The end of one dream for Tommie Liddell III came a half-dozen years ago in the form of a sore leg, with pain that visited him in the unlikely location of a Chinese hotel room. After stints playing professional basketball in three countries on two continents, the 6'4" guard/forward was now in a third, Asia, to take part in the Chinese pro draft. Home to one of the world's better leagues, China regularly pulls in international players, especially Americans, to fill out its rosters. For Liddell, this was his latest attempt to find a pathway to the NBA.
Instead came a groin injury that hurt a lot more than it should have, arriving at the worst possible moment and for no particular pre-existing reason. With tryouts ready to begin and the media-saturated draft to follow, Liddell wasn't even able to walk properly, let alone hoop, and his career as a professional was, for all intents and purposes, done. The end came both suddenly and quietly. In China. Which is a long, long way from East St. Louis High School, where Liddell's NBA dreams began to take shape in the early aughts.
Now 32 and a near-decade removed from his time as a star for Saint Louis University's Billikens, Liddell is philosophical about the situation. A low-key type from birth, Liddell says that the years in the game were rewarding, but that he's come to terms with the end. "I don't have any thoughts about playing basketball" at that level again, he says.
You can't help but notice that his athletic frame looks exactly the same as it did a decade ago. He still looks the part, but says he only started playing again in the last month, just to stay in shape. "Since I've been in shape before, I know what it's like to be out of shape. Sometimes, I still try to find leagues to play in, but I'm not kidding myself that I can still play at that level," he says. "I don't feel 32, but I can't move like I used to. I don't go to the gym and dunk. I'm just slowly letting my body get back to a little of what is used to be. I'm kidding with the guys, 'Gimme two more weeks, and find me an agent.'"
That's a joke, one born of daydreams that linger less frequently in the corners of his mind today. Life has gotten more serious since he last laced up the sneakers for pay.
"Of course, you gotta find something you like to do," he says. "If something doesn't work out, find another plan. Set more goals. Then try to achieve them."
After pro stints in the Netherlands, Uruguay and Romania, Liddell was on a mission to make it in a world just as difficult to negotiate as sports: music. It remains his passion. Even as he's worked both day and night shifts as a supervisor at a fabrication and enamels plant, he was booking time in local studios, working on demos, releasing singles and videos, and gigging in east-side nightclubs, as part of a hip-hop collective called Future Millionaires.
When initially discussing a story almost two years back, Liddell mostly talked about that studio work. But he seemed distracted then — a few years into a job-job, all the studio time eating into his savings. Then 30, he hadn't found his next step, or series of them.
But now he has a new goal: Twenty hours short of an undergraduate degree in criminal justice, more than a decade after he dropped out of college, Tommie Liddell III is a student again. Music now jockeys for time in his brain with English 325, which he's taking this spring at, yes, Saint Louis University.
With a slight laugh, Liddell confirms that class as priority "number one." He adds, "Of course."
Angres Thorpe can recall the names of hundreds of players whom he recruited over the years, though some carved a deeper hold than others into his memories. Now the associate head coach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Thorpe has a well-padded résumé, with stints at several Midwestern Division I basketball programs. Serving under head coach Brad Soderberg, Thorpe was Liddell's lead recruiter during his time at East St. Louis Senior High.
In a lot of cases, it's assistant coaches who develop deeper, longer-lasting relationships with their recruits. Thorpe's obvious goodwill for Liddell comes through today.
"I started knowing Tommie, really, between his sophomore and junior years at East St. Louis," Thorpe recalls. "When we started recruiting him, we were really focusing in on him and trying to build a strong relationship."
Closing a sale requires patience on the part of both coach and player: an understanding of how the rest of a recruiting class is shaping up, a bit of luck and non-stop input from the players' family, friends and coaches. Liddell, despite some academic concerns that were evident early on, was a big get for SLU.
