NEW YORK — “Take your cameras out!” Abraham Lincoln High School athletic director Renan Ebeid said on the mic, with hundreds of local Coney Island residents in the basketball gym after the team’s home-opener win over Boys and Girls High School.
A fan like everyone else, the Nets’ first-ever Brooklyn-born player, Isaiah Whitehead, pulled out his cell phone to capture the special moment. A banner for his No. 15 high school jersey was about to be unveiled from the rafters in honor of its retirement, joining fellow alums and close friends Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson, who have both played in the NBA.
“Everyone in Coney Island knows the road to the NBA goes through Lincoln, and no one exemplifies that more than Isaiah Whitehead,” Lincoln principal Ari Hoogenboom told the crowd. “When he came here, he was a decent kid, and now you see he’s a decent man.”
During the ceremony, different guest speakers highlighted Whitehead’s humility and student-athlete impact at the high school—from bringing the city championship back to Lincoln his junior year, to serving on many local events, passing his classes with high honors and helping his peers in the classroom.
Whitehead, who’s been recently starting at point guard for his hometown team, has continued his community efforts in Coney Island since being drafted this past summer. He’s already hosted four events: a cookout for the entire neighborhood, back-to-school giveaway, Thanksgiving drive and holiday shopping spree for kids.
“He wanted to come to Brooklyn just to give back,” his mother, Ericka, said. “He’s touching a lot of people. When you have somebody that’s done it before, you tend to work harder. Isaiah is giving that encouragement that, ‘I’m still here.'”
After the ceremony, Whitehead reflected with the NBPA about his Coney Island roots, the struggles he overcame, learning from Stephenson, Telfair and Stephon Marbury (also from Lincoln), the memorable story of how he became a Net on draft night, mentoring New York’s next generation of top talent and much more. His conversation is presented below in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.
Coney Island Born, Banner Raised
Once I saw No. 15 and my name actually go up, it was just surreal, seeing my jersey alongside Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson, and Lance’s points—New York’s all-time record for high school basketball.
When I saw my jersey, I wanted to give the kids an encouraging speech. I told them, “If you believe in something, then you go get it.” It really just shows that for the kids coming up, anything is possible. I was once where they were just being from Coney Island and going through the struggles and everything.
There were times we had no hot water, couldn’t shower. It’s just the struggle in Coney Island. You ask anybody that lives there. But the culture is unbelievable, just to have people in those struggles and really still be on the bright side.
I just want the kids to know that success is possible and the NBA can happen. There’s not a lot of basketball players that make the NBA that really didn’t start with basketball. I was a baseball player in seventh grade. I was the top shortstop in my division, but the summer before my seventh grade, my allergies got really bad. Being in the grass and the dirt, it really just messed me up, so I had to switch to basketball at 13 years old. I came inside a lot to play, and I just fell in love with it.
But I really wasn’t good the first six, seven months. Then one practice in seventh grade—I was 6’2″ at the time, so I was much taller than everybody else—I got a steal, went coast to coast and dunked it. When I dunked it, I was, like, “What did I just do?” It wasn’t even any emphatic dunk, but to be in seventh grade, that was like, “Wow.”
So the next day my AAU coach, Jermaine Brown—he passed away in January 2014 from a brain aneurysm—called my mom and said he wanted to bring me to Orlando for the AAU national tournament in the summer. So I went to that and when I came back, I was ranked No. 14 in the country. It was definitely unbelievable. Now, I play everyday for Jermaine to honor him, using #RIPMaine on my social media.
A big goal of mine was really not to let the intense New York City media get to me, just stay level-headed. My mother, Ericka, helped me out a lot, just basically telling me that you’re just another person. Every time I would go to a game, it would be a little star-studded—autographs, pictures. But when I was home, she treated me exactly how any kid would be treated.
I also saw how Lance and Sebastian dealt with the attention before me. Those guys showed me the ropes, to just stay humble and stay loyal to the community, like I am right now. I know what it’s like to struggle and I know what it’s like to not have a lot. So I just try to keep it honest, just keep it simple, and I think as long as you keep your life that way, there’s really no distractions, there’s no negatives, you can’t get into trouble.
I’ve also talked to Stephon Marbury probably three times in my life, and I remember every word. They’re just that powerful, the messages he gives you. He’s been through everything—struggling, big contracts—so when he wants to tell me something, I definitely have to listen.
Basically every time he talked to me, he motivated me by saying, “You might be OK, you might be good to the world. But to yourself, you should never be at your full potential.” And I took that with me and then I started to watch LeBron James. Every year he’s better and you see a difference in something he does. I like Carmelo Anthony a lot, too. He’s still level-headed after a tough game and when the media is unkind. So if you’re just ready for anything, I think it really helps you out a lot.
