TORONTO — Rodney Hood, Trey Lyles and Raul Neto represented the Utah Jazz in the Rising Stars Challenge game on Friday night, giving them a fun highlight for the early part of their NBA careers.
The three Jazz players' basketball careers started many years earlier in Mississippi, Indiana and Brazil, respectively — far from the glitz and glamor of the NBA's All-Star Weekend.
Take a quick trip down memory lane with Hood, Lyles and Neto, who enjoyed chatting about their humble hoops beginnings when they were far from being rising stars...
Hood came from a family of basketball players in Mississippi, so it was no surprise that he fell in line.
“It was just natural for me,” he said, “to start to pick up a basketball — in the yard, in the Boys & Girls Club. That’s where I grew up. That’s where I learned to play.”
It’s a good thing Hood’s dad was the director of that youth club because he and his older brother weren’t friendly to the basketball hoop in the driveway.
“My granddad built a hoop outside our house,” he said. “My big brother was in high school (and) he tore it down, so I had to shoot on a bent rim most of my life. It was good for me, though.”
Hood began going to the club when he was 4 years old. When his dad didn’t take him, he’d get there by a bus that dropped kids off after school.
“During the summer, it was all day. I was just playing basketball,” he said. “We did other things, too, but mainly just basketball, playing outside in the heat, playing in the gym, just getting better.”
If you were a Hood or lived in Meridian, Mississippi, that’s pretty much what you did.
“I think it was just in my DNA. Everybody in my family went to the Boys and Girls Club. My sister did. My brother did. Everybody in the community did. It was ingrained in me.”
Hood continued to improve — although he couldn’t beat his older brother of nine years until high school — and became good enough in the seventh grade that he decided to try out for the ninth-grade team.
“Everybody was telling me I couldn’t do it,” he said.
That didn’t stop him, of course.
“Ninth grade’s basically high school. I was scared. I was nervous,” he said. “I went in there and just tried out and I was one of the best players in the gym. It really prepared my confidence.”
By the next year, Hood was known around Mississippi for being the state’s talented 6-foot-7 point guard.
Hood said he idolized several players from his home state who played in the NBA, including Al Jefferson, Travis Outlaw and especially Monta Ellis.
“He was the guy,” Hood said. “I wanted to be like those guys.”
Hood’s favorite NBA player, however, was Joe Johnson.
“He was real smooth,” Hood said. “(He) could shoot the ball, could score the ball — somebody I could pattern my game after.”
Hood was in New Orleans one time as a kid when he actually spotted Johnson.
“I was too shy to say something. I was tapping my mom, ‘There goes Joe Johnson!’” he said, smiling at the memory. “She was bold enough to go up there and say something to him.”
Hood ended up getting a picture taken with Johnson. Years later, he got a chance as an NBA rookie to meet up with the Nets player again before a Jazz game.
“I showed him the picture when we played against him last year in Brooklyn,” Hood said. “It was a great thing.“
Lyles grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, so it’s probably not too big of a surprise that his sports life began on a sheet of ice.
“I played hockey first,” he said.
When his ex-Kentucky teammate, Suns rookie Devin Booker, learned that tidbit, he laughed.
“He said that to prove he was Canadian,” Booker joked. “That was it.”
Lyles, who said he no longer glides around on the ice because he’s not sure they make skates that big, was a goalie. His height, he jokes, made him a dominating force in the net, too.
Hockey was the only sport Lyles played between the ages of 5 and 7. He smiled when asked if he envisioned becoming the next Great One.
“I don’t know about Wayne Gretzky,” he said, “but it was definitely something I enjoyed doing when I was a little kid.”
For practical purposes, Lyles’ hockey career ended at age 7 when his family relocated from The Great White North to the Midwest of the U.S.
“There wasn’t anywhere to play hockey in Indiana,” he said. “I just fell in love with it (basketball) once I started playing it. Hockey kind of just stopped when I moved away from Canada.”
Lyles’ basketball career took off at an Indianapolis gym he went to with his dad as a kid.
“That,” he said, “is where it pretty much all started.”
He’d occasionally play on the hoop at his home, but it had some durability issues.
“We had one in the driveway, but it kept falling over,” he said, grinning. “So we just stuck to the gym.”
Though he eventually became a Kobe Bryant fan, Lyles actually started out as a fan of the Black Mamba’s former teammate. He saw himself as being The Diesel when he played.
“When I was younger, I was bigger than everybody else, so my favorite player was Shaq,” Lyles recalled. “I was trying to be Shaq out there.”
With a laugh, he added, “Young Shaq.”
Neto followed in the footsteps of his dad, Raul Togni Filho, who was a basketball player himself when the Jazz guard was a tot. His own hoops career began when he was about 3 years old in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
“Every moment I remember from when I was a kid I was always with a basketball in my hands,” Neto said. “Just being with my dad in practice, games … running on the court with a basketball.”
Neto started playing organized basketball in Brazil when he was 8 years old. Because his dad was so into basketball, his family had a hoop at his house. His dad also had an adjustable plastic standard, which didn’t have very good luck.
“We always broke it because we tried to dunk on that,” Neto recalled, laughing. “Every month, he (had) to buy a new one.”
When he was a young teenager, Neto faced a crossroads with his sports. Like most Brazilian boys, he was a proficient soccer player. He even quit hoops for a while to join his friends in a tournament. The peer pressure was stronger than the basketball scene in his country.
“I was not motivated to play basketball because it’s hard to play growing up playing basketball. In Brazil, you don’t have a lot of opportunities,” he explained. “You don’t have a lot of games. You don’t have a lot of teams to play against.”
Neto’s basketball sabbatical didn’t last long.
“After these two months, I saw my brothers, my dad, with a basketball and I just came back,” he said with his strong Brazilian accent. “I’m glad I came back.”
Neto was also a talented soccer player, so who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t made that decision to return to the hardwood.
“I don’t know if I was better in soccer than basketball at that moment, but I was pretty good at soccer, too,” he said. “I don’t know what I would be if I was playing soccer, but I think (basketball) was a good choice.”