Wizards’ Jordan McRae Embraces Winding Path From Hinesville to the NBA

LOS ANGELES -- It’s been more than three years since an NBA championship team last visited the White House. Politics aside, just about any squad would have a tough time following up the act that brought LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and the Cleveland Cavaliers to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in November 2016.

Five months earlier, those Cavs completed the most stunning comeback in basketball history. They turned a 3-1 series deficit against the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals into a Game 7 triumph that ended the city of Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought.

Jordan McRae was along for that historic ride. The 6’5” combo guard’s four points in just under three minutes during the Cavs’ blowout win in Game 3 constituted a milestone for the then-25-year-old journeyman. He began the 2015-16 season in the NBA Development League (now known as the G League) and came to Cleveland after a proverbial cup of coffee with the Phoenix Suns.

“Being there, on that team, I can tell my kids or I can tell anybody, I have scored in the NBA Finals,” Jordan, who’s now with the Washington Wizards, tells CloseUp360 inside the Montage Beverly Hills. “Not a lot of people can ever say that.”

Fewer still had ever done so coming from Hinesville, Georgia. In fact, Jordan was the first.

The first to play in the NBA. The first to score in the Finals. The first to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The first (and only) to do the “Mannequin Challenge” in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, along with his teammates and coaches.

For the Cavs, the trip put an exclamation point on their epic journey to the sport’s mountaintop. For Jordan, it was just the beginning of a basketball odyssey that would lead to self-discovery and, eventually, an entirely different—but no less triumphant—return to the nation’s capital, where he’s opened up everyone else’s eyes with his recent explosive play for the Wizards.

Hinesville is about an hour’s drive southwest along Georgia’s coastline from Savannah. But the more important trek for Jordan’s purposes is the four-hour commute to Atlanta.

Friday after Friday through Jordan’s first three years of high school, his father, Cornelius, would load his youngest son into his car, after getting off work at a nearby nursing home, drive up I-16 and merge onto I-75 en route to Georgia’s capital city, to help Jordan actualize his basketball potential.

“He did that because he seen that I could be something,” Jordan says. “He seen that I could be a college player.”

For the McRaes—including Jordan’s mother, Paulette, who worked at the district attorney’s office—the sacrifice was well worth it. Jordan’s older brother, Cornelius Jr. (better known as Cory), had earned a college scholarship for computer engineering. His sister, Kristen, joined the Air Force.

Jordan was no slouch in school, though his athletic prowess was unparalleled among his siblings. Growing up, he mostly played baseball, and only took a serious interest in basketball during middle school, when he saw his friends and his older brother hooping. At that point, his sporting focus shifted firmly from the diamond to the hardwood.

Then, heading into the summer before seventh grade, Jordan got his start in organized basketball. A local phenom named JaQuez Motley had been playing up with eighth graders and needed some kids his own age to ball with. So some coaches in the area started an AAU team, and recruited Jordan and a handful of others to join.

While JaQuez was the star, Jordan flashed plenty of promise himself. He was an outstanding athlete and a better bucket-getter than most of his peers in Hinesville, though he didn’t always have the opportunity to show it on a squad that wasn’t built around him.

“People started telling my mom, ‘He could get offers, he could get scholarships,’” Jordan recalls.

To do so, he needed a bigger platform than the one he had in Hinesville.

In some respects, Jordan’s hometown afforded him an ideal environment to develop as a basketball player. With a population of around 33,000 people, Hinesville lacked the sorts of distractions that might’ve dragged Jordan away from the blacktop.

“We didn't have a movie theater when I was growing up,” he says, “so we literally played basketball all day.”

Jordan and his friends would show up at the local gym when it opened at 1 p.m. and play until it closed at 10 p.m. And if Paulette came to pick him up before then, he would let her know there was still time on the clock.

“I love where I grew up,” Jordan says.

But with such a small population and only two high schools in town, Hinesville didn’t offer much exposure for gifted athletes like Jordan. So Cornelius and Paulette encouraged their son to try out for the Atlanta Celtics, the same powerhouse AAU program that prepared Dwight Howard and Josh Smith for the NBA. Then, Cornelius drove Jordan those four hours to Atlanta for an all freshman and sophomore camp with the Celtics, where he finished among the top five participants thanks to his scoring skills and shiftiness with the ball.

