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He gets pretty good on his nine-volt electric, and in a few years he is traveling the U.S. as lead guitarist for such gospel groups as the Harmony Kings and the Chariots. One morning in 1979, at a church in Milwaukee, a striking young woman takes note of Freddie's skill on the fingerboard. Her name is Betty Beard, and she has come from Arkansas with her mother and father and five brothers and sisters, all crammed into a '70 Pontiac Bonneville. They are the Beard Family Singers, here in Milwaukee for a gig. Betty plays a Stratocaster.
Freddie hears her play, hears songs of praise coming from her powerful lungs, and he is smitten. He follows Betty back to Pine Bluff, Ark., and marries her. He becomes the lead guitarist for the Beard Family Singers. And on July 14, 1985, Freddie and Betty have a son.
Mykal, six pounds and four ounces, is slight and unassertive, slow to cry, quick to sleep. But there is music in his blood. At age four he appears onstage with the Beard Family Singers, in bow tie and sienna plaid jacket, singing Jesus on the Mainline like a wise old soul.
In 1994, when Mykal is nine, Pine Bluff is a dangerous place. Drug dealers flourish and robbers run the streets. There is gunfire, too. We'll come back to that.
In the middle of all this Mykal's grandmother Dottie Beard does something extraordinary. She has a full concrete basketball court built under the pecan tree in her spacious backyard, a block and a half from Mykal's house. She has the foul lines and three-point arcs painted in yellow. She puts up chicken wire above her chain-link fence so the ball won't bounce into the street. She hangs two floodlights above the court. Beside it she installs an aboveground swimming pool with a clear plastic dome to keep out the mosquitoes. She tells her grandchildren to come visit anytime.
Swearing is not permitted at Dottie's park. Nor is fighting, bickering or playing without a shirt. Betty keeps the grounds immaculate with a leaf blower and a push broom. Freddie puts Mykal and his younger brother, Don, through intense drills: lefthanded dribbling, backdoor cuts and screens and, of course, shooting. Release the ball at the peak of your jump, he says. Snap your wrist. Let it roll off your fingertips.
The boys go there every day after school and play well past dark. On weekends and in the summer they show up in the morning and sometimes stay till 1 or 2 a.m. Experts have theorized that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. If so, his grandmother's backyard is the place where Mykal Riley masters the jump shot.
Summer 2000, Pine Bluff High. The gym smells of dust and lacquer. A cartoon zebra snarls on the wall. Varsity coach Ronald Moragne sees Mykal sitting alone in the bleachers. "It's O.K. for you to go out and play," says Moragne, who uses open-gym sessions like this one to evaluate talent.
"O.K., Coach," Mykal says, but he stays in the bleachers. He has developed his game in isolation, and at 15 he is all skin and long bones. When he finally goes in, he gets knocked around on defense, loses the ball under pressure and gets so rattled that he can't do the one thing he does better than everyone else. Everything is easy in Dottie's backyard. But in games, when it actually matters, Mykal is afraid to shoot.
Still, Moragne likes this kid. He offers him a spot on the Zebras as team manager, otherwise known as water boy. Mykal minds the clock, keeps statistics, does the laundry. At halftime, when he takes the rack of basketballs back to the locker room, he keeps his head down so he won't have to look at anyone he knows.