition. His perspective is based on life’s simplicities. There is good or bad. There is right or wrong. And there is a fundamental, human ability to choose between the two.
This is what he trusts. It’s a lesson he learned growing up in Memphis, Tenn., where waking the next morning always seemed like a blessing, even in a cursed city. He carries it to this day, as a freshman on the Northern Illinois men’s basketball team.
He also contradicts that belief daily.
Rucker has had dreadlocks for the past three years. He’s NIU’s most visually recognizable men’s basketball player. The Huskies have 14 on their roster. All except two – Rucker and Norway native Aksel Bolin – have short hair.
“I think about the story in the Bible, Samson, and how his hair brings him strength,” Rucker says. “I believe it brings me strength. I felt like, if I have long hair, people wouldn’t mess with me. If I had a big ’fro, nobody would walk up to me or say something crazy.”
Rucker’s hair isn’t just his signature style. It’s his swagger on the basketball court and his safety off it. His one superstition. Because people do have the ability to choose between good or bad, but they don’t always choose right.
That’s another lesson Memphis taught him too many times.
‘So much crime, everywhere’
Rucker’s father always told him a man never runs from adversity. A real man meets it head on. He doesn’t back down. He perseveres.
In Memphis, adversity comes in waves.
When the economy plummeted, Memphis took one of the worst hits. In 2009, Forbes ranked Memphis’ economy the second worst among major U.S. cities. Ahead of Detroit. Behind only Stockton, Calif., where college degrees are rare and unemployment is almost 15 percent.
Then there’s the crime. With 1,218 violent crimes per 100,000 people, Forbes also rated Memphis the second-most dangerous U.S. city in 2008, Rucker’s sophomore year of high school.
“It was hard at times,” Rucker says. “I mean, so much crime, everywhere. Every time I went back to the house, I would hear the sirens and gunshots. It was just crazy.
“After a while, you get kind of scared. But when you’re growing up around it, you kind of get used to it. It was just an everyday thing. It was normal.”
Rucker says he never will forget when the violence became normal to him. He was 11.
Rucker turned on the evening news one night with his parents. His childhood friend had been murdered a couple days before, over a pair of Michael Jordan sneakers. Rucker knew something was up. He’d been calling, but no one was answering.
The news broadcast the story. Rucker found out why he was unable to contact his friend.
“It was kind of hard,” Rucker says of his friend, who he called Youngblood. “There were so many questions I would ask, like, ‘Why? Why my friend? Why folks I know? What did he do to deserve that?’ I was mad. This was one of my friends I knew, grew up with. We had so many memories.”
Even now, those memories are fresh, strong as ever. When asked to discuss them, Rucker gives a blank stare and talks slowly. He relives the times the two went to the neighborhood basketball court, watching the older players and anticipating the day it would be their turn. They fantasized about all the moves they’d make when they were older, bigger, able to touch the rim.
Only one of them made it.
Rucker’s father was there for his son through the heartbreak, offering what he calls “tough love.” He hated to hear about the death. It was more useless, unnecessary violence. But he believes some good came from the tragedy.
“It was one of those things you could see coming from a mile away. I mean, no parenting (guidance), whatsoever,” Rucker’s father, Nate, says. “It was a slap in the face, because with our kids we try to teach them and tell them, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.
“He saw firsthand why we didn’t let him go with those kids. He saw why we were so strict about him going anywhere.”
His friend’s death wasn’t the only difficult moment of Rucker’s childhood. It’s just the first that comes to mind. When asked what kind of violence he saw, Rucker said there were too many times to remember them all.
“A lot of his friends didn’t make it out,” says Rucker’s high school basketball coach, Jermaine Johnson. “They’re either in jail or dead.”
Rucker stayed on the right path. There was something else his father always said.
“We always told him the same thing my father told me,” Rucker’s father says. “You go to jail, you’re out. You’re on your own. We won’t go visit you. You get into trouble on your own, you can be on your own.”