“They were, like, ‘Yo, we want him to come play with us,’” Jordan recalls. “I was, like, ‘I don't wanna play.’”

At that age, Jordan was more inclined to spend his weekends hooping at home with his friends. Cornelius and Paulette, though, wanted to see their son succeed with his abilities, even if it meant pushing him out of his comfort zone—and sacrificing their own time and money to do so.

“My parents were, like, ‘No, you're playing,’” he says.

Being a part of the Celtics exposed Jordan to the broader basketball world. It put him in touch with NBA pros, the likes of which had never come out of Hinesville—and, thus, wouldn’t otherwise appear in his hometown.

“I remember when I played with the Celtics and Josh Smith walked in the gym, I was, like, ‘That's Josh Smith!’ I couldn't believe it,” Jordan says. “But they were all, like, ‘Oh, what's up, Josh?’ Like, it was normal for them being in cities like Atlanta. But cities like Hinesville, you don't see that.”

More importantly, playing for the Celtics placed Jordan in front of the top college coaches in the country. Whenever the likes of North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski came out to see Derrick Favors dominate down low, they inevitably caught glimpses of Jordan running the offense and getting buckets.

“People from where I'm from didn't get those opportunities,” Jordan says.

That platform, and the effort to put Jordan on it, paid dividends quickly. During his freshman year at Liberty County High School, Jordan fielded his first Division I scholarship offer, from Xavier University in Ohio, even though he didn’t play his first game for the Panthers’ boys’ basketball team until he reached the 10th grade.

“For where I'm from, that was a huge deal,” he says. “Not a lot of guys were going to college where I'm from.”

As his prep career proceeded, his profile grew, both locally and nationally. The town’s newspaper of record, the Coastal Courier, tracked Jordan’s rise through the recruiting ranks. As he developed from a two-star recruit to a nominee for the McDonald’s All-American Game, the scholarship offers continued to roll in.

Eventually, some of those same coaches who’d spotted him on the AAU circuit—including Bruce Pearl, then at Tennessee, and Tom Crean, then at Indiana—came to Hinesville to court him. That, in turn, helped other kids in town garner attention they otherwise might not have.

“I'm playing the game looking at people asking Bruce to take pictures and stuff,” Jordan remembers, “because that was a big deal for us.”

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As much as Jordan did to bring light to and set an example for Hinesville, he became a small fish in a much bigger pond once he arrived in Knoxville to begin his collegiate career at the University of Tennessee. The Volunteers’ uptempo style of play suited his speed and athleticism. And, well…

“If anybody knows Bruce Pearl, he talks a great game,” Jordan quips, “so he got me.”

Jordan played in just 10 games during his freshman season, after which the school fired Bruce and brought in Cuonzo Martin as its head coach. As a sophomore, he became a regular member of the Volunteers’ rotation, but started just 15 times in 34 appearances.

Despite those woes, Jordan had reason to believe he’d reach the NBA. In the summers, he and his teammates would hear from Tobias Harris, who had starred at Tennessee as a freshman before going pro.

“We were able to talk to him and figure out how the league was,” Jordan says. “He would come back in the summer and be, like, ‘You guys can be in the NBA.’ That was big for us.”

Bigger, still, for Jordan was fatherhood. His son, Jaheim, was born during his first semester at Tennessee. And though his parents were able to help him balance daddy duties with basketball and schoolwork, he had to be responsible for his child and, ultimately, benefited from that burden.

“Just got to grow up fast,” he says, “faster than expected.”

Eventually, Jordan’s role and game grew—so much so that he was named first-team All-SEC as a junior and senior, and competed a Nike camps hosted by LeBron and Kevin Durant. He helped the Vols reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2014, and became known around campus as the “Orange Mamba” for his scoring prowess. That spring, he graduated with his degree in sociology and criminal justice before taking aim at his real dream.

“I never really had a backup plan,” he says. “If you ask my teachers in high school, ‘What are you gonna be? What if that doesn't work?’ I'm, like, ‘I'm going to the NBA. It's going to work.’ That's what I said, so it had to work.”

