MILWAUKEE — Tony Snell’s teammates break his heart a little every day. They just don’t know it.
He’s looking at them, ready to talk, ready to share, ready to just be in their presence. He is a man of few words but a conversation with him means he’s locked in, studying your body language and the expression in your eyes.
But they’re checked out.
“I go into the locker room and everybody’s got their head down on their phone the whole time,” said Snell, a former star at New Mexico now with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. “I’m the only one who’s got my head up.
“It’s the saddest thing ever. Technology is the worst. Everybody walks like this (Snell staggers with his head down), not even paying attention. It’s the worst thing ever.”
Could you even imagine walking around the streets of Watts in Los Angeles as a young boy like that? Unaware? Unguarded? It’s unconscionable to Snell, but also, it’s rather disappointing.
What could be more interesting on that phone than what they’ve got right here? A dream job, a great life and the chance to go to battle for each other every single day?
No. This is it. This is everything he’s worked for his entire life. And these Milwaukee Bucks? They’re family.
And family … is everything.
Sherika Brown used to drive her son to Skid Row, to show him the poorest parts of Los Angeles. And then she would drive him to Beverly Hills and Brentwood and allow him to dream about the big houses.
“I would always tell him it’s all about decisions, baby,” Brown said. “It’s all about decisions. Stay in school. Basketball is your passion; work at your craft.”
Brown was nearly 19 when she had Tony in 1991. Little sister Tonyecia, or “Nee Nee,” came three years later. Dad wasn’t in the picture. Brown was a single parent. She worked two jobs all the time to support her kids and preferred third shift so she could get her children off to school in the morning and be available for school meetings and PTA during the day. Walmart, JCPenney, data entry operator, security guard — she took any job.
“I didn’t turn down anything but my collar,” said Brown. “I knew I needed to provide.”
Snell missed his mom at night, but understood the sacrifice.
“I didn’t get it at the time — not until I was a little older. Like wow, I respect her to the utmost,” said Snell.
Still, even with Snell’s grandfather Shedric Brown Sr. and uncles Eric and Shunte Brown to look out for him, Snell had to grow up quickly. Watts was rife with socioeconomic problems, gangs and crime.
“It wasn’t comfortable — hearing gunshots nearly every night,” Snell said. “I was worried for my little sister.”
And Brown was terrified for them all. She bought all the latest video games to keep Snell at home. Other kids were welcome at her house, but her boy would be safe under her roof.
When there were visits to the park and the playground, she went and watched Tony like a hawk.
“I didn’t want him to be another statistic. Young black guy, dark skin, braids — typical how they look in LA, but I said, ‘not my son,’ ” Brown said. “So I would go and sit in the parks with him. All day — just to watch him.
“People would say, ‘You’re so overprotective.’ Well, you people need to be overprotective! You’re just sending your kids out here on the street? No. … It was hard as a single mom, but I did it. He wouldn’t have made it out of LA alive if I wasn’t overprotective.”
Michael Jordan was an influence, too, in a way. Brown was a fan, and she would play his games with the Chicago Bulls on the VCR when Snell was very young.
“He didn’t know what I was saying as a baby. ‘Look at that crossover, Tony!’ and he would sit there, not knowing what I was saying,” Brown said.
She bought the Little Tikes basketball set and Snell would sleep with his basketball. He kept watching those games of Jordan’s.
“I would just rewind — and try to copy his moves,” said Snell. “I’m a very visual guy, so if I see something I can do it.”
Those images of Jordan were especially powerful, though, because Snell could relate to Jordan for another reason in addition to marveling at his achievements.
“Tony having dark skin, people called him Baby Jordan,” Brown said. “He just gravitated to him because he was dark like him. No one in the league was as dark as Michael Jordan was.”
Snell was a standout player by age 7 or 8. Brown noticed that even the older kids were coming by, asking her son to come to the park to play ball.
“I picked up on it real fast,” Snell said. “I was a young guy, but I was really good about playing people way past my age. I had to put some arc on my shot because guys much taller than me were blocking my shots.
“But playing basketball kept me out of trouble.”
Brown said while she tried to protect him “from the elements we lived in,” she was grateful her son didn’t find trouble.
“Tony never got a whupping; even when he was little, he would always listen,” Brown said. “He was my first child and I read a lot of books. I just tried to stay positive. I tried to teach him how to open doors for girls and how to be a gentleman.”
A gentleman in a land of gangs.
“Gangs are rough in LA,” Brown said. “They will take your kids and jump them. We moved pretty frequently, always to a better area for better opportunities. He got chased home from basketball practice one night from Hawthorne High School when the Hispanics and blacks were feuding — which was the scariest thing I’ve ever faced. That’s when I sold everything I had and moved the very next day.
“God always has a plan for us. When we moved to Riverside it was the best move as he played basketball at Martin Luther King Jr. High where he helped win a championship alongside (current San Antonio Spurs star) Kawhi Leonard.”
When Snell went off to college to play basketball at New Mexico, Brown moved to Albuquerque, too, and never missed a home game. Snell wouldn’t really need it then, but Brown would come to her son’s defense once more.
When Snell informed his then-college coach Steve Alford he was ready to turn pro after his junior year, Alford called for a family meeting with Snell and Brown to argue against the idea.
“I had been there three years. I felt I was ready to go. There were some disagreements there,” Snell said.
Alford pushed his point, and that was enough for Brown. She didn’t like where this conversation was going, and she did not hold back. She had some choice words for Alford.
“Yeah, she did,” Snell said. “It was pretty ugly. I was trying to tell her to calm down, but she’s got her emotions. Always got my back.”
Snell said he and Alford respected each other enough to see that they could agree to disagree. Soon after, Alford then left for UCLA, and when Craig Neal took over, it made Snell’s decision tougher, Brown told the Journal in 2014: “I think he was a lot closer with Craig Noodles than he was with Steve,” she said then.
Brown said the past is done and she didn’t want to reopen any old wounds.
That summer, in 2013, Snell was drafted by the Chicago Bulls, of all teams, with the 20th pick in the first round. Of course, Brown went with him.
And when Snell was traded to the Bucks in October 2016, she moved, too, and now lives about 30 minutes away from Snell’s downtown Milwaukee home. She hasn’t let go of her protective instincts.
“Allllll the time,” Snell said. “Alllllllll the time. Even now, still, at 26. It never fails. I could limp a little bit — and she’ll stand up. I’m like, ‘I’m fine!’ ”
With his mom focused on him, Snell’s focus is on winning. He has put everything into this year, and this team. There are 26 Instagram posts by Tony Snell. Not this month, or in 2017. Total.
“I don’t like the new generation of posting everything,” Snell said. “I like to keep mine private. Social media is killing everybody these days.
“I feel like I’m 40, honestly. I’m not on social media like the rest of these young guys are. I still have a BlackBerry. I’m really old-school.”
One Instagram post is from July 31, 2017, when the Bucks signed him to a contract extension.
Another shows him working with little brother D.J., 11, and little sister, Precious, 10, on math homework, because Snell wants for them “to not have to live the life that I lived, to not have to grow up as early as I did.”
And two posts are photos with his mom, on her 44th and 45th birthdays.
Brown likes to say, “You have to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything,” and what Snell stands for right now is all about this Bucks team.
In the last year, teammates have casually praised him for being selfless, uncaring about his shots and unselfish. Do they know why?
“I don’t care about my stats, I don’t care about individuals,” Snell said. “Don’t care about none of that; I just want to win. I’m a statistic just being here, coming from where I came from. Statistics don’t matter to me.”
All that matters is his team. And family. Which are really one and the same.