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The NBA draft steal ‘people sort of forgot’

There is a story about Isaiah Stewart that sounds apocryphal now that he is on the cusp of entering the NBA, but his father, Dela, vouched for its authenticity.

It goes something like this: When Isaiah was a fifth-grader in Rochester, New York, he received late notice that one of his basketball practices had been rescheduled for earlier in the day. His father, who worked in construction, had already left for a job site, which meant that Isaiah had no way to get across the city to practice — unless he wanted to walk.

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So Isaiah put on his puffy jacket, laced up his Timberland boots and trekked several miles through the snow, following the same route his school bus usually took.

“I probably could’ve gotten there quicker,” Isaiah said in a recent telephone interview, “but that was only way I knew how to get there.”

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Dela was not pleased when he learned of his son’s adventure. But Isaiah could sense, even then, that his father understood why he had been so determined to get to practice.

“Everyone knows my work ethic comes from my dad,” Isaiah said. “It’s something that’s just in me.”

A 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward, Stewart has spent the past eight months at home in Rochester, refining his game at an area high school before Wednesday’s draft, long delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. He has zeroed in on his shooting, his passing and his defense. He has studied film of Bam Adebayo, a 6-foot-9 center-forward for the Miami Heat whom Stewart considers similarly undersized for his position.

“Everybody comes in watching somebody,” he said. “You could easily say, ‘Oh, Anthony Davis.’ But you’ve got to keep it real. Not everybody can be Anthony Davis, that type of player.”

In other words, Stewart recognizes his strengths as a high-energy big man, more fierce than highflying. And while he knows that the draft could be a transformative moment, he seems to be guarding against letting his focus waver.

“Draft night will just be a big checkpoint for me,” he said. “Because when I get drafted, the real work starts.”

Stewart, 19, has described himself as the “biggest sleeper” in the draft, as most projections have him being selected late in the first round. Not long ago, he was the Naismith Prep Player of the Year as a senior at La Lumiere School, a private school in La Porte, Indiana. But in his only season at Washington, the Huskies struggled to a 15-17 record. Stewart averaged 17 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while shooting 57% from the field.

“It was a down season at UW,” Stewart said, “so people sort of forgot who Isaiah Stewart was, what I’ve been doing against the top players and how I’ve always killed the competition, killed matchups and dominated every other player at my position. So that’s why I feel like I’m a sleeper. I just have to remind them. I have to wake them back up.”

Stewart grew up in “the heart of Rochester,” he said, where his father did his best to insulate him and his older brother Martin from the trapdoors of the city. (Isaiah also has a close relationship with his mother, Shameka Holloway — “She’s the sweet one, always cracking jokes,” he said — though he lived with his father growing up.)

“I was very strict with them,” said Dela Stewart, 63. “A lot of kids go down the wrong path, man. That wasn’t going to happen to Isaiah and Martin.”

Dela Stewart grew up in Jamaica but left at age 20 for the Florida Everglades to work in the sugar cane fields. The days began before dawn, to beat the heat. Snakes were a constant menace. He spent years traveling around the Southeast doing seasonal labor. He picked bell peppers, cucumbers, oranges and eggplants. He farmed tobacco in North Carolina.

In 1996, he moved to Rochester after finding construction work. He poured concrete. He spent long days crouched over a jackhammer. At home, he had rules for his young sons: no partying. No late nights with friends. School and chores were the priorities.

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“I remember how he’d show up to school in his work clothes,” Isaiah Stewart said. “His boots would be all dusty, he’d have his little mask on below his chin, and he’d go straight to the classroom to ask the teacher if I was keeping up with my grades. And this was probably like the third grade.”

It was not until a couple of years ago that Isaiah and Martin, who studies culinary arts at a community college, helped persuade their father to retire.

“I didn’t want to stop,” Dela Stewart said. “I wanted to keep working. But I’ve been in so much damn pain. My shoulders, my knees.”

Before the pandemic, retirement left Dela Stewart with more time to travel to see Isaiah play basketball, though there was just one problem: He does not like to fly.

When Isaiah visited Washington as a high school senior for his recruiting trip, his father accompanied him on the flight — and then told the coaching staff that he would be purchasing a train ticket for his return to Rochester. The trip took several days. He has since endured a couple of similar cross-country odysseys. He does not seem to mind.

“You’ve got your own little room, and I just look out the window at the mountains and the oil fields,” he said, though he has struggled at times to cram his 6-foot-3 frame inside the shower. “Sometimes the bathroom is so small you can’t move around in it.”

For father and son, it has always been about finding a way — no matter the circumstances. Finding a way home. Finding a way to practice. Finding a way to a better life.

“I will support everything he does,” Dela Stewart said. “Everything.”

c.2020 New York Times News Service

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