Monday, November 24, 2014 · 8:22 p.m.

Meet Big Mike Bradley

Chattanooga's Michael Bradley, a foster child at age 11, found home despite a myriad of obstacles.

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Chattanooga-native Michael Bradley, a graduate of Tyner Academy, is a redshirt freshman on the University of Connecticut men's basketball team. Two years ago, he was finishing his sixth year as a resident at Chattanooga’s Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

People know him, but for the wrong reason. 

It was on Aug. 26, 2011, that his name splashed across Web pages in rapid succession. He didn’t expect it. He had little reason to. He says now that he was just doing what he thought was best for his team. 

Sacrifice. It’s something Michael Bradley is far too familiar with. Sure, Andre Drummond would take his minutes. Yes, Andre Drummond would leave little room in the spotlight for him. And, of course, that scholarship that he was willing to give up in order to bring America’s top prep big man to the University of Connecticut was his to hold on to if he chose. But “Big Mike,” as everyone at Chattanooga’s Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home (TBCH) calls him, was OK with that.

Michael Bradley couldn’t have foreseen the fallout from that quiet Friday night in late August when Drummond declared he would play at UConn. He was about to become an unwitting martyr in the media’s fight against the hypocrisy of NCAA politics.

Big Mike thought he was just doing the right thing. But when everything unraveled, and UConn was blasted for allowing a foster kid from Chattanooga to give up his scholarship for the one-year rental of a future NBA player, he was a name in a sordid tale, but not a character of substance. Once it all played out, it was revealed in mid-December, four months after the original story left Mike in the backwash, that Drummond actually never took Michael’s scholarship. Drummond divulged to local media in Connecticut that he was in fact playing as a walk-on. By then, though, focus on the story had long shifted onward.

In hindsight, everyone should have looked much closer at Michael from the beginning. Lost in the noise and confusion was his story—the story of Big Mike: his sacrifices, his victories, his hardships and perseverance.  More than anything, that’s the story he should be known for.

“He doesn’t want to be another generation of nothing.”
                         -Lynn Jordan

It’s a minute and a half into a one-hour, four-minute conversation, and Ms. Jordan has succumbed to reflective tears. She’s recounting a story from early in the summer of 2010. It was the day she released Michael Bradley into the big blue world. The two traveled together to the University of Connecticut’s campus in Storrs, Conn. Ms. Jordan, as she is solely referred to at TBCH, had watched Michael grow from a 5-foot-7, 11-year-old with a rigid disposition to a 6-foot-10 man with an endearing charm and a winsome smile.

“Can you believe where you’ve been?” she asked Michael before being engulfed by a parting hug.

Ms. Jordan is Lynn Jordan, the residential program director at the TBCH in Chattanooga. She is one cast member in a company of adults who fought to lasso Michael’s unmissable promise through his adolescent years. The potential spilled over the brim. Ms. Jordan served as Michael’s second mother. He still had a relationship with his birth mother, Jacqueline, but Ms. Jordan was the day-in, day-out boss. Bob Smith, his Bible study teacher at Westwood Baptist Church in Cleveland, about 22 miles north of the TBCH location on Lee Highway, meanwhile, took on a fatherly role. 

Consisting of six locations across the Volunteer State, TBCH provides residential care to children from families in crisis. A parent or custodian makes a referral for a child with behavioral issues or unhealthy home life, and, if accepted, that child lives cost-free in cottages on the grounds with visits home on occasional weekends.

The average child stays at TBCH for about two years.

Michael Bradley stayed at TBCH’s Chattanooga location for six years.

“When you’re in certain neighborhoods, you don’t need to seek trouble,” Ms. Jordan says. “You’re either a part of it, or you become a problem to them—the gangs. I think [Michael] realized that he could stay away from all that by being here. He was sheltered from that and didn’t have the pressures of that. He could see down the road.”

The details of Michael’s migration from his gritty East Chattanooga neighborhood to TBCH are only glossed over by those who know. His father, absent from the family picture, had a heart attack when Mike was young. He didn’t know him. Jacqueline was a single mother of two, working a pair of jobs. Remembering back, Michael now says, “It wasn’t, like, extremely bad, you know what I mean? It wasn’t a dead situation. My mom wasn’t mistreating me or anything. You just don’t have many opportunities in East Chattanooga. There were a lot more opportunities in a more structured environment.”

When 11-year-old Michael arrived, he simmered with anger. Clenched fists would hang from his sides. Ms. Jordan would cock her head and, in a polite Midwestern tone dripped with Southern honey, soothingly murmur, “Would you knock that off, you know you’re not gonna hit me.”

Over time, the fists unclenched. 

Young Michael was unlike anything the caretakers at TBCH had seen. Ms. Jordan and her team are typically introduced to struggling kids at least two years behind their grade levels. Mike was not only on the proper reading level, but quickly showed he could excel. He did so in his own unique way.

