Larry Hughes Gives Back to St. Louis With State-of-the-Art Basketball Academy
Two glistening basketball courts. Cameras tracking shot angles and player movement. A state-of-the-art ball-handling lab. Digital lockers for compiling all that performance information. Areas for weight and strength training, recovery and (of course) lounging.
Sounds like a modern-day NBA practice facility, doesn’t it? While accommodations like these are increasingly commonplace around the league, they can now be found in a city the Association hasn’t called home for 51 years, for kids just hoping to hoop, thanks to someone who helped the Cleveland Cavaliers reach the Finals in 2007.
No, LeBron James hasn’t set up another philanthropic facility for young people in Akron. Instead, his former teammate has brought the spirit of youth basketball back to St. Louis with the Larry Hughes Basketball Academy (LHBA), which recently celebrated its grand opening in Chesterfield, Missouri.
“It's special for me because I have a vision,” Larry tells CloseUp360. “I have a vision to make sure that more people can experience this environment, this experience of having the good people in the gym, the detailed information that we give out.”
For Larry, seeing his academy come to life is the culmination of a years-long process of not only designing a physical structure, but also ensuring that those who pass through it will emerge with the skills they need to succeed on and off the court. It’s a return to his roots, to keep the game alive and thriving in the Gateway City.
Larry Hughes spent two-and-a-half seasons in Cleveland with LeBron. (Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
In 1958, the St. Louis Hawks, led by Hall of Famer Bob Pettit, bested Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. A decade later, following two more Finals appearances amid nine playoff runs, the Hawks fled to Atlanta, leaving behind a burgeoning legacy of success.
In 1974, pro basketball returned to “The Lou,” courtesy of the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis. That era—while bolstered by future Hall of Famers like Moses Malone, Maurice Lucas and coach Rod Thorn—lasted all of two years before the ABA folded. And while the Silna brothers, who owned the team, made out well with a slice of the NBA’s TV revenue that’s earned them hundreds of millions of dollars over the last four-plus decades, the city itself hasn’t seen much in the way of pro hoops beyond the occasional exhibition game.
Yet, basketball never disappeared from St. Louis’ sporting map entirely.
“Being in the Midwest, at least having Indiana to drive to, Memphis to drive to, Chicago to drive to,” Larry explains, “I think we still keep that itch.”
As a kid, Larry found ways to scratch his at playgrounds within the city limits— at Blewett Middle School, Jefferson Junior High and Jackson Park, and at Heman Park Community Center after his family moved to University City.
“I could throw a rock to this park,” he says. “It was the place where you really earned your stripes.”
Larry truly learned the game, though, somewhere holier. When he was 12, his mother, Vanessa, enrolled him in organized basketball at the St. Alphonsus Liguori Church, otherwise known as “The Rock.”
The gym there didn’t have any motion-tracking cameras or dribbling stations—mostly because those things didn’t exist back in the early 1990s. What it did offer was sanctuary from the streets and a place for Larry and his peers to play.
“My mom just kind of knew that I needed something to occupy my time,” he says.
That gym, along with those playgrounds, became the launching pad for a life-changing career. Larry would go on to lead the St. Louis Eagles Basketball Club to the AAU national championship in 1996 and Christian Brothers College (CBC) High School to the Missouri state title in 1997—both alongside Justin Tatum, father of rising Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum. Larry and Justin matriculated to Saint Louis University, where the latter took a redshirt year as the former led the Billikens to the second round of the 1998 NCAA tournament.
While Justin stuck around, Larry opted to leave after his freshman year. He became the No. 8 pick of the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1998 NBA draft, thereby embarking on a 14-career that would see him play for eight teams and earn more than $80 million. All the while, Larry remained mindful of the role model he could and would be to kids back home.
“Everything that I did in my career, I wanted to shine a good light back on the place where I was from,” he says, “so they knew that was coming from a good place.”
Larry was one of Michael Jordan's teammates during the legend's last season with the Washington Wizards. (Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images)
After playing his final NBA game in 2012, Larry returned to St. Louis for a peaceful, productive retirement. Instead, he found another itch he just had to scratch.
As much as Larry did to represent his city on the national stage, and as much as he tried to teach the game at his annual summer camp in The Lou, he couldn’t help but notice that something was off.
“I always watched the game differently,” he says. “I watch how peoples' feet move or how they catch the ball or hand placement or just body angles.”
Whether he was catching his daughters, Lauryn and Landys, hoop at the Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School or checking in on his old squad at CBC, he was struck by an abundance of bad habits on the court.
