NEW YORK — Mark Jerome always wanted to be a father, to set his children up for successes greater than he achieved.
That his subconscious mind sometimes got a little selfish was out of his control.
“Every once in awhile, I’ll have a dream that I’m playing in an NBA game, you know?” he said. “And I wake up, and I’m like, ‘Damn, I could have made that shot.’ ”
On July 7, 1997, Melanie Walker and Mark Jerome had a son. They named him Ty. Dad’s dream of playing in the NBA remained reserved for fantasies, but for Ty Jerome, there was a chance.
Shortly after 10 p.m. on Thursday night, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stepped to the lectern at Barclays Center and spoke into the microphone: “With the 24th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select: Ty Jerome, from the University of Virginia.” Shortly after, it was reported that Jerome would be sent to the Phoenix Suns in a trade.
Back at his mother’s home in Westchester, New York, Jerome, the former Virginia star, celebrated with his family. Mark was dumbstruck.
“This is the same draft Michael Jordan was in and LeBron James was in, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant. Wait a minute, what? Is this real?” Mark said. “So, it’s … wow.”
In getting drafted Thursday night, Jerome realized a family dream. He also proved wrong the long list of doubters who popped up over the years, each hurling some insult derived of the same sentiment: “He’ll never make it at the next level,” they snickered.
Mark can still visualize the faces of those who put down his son. He wasn’t athletic enough, they claimed. He was too skinny, too small, too slow. Even Jerome’s mother, a former Division III basketball player, kept her expectations low for Jerome and his younger brother, Kobe.
“When both my boys were really young, I said, ‘D-III is amazing. If you could play Division III, that would be amazing,’ ” she said.
Jerome had set his expectations higher, of course. He got his competitive gene from his father. When he wasn’t playing on the New York streets, he was studying the game, searching for ways to unlock greater success. Instructional DVDs popped up in Walker’s mailbox regularly. When Jerome was in the fifth grade, he purchased a pair of sneakers that apparently boosted ones hops. The shoes had lifts in them, Walker remembers, and playing in them was supposed to strengthen the calves.
“He maybe wore them once,” she said.
Mark regularly shepherded Jerome across the city for tournaments, where coaches on opposing sidelines chided their players’ defensive effort. “Why can’t you stop him? He’s so slow!”
Jerome used the comments as fuel.
“Honestly, how competitive I am, I’ve always had that, in every area of my life,” he said in a late-May phone interview. “If I’m playing a card game, a videogame, a friendly whiffle ball game, whatever I want to do. It could be a curse. It is what it is.”
That drive carried him through Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle, New York, then helped him get noticed by UVa coach Tony Bennett. Jerome wasn’t on Bennett’s radar at first, but the coach kept happening upon Jerome while scouting others. He was intrigued, and was the only ACC coach to offer Jerome, even though associate head coach Jason Williford had his doubts.
“Tony’s like, ‘Jay, there’s something about that kid. I’m like, ‘Coach, he can’t guard his shadow,’ ” Williford told NBC Washington.
It didn’t take long for Jerome to win over John Paul Jones Arena, which would explode in joy after he would drill 3-pointers in defenders’ faces and nod his head confidently to the crowd. He was the team’s starting point guard by the start of his sophomore campaign, which ended in heartbreak.
“I always tell people, basketball’s taught me so many lessons,” Jerome said. “The most adversity I’ve ever been through is in basketball.”
Growing up, Jerome would take notes after games, evaluating what went right and wrong, and map out workout plans for the future. Walker often found scraps of paper around the house. The practice continued into college, and before his junior season, she found a sheet on which Jerome, not one to publicly broadcast his feelings, privately documented his thoughts after Virginia lost to UMBC in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed.
“It’s still in his bedroom,” she said. “I don’t think that’s something you ever want to get rid of.”
Jerome returned for his junior campaign as the team’s vocal leader. He took it upon himself to ensure his teammates felt levelheaded and confident, and he was among the driving forces in Virginia routinely escaping defeat en route to the 2019 NCAA Tournament title.
In achieving redemption, a valuable note was added to Jerome’s prospect profile: He knows how to win. NBA teams took notice, and the Suns added him to their young core.
After Jerome was drafted, he went outside with his father and brother. They started shooting, and soon a contest was hatched. Who could make five shots the fastest? It didn’t take long for the trash talk to begin. Mark won the first game.
“He challenged me to a couple more games, of course,” Mark said. “I let him win the next two. It was his night.”