"Tommie was a local kid who would give our program some pop," Thorpe says. "He had great recognition in the area, an affiliation with the St. Louis Eagles AAU program and a name that was getting tossed around in the media. It was a win-win to get a young man like Tommie."
But landing Liddell meant helping him find a bridge year between East St. Louis High and the Jesuit university. It was Thorpe who suggested Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, where he had contacts.
"We explained everything to Tommie," Thorpe recalls. "He knew what his commitment was going to be and what it would take to get into SLU. He agreed with it."
Janet Oberle, SLU's senior associate director of athletics, explains, "Hargrave gave him the opportunity to improve some grades in his core classes but also gave him a chance to do ACT/SAT prep and take the test every time it was offered that year, which he did. He hadn't been involved in any preparation for the tests when we got really involved, so Hargrave really made that impact more so than anything else. It also provided structure and enabled Tommie to live away from home for the first time, which I believe was difficult for him, but was a positive overall in helping him be ready to come to SLU."
Liddell played the 2004-05 season with Hargrave, living under conditions that were new to the former resident of East St. Louis' Samuel Gompers Homes.
As Liddell told St. Louis Magazine in a 2005 interview, "We had to be in our rooms, with our doors open, and a monitor would constantly walk up and down our halls to make sure we were doing work. Our daily routine was waking up before the sun was up — 6, 6:15. Then breakfast. Formation at 7:15. Classes about 7:30. Lunch at 12. After practice, study hall. At 9:30, lights off. If they caught you with a cell phone, they'd send it back home."
After a school year under that regimen, Liddell earned the test scores he needed, shunned further recruitment by other schools and headed home. Finally at SLU, he would form a dynamic, three-headed guard alignment with Vashon's Dwayne Polk and fellow freshman Kevin Lisch, a Belleville native from Althoff Catholic. The two East Side recruits came from wildly different backgrounds but gelled as players and people.
Lisch remembers watching Liddell play in high school. "When we both committed to SLU, I remember having him over for a pickup game to get to know him better," he emails from his longtime home in Australia. "Tommie was a very smooth player and made things look effortless at times. He was a big guard, so a tough matchup. He was mostly a quiet, soft-spoken person, which I really respected about him.
"We were both two very different players out on the court, but I think we both possessed an unselfishness and understanding of the game which really helped us to play off each other," Lisch adds. "We had a great relationship on and off the court that was probably built upon a mutual respect for one another. Tommie was like a Swiss Army knife; he could be used in so many different positions both offensively and defensively. Once again, some of his greatest attributes were his unselfishness and high basketball IQ and feel for the game."
For two years, the pair played in Soderberg's system, but the coach was dispatched after a near-breakthrough, yet ultimately uneven, twenty-win season in 2007. He was replaced by the late Rick Majerus, an eccentric genius who had been coaxed out of his own on/off retirement.
Though inheriting a solid roster, Majerus' immediate impulse was to dispatch several recruits and bit players, while changing up roles for the returning cast. It was a culture shock to say the least, with not only a change in playing style but an adjustment in basic human relations. Soderberg was a youngish family man, the son of a coach and generally conservative. Majerus was quirky by any comparison — vocal in his liberalism, single, his home a high-end hotel suite. Detailing his unusual personal characteristics would extend this piece to twice its length, but the short version is that his demanding, tart, unfiltered feedback wore on his returning players. Some more than others.
"I think initially it was a very difficult situation for all of us," Lisch explains. "Brad had just done a wonderful job and we had won twenty games that year. Tommie and I probably had our best seasons in college that sophomore year, as well. Rick coming in definitely changed things up, and I think Tommie, especially, felt lost and confined. I feel like Tommie lost a bit of the joy for the game. Majerus had a difficult situation, as well. He was trying to make huge changes and strides forward within the basketball program, but we weren't his 'guys' he recruited either."
He adds, "At the end of the day, I learned so much from Majerus. I maybe just didn't see it all at the time."
