Through Tragedy and Triumph, Willie Reed Has Kept His Basketball Career Alive
The dog days of August spilled into September and October for Willie Reed. While Dwight Howard secured a spot with the Los Angeles Lakers and teams around the NBA sorted through big men to fill out their rosters, Willie, still nimble at 6’11”, waited patiently for his next opportunity to relive his dream.
Over the summer, the 29-year-old took a more active approach. In July, he played for the Utah Jazz’s Summer League squad in Las Vegas. In August, when the calls from NBA teams were slow to trickle in, he collected clips from his hoops career—a tip dunk from his time with the Los Angeles Clippers, some nifty finishes from his breakout campaign with the Miami Heat, highlights from his offseason stints in The Basketball Tournament (TBT) and with the Jazz in Summer League—and posted them to his Instagram feed with a curious caption.
“I just wanted to say that I think I can help an NBA team,” Willie tells CloseUp360 by phone from his home in Orlando. “I really think that I could be a great fit for someone's team, bring the energy. I've done that in my career. I've gotten an opportunity to play, so that was kind of a post saying, ‘Hey, I'm here, remember what I've done, remember what I can still do.’”
Not even three years have passed since Willie first burst onto the NBA scene as a rebounder, finisher, defender and all-around high-energy guy, though he’s spent most of that time in relative basketball exile. His return to the sport’s elite seemed assured before a shoulder injury this past winter, and looked to be back on track after he showed no ill effects over the summer, nearly six months after surgery.
Yet, as the 2019-20 season began, Willie was a man without a team—in the NBA, at least. This past weekend, he departed his offseason residence in Orlando to continue his career in Europe, with Greek powerhouse Olympiacos. His first pro game ever overseas is on Wednesday against another EuroLeague juggernaut, CSKA Moscow.
There, Willie will be an ocean away from the questions about his past and his health that have plagued him since he last set foot in the Association more than a year and a half ago.
The G League of today hardly offers a glamorous lifestyle, but the pay and amenities have improved significantly since Willie first set foot in its precursor, the NBA Development League, in 2012.
Salaries hovering just above the poverty line. Games played in front of nearly empty arenas, broadcast to the most remote corners of the internet. Long bus rides between basketball outposts. Commercial flights with multiple layovers. Hardly any sleep along the way.
For all of those foibles, the D-League offered its fair share of perks for Willie. It was with the Canton Charge that he rehabbed from a foot injury he suffered as a rookie in training camp with the Cleveland Cavaliers before the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. And it was in Canton that he found the person with whom he would raise a family.
In November 2012, Willie and his teammates with the Springfield Armor (now the Grand Rapids Drive) had just finished off a 94-91 win over the Charge in their season opener. Rather than lurch from one connecting flight to the next to get back to Massachusetts in the wee hours of the morning, the team opted to spend the night celebrating at a bar in Canton. There, Willie met Jasmine Tartt, a former baller herself who’d played on the same AAU team as eventual WNBA All-Star and champion Jantel Lavender. Before the Armor departed for the Northeast, he gave Jasmine his number.
“I told her that she could give me a call if she wanted to,” Willie says.
For three weeks, she didn’t. Then, one day, Willie’s phone rang.
While driving home, Jasmine had noticed a piece of paper crumpled in the back seat of her car. She picked it up and unfurled it to find Willie’s number. With nothing but time amid the muck of rush-hour traffic, Jasmine dialed it.
“We ended up talking for about the whole 45-minute drive,” Willie says.
That initial call begat daily conversations that would go on for hours. Those chats led to in-person visits, with Jasmine covering the cost of her own flights from Canton to Springfield.
“She never asked me to pay for her plane tickets to come see me in Massachusetts,” Willie says.
At that point, Willie couldn’t fund a long-distance relationship on his own, with his meager D-League salary. Nonetheless, he and Jasmine made it work, seeing each other wherever and whenever they could.
“From there, it's just magic,” he says. “Magic.”