The McRaes rented out the local gym in Hinesville for Jordan’s draft party in 2014. There figured to be plenty of space to accommodate his family and close friends.

Little by little, the guest list grew. More of Jordan’s friends and fellow hoopers in town wanted to attend. So did the parishioners at the church to which Cornelius and Paulette belonged. Soon enough, random people in Hinesville were reaching out about joining the party.

“The gym was just jam-packed,” Jordan recalls. “And then when they called my name, it's like the gym just erupted.”

The energy had been building all night. Jordan’s name didn’t pop up until the 58th pick, when the San Antonio Spurs selected him. The then-defending champions promptly traded his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that had recently begun an historically painful and audacious rebuild—and, thus, could take a chance on a scorer who didn't fit cleanly into one backcourt position or the other.

Though Jordan led the squad in scoring during the NBA Las Vegas Summer League, at 21.0 points per game, the Sixers sent him to Australia to play for Melbourne United in the National Basketball League (NBL).

“I didn't understand it, and I didn't embrace Melbourne and the country as I should've because I was just so pissed,” he says. “Like, I just killed Summer League. Why am I not in the NBA?”

Jordan’s disdain for his situation didn’t stop him from dominating Down Under. It did, however, induce stress. He watched and waited for a spot to open up in Philly’s rotation, so that he would get called back to the NBA. It wasn’t until the final month of the NBL season, which runs through February and into early March, that Jordan started taking advantage of his free time by exploring and experiencing the beauty of Melbourne.

“Australia's a beautiful country. I keep telling myself, I have to go back because I started doing stuff and just leaving the house when it was too late, the last month of the season,” he says. “I should've been doing that the whole time.”

Once Jordan returned to the U.S. in the spring of 2015, his path through basketball was far from glorious. He never played a meaningful game for the Sixers, despite spending two seasons dominating in the D-League with the Delaware 87ers (now the Blue Coats) while the big club in Philly struggled through “The Process.” Where his scoring prowess helped him shine in college, as a pro, it almost seemed to work against him. He wasn’t a point guard and didn’t quite fit the archetype of a three-and-D wing player.

“You have your scorers. You draft your scorers. You pay your scorers $100 million,” he explains. “So sometimes it's hard because scoring is something that every NBA team has. You know, sometimes it's easier to be a shooter.

Not that he was about to stop getting buckets. Jordan played Summer League ball in both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas in 2015 and, on January 26, 2016, set a D-League record by scoring 61 points in a 130-123 win for Delaware over the Canton Charge.

“It was just one game,” he says. “I don't know if I'll get called up right after that.”

Sure enough, that night, the Phoenix Suns signed him to a 10-day contract and summoned him to New York for a game against the Knicks. He jumped on a train from Philly to the Big Apple, where the Suns’ coaches handed him an iPad with their plays.

His first assignment? Fill in for the injured Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

“Keep in mind,” he says, “I don't play the point.”

So Jordan stayed up all night studying Phoenix’s plays “like it was the SAT,” he says. Come game day, he logged 12 points and four assists in just over 25 minutes during his NBA debut: a 102-84 Phoenix loss.

Three days later, the Suns fired their head coach, Jeff Hornacek, and promoted Earl Watson to the interim position. Earl didn’t afford Jordan the same playing time, and though Jordan signed a second 10-day contract in early February, he got sent back to the D-League and played his last game with the Suns before the end of the month.

Jordan didn’t go long without work, though. On February 28, the Cavs called him up. Cleveland didn’t give him major minutes amid its push to return to the NBA Finals, but saw enough in him as a scorer to sign him for the rest of the 2015-16 season.

On a veteran team led by the likes of LeBron, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, Jordan grew close with Kyrie and Iman Shumpert as part of Cleveland’s more youthful contingent. Together, that group made history.

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What sticks in Jordan’s mind most from that historic run with the Cavs in 2016—more than scoring in the Finals, riding in a championship parade or meeting the Obamas—isn’t an image or a sound, but a feeling.

“Down 3-1 in the locker room, it was no panic from Bron,” he remembers. “Obviously, he couldn't show it, even if it was, because he was the leader of our team, but nobody panicked.

“Sounds cliche, but their thing was, we win one at home, we steal one on the road and then anything can happen. And it was, like, okay, sounds easy enough. But we actually did that.”

