published Sunday, May 11th, 2014

Wiedmer: UTC's Tuoyo identifies with OKC's Durant mom story

Even if they each stand around 6-foot-9, weigh roughly 235 pounds and knock down the 3-ball fairly efficiently, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga redshirt sophomore forward Justin Tuoyo quickly admits that he and NBA superstar Kevin Durant are "two different people."

But when Durant pretty much brought the whole country to tears last week in praising his mother during his league MVP acceptance speech, Tuoyo could relate more than most.

"I thought, 'That's exactly what my mother did for me,'" he said Friday. "I felt exactly like that."

None of us would want to endure Durant's childhood as he, his mother, Wanda Pratt, and three siblings bounced from apartment to apartment, struggling to keep food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads.

With words that could make a statue cry, Durant said of that time, "One my best memories is when we moved into our first apartment. No bed, no furniture, we all just sat in the living room and just hugged each other, because we thought we'd made it."

Nodding toward his mom -- the NBA has turned the sound bite into a Mother's Day ad this weekend -- he added, "You made us believe; you kept us off the street, put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn't eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You're the real MVP."

His words have touched so many people worldwide that the video already has been replayed nearly 1.5 million times on the Internet, and second-year UTC coach Will Wade plans to add to that total.

"I'm definitely going to show it to our kids," said Wade, who recruited Tuoyo to Virginia Commonwealth when he was an assistant there, then gladly welcomed the player to the Scenic City when the Fayetteville, Ga., resident wanted to transfer.

"It's such a powerful message. Here's the MVP of the NBA, and all he wants to do is thank the people around him. He's so humble, so appreciative. And everything he said about his mom -- the general public just doesn't understand what so many of these kids go through. If people went with us on in-home visits (voice softening), it's heartbreaking sometimes. It's just so tough to put yourself in a world you're not used to."

Neither Tuoyo, his two older brothers nor his mother, Nina, figured to see so much as a glimpse of that world until 10 years ago. Then Justin's father Anthony was killed in a car crash. A small business owner, he had life insurance, but with a mortgage to pay, three sons to provide for and the unexpected bills none of us see coming, Nina was soon struggling as a single mom.

"She worked three jobs at one time," Justin recalled. "Sometimes she'd drive 20 minutes just to see me for five minutes at home before going back to work. I realize now how hard that was. My mom, she's meant everything to me."

Nina is close to all three of her sons: Andre (30), Cedric (26) and Justin (19). But she shares more history with her youngest than any parent would want.

"My mother was killed in an auto accident when I was 11," Nina said. "So I knew what Justin was going through. You just never expect to lose a parent at that age. Justin wasn't just a good basketball player growing up. He was also a really good baseball player. But he'd been to a baseball tournament with his father the week before he was killed. Justin never touched a baseball again after his father's death."

Nina had never had to work before her husband died.

"You take things for granted," she said. "I didn't know how privileged I was. As a single parent, everything is on you. The bills have to be paid, the trash taken out. I didn't date for five or six years. There wasn't time. But I had one goal, and that was to make sure I had happy children."

Her sister, Keela Robinson, moved in to help with everything from transportation to house cleaning to meals.

In fact, ask Justin his favorite meals and the answer is split between those created by his mom and by his aunt.

"With my mom it's ham, dressing, macaroni and cheese and potato salad," he said. "I'm always sure I'm at home when she cooks that. With my aunt, she makes breakfast for dinner -- pancakes, omelets, bacon -- and that's tough to beat, too."

And no matter how tough money became -- "There were times I put off paying a bill to make sure we had $300 to pay his AAU fees," Nina said -- she never failed to reward Justin for good grades.

"I'd promise him an Xbox if he'd make a certain grade," she said. "He wanted a cell phone when he was 11, so I got him this cheap little cell phone for a good report card."

And if he didn't make a good grade?

"She promised me a PlayStation 3 one time," Justin recalled. "I got my grades back and I had one C. I never got that PlayStation 3."

Whenever anyone asks Nina the secret for her sons turning out so well, how they've all become such respectful and well-mannered men, she tells them it was easy, that Anthony helped lay a great foundation and her sister has been invaluable since his death.

But there also have been those desperate moments, when both money and sleep were nonexistent and worries were everywhere, that Nina would find herself "crying on the inside. There's so much you try to hide from the public. And they're a lot of single moms out there who've had it so much worse than me."

Wade has seen it time and time again. He estimates that at least 70 percent of the players he recruits come from single-parent homes, almost all of them run by moms, and that the vast majority of those families are at or below the poverty line.

"A kid has a bad game and everyone wants to know what's wrong with him," Wade said. "A lot of times it's because he's been worried sick for his mom that day because she needs money to pay her electric bill or they're going to cut off her power the next day."

Nina's world hasn't gone that dark. Somehow, some way, she's made it work. And after she returns home this evening from attending a friend's wedding in South Carolina, Justin intends to take her out for dinner. Her other sons will call and send cards. At some point, she and Justin probably will revisit her best Mother's Day present ever.

"I wrote her a letter a couple of years ago because I couldn't find a card that expressed how much she meant to me," he said.

Said Nina: "He told me how much he loved me and how much he appreciated everything I'd done for him. It's the best present I've ever gotten. It was all any mother could ask for."

Any mother. Every mother. Be they Justin Tuoyo's, Kevin Durant's or your own. Pen and paper, everyone?

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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