In January 2014, Jasmine gave birth to their son, Nathaniel. In August 2015, she and Willie were married.
As he and Jasmine formed their family, Willie built his basketball career. And wherever that construction took him, the Reeds were sure to follow.
To Reno, Nevada, where Willie played briefly for the Bighorns in 2014. To Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Des Moines, Iowa, where he suited up for the minor league affiliates of the Detroit Pistons and Minnesota Timberwolves, respectively. To the Dominican Republic, where Willie spent the summer of 2015 playing for Metros de Santiago in the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional.
And, in December 2015, to New York City, where the Brooklyn Nets called him up. Willie signed that 10-day contract with Nathaniel sitting in his lap, and played his first NBA minutes while Nathaniel and Jasmine cheered from the stands at Madison Square Garden on December 4, with millions more at home watching the Nets battle the Knicks on ESPN.
“It was exciting,” Willie says. “I had nerves running through my body.”
He also had some residual pain in his thumb from an injury that had sidelined him for the start of the 2015-16 season. None of that—not the nerves, not the discomfort, not the rust from sitting out—seemed to matter once Willie subbed in for Brook Lopez with the Nets down by 30 points midway through the third quarter. His eight points, four rebounds, one block and one charge drawn weren’t enough to bring Brooklyn all the way back (the Nets would lose the game, 108-91), though they did start a string of 26 appearances in 28 games for the then-25-year-old journeyman.
That year brought all manner of highs and lows for Willie, both personally and professionally. There was the birth of his second son, Nicholas, which followed the murder of his cousin, Emorye “Emo” Spriggs, in January 2016. Emo was shot five times in Kansas City amid a dispute over $100.
“He was saving up money to come watch me play,” Willie says. “He wouldn't allow me to pay for his own plane ticket.”
The combination of creation and devastation in his family life ultimately gave way to what appeared to be a brighter day for Willie.
His superlative play in Brooklyn earned him a multi-year deal with the Miami Heat in July 2016. Head coach Erik Spoelstra made no promises to the big man that he would make the final roster out of training camp, much less play significant minutes behind Hassan Whiteside, who had re-signed in Miami for $98 million over four years that same summer.
“[Erik] had admitted that he didn't think that I was going to play initially,” Willie says.
Amid that uncertainty, Willie found a bit of comfort and friendship in Miami. That same summer, he reached out to Tony Gaskins, a life coach, motivational speaker and author who had appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Tyra Banks Show and The 700 Club, and amassed more than a million followers on social media.
“I really don't like the way that everything is going for me,” Willie wrote in a direct message to Tony on Instagram.
“It was a long shot,” he says now.
Much to his surprise, Willie heard back from Tony, who took the near-seven-footer under his wing.
“Just having someone to be able to talk to and help me lead me in the right direction and things like that, because I didn't really like counseling as much,” Willie says. “So just being able to have someone to go eat dinner with and talk to just about life and how he became successful in life, and that's outside of basketball and things like that, I thought that was amazing to have someone like that.”
Come fall of 2016, Willie played well enough during the preseason to secure a spot on the Heat’s roster. When Miami’s starting center went down with a right retinal contusion in January 2017, Willie stepped up with a pair of 22-point double-doubles in four starts during his absence. Once Hassan returned, Willie became a mainstay in Miami’s second unit, which helped the Heat bounce back from an 11-30 record during the first half of the 2016-17 season with a 30-11 mark over the final 41 games.
“Once I got the minutes and I was able to play, I knew that I could be a productive player in this league,” Willie says. “All I needed was an opportunity.”
While in Miami, Willie started training with Stanley Remy, a famed skills coach who counted Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem among his clientele. He worked out with Stanley “literally every single day,” he says. Their kids became close, as did their wives.
In Miami, Willie felt at home. The Reeds settled into a condominium in the Marquis Miami building on Biscayne Boulevard. He had his wife and kids, a growing support system and a connection to the Heat that was seemingly bigger than basketball.