Though Jordan had been to basketball’s pinnacle, he wouldn’t get to stay for long. Mere weeks after celebrating with the Cavs in Vegas after their Game 7 win over the Warriors in Oakland, he was back in Sin City playing in Summer League for the third straight year.

“I wasn’t happy about it, honestly,” he says.

Jordan played sparingly in Cleveland during the 2016-17 season until March 1, when the Cavs waived him. The following summer, he spurned offers from NBA teams and, with his girlfriend, Kandace—whom he’d met during his first season in Cleveland—in tow, went to Spain to play for EuroLeague powerhouse Saski Baskonia. The plan was to spend a year scoring all over Europe to prove that he could shine in a consistent role while bringing in a tax-free salary.

“God had other plans for me,” he says.

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Early on in the season, Jordan was reaching for a loose ball when he felt a pop in his left shoulder. He had never been injured before in his life, and yet, here he was, suffering his first from a freak accident.

Jordan tried to play through it for a couple of games before his shoulder got knocked out of place again by a hard screen. For months, he fought with the team, insisting that he was in no condition to play while demanding he be paid what he was owed.

Finally, on January 8, 2018, Jordan had surgery on his shoulder. A week later, he returned to Georgia. With his arm in a sling for three months, he focused on rehabbing, working on his body however he could and spending quality time with family.

And, of course, he watched basketball. That spring, he went up to Boston with one of his close friends to watch Kyrie and the Celtics play against the Knicks. It was the first time Jordan had watched an NBA game from the stands. Seeing his former teammate ball out made Jordan that much antsier for his own return.

“I was in there, like, I got to get back,” he says. “Like, this is where I'm supposed to be.”

To get there, Jordan went back to basics. He spent his days focusing on form shooting to fundamental ball-handling while building up his body like never before. By the end of June, he was cleared to play basketball again.

The very next day, Jordan began a run of mini-camps with NBA teams that ran through August. At the end of the last one, the Wizards were intrigued enough by his present scoring ability and potential to improve as a shooter and defender to offer him a two-way contract.

“I didn't wanna sign a two-way—I played in the G League before—but we knew if that's what I had to do to get back in the league, then that's what I was willing to do,” he says.

Jordan continued his preparations with even greater fervor wherever he went. Later that summer, he joined Kyrie, Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum in the Bahamas, where they and their friends hooped and hung out before heading back for the season.

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The 2018-19 campaign proved to be challenging both physically and mentally for Jordan. He went from months of rehab to averaging 36.0 minutes a night for the Capital City Go-Go. At times, he would shuttle between the G League and the NBA, with little time to rest and recover from game to game.

“Your body just reacts weird,” he says.

Even so, Jordan wound up leading the G League in scoring at 30.4 points per game. On April 9, 2019, the Wizards converted his two-way contract to a multi-year deal, albeit without a guarantee beyond 2018-19.

Another year, another hill to climb.

So Jordan returned to Atlanta, where he worked to improve as a shooter and defender. In August, he tested his revamped game in the Atlanta Entertainment Basketball League, playing alongside Atlanta Hawks standouts Trae Young and John Collins, as well as former NBA veteran Lorenzo Brown.

The stars were aligning for Jordan to finally break through. He was on an NBA contract with a team, in the Wizards, that needed a skilled scorer and ball-handler to fill the void left behind by the injured John Wall.

Then, during Washington’s opening game of the 2019-20 regular season, Jordan had 11 points and three assists to his name when the basketball gods came back to smite him.

“I just went to throw a pass and [my right ring finger] broke,” he says. “I was frustrated, man.

“But I'm embracing it. This is what it is. This is what my life is. This is what my basketball career is. I'ma have to go through things that some people may say, ‘It’s unfair, but this is what it is now.’”

Jordan missed the next five games after undergoing surgery. He returned to action for a month, playing the entire time with a pin placed precariously inside the injured finger. He missed most of December after having the pin removed.

His time in the NBA seemed to be teetering. Here he was, a 28-year-old journeyman coping with his second freak injury in as many years, on a Wizards team retooling with teenagers and 20-somethings around an All-Star in Bradley Beal.

