Home stretch: 5-star signee McCullough nears arrival at Syracuse after tumultuous senior season
NEW YORK — Walking into the Brewster (N.H.) Academy locker room before a game was nothing new for Chris McCullough.
But on Dec. 14, McCullough entered the room, which he used to call his home, as a visitor. He joked and got dressed with his old teammates, just like he used to.
Though his life changed completely in just one month, McCullough felt like nothing was different at all.
“I came right back and felt like I was still there,” McCullough said. “I had to go to the locker room and show love to them.”
After getting kicked out of Brewster on Nov. 11 for a violation of school rules, he moved from blustery Wolfeboro, N.H., to tropical Bradenton, Fla., to start over at IMG Academy — his third school in as many years. And in just a few weeks, he’ll start over again, this time at Syracuse.
Touted as arguably the program’s best recruit since Carmelo Anthony, McCullough, the No. 15 recruit in the nation according to Scout.com, will look to live up to the hype that’s accompanied him ever since his days playing at Salisbury (Conn.) School.
But when he gets to Syracuse, he’ll continually be asked why he was expelled.
He doesn’t like to talk about that part of his past. It’s simply a part of who he is — like the tattoo commemorating his murdered cousin. Or the birthmark that splotches his right arm. Or his high-flying athleticism.
Just a fragment of an eventful past. A blip he won’t let stop him from getting to where he wants to be.
“There’s going to be a day when the light goes on,” Brewster head coach Jason Smith said, “and people are going to be blown away by what his career could be.”
Danielle McCoy, who will graduate from Syracuse in May, couldn’t believe the news.
Her friend who works for SU Athletics told her that McCullough, her cousin, was kicked out of Brewster.
“I’m like, ‘Wow,’” McCoy said, drawing out the last word. “It was just as much of a shock to us as it was to everyone else.”
This wasn’t the same kid she grew up 20 seconds from. The kid she drove to City Island with on a whim, just to get some seafood. The kid who cared so deeply for his three sisters and generally stayed out of trouble in a neighborhood McCoy said is laden with crime.
“We know a lot of people that have been murdered or are in jail,” McCoy said. “He’s definitely had friends that have gone down the wrong path.”
McCullough doesn’t let too many details of his life out. He keeps them close, in a tight circle of friends and family he trusts.
When asked why he was kicked out of Brewster, McCullough simply shook his head.
“I had some trouble off the court. Did something off the court, something I wasn’t supposed to do.
“I don’t put that out.”
When the news first broke, McCullough tweeted that he was accountable for his actions. Since that point, he’s tried to make the expulsion disappear.
“You always hope kids will make positive choices,” Smith said, “but at the same time kids do make poor choices.
“It’s about helping them grow and making them accountable.”
While McCullough has fond memories of Brewster, it too is simply a part of his past. And while he loved seeing his old teammates and felt like he was at home, he knew he was not.
He was with a new team in IMG, and it was time to start over once again.
“He has a very positive outlook on life,” McCoy said. “He understands that not everything goes your way. Because he’s so focused, it allows him to adapt to different changes that happen.
“He is able to take that and transfer it into something great.”
When IMG head coach John Mahoney started coaching McCullough, he sensed that McCullough was hesitant to open up. He knew that would come with time, but at first it wasn’t easy.
“Chris was quiet when we first met him,” Mahoney said. “When kids move around a little bit, they kind of get protective.”
So when Mahoney first met McCullough — the 6-foot-9 rangy, fleet-footed prospect everyone was drooling over — he looked him in the eye and delivered a simple message.
“I don’t want anything from you,” Mahoney said. “I just want you to know that.”
Many people were trying to “be boys” with him along with way, Mahoney said, but he ensured McCullough there was none of that at IMG. He didn’t want money or a job down the road from McCullough.
“I think once he understood that, he kind of respected that,” Mahoney said. “We got a little bit closer and he’s been a little bit more comfortable since then.”