“We built a bond and a brotherhood,” he says. “Like, when we got there, we were just strangers and we became friends. Then we became family, and it was really cool to see that. It was not one place that we went that everybody didn't go. We spent all of our time together and with our families and with each other and teammates. So it was just as a special organization.”
Whether Willie was part of the Heat’s plans for the future remains unclear.
According to ESPN, Miami offered him a three-year, $15 million deal, but he turned it down on the advice of his then-agent, Christian Dawkins. Per that same report, Christian was neither employed by ASM Sports nor certified by the National Basketball Players Association at the time of Willie’s free agency. Those designations were revoked in the wake of investigations by the FBI and NBPA into a college basketball recruiting scandal, and the unauthorized use of a player’s personal credit card, respectively—both of which allegedly involved Christian as a core conspirator.
In September 2017, the Miami Herald reported that the Heat “denied...that there was ever such an offer” for Willie and his representation to consider. With Hassan entrenched at center, Kelly Olynyk signed to a four-year, $50 million contract early in free agency, and Bam Adebayo brought in with the No. 14 pick in the 2017 draft, the Heat were already stocked at Willie’s primary position.
After firing Christian on July 11 and signing with the Los Angeles Clippers for the league minimum of $1.5 million on August 3, Willie filed a $13.5 million arbitration claim against Christian and ASM Sports—the same month of the Herald’s report. Because that litigation is still pending, Willie declined to comment on the matter.
That deal with the Clippers, though for less than what he had hoped, seemed to calm things for Willie. He and his family would get to experience life in LA—along with training camp in Hawaii—while Willie played for Doc Rivers on a team that, in the wake of Chris Paul’s trade to the Houston Rockets, would be retooled around Blake Griffin. He would still be living his dream in the NBA and get to enjoy the perks that came with it.
That all began to change three days later.
In the early morning hours of Sunday, August 6, 2017, Willie was arrested and booked into jail by officers from the Miami Police Department.
According to the police report, the trouble began on the balcony of the Reeds’ condo at the Marquis Miami. Jasmine told Willie she wanted a divorce. He told her to leave, but to do so without any of the belongings he had purchased for her.
Per Jasmine’s account to police, things escalated when the couple began tugging back and forth on her purse after Willie grabbed it from her, and she fell to the ground upon the strap snapping. She then made her way down to the lobby of the building, where she left her purse with the concierge, before coming back up to retrieve their sons. As Jasmine was leaving with Nicholas, Willie allegedly grabbed her hair, at which point she struck back with a candle.
Willie told police that he didn’t hit his wife—and maintains that stance to this day—though he admitted to touching her hair and grabbing her purse and shirt. The police report from that night notes that Jasmine had “red marks on her left wrist, right bicep, the right side of her chest and her back,” along with “some swelling on her left foot.”
“I'm not the type of person that would physically put his hands on a woman. I've never done anything like that,” he insists. “Yeah, we all get into arguments and we say things that we don't mean, and we want to take them back. But physically, I've never hit my wife ever in my life and I never want to do anything like that.”
The noise from the dispute prompted a neighbor to call the police with suspicions of domestic violence. Per Florida state law, that meant someone would have to be arrested and taken into custody. In this case, that someone was Willie.
By Sunday afternoon, Willie had posted a $1,500 cash bond and was released into the custody of then-Heat forward Okaro White. Willie was also issued a stay-away order with a pre-trial condition that he not contact Jasmine.
The following Tuesday, Jasmine submitted a notarized affidavit to the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office requesting that the stay-away order against her husband be nullified, and that the state drop its prosecution of Willie for alleged domestic violence. She insisted that the incident was “totally blown out of proportion” and that she neither called the police nor asked anyone else to do so.
“Willie is a good man and a great father,” Jasmine said at the time through her attorney, Ivlis Mantilla. “I have no intention of pressing charges and I have asked the authorities to immediately dismiss all charges against Willie. This is a private matter between my husband and I, and for the sake of our family, I would like to keep it that way.”