Rucker’s father has a direct personality. He’s a man who says what he means and means what he says. But the truth is, he never was going anywhere.
He came from a two-parent household. His son was going to grow up in the same environment.
“That was a must. I was not going to be one of those parents watching from a distance,” Rucker’s father says. “His mother (Veronica) and I wanted him to have the benefit of a two-parent household. It had to be 100 percent both parents involved.”
Basketball didn’t become Rucker’s priority until junior high. His first love was computer games, a hobby he got from his dad.
Rucker played computer games with his father throughout his childhood. Their favorites were the military war games, and Rucker almost always would win. His dominance earned the nickname “General” from his father.
But the point never was who won or lost. It was about spending quality time, building a bond and teaching lessons Rucker’s father hopes last a lifetime.
“I give a lot of credit – first of all to God – but also to his parents,” NIU coach Ricardo Patton said. “His parents did a nice job talking to their kids about education, going to college. And they bought in.
“Most of the time it’s a single mom trying to raise a big, strong young man and trying to get him to do what’s right. But it’s a lot easier when there’s a father in the home to reinforce some of those rules.”
Too many times the story goes the other way. Too many times it’s only one parent. Nate and Veronica were equally important to their son’s development, but the father’s presence gave Rucker something too many children in Memphis lack: two parents.
“Plenty of single parents have done a wonderful job, but I believe parenting was intended to be a balance between the masculine and feminine parts,” Rucker’s father says. “[His mother] deals with him in a feminine way. I deal with him in a masculine way.
“I’m usually a little tough on Nate on life circumstances, because you can’t sugar coat stuff. Especially in that environment.”
As Rucker got older, Melrose also watched him closely.
Deep in the inner city, the Melrose community where Rucker was raised is surrounded – and filled – with crime. But it’s also a community with pride.
Doctors have graduated from Melrose. Lawyers, too. It’s part of the southern Memphis suburb Orange Mound, the country’s first neighborhood built exclusively by black citizens. And the people still take care of their own.
Rucker’s father says the community has an innate ability to recognize the best among them and offer support. Even with short hair, the chances of people saying “something crazy” to Rucker would’ve been slim.
“The difference from Melrose and a lot of different places is Melrose is community driven,” Rucker’s father says. “Nate was known, and he was respected everywhere he went. It’s amazing how the community is wrapped around those players to keep them grounded.
“Basketball kept him occupied with other things. He didn’t have to run the streets or go elsewhere. I think basketball was a great catalyst to keep him from the inner-city mindset.”
NIU recruiting coordinator Will Smith knows Orange Mound as well as anyone. Smith attended Hamilton High in Memphis, only two minutes from Rucker’s childhood home. He played against Johnson when the two were in high school, and both graduated the same year.
Orange Mound isn’t perfect. It has plenty of problems. But Smith says the community is a special place.
“It’s very tradition strong,” Smith says. “You go to games, and you’ll see a number of 60-, 70-, 80-year-olds still wearing their high school letter jackets. … It’s strange, but it works. For whatever reason, it works.”
At the center of it all, there’s basketball.
The ‘Kentucky’ of Memphis basketball
It was the Tennessee state championship game, the 32 minutes that rewarded three years of hard work, and Rucker was confined to the bench.
He’d broken his right ankle in the semifinals, an injury so severe he “snapped his ankle in half,” his father says. The injury briefly sent him to the hospital. Rucker had to watch the biggest game of his life from the bench.
But he wasn’t going to let his absence keep Melrose from winning its first basketball state title since 1983.
Sitting on the sideline, Rucker became more than his team’s biggest cheerleader. He was an extension of Johnson, an assistant coach. He told his teammates to keep their composure. He explained the Xs and Os.
Johnson says Rucker’s sideline help was as valuable as any performance that day, including Melrose point guard and tournament MVP Chris Jones’ 35 points. After the game, Jones said he wanted to win for Rucker.
