Morris: Keeping good company

Milton Jennings has spent his life searching for a place to fit in

February 17, 2013 

  • More information Career Overview: Highest-rated recruit to enter Clemson in the last 15 years. ... First McDonald’s All-American to sign with Clemson since Sharone Wright in 1991 and first McDonald’s All-American from South Carolina since Raymond Felton in 2002.

— Brad Brownell was five games into his Clemson coaching career in November of 2010 when he invited his coaching staff and team to his house for a Thanksgiving get-together. By gathering in a comfortable setting away from the basketball arena, players and coaches could better establish relationships while eating heartily and watching football on TV.

Brownell’s wife and two daughters were there, as were his parents. For the players, the party served as a nice break between a morning workout and that night’s team meeting in preparation for the next night’s home game against South Carolina State.

After a few hours, the players filtered out and headed back to their dormitories or off-campus housing, leaving behind Brownell’s family and the assistant coaches. The lone player to remain was sophomore forward Milton Jennings.

“Hey, coach, would you mind if I hang out here and went with you guys to the meeting tonight?” Brownell recalled Jennings saying.

“No, Milt,” Brownell replied. “Hang out.”

With that, Jennings made himself at home, chatted with Brownell’s parents and played games with Brownell’s children. Brownell later learned that Jennings does not spend much time away from basketball with his teammates. Jennings, instead, prefers being in the company of adults, or students who have little or no interest in basketball.

Mostly, what Brownell learned was that Jennings is forever in search of another family, one with stability. His entire life, from being reared in poverty in the Summerville area, to living a condensed version of the book and movie “Blind Side,” to establishing a community of friends at Clemson, Jennings has sought the acceptance that goes with being a member of a family.

Gaining that acceptance has been difficult for Jennings at Clemson. He entered the program four years ago as a McDonald’s All-American, the fourth in Clemson history. The acclaim proved to be somewhat of a curse on Jennings, who never could fully live up to the unrealistic expectations of fans.

Mix in a couple of suspensions and erratic behavior that occasionally turned fans and game officials against him, and you have the perfect target for fans’ frustrations. No matter that his playing career has progressed at the normal rate for a front-line player, from seldom-used freshman to starting and contributing senior, Jennings never has been considered a star.

“Because I didn’t have such a great career, people don’t understand,” Jennings says as he holds back tears. “You can call me inconsistent, but does anybody know the stuff at home? Does anybody know that sometimes it’s tough at home, that sometimes my family is hurting, and that’s on my mind?”

Jennings spent most of his early childhood in the Charleston area. Life can be complicated for a caramel-skinned boy attending an elementary school whose enrollment is predominantly black. Jennings’ mother, Charity Walling, is white. His father, Milton, is black. The taunts and bullying from classmates grew to the point where Jennings’ mother once was banned from school grounds. She had threatened to take care of those who picked on her son for not being black.

“I understand that society works on average,” says Jennings, a sociology major at Clemson. “I wasn’t average at all, even back then.”

A couple of events when Jennings was 12 forever altered his life. The scrawny kid, who could not defend himself against classmates’ ridicule, sprouted six inches in two months. He now was a 6-foot-2 sixth-grader, although the growth spurt caused aching in his ankles and knees that sometimes prevented him from playing all four quarters of church league basketball games.

Then his parents split, Dad heading off to his family in Kentucky and Mom taking on the role of single-parent to her son and daughter, Jade, who was 4 at the time. The parental breakup meant Mom moving the family to the Summerville area, and eventually landing at The Pines trailer park.

With Mom struggling to support her family, the responsibility of caring for the children fell squarely on young Milton’s shoulders. He grew up fast. He learned to cook, although the extent of his culinary skills meant whipping up pancakes and scrambled eggs. Sometimes, that was the brother and sister’s lone meal of the day.

A visit to the home was heart-breaking, according to a friend who later entered the family’s lives. Some months, the family lived without electricity. The living area consisted of a beat-up sofa, a chair with a broken leg, a mattress in the corner and little hope that either child would ever escape to a better life.

Jennings turned to basketball, first on the trailer park playground where the rims were six inches short of the standard 10 feet, and later in church league games. Although he was not skilled enough to score, Jennings was tall and agile enough to shoot on one side of the basket, sprint to the other side, retrieve the rebound and shoot again.

You tend to stand out on a church league court when you are 6-2 and your teammates and opponents are 5-6 and shorter. Jennings stood out enough to catch the eye of a Charleston AAU coach. By the end of seventh grade, Jennings had grown closer to 6-6.