“Right after that, me and my wife were right back together,” Willie says. “We were talking, we were all good. I went through the counseling and everything that the state of Florida asked me to do, and I've done everything teams have wanted me to do.”
For the Clippers, that meant, in part, backing up DeAndre Jordan at center on the court. Though Willie fared well in that role—with six games of double-figure scoring—he requested a trade amid a competition for minutes in the middle with DeAndre and Montrezl Harrell. On January 29, 2018, his request was granted when the Clippers sent him, Blake and Brice Johnson to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Avery Bradley and two draft picks.
“My agent told me that I was getting traded to Detroit and he was, like, ‘Yeah, Blake's in the trade,’” Willie recalls. “And Blake was sitting across from me, but Blake didn't know yet. And I was, like, ‘Blake, we just got traded.’ He was, like, ‘Really?’ And then his agent called him and told him. I was, like, ‘Wow, we're both getting traded to Detroit.’”
Willie played sparingly upon joining the Pistons, but he enjoyed his time around then-head coach Stan Van Gundy. That came to an end when, on February 6, the NBA assessed Willie with a six-game suspension—the first-ever meted out under the domestic violence policy that the league had instituted in December 2017—based on “all facts and circumstances of this matter and...the conduct and its result, the outcome of the criminal matter, and Reed’s voluntary participation in counseling as well as the court-mandated program, among other factors,” according to a statement.
Two days later, Detroit dealt Willie to the Chicago Bulls, who immediately waived him.
He hasn’t played in the NBA since.
Violence had never been Willie’s way, though he saw plenty of it while growing up in Kansas City.
His mother, Cortasha Adams, gave birth to Willie five days before her 16th birthday. Willie’s father, Willie Reed Sr., didn’t stay with Cortasha, but shared custody of Willie and LaToya, Willie’s younger sister, with her as he fathered a younger son, Jaden, with a different woman.
Cortasha, meanwhile, cycled through a series of relationships, some of which turned out to be harmful, both physically and emotionally.
“She was a victim of domestic violence,” Willie says. “She's had boyfriends before that have done her wrong, and growing up seeing that, I never wanted to be in that situation.”
Those experiences drove Cortasha—who worked as a cleaning lady for the Hickman Mills C-1 School District and provided care to the elderly—to help other victims of domestic violence find shelter and comfort, and inspired a young Willie to join her. He continued to support victims of abuse and speak out against domestic violence, up to and through his time in Miami with the Heat.
“That's why it really hurt me so bad that everyone was thinking that was me without really getting to the bottom of it,” he says, in reference to his own incident.
Instead, Willie’s arrest revived mention of an incident from his time at Saint Louis University. Towards the end of his sophomore year, Willie and some of his Billikens teammates were accused of misconduct.
“They said it was sexual assault, but it was a girl that one of my teammates was talking to,” he explains. “We lived in the same apartment complex, so when she left the room from him, she named the guys that were all in the apartment complex at the time and said that she was assaulted, even though she had only had sex with the guy she was talking to.”
The university suspended Willie and his teammates for the fall semester of his junior year in 2010-11. He returned in time for the spring semester, but the school wouldn’t let him back on the team that season.
Between that and his family’s need for financial support, Willie decided to turn pro. On the night of the 2011 NBA draft, 60 picks came and went, none with his name attached.
Willie Reed left school early, but wasn't selected during the 2011 NBA draft. (Amir Ebrahimi)
October 20, 2018, was something of a rebirth for Willie Reed. That night, he began a journey that he hoped would bring him back to the NBA, as the No. 1 overall pick of the Salt Lake City Stars—the minor league affiliate of the Utah Jazz—in the G League draft.
