C.J. Leslie matures, excels with help of NC State leaders
C.J. Leslie struggled, on the court and off, during his freshman year at N.C. State
New athletic director Debbie Yow proved an important ally and mentor for Leslie
Coach Mark Gottfried helped Leslie change his attitude and improve his focus
It was an odd question to ask. In the past the answer had always been obvious before the interview. But it was hard to know this time. So all that remained was to swallow hard, stare down the object of this confusion and ask him straight out.
What is your name?
He didn't flinch. Didn't find the question at all surprising. "That depends on who's talking to me," he said with a smile.
We weren't getting anywhere.
OK. What name should I use in this story?
"You can call me C.J. or you can call me Calvin," C.J./Calvin Leslie said. "But I will say this: If you call me Calvin, there are a lot of people who will have no idea who you're writing about."
Swayed by that sage counsel, the protagonist of this story and one of the most skilled and least known college basketball players in America, will heretofore be known as C.J. (except to those who insist on calling him Calvin).
So what started all of this mess? When did C.J. and Calvin suddenly become interchangeable? Well, it all began during the summer of 2011 when North Carolina State's new basketball coach, Mark Gottfried, learned that C.J.'s initials stood for Calvin Jr. and decided that he would begin addressing his 6-foot-8, 200-pound sophomore forward as Calvin. Gottfried already had another C.J. on his roster at the time, a senior forward named C.J. Williams, but Gottfried's motivation was based on more than circumventing the confusion caused by an extra C.J. From what he'd heard of Leslie's past in Raleigh, the Wolfpack coach didn't really want C.J. to be C.J. anymore.
"When I got the job it seemed that whenever anybody said something about him to me it was negative," Gottfried says. "Bad body language, surly, selfish, disinterested, didn't play hard. It was time for a fresh start, but it wasn't just like we changed his name and we waved a magic wand and he changed overnight. It was a process."
Leslie acknowledges that nobody had called him Calvin since the fifth grade. "At first I thought Coach was just joking on me to get a laugh," Leslie says. "But then he called me into his office and told me, 'I'm going to call you Calvin because it's a new you. A new year. Things are going to be different.'"
So now that we know what to call him (sort of) the next question is obvious enough: Who is he? The truth is that even after two years in Raleigh, there has been a fair amount of uncertainty about that as well.
One day Calvin Leslie Jr. and his three older brothers -- Jermaine, Jahmar and Kevin -- snipped the spokes out of a rusty old bicycle wheel, attached the rim to a piece of scrap wood and nailed the whole contraption to a tree above the rocky red clay of their yard in Holly Springs, N.C. The 5-year-old C.J. initially played basketball because his big brothers played and because they were all at least six years older than him, C.J. didn't enjoy much success.
"I used to go in the house crying all the time and throwing little temper tantrums and taking the ball," Leslie says. "My brothers were always picking on me. There wasn't any winning for me."
"C.J.'s brothers had no mercy on him," says Leslie's mother, Lisa. "He really had to love the game to keep playing."
Some little brothers never get over. But C.J. finally did. He was in the eighth grade, just another afternoon in the yard playing one-on-one against Kevin, when it finally happened. C.J. and Kevin were playing a game to 12 and the score was tied at 11. "I drove past Kevin and he kind of pushed me and I shot it up and hit it anyway," C.J. says. "I was so happy I was running around screaming and he was so mad he was ready to fight me. I definitely cherish that moment."
The following year Leslie began playing for the varsity team at Holly Springs High. He had received a few recruiting letters from some lower Division I colleges, but he was still hovering beneath the elite recruiting radar. Then one night he heard that Ohio State coach Thad Matta was in the stands. "It made me a little nervous, but I ended up playing pretty well that game," Leslie recalls. "I guess other coaches found out he came to see me and then everybody wanted to come."
Unlike so many kids along Tobacco Road, Leslie says that he didn't watch much college basketball growing up. He didn't really pull for any of the three local ACC rivals: Duke, North Carolina or NC State. He was an NBA fan. He liked to watch Kevin Garnett and Tim Hardaway, two wildly diverse talents who would portend the kind of versatile player Leslie hoped to be.
Leslie would become a McDonald's All-American and when it came time to choose a college, his mother could hardly hide her desire for him to attend NC State, just 15 minutes down the road in Raleigh. Lisa had grown up idolizing Wolfpack legend David Thompson and she'd become a lifelong NC State fan.
Lisa arrived home from work one day and C.J. was waiting for her in the driveway. "I've made my college decision," he told his mother, "and you're going to be happy."
C.J. Leslie skipped his very first class at NC State. His absence was promptly reported to the school's new athletic director Debbie Yow.