“It was stubbornness,” he says. “I’m extremely stubborn. When I was younger, it worked against me. A teacher would tell me to do this or that, and I would always question them. Or a teacher would tell me to do things a certain way, but then I’d say, ‘Well I just got a 90-something on your quiz, so I don’t think what you’re telling me applies.’ But after awhile, that type of stubbornness doesn’t get you anywhere. You start going backwards.”

Chattanooga's Michael Bradley, all these years later. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

So Michael Bradley moved forward, unbending his single-mindedness. He redirected that stubbornness toward avoiding the trapdoors that befell those back in East Chatt. 

“I started looking around and saying, ‘I’m not ending up like those people,’” he says.

After middle school, Michael entered Tyner Academy. 

He was likely the only foster child on the Honor Roll.

“When you come from a background of poverty or dysfunction, as a lot of our kids do, education gets pushed to the background,” Ms. Jordan says. “Michael realized that that was one thing he could control.”

To this day, the ultimate question lingering amongst those close to Michael is, why? What was inside Michael Bradley that didn’t let him crack? His origins are sadly common. His results are distinctly unique. Given every excuse to fail, he thrived.

“There’s no real explanation for it,” says Carl Willis, the regional vice-president for East Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes. “He just defied a lot of odds.”

“He doesn’t want to be another generation of nothing,” adds Ms. Jordan. “Some people just make the best out of their circumstances. I’ve always wondered what it is about him.”

When Michael was 16, a decision needed to be made whether we would return home or remain at TBCH. He had an opportunity to gain all the freedom he naturally desired as a teenager. No more curfews. No more restrictions on leaving campus. For all intents and purposes, the decision was his.

He told Ms. Jordan, “My future is here.”

“Mike didn’t want to be here, but he knew it was the best place for him,” she says.

“How does all this happen? Seriously, how’s that happen?”
                         -Chip Smith

Chip Smith’s interest peaked when he saw the post on an AAU message board. A 14-year-old ninth grader from Chattanooga claiming to be 6-foot-7 was looking for an AAU team. Smith called the phone number. A woman answered.

“Hello, is Michael there?” he said. Jacqueline, Michael’s mother, had no idea what the man was talking about. “What message board?” Smith explained the post he had read online. “MICHAEL!” Jacqueline blared.

Mike, who was home for a weekend visit, came to the phone. 

“I saw your message and would like to meet you,” Smith said.

“Yes sir.”

“Are you doing well in school?”

“Yes sir.”

“Would you like to try out for the Tennessee Tigers AAU team?” 

“Yes sir.”

Smith asked to speak to Jacqueline again. In a lengthy conversation, he explained what he was talking about on his end, and she explained the situation on their end. Jacqueline told Smith when and where Michael’s next game was.

“You’ll know him—he’s the tall skinny kid that runs funny,” she explained.

Chip Smith didn’t know that Michael had only been playing basketball for one year. It was never anything more than a passing hobby. Then Michael blinked, and he was over 6-foot-5. The game took over his ever waking minute. That doesn’t mean it went smoothly. 

“He couldn’t chew gum and walk at the same time, let alone play basketball,” Ms. Jordan says.

At Tyner, Michael developed in coach Gerald Harris’s program. The playing time came sparingly. This was unacceptable to that stubborn psyche. Michael worked relentlessly through those early stages. By the time he was 16, Carl Willis gave him keys to the gym on the TBCH campus so he could shoot. He’d typically do so till midnight. 

Branching out into AAU ball after his freshman year changed Michael’s entire thought process. The possibilities became transparent. His skills slowly caught up with his height. The work ethic intensified. Michael would shuffle back and forth between Nashville and Chattanooga via Chip Smith or Bob Smith to play AAU. 

The experience left an indelible mark on Chip. He remembers taking the team to Detroit for AAU Nationals and staying at Detroit’s enormous Renaissance Center, a veritable playground for a teenager, complete with shops and restaurants in the middle of the city. Chip Smith sat in his room the first night desperately hoping his 15-year-old players weren’t out looking for trouble. Just then, Michael came waltzing through the door, breathing heavy with a sweat-soaked shirt clinging to him.

“What are you doing? Why are you covered in sweat?” Chip asked.

“Huh? Oh, I’ve been running the stairs. I gotta get stronger,” Michael responded to his puzzled coach.

The results started to show on the court. Michael was a difference-maker at Tyner by his junior year. He had a natural jump shot and wingspan that debunked the Vitruvian Man. Suddenly, basketball took top-billing. Attention shifted hard to the court and away from the classroom. Late assignments resulted in C grades. Ms. Jordan fumed. She immediately approached Coach Harris, saying, “We’re not going to have this.” Bradley was held out of practice and benched for a game.

Problem solved.

“When I saw him getting a little cocky, I’d have to say, ‘Michael, God made you tall, you had nothing to do with that, so don’t act like you did,’” Ms. Jordan says.