“We're lacking in some basic fundamental skill development and there's a lot of people doing it, but they're not doing it in a way that's built on curriculum or built off progression,” he says. “They're just rolling the balls out and doing tricks.”
Larry couldn’t abide by that. So he started writing.
Right-hand layups. Left-hand layups. Inside pivots. Outside pivots. Jump stops vs. drop stops.
Move by move, Larry laid out an entire list of fundamentals he felt should be in every young hooper’s “toolbox.” He then organized those discrete skills intolevels—from basic to intermediate to advanced to pro. Then, he mapped out ways to measure and test a pupil’s progress and preparedness for the next level.
After connecting with coaches, trainers and other friends in the basketball world, Larry settled on a five-week curriculum: three weeks of teaching and training, a week of information absorption and review, and a week of testing. In 2014, he took his academic blueprint for basketball to the gym at CBC, where he started what, in 2017, became the Larry Hughes Basketball Academy.
However friendly those confines were for Larry, running basketball clinics in a facility that wasn’t his own presented plenty of challenges—even more so when he started teaching his curriculum year-round in 2016. He moved his operation to other high school gyms, university wellness centers—wherever he and his staff could set up drills for kids and organize teams.
“It's a challenge because you don't have your own space, and you have to come in and you have to set up, and the environment is just different,” he says. “And then you get kicked out of some places and you don't have a full schedule.”
So Larry started planning again. His initial notion: to build the “Taj Mahal of a basketball environment,” with eight courts and space for proper physical therapy. While that arrangement would’ve made his gym perfect for tournament play, Larry wanted skill development to be the focus.
After careful consideration, he settled on two full-sized courts, with the ability to set up eight baskets for training purposes, along with many of the same high-tech accoutrements found in top-notch NBA facilities—from the RSPCT Basketball system to track shots, to Kinexon’s sports technology cameras to measure player movement, to the Lazer 900 Handle Fitness Exercise Machine for ball-handling drills. All of the information logged by those gadgets would get sent to an individual’s digital locker, to help the athletes track their growth and improvement over time, and allow them to share that data during the recruiting process.
“[Growing up], we had the playground and a couple of rough basketballs that were a little lopsided, and that's kind of how you learned how to control the basketball because it didn't really bounce right once it hit the pavement,” Larry says. “So it's a world of difference.”
Larry, too, had reason to proceed with confidence toward bringing his vision to life. In 2016, he partnered with Chris Paul’s brother, C.J., to integrate technology—including Basketball Training Systems, a proprietary software platform for managing youth programs, and SuitUp USA, a not-for-profit organization that provides financial aid for underprivileged kids—into the CP3 Basketball Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“For us, it's really finding people with like minds to push this movement along, so it's been great,” Larry explains. “[Chris’] message is our overall message, so it was really seamless. They had already had his program running. They had already had his facility running. We partnered with him to add to his operation side.”
Larry’s own academy will have plenty of outside help as well. The LHBA has partnered with Under Armour for discounts on sneakers, backpacks and other apparel, and with the Jr. NBA to help standardize the development curriculum based on the league affiliate’s own body of information.
“I think it's being like-minded and coming from the same space,” Larry says.
The Larry Hughes Basketball Academy offers access to state-of-the-art equipment for kids in St. Louis. (Lawrence Bryant)
The LHBA officially opened its doors with two days of celebrations in mid-April. There were facility tours, mini-clinics, even a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
But the building first got up and running in March—not with fanfare or TV cameras, but with tryouts.
By Larry’s count, about 350 kids came out to compete for spots on the 25 LHBA United club teams. Those squads will play on the spring and summer circuit, wearing his initials wherever they go. Along the way, the LHBA’s athletes are sure to hear plenty about his old coaches—including Larry Brown, his coach with the Sixers—just as his son, Larry Jr., has.
“We talk about this little thing that LB used to always say and it was ‘run with the basketball,’” Larry says. “And I'm, like, ‘What does that mean?’ Like, you can't really run with the basketball. So what is he trying to get me to do? And the more I played, I just understood that that's the information that travels.”
Larry certainly hopes that his academy will travel, too. With the flagship established in Chesterfield—where he hopes to attract pros to train and play pickup during the NBA offseason—he’s eyeing facilities in other American cities, with discussions about expansion to Sacramento and Charlotte ongoing, and aims to take his model for basketball development overseas someday.
It all plays into the passion of Larry’s post-playing life, which, as it happens, is barely a stone’s throw from what got him to the NBA in the first place.
“I look at this as a good path for me and something that I'm interested in,” he says. “I have fun with basketball. I know basketball like the back of my hand. So this is really the space that I'm going to continue to operate in, and keep pushing the skill space and the coaching space.”
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.