If Lisch, a longtime pro in Australia's top professional league, is diplomatic about that relationship, Liddell is a tad more direct.
"Oh, no, we didn't get along," Liddell says of Majerus, without anger. "On the court, we didn't get along. Off the court, he'd give you great advice; probably some of the best advice I've gotten. But on the court, the things he wanted me to do just didn't suit my game. I made a lot of sacrifices during my junior and senior years, just to get along. I think the thing about Majerus is you don't expect people to be that honest. You'd get the truth from him. Well, it might not be the truth, but he's going to say whatever he wants to say, whenever he wants to say it.
"You don't always come across someone like that," Liddell continues. "We didn't agree on a lot of things, but you could take some of it and apply it to your everyday life. The things he said to me I knew were genuine, right? He ain't going to tell you lies. Sometimes you took it and said, 'Eh, OK, it's Rick.'"
Liddell's trajectory, however, changed after that sophomore year. His court time would stay the same during his final two years, but his other stats declined. His scoring, his shooting percentage ... many of the key numbers pointed downward, and Liddell is blunt today in saying that his re-upping for his last two years was a mistake. If he was going to risk gambling on his NBA potential, in retrospect, that was the moment. Scoring about fifteen points a game, with an average of seven rebounds and three assists while seldom coming out of games, his stock was never higher.
The NBA, a league that banks on potential, knew of Liddell that year; SLU's coaches were getting asked questions about his game and intentions. A big guard/small forward with an improving jump shot, an ability to flash to the hoop and a still-improving defensive game, Liddell faced a choice.
"I should've left," he says today.
He explains. "I don't like school. I can do it, I just don't like school. ... But some people convinced me to stay. Coach (Jason) Grunkemeyer told me some teams had called and asked about me." Instead, he wound up having surgery on his ankle — and then Soderberg was fired.
Soderberg says, "I think most guys understand that the percentage of players who play professionally, compared to the number that start out in college basketball, is very small. But many think, 'I'm not the one that won't make it, I'm one of the ones that will.' I think in Tommie's case, he had a legitimate idea that he was good enough to play for money, somewhere around the world. His skill set was phenomenal."
Still, the cost-benefit analysis is complicated. Should a talented player be patient, or seize the day? Sometimes neither will get you to the NBA, but you still can't help but ponder the road less traveled.
"Tommie," says Thorpe, his former recruiter, "maybe had some interest after that sophomore year. But to his credit, he went back to school and did the right thing. People fail to realize that in today's generation, it's easy to leave. There are now 700-plus Division I basketball transfers every single year. It's the easy thing to do. But even though Coach Majerus and he didn't see eye to eye, Tommie stuck it out."
Still, he didn't graduate. After Liddell played his last game as a Billiken in the spring of 2009, his academic life took a pause — one that lasted about nine years.
These days, Tommie Liddell III lives in a subdivision on the edge of Shiloh and Belleville, where multiple housing developments have cropped up; the styles match for a few blocks, then radically change at a single intersection. It's an exurban neighborhood, cut out of farm fields and about a 30-minute drive from downtown St. Louis. As the crow flies, it's not terribly far from the Gompers Homes of Liddell's youth. But it's also pretty removed from that world.
Liddell has a one-story duplex here, with little on the walls and not much suggesting the personality of the man living inside. But if nothing else, he's close to family here. Very much so. His mother, Diane Rhodes, lives fifteen minutes away in Belleville, while his father, Tommie Liddell, is just around the corner. Daughter Taja, ten, and son Demondre, eight, live nearby as well. Working at a plant in Belleville, currently on a supervisor's day shift, his world could seem tightly bound by a few square miles of southwestern Illinois.
"For me, this is where I'm at at this moment," he says. "If an opportunity produced itself, then I would definitely explore moving, to St. Louis or out of town. I'd definitely think about it. My girl was asking me if I'd move and it's something I've thought about. Because you figure everybody wants more opportunities. Maybe being here, you wouldn't find as many opportunities as in moving to a certain area, like Atlanta, or something like that."