By the summer after his junior year, Big Mike had people’s attention. He secured an invite to coach Josh Pastner’s Memphis elite camp in June. The talent was raw, but he stood out among the big men in agility drills. A week later, Pastner called Chip Smith. A scholarship was on the table. Pastner knew that if Bradley went through the July AAU tournaments, other programs would swarm.

He proved to be prophetic.

Michael wasn’t ready to commit to Memphis, and more offers poured in as Bradley hit the summer circuit. He drew interest from the likes of Virginia Commonwealth, Drake, Belmont, Murray State and, further down the line, Georgia, Ole Miss, Stanford, Virginia and Harvard. Michael wanted to major in pharmacy in college, which narrowed some of his choices. His background and academic profile made him just as desirable as a stature quickly approaching 6-10.

“Here’s a kid whose father died early, he didn’t really know him, he then moves to children’s home at 11, and goes on to get a 27 on his ACT and is an honor student,” says Chip Smith. “How does all this happen? Seriously, how’s that happen?”

In the recruiting process, word spread of Big Mike from Chattanooga. More and more coaches wanted answers to the same questions. They jockeyed for his attention.

Then came a July trip to Orlando, Fla., and the chance encounter that changed everything. It was 17-year-old Michael Bradley versus 15-year-old Andre Drummond facing each other on the final day of the AAU national tournament. UConn coach Jim Calhoun and assistant Patrick Sellers were there to dissect Drummond, the young prodigy who graced magazine covers. But every time they tried to watch Drummond, a nameless face from Chattanooga kept stealing their stares. 

The rest is history.

Calhoun offered Michael a scholarship he’d ultimately sign. Two years later—following Mike’s senior year at Tyner and a redshirt freshman year at UConn that saw the Huskies with the 2011 national championship—that very scholarship would be the one that entangled Bradley in a story of which he was the red herring.

BIG MIKE PLAYED HERE

The cheap desk chair is doing its best to hold onto Michael Bradley. The 19-year-old is now a smidgen over 6-10 and approaching 240 pounds. Leaning back inside a small conference room at the Knoxville Marriott Hotel on Friday night, he utters these sobering words.

“I’m kind of at a standstill.”

Michael Bradley (middle, back) peers around Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun during the Saturday's meeting between the Huskies and the Tennessee Vols. After two seasons at UConn, Bradley is yet to play a minute.

Even with Drummond enrolled at Connecticut and few minutes available in the post, Big Mike dreamed of taking the floor this season as a Husky. Fate wouldn't have it. In a cruel twist, Michael fractured his ankle in October. It was originally hoped he would be ready to play in December. That came and went. With February now approaching, he’s close to 100 percent but still miles from taking the floor. Michael’s career has been embalmed for nearly two full years—dating back to when he led Tyner to the district, regional and sub-state championships as a senior in 2010.

"He's been through a lot here and everyone recognizes that," said UConn assistant coach Glen Miller. "To be that unselfish to offer up your scholarship for the betterment of the team is something you just don't see that often. It was really something. Everyone had so much respect for him. Then, with the ankle, it was just a shame. He's such a quality kid. He's the kid you root for to be successful."

Having yet to take the floor as a Division I basketball player, Michael fights to stay positive. When he says, “I have to remind myself that I’m good—I need to remember that I got here in the first place,” it’s easy to realize that he’s saying it to himself, not spitting out a quote.

“It’s hard to work now for a game you’re going to play next year,” Mike says. “To do it once, and then have to do it all over again, that’s hard."

Thus far, this is not the happy ending meant for Michael Bradley. His path as a college basketball player should be unabated—cleared off by the grit he showed as a kid. He was supposed to be on the court Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena as Connecticut squared off with Tennessee. The carloads of Big Mike fans that traveled to Knoxville from the children’s home should have cheered as the public address announcer bellowed the name of Chattanooga’s native son, not pointed to the bench and said, “There’s Mike.” 

As of now, in the eyes of those outside a small community in Southeast Tennessee, Michael Bradley is still simply Michael Bradley, the kid who played a role in the Andre Drummond story. On the grounds of a tight-knit foster home on Lee Highway, though, he remains so much more.

“He’s shown all the kids that if you’re willing to spend the time and work on it, you can have your dreams,” Ms. Jordan says.

Regardless of what happens at UConn, Big Mike will earn his degree one way or another, whether he develops into an All-American or never takes the floor. He’s majoring in economics with hopes of eventually shifting toward pharmacy. 

Forget basketball. That’s a dream come true by itself.

But there’s more. In the end, that headstrong 11-year-old with the clenched fists discovered what he needed most all along. It’s right there for everyone to see.

Inside the gym at Chattanooga’s Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home, a plaque hangs on the wall, stating, BIG MIKE PLAYED HERE.

It turns out, all these years later, Michael Bradley found his home.

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