Now I mentor my god-brother, Tyler Hawkins, who’s a top-ranked seventh grader in New York. I try to tell him, “When you get to high school, it’s going to be crazy.” They’re going to love you, but once you make a turnover or miss a shot, it’s, like, “You suck.” I just help him stay level-headed.
I also mentor Isaiah Washington, who’s the top high school point guard in New York. I mentor him because there’s so much coming at him. I try to tell him to stay away from the hype. People from LA probably never heard of me when I was in high school, but when they played against me, they heard of me. I would rather them see me and say, “He’s a great player.” I’d rather that than having a highlight tape. I really want to live like a regular kid, and I think that helped me out a lot with basketball.
The moment I knew I could play one day in the NBA was probably my third game at Lincoln. The first three games as a freshman, I had like 33 points three straight times. And then the media started talking, like, “You can be the next up after Stephon, Sebastian and Lance.” I tried not to really pay attention to it, but at some point, it’s, like, “Can I really make it to the NBA? Can I really do it?” And then after that, I just took basketball seriously.
Being Drafted and Bonding with Coney Island
I always wanted to play for the Nets to represent Coney Island and give back to my community. It’s just crazy how everything fell into place the week of the draft.
The Nets were actually my last visit. It was two days before the draft. It was crazy because I couldn’t work out because I sprained my ankle, but they gave me high praise, like, “We really like you.” They basically told me that they thought I wouldn’t go high in the draft because of the hype. So they said they really thought they had a fair shot of getting me.
The night of the draft, I knew what pick I was going probably around the 39th. My agent, Andy Miller, called me and was, like, “You’re going to go 42.” But he wouldn’t tell me where. So then I look and it’s Utah and I’m, like, “I never worked out for Utah. I didn’t even interview with them. They’re just going to pick me?”
If you watch my face when I got drafted, I’m not upset, but I’m worried, like, “I really hope they didn’t pick me just to go and play in the summer league, and then they bring me to the D-League.” So as I’m walking off the stage and going back to the media, the Nets people stop me and they’re, like, “A couple people want to do an interview with you.” And I’m, like, “That’s weird. I didn’t get picked by you.”
So as I’m being interviewed, they introduce me, like, “Our new draft pick Isaiah Whitehead.” And I’m, like, “What? New draft pick?” And then I walked into the interview room and I still have a Jazz hat on. They’re asking me questions about the Jazz and I’m, like, “What’s really going on?” So then I was told, “You’ve been traded to the Nets.” I was speechless.
I didn’t know because I was busy after my name was called and I didn’t even check my phone. When I checked it, I probably had over 1,000 texts, like, “Congrats, congrats, congrats, congrats.” It was crazy—texts, pics, Instagram, Twitter. It was just support from everywhere because growing up I was always nice to everyone, so they just wanted to return the favor.
The Nets actually introduced me at a press conference in Coney Island, which was unbelievable. After they gave me my jersey, I was holding it for the rest of the day. Now that I’m a Net, any chance I get to give back to Coney Island, I will. Just because I made it to the NBA doesn’t mean I’ll stop coming around and showing the city support.
In August, I hosted a cookout for the entire neighborhood, bringing in clowns, jungle gyms and a photo booth for the younger kids. And I had three basketball games for the top local talent—for girls, middle schoolers and high schoolers. Then I did a back-to-school and supplies giveaway in September. And last month, I organized a Thanksgiving event delivering turkeys and serving meals, as well as a holiday shopping spree for local kids, taking them to Modell’s to buy clothes so they could stay warm this winter.
Tonight, it’s unbelievable to just see the people that came out, the people that stuck with me even from my freshman year of college at Seton Hall. It was an unbelievable year—just the injuries, the losing, the winning, getting drafted. Everybody just stayed loyal and helped me out a lot.
It meant everything to have Ericka here. You think of a mom and a dad—she’s both. She helped me out through tough times, injuries, me having five points five games in a row and she’s still in the crowd chanting and cheering the loudest. If I had anything in the world, I would give it to her.
And my Lincoln coach, Dwayne “Tiny” Morton, who was here tonight, has done everything for me, too. He was just showing me the ropes, just showing me who to trust. He kept me straight for my grades, he kept me level with girls, everything. Eventually I was going to get to that high level of basketball, and he knew it and I knew it, my mom knew it.
It’s a tough schedule in the NBA. I miss a lot of people here in Coney Island. So it’s a blessing to have this day off, just to have some time to come here and really just spend this time with my people from Lincoln. I definitely miss it. And I’m thankful.