ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On a late-night drive from the United Center to the home he rents in a Chicago-area suburb, former University of New Mexico star and current Chicago Bull Tony Snell was at peace as he talked with longtime friend Clint Parks riding shotgun alongside him.
Parks looked over to Snell after one of the 77 NBA games he played in during his rookie campaign and asked a simple question.
“I just wanted to know how he was doing,” said Parks, who with Marvin Lea have been two of the men in Snell’s inner circle since his high school days in California playing for the Team Eleate, a club team and player development organization. “You know it was just me and him, nobody else around. That’s a big change he was going through going from where he was to where he is and I just asked how he was doing.”
The answer told Parks everything he needed to know.
“Tony just smiled and said, ‘Man, every day is great. I wake up every day and get to play for the Chicago Bulls. I’m in the NBA. How can I be happier?’”
Lea said Snell’s go-to response in text messages and phone calls over the past year has been about “living the dream.”
Snell is now looking to share his experiences with kids who may have that same dream.
This week, Snell will return to Albuquerque to host his first youth basketball camp (TonySnellCamp.com) at UNM along with Lea, who still lives in California and runs Team Eleate, and Parks, who recently enrolled at the University of Wyoming. He hopes to get a degree and becoming a college coach.
“He’s comfortable with the kids, especially on the court,” Parks said. “That’s where he’s most comfortable. He’s in his zone, in his element. He’s so good at interacting with the kids. They’re going to love it.”
Several current and some former Lobos may also stop by to help out during the camp, Lea and Parks said.
Former Lobo teammate Kendall Williams, who can’t make the trip to Albuquerque for the camp as he’s getting ready to begin his pro career in Italy, said the shy, quiet demeanor Snell has off the court won’t stop him from being a great teacher of the game.
“When you have a great passion for the game like that, it doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest introvert or the most outgoing person in the world, he understands it’s a great opportunity for the kids,” Williams said. “I think he’ll have a fun time with it.”
A more assertive, talkative Snell isn’t the only departure from what many Lobo fans remember of the slender shooting guard, who was listed at UNM as 6-foot-7, 200 pounds and known for three seasons around the Pit as the Silent Assassin.
After his rookie NBA season, Snell clipped the braids he’s had since kindergarten and also added about 15 pounds of muscle to his frame, maybe most apparent in his now broad shoulders. A new look, a more confident approach with media and his aggressive, breakout performance for the Bulls in last month’s NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, Nev., has seemed to bring on the debate of whether this is a new Tony Snell.
The answer to those around him seems to be yes and no.
“I think it’s just coming out that Tony is a big-hearted kid who cares about people,” UNM head coach Craig Neal said. “I think he’s really grown basketball-wise because he’s mature, he’s spent a year in the pros and I think he’s changed his body. He’s matured enough to know what it’s all about at that level and I think that’s helped him.”
While Snell spent July 2013 desperately trying to prove he belonged at Summer League, he progressed into a player that spent last month proving he doesn’t. He arguably was the best player in the 24-team event full mostly of rookies and young players trying to latch on with NBA teams.
Snell said he took two weeks off after the Bulls season ended April 20 then was in the gym every day, often working with Bulls star Derrick Rose, who is recovering from knee surgery.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot faster and a lot stronger,” Snell said. “I just have to keep working. That’s all it is. Keep getting better at this level and you’ll be around for a while. I had full confidence I was going to be in the NBA. There’s no reason I’m playing this sport for any other reason.”
He showed a new confidence on the court that those around the Bulls — media and front office personnel — were very openly impressed with in Las Vegas.
“With as much time as he puts in, there’s no way he won’t get better,” Bulls assistant general manager Randy Brown said. “Of course we always want him to be aggressive. We want him to take some initiative because we know it’s in his game. We’ve seen him do it. We’ve seen him do it in flashes at times, we want him to do it all the time. … We want him to feel like he deserves to be on this court.”
That’s not in question if you ask his former Lobos teammates Williams and Cameron Bairstow, both summer league teammates of his with the Bulls.
“He’s the same old Tony to us, but I think the game speaks for itself,” Williams said. “He’s a lot more confident on the floor. … Tony, I’ve always said, is a very special talent and it’s nice to see him put it together.”
Bairstow, who two weeks ago signed a three-year contract with the Bulls, said he could see the change, too.
“I don’t think he’ll ever be that guy who is constantly talking out there, but at the same time he’s definitely showing more of a leadership role,” Bairstow said. “When we needed it, he was definitely the guy speaking up in the huddles and that kind of thing, which was good to see.”
Bairstow added he didn’t see a better player in the 11-day event than Snell.
So is this new Snell, one obviously happy but not yet satisfied, going to progress into a larger role this coming season with the Bulls?
“We want to see how he does over the long haul,” said Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin after a Summer League win. “But so far, so good.”