Implied, indirectly, is that music would be the impetus for the call of Atlanta. Music has been a constant companion since his earlier days at SLU.
As a freshman, Liddell recalls, "the team went to Hawaii. I didn't really know anyone. In the summertime, we played together, but I never really hung out. I was young and quiet and there were a whole lot of older people on the team, juniors and seniors. In Hawaii, I'd walk around with my headphones on all day. They thought I was weird, I think."
One of those older people, forward Justin Johnson, eventually befriended Liddell. The two would spend time in Johnson's room, playing around in what was becoming an amateur studio. The situation reoccured in Amsterdam a few years later, where Liddell would hang with a fellow expat player, name lost to the mists of time; they'd fiddle around on ProTools in their apartment, two twentysomething Americans in one of the world's most exciting cities, staying in to cut hip-hop tracks day and night.
"When I wasn't playing basketball, I was making music in Justin's room," Liddell recalls. "We were always recording. When I went overseas to play, I was still recording. I had an Apple Macbook and my roommate told me about GarageBand. That became all I used to do: basketball practice, or a game, then back to my room to prepare some music. When I came back from overseas, I let more people hear it.
"Some of my friends were already doing music, so we got together and came up with a name, Future Millionaires," he says. "It was a song I'd already made. We got that going and made it into an entertainment company."
As for what that mantle means, well, here's an example: On the morning before Easter, an overcast Saturday, he and his fellow Millionaires went to a field near the Gompers Homes and organized an Easter egg hunt and cookout for the kids there. (He lists as the group's members a cast of lifelong buddies and cousins — he names them as Zo, NDot, Juju Willis and Chezzo Sanchez.) It's the kind of thing that he feels comfortable doing and ties into his deep roots in East St. Louis proper.
Oberle, the assistant athletic director, has long been Liddell's most vocal booster at SLU. She maintains a long-running group text with Liddell and Thorpe, and says she's not surprised to learn of the Easter egg hunt, nor the fact that Liddell has taken a few years to commit fully to telling his story to a reporter. There's still a quiet edge to the man, no matter the topic.
"Tommie at 18 and 32 are both quiet people, but Tommie's 18-year-old-quiet was pretty sincere," Oberle writes. "He didn't offer much and wasn't sure how to react to my, well, chatty-ask-questions kind of personality. I will say, though, he always had a calm, friendly way about him — his quiet wasn't arrogant, it wasn't standoffish, it was just quiet."
She adds, "He loves his family dearly — he always has. He feels a fierce connection, loyalty and belief in the community he grew up in; you felt that from early on meeting him. He is still and has always been good with kids — he is at his best when he is engaging young people. I enjoy seeing him with his own kids — a daughter and son — as his love for them is clear. I also hear him talk to them on the phone, ending the call with 'I love you.' Simple, but so very TL. He sees the good in people and finds good people."
When players leave an institution, their relationship with its supporters can get complicated.
In July 2013, a music video of Liddell's, "For My People," was cross-posted from YouTube to the local Billikens bulletin board, billikens.com. "I made it through 37 seconds of the video," one respondent posted. Another: "It isn't my music taste. I gave him a web hit and cheered him on as a season ticket holder for those 4 years. I think that is sufficient, thanks very much." Another, even more pithy: "Nothing good to say ..."
Liddell doesn't mind any of that. He's not making the music for those folks, anyway. And when he's been around Billiken fans, they've been cool. At least to his face.
"After all these years and people still remember me," he says, now back on campus for various study sessions, although his first class, and the one currently underway, takes place online. "That people actually remember me from what seems like a long time ago, so I definitely appreciate them. You never know when you'll run into a SLU fan, or season ticket holder."
When coaches leave an institution, the ripples in their wake can affect many lives.
