MILWAUKEE: In order to appreciate how far Lester Hudson has traveled, first understand his starting point.
He never graduated from high school. He only played one year of organized basketball before landing at a junior college in Tennessee.
He never took academics seriously, never saw much reason to attend classes until his high school basketball coach, Andre Applewhite, saw during open gyms how much better Hudson was than the varsity players at Central High. Applewhite convinced him then he had a future in the game.
Now Hudson is 27 and playing on a 10-day contract with the Cavaliers. Despite participating in just one practice with his new team, he has already picked up the system to the point where he is a regular member of the rotation. It’s startling how quickly he grasped the concepts, particularly since he was so turned off by learning earlier in life. Now coaches and Cavs teammates commend him for being a fast learner.
“I started off late, but I’m blessed,” Hudson said. “I’ll take this any day, anybody would. It’s been great.”
Before every game, after every practice and during morning shootarounds on game days, Cavs assistant coach Joe Prunty works with Hudson on his assignments. They review video together so Hudson knows where he needs to be at all times. He picked up his responsibilities so quickly, coach Byron Scott began playing him in games before he even went through one real practice — typically a huge no-no for Scott, who values practice time as much as any coach in the league.
Of course, injuries helped necessitate this fast track. Daniel Gibson’s torn tendon in his foot and Kyrie Irving’s sprained right shoulder have created an enormous void at guard that Hudson is quickly trying to fill. His ability to grasp the concepts quickly is what has gotten him on the court and his performance has kept him there.
“All the coaches and the veterans I’ve been with always tell me I learn quickly,” Hudson said. “I have to learn on the go, watch film with the coaches and try to learn as quick as I can.”
Hudson grew up in one of the roughest parts of Memphis, Tenn. He never received formal instruction on basketball, but taught himself the game through hours and hours on neighborhood playground courts.
Trouble at home? Go play basketball. Financial worries? Go play basketball. He’d shoot on courts around town and in the community center. When he was involved in pickup games, all the anger, all the pent-up rage exploded on the court.
“I’d take my frustrations out on the court,” he said. “I played hard on every possession.”
Hudson didn’t always go to school, and on the days he did, he didn’t always make it to class. Usually he just wound up in the gym shooting baskets. That’s where Applewhite spotted him during Hudson’s sophomore year and convinced him to pull his grades up so he could try out for the team.
Hudson qualified academically for his junior year and played well, but he had already failed a grade once before. He was 19 and no longer eligible to play high school basketball. When that was taken away, so was the desire to excel academically.
Hudson eventually dropped out of school, believing his basketball career was over.
He fell in with the wrong crowds, although he insists he never joined a gang and never took or sold drugs.
“If I wanted to, I could,” he said. “But I never thought about selling drugs.”
Despite all the problems, Applewhite never gave up on him. He convinced the coaches at Southwest Tennessee Community College, where he once played basketball, to at least take a look at Hudson.
He dazzled the coaches and soon was back playing junior college ball, but first he needed his GED, which he earned during his first semester there. He had a friend who attended the University of Memphis, and he eventually got into summer pickup games against future NBA stars like Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, both of whom went to Memphis.
“I’m proud of him, because he wanted more for his life than some of the things he was seeing around him,” Applewhite told ESPN.com four years ago. “I encouraged him, but he did the work. Finally he started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes, it still didn’t seem possible, and there were days I would have to go pick him up or hunt him down.”
Hudson maintained a C average at the junior college, but didn’t have enough core classes to earn his two-year degree. That scared off most Division I schools, but Tennessee-Martin stuck with him.
At 24 years old, Hudson recorded the first quadruple-double in Division I history for UT-Martin when he had 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals in a victory over a Division II school.
He is an undersized shooting guard by NBA standards, but he has totaled 21 points in the Cavs’ past two games. He’s not a natural point guard, although Scott has tried him there in each of the past three games. He isn’t as polished at the point as fellow recent signee Donald Sloan, but Scott has seen enough out of Hudson to know he wants to see more.
“He hasn’t been here that long,” Scott said. “Everything he’s learning is on the fly. He makes a couple of mistakes out there when we run certain plays. He’ll run the wrong way, and then all of a sudden he’ll get it and go back the other way.”
That’s only natural. Hudson has been running the wrong way, only to later correct himself, all his life.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.