“He’s part of history,” Rucker’s father says. “They put a 20-foot (team) picture on the gym wall that will be there for hundreds of years. In the inner city, you know the problems you got. But for him to bring that type of pride to the city, for him to shake the hand of the mayor, I’m very proud of him.”
Melrose’s basketball program couldn’t have a higher profile. Johnson calls it the Kentucky of Memphis basketball. The players are stars, easily recognizable in the community. The gym was always packed for home games.
It wasn’t like that during Rucker’s first season.
When Rucker transferred to Melrose as a sophomore, the team was coming off a losing record. Rucker’s sophomore season was Johnson’s first with the program. Johnson sold Rucker on his three-year plan: finish above .500 the first season, win district championship the second, win it all the third.
His team followed it precisely. Rucker’s senior season, Melrose finished 37-4.
Rucker was never the team’s biggest star. That title belonged to Jones and Adonis Thomas, the nation’s 10th-ranked high school player who was selected for the McDonald’s High School All-Star Game this month. But Rucker was the senior, the leader. Johnson called him Melrose’s heart and soul.
“When he went out in the semifinal game, everybody thought it was over because he meant everything,” Johnson said. “He meant so much to this program, and this community.”
From ‘Little Nate’ to a ‘Man Child’
Before Rucker developed into a good basketball player, he was mostly known as Candace Rucker’s little brother.
Candace was the basketball star, the one who drew interest from colleges across the country. She played one season at Colorado before transferring to Southwest Tennessee Community College, which brought her home to Memphis.
But Candace’s freshman season allowed her brother to meet Patton, who was the men’s basketball coach at Colorado. Patton says Rucker was known as “Little Nate.” His lack of size for a post player – he’s just 6-foot-6 – fit the moniker, but Smith says there was nothing little about his game.
“He was a man child,” Smith says. “He just really loved the game. He had a passion for it.”
Six Division I programs in Tennessee recruited Rucker, some more than others. Memphis offered him a scholarship. Tennessee showed light interest. And then there was NIU, the one program outside the state that offered Rucker a scholarship.
He and his father sat down and compiled a list of pros and cons, weighing each option. Rucker had developed a good relationship with NIU’s coaching staff. When Rucker forgot a class he needed to graduate, Smith notified him in time to change his schedule.
Rucker says their friendship made NIU an easy choice.
“I felt it was only right that I repay this school for all the time they dedicated to me,” Rucker says. “Most of the folks I know from Memphis leave one year and say they can’t stand being away from home. But I knew the only way to better myself was to get away from home. Really, I was just ready to go better myself.”
There was one matter that hadn’t been discussed during the recruiting process – Rucker’s hair.
Rucker decided to grow the dreadlocks after his sister left for Colorado. Candace had been responsible for styling his long hair, which he immediately grew out after every haircut.
Patton is a short-hair guy. He tells his players, look like you’re trying to get a job. If you can’t wear something in a job interview, it shouldn’t be worn. That usually meant buzz cuts and dress clothes.
Patton made an exception for Rucker.
“I took my dated idea of how people should look out of the equation,” Patton said with a laugh. “I didn’t tell him in the recruiting process that I’d make him cut it. So I thought it was unfair to him to get him here and then say that I don’t approve of that.”
Rucker’s southern draw is still thick, unmistakable. His memories are just as strong.
Erasing scars isn’t easy. It takes time. It’s a process. Smith says Rucker is just beginning.
But Rucker has support around him. His father watches every game – whether it’s on the internet, TV or in person – and they talk on the phone constantly. Smith says he feels like Rucker’s older brother, and he’s always around to offer advice.
“I just tell him, ‘You can’t hold on to everything forever, and everything is in a plan,’” Smith said. “All of us have had different situations that we’ve had to deal with, but they’ve happened for a reason. Whether it’s to learn how to grieve, or learn how to not do certain things, it’s all in a plan.
“Being away from it, and being able to look at it from the outside, I think helps out a lot. He’s able to see the world is totally different than just Memphis.”