When McCullough first arrived at IMG — though he was the team’s most talented player — he didn’t start right away. IMG already had good chemistry, and Mahoney didn’t want McCullough to mess up the team’s mojo.
In his first game, he came off the bench and scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds. The next game he dropped 20.
Yet even as his numbers swelled, he still came off the bench.
“Before I went there, my coach told me everything had to be earned,” McCullough said. “I told him I’d earn my spot there. I wasn’t even worried about it.”
And eventually, he did. McCullough started his first game against Elev8 two months into the season.
McCullough’s teammate Eric Cooper Jr., who will play for Nevada next year, said it was just a matter of learning the plays. Once he had that squared away, it was showtime.
“We’d run a few plays for him where we’d just give him the ball and get out of the way,” Cooper said. “He’d dunk on somebody, or something like that.”
Mahoney said McCullough missed one practice throughout the year. He reprimanded him just like he would any other player, and that was that. Otherwise McCullough was a pleasure to coach, and the character issues people talked about never surfaced.
As he spent more time at IMG, McCullough rediscovered his element, both on the court and off. The 75-degree weather didn’t hurt. His five-room, four-person condo wasn’t too shabby either. He gradually earned the trust of his teammates and they earned his.
The emotion McCullough so often bottles up slowly started to show.
But the best was yet to come.
IMG had yet to play Brewster.
There was something different about McCullough on Dec. 14.
It wasn’t just another game. Though he said he has nothing but positive regard for Brewster, he wanted to put on a show in front of his friends and family.
“He absolutely came out with a different mind-set,” Cooper said. “A little home cooking.”
IMG lost that game — the championship of the Brewster Invitational — 96-86 in overtime, but McCullough dropped 26 points.
That was when he became fully comfortable as IMG’s No. 1 option.
“After we went to Brewster, it started from that game,” McCullough said. “From then on.”
While McCullough met his old teammates in the locker room, he also showed his IMG teammates his old stomping grounds — the campus, his dorm, “where the parties happen.”
McCullough said it was strange going back and playing in front of those same fans and friends who used to watch him all the time. They were cheering for him, which was comforting, but the occasion was certainly bittersweet.
Nostalgia mixed with the acceptance of moving on.
“I miss being there,” McCullough said, “but I think IMG’s a better place for me.”
McCullough’s parents never visited him at IMG. The completely different lifestyle he grew to love only lasted close to five months. Now it’s onward to Syracuse. Another change in scenery.
With Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair gone, McCullough will be expected to contribute in the frontcourt right away.
That’s something his future point guard Kaleb Joseph believes McCullough is fully capable of doing. Joseph said McCullough’s game is somewhat of a mixture of the two players he’s replacing.
Fair’s silky mid-range touch and Grant’s innate athleticism.
“He is long as f*ck,” Joseph said.
That length is perfect for Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone. In fact, McCullough’s skill set is reminiscent of that of Hakim Warrick, whose signature block against Kansas led to the program’s only national championship and is etched in Syracuse folklore.
Though he’ll need to work to perfect the intricacies of the 2-3, McCullough does have experience wreaking havoc in a unique zone.
At IMG he played atop a 1-3-1, motoring around the perimeter and flailing his arms to force steals. Cooper said other teams simply didn’t know what to do. They were so flustered and terrified by the behemoth running their direction that turnovers were inevitable.
“If there was ever anyone designed to play for Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse zone, it’s this kid,” Smith said.
Smith expects McCullough to return for the Brewster alumni game in the future, and said that he is well liked both in the community and by his teammates.
Getting expelled didn’t change that.
For now, though, McCullough’s focused on Syracuse, the next place he has to settle into.
He’s schlepped from the Bronx to Connecticut to New Hampshire to Florida. And now it’s time to move one more time — to the school he’s dreamed of playing for since he was a kid.
Bouncing around is all McCullough has known, so one more stop is nothing he can’t handle.
“You’re not really supposed to do that,” McCullough said with a slight smile, “but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
“You move on from the past.”
Published on April 24, 2014 at 12:45 am