Word spread through the AAU community about this tall and slender kid. Sherwood Miler and his son of the same name attended an AAU practice to see what Jennings was all about. Afterward, the elder Miler introduced himself and his son to Jennings.

“You could look into this young boy’s eyes and you could see there was a light on in his eyes,” Miler says. “He was not just a hollow kid with a ‘hello’ while he looked down at the ground. There was something about Milt that said, ‘I’m looking for someone to be involved with me. I’m looking for an adult.’ You could tell that this guy was looking for love and a family and some guidance.”

The Milers were that family.

Sherwood Miler was the first scholarship athlete at College of Charleston, where he played basketball before eventually joining the family business, Miler Properties. He and his wife, Julie, have four children and live in a 5,000-square foot home on the golf course at Pine Forest Country Club.

After getting approval from his wife and visiting the Jennings’ home in the trailer park, Miler put into motion a plan to provide a new home — some 40 miles from Jennings’ trailer park home — for the now 14-year-old. First, Miler needed approval from Jennings’ mother. It was not an easy decision, not for a mother who gave birth to her first son when she was 16. Not for a mother who, even through difficult times, built an unbreakable bond with her son.

“I cried,” Charity Walling says. “I cried. I cried just about all the time.”

Jennings cried, also, mostly for his mother.

“She hated it,” he says. “I’m her prize. I’m her jewel. ... It was hard for her. At the same time, she was not going to be selfish.”

The Milers’ four children were enrolled at Pinewood Prep, which was a golf cart ride from their two-story brick home. By enrolling Jennings in the private school, he was not required to adhere to high school league rules about crossing school district lines. When Jennings passed the necessary standardized tests to gain admittance, it was official: He was a member of a new family.

Soon after, Jennings began calling his new father “Pops” and his new mother “Mom II.”

The uninformed and easy way to read Jennings’ move was to believe it had everything to do with his immense basketball skills, and the possible exploitation of those talents. Nothing could be farther from the truth. From day one, the Milers made it known to Jennings that accepting him into their family was all about affording him an opportunity to some day better his life.

Opening the doors to that opportunity began with furthering Jennings’ education. Milers’ Boot Camp — as the kids called it — meant choosing between having your homework completed or falling to the floor for 100 pushups before breakfast was served each morning.

Instead of heading off to the tennis court, golf course or swimming pool now available to him, Jennings often was required to read aloud in the home’s piano room such classics as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” because it included 600 words that might show up on an SAT test. All of the Milers’ children were exceptional students, and Jennings quickly wanted to fall in line and “be like them.”

The Milers impressed upon Jennings that there always would be limits on his physical skills. At some point in life he would no longer be able to play basketball. In learning, there are no boundaries.

The learning curve was equally boundless socially for Jennings, who as a teenager had never sat down for a meal with a full setting of silverware. That is not to say that Jennings was not well-mannered. He was, and he gives full credit for being a “yes, sir,” “no, ma’m” youngster to his biological father, who he maintains contact with.

One of the first outings with his new family was an extended family cruise of 100 or so relatives to the Bahamas. Knowing Jennings had little or no exposure to water, Sherwood Miler instructed his then 8-year-old son, Sloan, to teach his new brother on the finer points of snorkeling.

Adapting to varied food and better nutritional habits was a big part of Jennings’ cultural change. Previously, Jennings knew only of food that came from a can or included an eggshell. Now he was being asked to eat vegetables and develop a taste for steamed broccoli. Before long, Jennings had realized the value of proper nutrition, particularly for a budding athlete, through three square meals.

The Miler children also acquired a tasty favorite from Jennings, who learned to spread peanut butter on frozen waffles out of the toaster before adding syrup. To this day, the Milers declare it a delicacy, unaware that Jennings adopted the concoction because it proved more filling when he and his sister were getting by on little else.

Other sporting activities such as learning how to swim, hitting a golf ball and keeping score in tennis proved to be novel experiences for Jennings. For fear of hurting his back playing golf, Jennings was fitted for custom-made clubs.

On the basketball court, Jennings led Pinewood Prep to four consecutive SCISA Class 3A championships and twice was named the South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year. If there were questions about the now 6-9 Jennings, they had to do with the fact he was scoring 2,536 points and grabbing 1,372 rebounds against private-school competition.

That did not stop the likes of Florida, Connecticut, Georgetown, UCLA, South Carolina and Clemson from knocking on Jennings’ door with offers to come play for them. In the end, Jennings’ ceded to the wishes of “Pops,” who believed it important for Jennings to attend an instate school. South Carolina’s program was in a state of flux with the change in coaching from Dave Odom to Darrin Horn, so Oliver Purnell and Clemson landed his services.