"I was alarmed and I asked that someone find him and have him meet me at my office," Yow recalls. "He came in and I said, 'Hey, it's Day 1 and you just missed a class and I'm really worried and we're going to have lunch together and talk about this.'"
Yow had ordered Leslie a turkey sandwich from Subway. Leslie told her, "I don't eat Subway."
Yow stared back at Leslie incredulously and said, "OK, I'm going to eat my sandwich and you've got some potato chips and a cookie, so you eat that and we'll talk about school."
"He was quiet," Yow recalls. "He was withdrawn. I made him give me his cell number before he left so he knew I'd be keeping up with him."
"She wanted to get to know me," Leslie says. "I can't say that I wanted to get to know her."
It was hardly an auspicious beginning.
Freshman year didn't go too smoothly for Leslie on the basketball court, either. NC State struggled to a 15-16 record. Leslie had a tendency to show up late for practice and then coast through drills and he was even suspended from the Wolfpack's game at Duke for violating a team rule. Leslie clearly didn't get along with coach Sidney Lowe, who was enduring his last of five mostly disappointing seasons at NC State. Leslie often displayed the same frustrated scowl he'd worn all those years losing to his brothers in the yard, but he couldn't just run off with the ball anymore. "It wasn't a good year," Leslie says. "I wasn't happy. I don't think anybody was happy. That's all I want to say about it."
As the team's most talented player, Leslie became the primary scapegoat for the Wolfpack's failed season. "The media wrote that he was a hard, ruthless person who didn't care," Lisa says. "But they never saw him behind closed doors after a game looking like he had lost his best friend. Nobody likes to be talked about like that, but he's a man and he didn't want to be seen running around looking for a pity party. I wanted to say 'Look, that's not really my kid that you all are bashing. Did you ever actually try to get to know him?' It was a hard pill to swallow because I knew how much C.J. cared."
Leslie found his only refuge in, of all places, Yow's office. A few weeks after their initial meeting, Yow invited Leslie back for a follow-up conversation.
"We talked again and Miss Yow told me a little about her life story and I found out that she hasn't always had it easy either," Leslie says. "She had the same situation as me. When she first got to NC State people talked negative about her, too. We just had a connection."
During much of Leslie's freshman season, he stopped in to visit with Yow at least once a week. Yow told Leslie about how she'd also had trouble adjusting to college. How she also struggled with math. She began to see Leslie smile once in a while. What Leslie didn't know is that when they sat together after that season, Yow already had in the back of her mind a new coach who would change everything about Leslie's persona, right down to his first name, a coach hovering so far beneath the radar that C.J. Leslie had never even heard of him.
The moment when Mark Gottfried officially transformed C.J. into Calvin occurred after NC State's disappointing home loss to a weak Georgia Tech team on Jan. 11. Leslie showed up at practice the next day sullen about the defeat. He was exhibiting what his coaches refer to as a "C.J. moment."
"He was kind of blowing off practice like it wasn't a big deal and wouldn't make eye contact with me and he had that disinterested look that I hadn't seen very much," Gottfried says. "I threw him out of practice and the next game at Wake Forest I didn't start him and we won by 36 and he wasn't really a factor in the game. After that, his attitude started to change. He learned that he wasn't going to be allowed to turn his effort on and off like a faucet. He started trusting that what we were trying to convince him to do was good for him."
"C.J. was maturing and he started making better decisions," Lisa Leslie says. "Having a coach that he felt really believed in him boosted his morale, because you're not going to shoot 10-for-10 every night, but Coach Gottfried told him to keep shooting."
"I'll tell you that if Coach Gottfried would have been here my freshman year, it would have been a whole different year," Leslie says. "I've made a complete 180 from that year. He has more patience. We're on the same page."
Suddenly Leslie's teammates and coaches began to see a fun-loving side of him. He opened up. They learned that he was a country boy, who enjoys nothing more than to throw on a ballcap, get some sunflower seeds and a Gatorade and go fishing with his brothers. They saw him laugh at himself over a slightly off-color poem he'd written for an English class as a freshman that was later posted on the Internet. They also learned, the hard way, that Leslie is a prankster. When a player fell asleep on the team bus, Leslie was often there to squeeze mustard into his mouth. Sometimes when assistant coach Orlando Early would text Leslie to remind him that practice began at 4 p.m., Leslie would text back that he was in Charlotte and couldn't make it back by 4. Then Early would overhear Leslie snickering in the training room.
"He's not the person deep down inside in his heart who most people perceive him to be," Early says. "He'd be mad at me for saying this, but he wouldn't harm a flea, he'd give you the shirt off his back and he's really fun to be around."