WASHINGTON, DC -  JANUARY 3: Jordan McRae #52 of the Washington Wizards looks on during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on January 3, 2020 at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Jordan McRae broke his right ring finger during the Wizards' first game of the 2019-20 season. (Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Rather than release Jordan, Washington guaranteed his contract for the rest of the season while he was still recovering. The team needed all the quality guard play it could find, and all the points it could muster to keep up with NBA competition. Jordan fit the bill for both.

Jordan returned to action the day after Christmas, with his finger fully functional and his salary secured, and has been on a tear ever since. On December 30, he scored a career-high 29 points in an 18-point Wizards’ win over the Miami Heat, then bested himself four nights later with 35 points, albeit in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

“He's much more comfortable,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks says. “He has a nice role here.”

Jordan has found his place within the locker room as well. As one of the elder statesmen on a young team, he’s bonded with John and Bradley over family and card games.

“Me and Brad are unbeatable, if anybody wants to see us in spades,” Jordan says.

All the while, he’s reached out to the rest of his teammates in D.C. to share his wit and wisdom.

“He's trying to have a relationship with every single one of his teammates,” Ian Mahinmi, who’s in his fourth season with the Wizards, tells CloseUp360. “Very open-minded guy. Sometimes, throughout the season, it's a lot of ups and downs. It's good to have people like Jordan to keep a fresh mindset.”

Jordan, too, has plenty of people in his life to keep him energized. For one, there’s Kandace, who’s now his fiance and the mother of his first daughter, Addison. There’s his second son, Jordan Jr., who’s shown more of an interest in acting, singing and astronomy than hooping. And there’s Jaheim, whose love of basketball makes him a chip off the old block.

Though Jordan has yet to celebrate Jaheim’s birthday (and Jordan Jr.’s) in person due to his passion and profession, that same pursuit has given his nine-year-old son something he himself never had at such a young age: access to NBA players.

“He seen John. It’s, like, ‘What's up, John Wall?’ But it's, like, he sees their names and then he sees them in person. It's cool,” Jordan says. “I’m always watching it and seeing other NBA dads bring their sons to the game and stuff. It's, like, that's so cool that he gets to see all these people that he looks up to.”

Among those people is Jaheim’s dad, who’s become a role model for more than just his own kids. Since Jordan left Hinesville to chase his hoop dreams, his hometown has seen a handful of its own find success in sports.

Rion Brown, Jordan’s high school teammate, spent four years at the University of Miami before embarking on a career in professional basketball overseas. Davion Mitchell, another Liberty County High School product, has started every game at point guard for Baylor University this season. Will Richardson spent three years at Liberty County before transferring to the famed Oak Hill Academy en route to the University of Oregon, where he played every game as a freshman and has become a key contributor for the Ducks as a sophomore.

Jordan’s cousin, Raekwon McMillan, might be Hinesville’s most successful athlete yet. He won a College Football Playoff National Championship with Ohio State in 2014, was selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft and is now a starting linebacker for the Miami Dolphins.

Beyond setting an example for others in his community, Jordan is finding ways to give back to Hinesville. He’s bought shooting machines for his high school and plans to get his AAU program off the ground.

That is, once he attends to other pressing matters in his life. Come July, Jordan will be an unrestricted free agent. And some time thereafter, he’ll be a married man, once he and Kandace set a date for their wedding.

Eventually, Jordan would like to go back to Australia to experience the country in a way he didn’t allow himself to the first time. The NBL has grown tremendously in stature and quality since he, DeAndre Daniels and Jahii Carson paved the way for Americans like Terrance Ferguson, LaMelo Ball, R.J. Hampton and Terry Armstrong to use the league as an incubator for their own games.

For Jordan, though, a return to Australia would be more victory lap than starting point.

“When I'm 38, 39 and my career's over, I'm gonna play my last season in Australia, just to go back,” he says.

By that math, Jordan still has a decade to go before then. With any luck, he’ll spend those intervening years in the NBA, making up for the time he thought he’d lost while playing the part of pied piper for those kids in Hinesville who, unlike him, now have an example they can follow as they chase the same success.

“You just never know why your path is your path,” Jordan says, “but you just have to embrace that it's that.”

 

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.