Billy Garrett Jr. Looks to Build on Knicks Call-Up as NBA’s Only Player with Sickle Cell
For any G League player, the first NBA call-up is a magical moment—a validation of years spent on the court and in the gym, striving to one day belong where many thought otherwise. Such was the case for Billy Garrett Jr. when, this past April, the Chicago native made his NBA debut with the New York Knicks.
Billy's journey took him from Illinois to Los Angeles to Westchester, and followed beats similar to those of the underdogs who preceded him, with one major exception: the shadow of a life-threatening illness hanging over his head constantly.
He was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia at birth, when doctors told his parents, Billy Sr. and Annissa, that he wouldn’t be able to play sports. Twenty four years later, he refused to be sanctioned to less-than or other status, not against top recruits or a genetic condition.
“I never really knew I wasn’t supposed to be playing,” Billy explains to CloseUp360. “I just thought that I was capable of doing it, and if I ran into some sickle cell trouble, then it was dealt with. I never looked at it from an aspect of, ‘I’m not supposed to be doing this.’”
Sickle cell causes sporadic “crises” of pain that require hospitalization and crippling fatigue that needs to be managed. Of the 20-plus million people in the world living with sickle cell today, Billy is the only one currently in the NBA.
“He never wants to be treated differently. He doesn't want people to say he can't do something because he has sickle cell,” Billy Sr. says. “He would always have a little chip on his shoulder, probably where he got his competitiveness from. He always wanted to prove that he could do it. The doctors at the beginning told him that he couldn't.”
Despite that diagnosis, Billy was an active kid. He would play basketball, baseball and football until he was tired, sit down, and return once he felt refreshed. Every time, he pushed himself a little further, working on his endurance in spite of his illness.
Those same genes that bestowed Billy with sickle cell also made him a gifted athlete. His grandfather, Bill, was the first African-American to play (and be named an All-American) in the Big Ten at Indiana University before playing for the Harlem Globetrotters. His father played college football at Illinois State.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” Billy Jr. says. “I look at it more so as this is the last name that I carry, so I have to uphold the standard.”
Billy Garrett Jr.'s grandfather, Bill, was the first African-American to play college basketball in the Big Ten Conference. (Courtesy of Billy Garrett Jr.)
Although he had natural talent and terrific size for a guard (currently 6’6"), Billy looked to improve further. His father put young Billy in touch with Steve Harris, his old college teammate-turned-Hollywood actor. After his sophomore year at Morgan Park High School, Billy flew from Chicago to LA to spend a couple of weeks relaxing in the west coast sun and, more importantly, training with Steve. The result, according to Billy Sr., was “life-changing.”
“After that was when his body started to tone up, and his wind got better,” Billy Sr. says. “He took off.”
Both Billy Jr. and Steve describe the visits as atypical of standard basketball training. Steve, also from Chicago, wanted to show Billy what could be accomplished with the right work ethic and approach. The trip was as much about developing Billy mentally as it was physically, so much so that the two describe it as “life” training over anything else.
“I didn't work with him at all in basketball,” Steve recalls.
Instead, Billy would pick Steve’s brain everyday, engage in different workouts and endure challenges to his diet and routine. Whenever Billy sat in Steve’s car, he’d have to put his phone away, since the rule was that they were to communicate with each other on the road.
Physical training was conducted on the beach or the track, not the court. Rather than put up jumpers, Billy would run up sand dunes backwards and do hurdles. Steve had to research sickle cell in order to be properly informed for Billy’s development, but the disease never earned him any slack.
“He never cared about that,” Steve says, “and I never worked on that with him.”
Instead, they focused on how Billy could adjust his routine to help prevent future incidents. He began focusing more on his diet and sleep, cutting down on red meat and late nights. On the sidelines, he traded Gatorade for Pedialyte, a low-sugar drink designed to promote rehydration and electrolyte replacement in ill children.