After being forced out at SLU, Soderberg had an extended run at crosstown Lindenwood, taking that program to fairly high highs as its head coach; now he's an assistant coach at one of the nation's top schools, Virginia. But with an "awkward" departure, he's been apart from his former wards.
Told that Liddell had good words about him, Soderberg says, "Quite frankly, I feel humbled. I just finished my 33rd year as a collegiate coach, and I'm not always proud of the things I said in the heat of battle. I wish that I could gather all of my former players together and tell them how much that I love them and care for them. It means a lot to me that he thinks well of me. I'll cherish that."
Among the specifics that Liddell recalls: being sat in a chair under the basket, his left-handed shot being retooled by this unorthodox positioning and tons of repetition.
"My mechanics were all wrong," Liddell says. "I had the IQ of the game, but learning how to play the game? From the first day, he sat down with me and we reconstructed my jump shot, sitting in the chair and shooting one-handed shots. That's how my three-point percentage went up so much."
Soderberg laughs when told this. "I just was telling that story yesterday," he exclaims. "We have a left-handed shooter that needs work on his shot and we were talking about that exact drill."
For coaches, there's always another left-handed shooter, a new, improved, younger version of the last one. Another Tommie, no matter the name.
When on campus, those players are supported by academic staffers, with unofficial mentors there to help guide them through to degree completion. But when players leave an institution without a degree, there are often a few who remain invested, ready to help them finish their program.
For Liddell, Oberle has been the key. She says she promised him upon his departure that he would get his degree from SLU. "I told him when he was ready, we would be here for him. And that I would personally make sure that he got the support he needed," she recalls. "I told him I wouldn't bother him or bug him (which I had done lots of while he was at SLU) but that I would trust he would know when to re-engage."
When Liddell reached out by email even after his departure, she remembers feeling so happy to hear from him — and certain it was a sign that the university "would eventually get him back to school."
Two previous attempts, however, came up short. "Both times I underestimated the difficulty of transportation — as TL was relying on public transport both times — and of jobs without regular schedules — also an issue both times," she says. "Realistically, I think both times were also a little early for him to be able to work through those barriers."
At one critical point, with Liddell being inducted into the school's sports hall of fame, something seemed to click. By all accounts his acceptance speech was a winner, a heartfelt one that touched on all aspects of his life and suggested that school was very much back in his mind.
And when former Mizzou standout Corey Tate joined the SLU coaching staff, Oberle again saw him attending basketball games. "I think he is also in a good place in life — able to look forward and see what else he might want for his future. Getting his degree can open up opportunities." This spring, Liddell started that first class, American Literary Traditions: Literature of St. Louis, with the textbook Seeking St. Louis: Voices From a River City, 1670-2000.
In many respects, Liddell's story has all the elements that Hoop Dreams helped to make into tropes of sports storytelling for urban athletes: the street games growing up in a tough neighborhood and the lingering connection to that place. The schooling in a district that couldn't always provide books for all the students in a classroom. The cultural challenges of moving into a collegiate setting. The coaching changes. The injuries derailing a pro career. The settling into challenging vocations and avocations. It's all there in this Tommie Liddell story, all these touchstones, plus a coming chapter which could/should/will involve that SLU degree.
"I actually think that this came from my kids," Liddell says, "so that they can look at me and say they want to go to college, get a degree. Obviously, everybody wants their kids to further their education and get a better job in the world. And I know when I work at my job, I work pretty hard. I think just getting the degree will help me; with a degree and maybe a better job, I'll obviously have more time for family, instead of working graveyard shifts. But it takes a lot of work to finish. I just wish I would've realized it earlier and gotten it out of the way."
And when he does, Thorpe — now a half-lifetime away from watching a teenaged Liddell hooping in southwestern Illinois high school gyms — plans to be at the ceremony.
"I made a promise to him," Thorpe says of Liddell's graduation. "The day you finish, no matter where I am, I will be there."