“It was special,” he says. “I mean, once I knew that I was going to be in the G League and put my name in the draft, I didn't know where I was going to be. I didn't know if I would be the number one pick. I didn't know who else was in. So just to be able to get drafted that highly means that the Jazz really thought highly of me, and I really had an opportunity to be successful in their organization.”
In the bigger picture, this was progress for Willie. Six years earlier, he’d begun his pro career as a second-round pick (30th overall) of the Armor in the D-League draft. Now, he would follow that same path as the G League’s most promising prospect.
Basketball had long been a bastion of positive potential in Willie’s life, ever since his mom put a ball in his hands when he was three years old.
“I used to sleep with it all the time. It's just been a part of me,” he says. “It helped me escape from a lot of the stuff that was happening in Kansas City for a long time.”
When he was seven, Willie told his mom and grandmother, Alice Threets, that he would be a professional basketball player someday.
How he’d get there, though, was anybody’s guess. The hoops scene in Kansas City at the time wasn’t exactly booming. Nor were Willie’s family’s circumstances. For a time, he and his mom were two of eight people living in Alice’s three-bedroom, two-bathroom house.
“But my grandmother had the master bedroom with the bathroom that we could never use,” Willie says, “so it was actually only one bathroom.”
Willie, meanwhile, slept on the couch and spent many of his idle hours hanging in the streets with what he calls “the wrong group of people.”
“They were a really bad influence on me,” he says. “A couple of them ended up going to jail and just being in bad situations.”
Once Willie got to high school, hoops went from a hobby to a way out. Before his sophomore year, he met a youth coach named Matt Suther, who offered guidance to the tall, skinny teenager he’d seen wandering from one high school to the next.
“He took me in, he brought me to his house every weekend, trained and worked me out,” Willie says. “And that's when I knew basketball was really my route to get to college, and to get out of Kansas City and live a better life.”
Willie would become the first star with real potential to come out of Matt’s AAU program, which was then known as Kansas City Blue before it became MOKAN Elite. Since then, the program has nurtured a slew of eventual NBA players, including Trae Young, Alec Burks, Willie Cauley-Stein and Michael Porter Jr.
“We helped build something special with the MOKAN program,” Willie says, “and now I can say that instead of being a guy who was a victim of Kansas City, I was someone to help turn it around.”
Willie turned himself around, too. Rather than running the streets, he spent his spare time working for a paycheck. His first high school job came at the Olive Garden, where he took to buttering up the restaurant chain’s famed breadsticks. As a 6’9” junior, he got a gig at Target, where his superiors put him to work stocking shelves.
“I guess they found the perfect person for the job,” he quips.
The game got him to college—where he earned the nickname “Showtime” for his flashy feats of athleticism—and, eventually, an on-court career. It appeared to hold plenty more promise for him last season, when he parlayed his primacy in the G League draft into a productive stint in Salt Lake City.
On the court, he averaged just under 20 points per game while leading the Stars in rebounds (11.2), blocks (1.7), free throw attempts (4.6) and field goal percentage (.664). Off of it, he was active in the community, visiting homeless shelters and mentoring kids at the Boys & Girls Club.
“That's the type of person I am,” he says. “Not the person that people think, because they see one bad thing that happened, that's really me and it's not.”
Before Willie could get called up to the NBA again, his winding road took another unexpected turn.
On January 14, 2019, he exited the fourth quarter of the Stars’ 124-113 road win over the Westchester Knicks with what turned out to be a labrum tear in his right shoulder. He would need surgery and a six-month recovery, thereby ending his season and leading Salt Lake City to waive him two days later.
Still, in that moment, Willie let neither the ice pack on his shoulder nor the uncertain future ahead hinder him from signing autographs for fans after the game.
“Whatever I was dealing with, it couldn't get taken care of the rest of that night,” he recalls, “so I wanted to go out there and give those fans a lasting memory, just take some pictures and have some smiles.”
Nor did he allow the injury to stop him from taking advantage of other opportunities around the team. He stuck around Salt Lake City to do some on-air work with the Stars and Jazz, thereby putting to good use his training through the National Basketball Players Association’s Sportscaster U. program from 2017.