As often happens with high school stars relegated to the bench during their freshman season of college competition, Jennings hung his head. When Clemson students stormed the court following an 83-64 victory against 12th-ranked North Carolina in 2010, instead of celebrating with his teammates, Jennings sulked off to the locker room. His four minutes of scoreless action hardly constituted a contribution to the big win.

Jennings averaged 11 minutes of playing time in 32 games that season. His learning curve was particularly steep. Primarily a perimeter player in high school, Jennings was asked to develop post-player skills in college. Because he has a wiry frame with narrow hips, Jennings lacked a thick base and can be bumped off his game — particularly early in his career — around the basket.

Nevertheless, Jennings liked being at Clemson and took well to the coaching staff. Then Purnell surprised everyone, including Jennings, by departing Clemson for DePaul. His latest family was broken up.

“When you sign with a person, you’re in with that person,” Jennings says. “Any kid would feel bad.”

Brownell believes the hurt from Purnell’s departure went deeper.

“In some ways, because of the way he was raised, Oliver’s leaving may have affected Milt more than some other guys because there’s a sense of one more person in my life who’s recruited me and was going to be there for me, and all of a sudden he’s up and gone,” Brownell says.

Nevertheless, Jennings was the first player to greet Brownell and his staff upon their arrival to campus. That does not mean the transition to a new family was easy for Jennings. Brownell is not one to remove players from practice, but he was forced to do so with Jennings a couple of times because the player’s behavior disrupted the team.

The way Brownell sees it — the two have spent many hours talking in an attempt to help Jennings sort things out — there were a couple of factors that came into play with Jennings.

First, and perhaps foremost, Jennings is an emotional young man. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, both on and off the court. Brownell says Jennings initially had a difficult time dealing with factors out of his control. He was sometimes incapable of forgetting what happened and moving to the next play.

Jennings also is a prideful person, as anyone who sits to talk with him easily ascertains. If he is embarrassed in practice, an emotional reaction is likely to occur. He does not easily laugh at himself, instead beating himself up for mistakes, according to Brownell.

“The one great thing is his teammates, throughout, have been great with him,” Brownell says. “They understand Milt really cares. They understand he’s probably dealing with — and has dealt with — more than any of them ever have or will. So, there’s a certain level of respect and compassion our guys have always had.”

Brownell says it helps that Jennings is a likeable and engaging person. Yet there have been times when his behavior baffles his teammates and the coaching staff. Over a 13-month period during his junior and senior seasons, Jennings was suspended three times, once for a run-in with an assistant coach during a game, once for an “academic issue,” and once for possession of marijuana.

Following the latter incident this past December, the easy way out for Brownell and the Clemson athletics administration would have been to let Jennings go. But his progress off the court had advanced as much as his production on the court. Clemson had too much invested in Jennings.

“I like to have fun,” Jennings says. “It’s college. At the end of the day, we’re still kids. ... But that’s what you sign up for. That’s why it won’t happen again. I experienced it. It won’t happen again.”

It appears Jennings has sharpened his focus this season. His scoring average in four seasons has gone from 3.3 to 8.3 to 9.7 to 10.7. His rebound average has steadily increased from 2.7 to 5.2 to 5.6 to 6.4.

On occasion, Jennings looks every bit like the All-American he was projected to be coming out of high school. His shooting skills are exceptional. He is sometimes too unselfish, according to Brownell. His around-the-rim game has improved. He plays solid defense. Some nights, the pieces all fit together for Jennings as during a recent game against Virginia Tech when he scored 28 points to go with 14 rebounds and four blocked shots.

He has transformed into a team leader, often tutoring younger players on the finer points of the game. On occasion, he will make strategy suggestions to Brownell in practice. Despite fouling out after 28 minutes with nine points and eight rebounds in a recent game against Georgia Tech, Jennings celebrated with his teammates “like we just won the national championship.”

Jennings appears closer to completing what has been a long and sometimes trying metamorphosis from boyhood to manhood. He keeps a watchful eye on his 14-year-old sister, Jade, to make certain her school work is up to par. His mother, who now has 4-year-old triplets, has found a better place in life by working two jobs, through the support of the Miler family and with some of the Pell Grant money Jennings sends home to her.

Jennings will graduate in May. A professional career overseas could be in his future. Or, he could go directly into the business world. Beyond that, Jennings aims to one day marry and have children. He longs for a family of his own. When he closes his eyes at night he envisions gathering his children around the kitchen table to eat toaster waffles with peanut butter and syrup.

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