“Just having iced tea with no sugar, not a big deal, but if you come from Chicago, you don't have tea without sugar,” Steve says. “Something simplistic like that, nothing. All of a sudden, he's seeing abs where he just may have had a stomach. That serves a purpose.”
These habits and trips to Steve’s carried over into college. Billy attended DePaul University, where Billy Sr. was an assistant coach for the men’s basketball team. Billy ranked 94th on the ESPN 100 list and wasn’t heavily recruited, but with a chance to prove himself came more bumps in the road.
In January of his freshman year in 2013, Billy felt knee pain on the charter bus to a team flight. Once in the air, his situation became more acute. Upon landing, he was rushed to an emergency room, but a mistake in the dosage of one of the medications for treatment put Billy in even more pain. He would move to another hospital, narrowly escaping a potentially lethal situation over the course of four days.
“That was the first time I saw it from beginning to end,” Billy Sr. recalled. “It probably scared me way more than it scared him.”
Billy would bounce back without incident, but he still faced struggles on the court. His DePaul team was stuck in the doldrums of the Big East Conference throughout his four-year career, and his name didn’t appear on any mock drafts.
Once again, Billy looked inward. To take his mind away from the game, but back to work, he became an avid reader of nonfiction, specifically “self-help” books. His favorites to date: The Alchemist and The Power of Now, the first two of what is now a “25-30” book collection.
“I was just going through a tough time,” Billy says. “Wanted to relax and wind down, learn a little bit about myself, learn a little bit about other topics and figure out who I was from a mental standpoint.”
Billy also began delving into community work, specifically for those also dealing with sickle cell. He partnered with DePaul’s Play for Change to promote a video game called Blood Myth, which helps to educate those living with the ailment.
“I feel like my story can help a lot of kids who are dealing with the same situation that I'm dealing with,” Billy says. “Kids living with sickle cell, if they can see somebody who's able to play professional sports with it and defy the odds, why can't they? I'm no different than any of them.
“Sometimes you just need a little bit of inspiration or even to see an example of someone who has done it, in order to ensure yourself that you're capable of doing that.”
Billy would have to wait before he could spread his message in the NBA. He went undrafted in June 2017. And though he wound up in the G League with the Westchester Knicks—while switching agents to Keith Kreiter of Edge Sports—his affinity for helping others never wavered.
“I think that's one of his drives to get to the NBA. He thinks that'll help him spread the word,” Billy Sr. says. “He'll do it when there are 500 cameras there or no cameras. He's trying to help whoever he can.”
Billy has done his part to help in a number of ways. He is currently a celebrity ambassador for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, works closely with the Sickle Cell Disease Association of Illinois, attends meetings and conventions, and is looking to start basketball camps for kids dealing with the illness.
These, along with all the times he’s been approached by others seeking guidance through sickle cell.
"I get a lot of people that reach out to me,” Billy says. “I try to respond to them all, especially when it's a kid that's dealing with sickle cell.
“Whoever comes to me I just try to give them a little bit of advice, and it doesn't have to be basketball. Dealing with life, try to give them a little bit of advice on how they can approach their goals and achieve their goals despite dealing with sickle cell."
Billy is well-versed in these life lessons. This mentality not only got Billy out of the hospital bed and on to the court through crises and competition, but also earned him a multi-year contract with the Knicks this season, which includes a team option for next year. More importantly, he now has the disease fully under control.
On the cusp of one professional dream, Billy is working on another: starting a foundation that will help those also affected by sickle cell. It’s early in the process, but he and Annissa have written out a foundational plan, including a board of directors and mission statement. The sickle cell organizations with which Billy has previously worked are currently in the loop as well.
It’s a high-wire game that Billy is playing. He’ll be one-of-a-kind in his NBA locker room both in illness and interests. He’s likely the only one asleep soon after game time and practicing piano in his off hours.
Few have held up the expectations of a legendary family lineage and ailing population. Doing all of this before his 25th birthday may seem like a lot. But then again, Billy never really knew he wasn’t supposed to be playing in the first place.
David Vertsberger is a veteran NBA writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.