It’s another scorching July afternoon in Las Vegas, but inside the Wynn luxury resort, it feels more like a pleasant spring morning. Willie relaxes in a cream-colored chair, surrounded by bright red walls inside a nook next to a help desk, as far removed from the distraction of the casino floor as he can get without huddling in his hotel room.
The Jazz have the day off from Summer League. Willie is the dean among Utah’s collection of incoming rookies, sophomores-to-be and international vagabonds, and it shows. Between the Jazz’s stints in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, he averages nearly a double-double (9.7 points, 7.5 rebounds) in just more than 18 minutes per game, while shooting 55.6 percent from the floor.
“I want to be honest with you: if you ask anybody on the team, even though I might be—” he stops to correct himself. “I'm the oldest one here. I think they would probably say I got the most energy.
“Like, you should see me before a game. It's like a full concert with my music for everybody. Just getting everyone hyped up for the game. Just talking, playing different music, whatever the guys like, and I'm just getting real, real antsy. I'm just ready to play. I think that's my biggest thing—I'm just so full of energy and so full of life.”
That much is clear throughout the hour-plus he spends recounting the rollercoaster that is his life story. He could be jaded—wondering why an NBA team hasn’t offered him so much as a training camp invite, what more he has to do to earn one or whether the unflattering parts of his past are keeping him from realizing his dream again.
Instead, he appreciates the opportunity to play five-on-five for the first time since his shoulder surgery. He relishes being part of a team and sharing his wisdom with younger players.
He smiles as he recalls how he took up ice skating during a high school field trip, and how he was “pretty decent at it.” He speaks fondly of Alain Laroche, Stanley Remy’s associate with whom he trains in Orlando. He ponders a fulfilling life after basketball spent broadcasting and running his No Excuses Foundation—which serves underprivileged kids in Kansas City with everything from school supplies to free basketball camps—while raising his sons and supporting Jasmine’s ambitions in fashion, business and entrepreneurship.
Not that he has any plans to take it easy on her when they play one-on-one.
“I let her score once, so she tells everybody, and then after that I started blocking them into her face,” he says with a laugh. “So I said, ‘I can't let you in.’ I don't even like letting my kids score on me, until she has to come to me. She says, ‘Let them score. Please.’ I'm, like, ‘Okay.’”
All the while, an upset child across the room at the Wynn screams in protestation, but Willie is unphased. He knows those cries well, from the two sons he has waiting for him with his wife upstairs, and looks forward to the return of those noises of infancy—as they did with the birth of his third son, Noah, in October.
The Reeds can only hope their youngest will be as good of an athlete as five-year-old Nathaniel, a lefty who’s already starred in softball, soccer and flag football, but loves basketball; and three-year-old Nicholas, who’s still too young to play organized hoops, but has gotten his feet wet on the pitch.
Willie and Jasmine celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary in August, and will commemorate seven years since their first encounter this coming November. In January 2020, he and his cousins will invariably hop on FaceTime to salute the four-year mark of Emo’s passing with a shot and a salute.
Wherever he goes—the NBA or otherwise—Willie won’t have to look far to remind himself of what it’s all for, what it’s always been for. His customized Kyrie 5s are decorated with dashes of purple (his wife’s favorite color), red (his favorite color), green and blue (his sons’ favorite colors), with the words “Remember Why” printed on the inside.
“I always rub it before I go in and remember why I'm doing it,” he says. “For my family, for my wife, my kids, for Emorye, my mom and dad, to their kids living their dream—even though they had to drop out of school.”
“My dream was to make it to the NBA,” he adds. “I made it to the NBA. I lived my dream.”
Soon enough, he hopes to live it again. But first, he’s got an early dinner to catch with his wife and kids. He’s treating them to an evening at the Olive Garden, with all the breadsticks he can imagine buttering up.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.