Over the last 11 games of his sophomore season, Leslie blossomed. He averaged 18.3 points and 9.1 rebounds during that span and was often the dominant player on the floor, including games against Duke and North Carolina, when he was slowed only by foul trouble. Leslie sparked NC State's late season rally to reach the NCAA tournament for the program's first time since 2006. Then the Wolfpack upset San Diego State and Georgetown to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in seven years.
"We all gelled in the end," Leslie says. "We put the right parts in the car and cranked it up and it was running good. From where we were before the season to finish up where we did, nobody expected it. Coach instilled that kind of confidence in us."
In the aftermath of the victory over Georgetown, Yow was doing a television interview when Leslie interrupted it to give her a bearhug.
"It was one of those moments where I felt like we'd made it and we're doing something good and she'd helped me get there," Leslie says, "so I just wanted to show her a little love."
In April, Leslie scheduled a meeting with Gottfried to share his decision about whether or not he would return to NC State for his junior season. In the upcoming NBA draft, Leslie was being projected anywhere from late in the first round to somewhere in the second round.
Leslie entered Gottfried's office with a very serious demeanor.
"Hey, Calvin," Gottfried said.
"What's up coach?" Leslie said.
"Have a seat."
"So, I made my decision."
"Ok, what did you come up with?"
"Looks like I'm going to have to go ahead and test the waters, coach."
Leslie noticed Gottfried's chin drop. "Well, I'm happy for you and I support your decision," Gottfried said in response. "I wish we could have ..."
Then Leslie said, "Nah, I was just playing. I'm coming back."
Gottfried exhaled deeply.
"I got him," Leslie says. "That was probably the joke of the year. I guess I got him back for calling me Calvin."
Leslie's reasons for returning were simple. The previous night he had sat with his parents at their kitchen table in Holly Springs and laid out the pros and cons. "I really couldn't find too many reasons to leave," Leslie recalls. "My mom said, 'If you feel like that, then you pretty much answered your own question.' I realized that NC State felt like a comfort zone to me."
Once again Leslie had arrived at the decision that his mother secretly hoped he would make. Then Leslie went to work.
At 2 a.m. on many nights this summer, Leslie could be found at NC State's practice gym playing one-on-one with Washington Wizards guard John Wall, Leslie's friend and former high school teammate. During those contests, Leslie thought it would be unfair to post up the smaller Wall, so Leslie worked on other aspects of his game, like driving to the basket or his pull-up jumper. Leslie claims that he won more often than he lost. Afterward, sometimes the two would reminisce.
"I used to go stay at his house and he used to come stay at my house," Leslie says. "Man, for him to go and to take his family out of that place and put them somewhere nice ... that's my dream."
Leslie's ceiling may be as high as any player in college basketball. He is one of the few players in the country athletic enough to post up one possession and run the fast break the next, a little bit of Garnett and Hardaway.
"C.J.'s quickness is tremendous for his size," Early says. "He's able to make plays against guys who may be a little taller or a little stronger because he can go up and around those guys with ease. C.J. has the ability to be the ACC Player of the Year."
"The telltale sign for Calvin is how good a leader he can become," Gottfried says. "This team responds to him. Does he accept that? How does he handle that? He needs to understand that they follow his lead."
"A lot of us have challenged C.J. to improve himself and he has responded so far," Yow says. "So we are very optimistic about what he can do this season."
Despite her best efforts, Yow has never been able to commit to the name Calvin. Leslie is also still C.J. to his family and his teammates. Like a parent, Early says he only calls him Calvin when he misbehaves. Only Gottfried will field a question about C.J. with a response about Calvin. "He'll always be Calvin to me," Gottfried says. "I didn't know C.J., so C.J. is gone. Calvin is here to stay."
It is generally assumed that this will be Leslie's final season at NC State. With four returning starters and three McDonald's All-American recruits, the Wolfpack have a chance to win the ACC title for the first time since 1987 and restore credibility to a once proud program that won national championships in 1974 and 1983. Leslie likes to talk about leading NC State to prominence the way his mother's hero, David Thompson, once did. He wants to build a basketball legacy at the school just down the road from where he learned the game shooting through a bike tire rim.
"I knew if I came back we had a really good chance of being great," Leslie says. "I just thought I wasn't done here. I've still got something to prove. We can do something special that would stick around on my resume forever. People could put my name on the wall and say I was one of the guys who did it."
When Leslie is asked which name he would want etched onto that wall, he laughs and then thinks for a moment before answering.
"You know it doesn't matter; C.J., Calvin, whatever," Leslie says. "As long as my last name is up there, I'll be fine. But I will say this; if Coach has his way it'll be Calvin."