Tryouts were over. The team was already set. Ava Herndon was going to pass on the skinny little kid who came in to work out with her Birmingham (Ala.) Ice AAU basketball team that day. Yeah, Eric Bledsoe had some promise. He was quick, had a nice handle and seemed to be able to beat his man off the dribble and knock down outside shots. But every time he got to the rim, he'd blow the layup. A nice player, but not somebody worth making an exception for.
The thing is, Bledsoe's mom wouldn't let Herndon say no.
Parents advocate for their kids all the time. But this was different. Bledsoe's mom seemed to know there was something special about her son. About what was inside him and what he was capable of. She was watching the same thing everyone else was: a nervous seventh-grader fumbling through his first practice with the team. But she just kept saying: "You're going to like my boy. Keep watching, you're going to like my boy."
Eventually, Herndon relented. The team had a tournament in Mississippi and one of its top shooting guards couldn't go. If Bledsoe wanted to come along, he was welcome.
"It's the best decision I ever made," said Herndon, who laughs about that tryout now.
So does the kid who's in the NBA now and enjoying a breakout season for the most pleasantly surprising team in the league, the Phoenix Suns.
"It was my first time ever playing organized basketball," Bledsoe said. "I don't know why I was missing all my layups. I was just missing 'em, and she almost cut me for it."
People say it all the time. That they just need a chance to shine. Seems reasonable enough, right?
The truth is, it takes a lot of courage and vision to give someone who has never had an opportunity to shine enough time and space to really do so.
First they have to be able to project how someone will grow from limited information -- the best version of what they can become, if they develop the right way. Then they have to create a good environment for them to grow in and be willing to live with all the mistakes they'll inevitably make along the way. And most important: Whoever their boss is has to feel the same way.
In the talent business -- and sports is definitely the talent business -- the key to success isn't simply taking chances, it's taking the right chances on the right people.
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough had watched Bledsoe for years. First in college as the kid who played alongside John Wall at Kentucky the year Wall became the No. 1 pick in the draft, then with the Los Angeles Clippers, when he was Chris Paul's understudy for three years.
"You just saw these flashes of what he could do," McDonough said. "He doesn't have a lot of holes in his game. There's not a lot of things he can't do, just with his strength, his athletic ability and his shooting.
"He just hadn't played consistent minutes."
McDonough and the Suns were in a unique position to give Bledsoe that opportunity after deciding it was time for an organizational reboot following a 25-win season.
"As we say around here, 'Just because you haven't done it before, doesn't mean you can't do it,'" McDonough said.
It's something McDonough believes in deeply. The Suns had given him a chance as a then-33-year-old whiz kid who'd worked in the Boston Celtics' front office for years. And when it was time for McDonough to hire a coach, he purposefully sought out talented young assistants who were deserving of the same kind of break he'd just received.
Jeff Hornacek, 50, had been only a full-time assistant coach with the Utah Jazz for two seasons, but that was mostly because he restricted his schedule for a few years while his children finished high school.
"Jeff didn't have any head-coaching experience," McDonough said. "But he had an overwhelming amount of basketball experience, going back to the son of a great high school coach in Illinois, and playing for Johnny Orr at Iowa State, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Jerry Sloan and the great coaches that he played for in the NBA.
"[Hornacek is] also very bright. He understands the analytical aspects. He basically checked every box we were looking for."
When the two met, they had an instant basketball rapport.
"Ryan and I, when we talked about players, probably 99 percent of the time we agreed on what we were thinking," Hornacek said. "All the coaches that I talked to said that the biggest thing is, 'When you get a shot, make sure that you and the general manager are on the same page.' If you are, then you can go with certain players or certain styles. If you're not, it's a lot more difficult."
And so the first-time GM and the first-time head coach went to work. The entire roster had to be rebuilt. Veteran players had to be dealt, draft picks had to be acquired, their younger players had to be evaluated and then developed. Ownership had to be pitched, convinced and sold on the overall plan and each move along the way.
"There was a lot of negativity around the team, both with the play on the court and also in the community," McDonough said. "So frankly it wasn't that hard to get a lot of people on board with that."
Once they had the go-ahead from ownership to begin the rebuilding process, it was about developing and executing a vision that actively promoted talented younger players, coaches and staff.
"One of the big themes for this year was creating a positive culture," McDonough said. "And giving people an opportunity to show what they can do."
Not everybody knows what to do with an opportunity once they get it. Some people choke under the newly bestowed pressure. Others lose their edge, content with having climbed to the top of the first hill.
The key is in identifying the right people to give those opportunities.
What made the Suns think Bledsoe was the right player to bet on had as much to do with what they thought was inside him as what he'd shown on the court.
The common narrative on Bledsoe was that he'd been overshadowed at both the college and professional levels by other great point guards. But the real story is that he enjoyed both situations, because he refused to accept the premise that he would remain there.
Nothing has been handed to me my entire life. You have to go there and take it. My mom taught me that.
"- Suns guard Eric Bledsoe
Bledsoe liked the challenge of beating out a player everyone else thought was better than him and the daily battles they'd have in practice. All that would make him better in the long run, Bledsoe thought. And besides, who said they were really better than him?
"I'm not afraid of anybody," Bledsoe said. "I'm going to compete and I'm going to give it my last. I'm always going to be confident in myself.
"Nothing has been handed to me my entire life. You have to go there and take it. My mom taught me that."
Yes, the same lady who convinced his AAU coach that her son had something special all those years ago.
"She's one of the toughest people I've seen in my life," Bledsoe said of his mother, Maureen Reddick. "The stuff I've seen her go through is amazing. She's just got this drive."
Bledsoe was the eldest of three children that Reddick raised on her own. She held multiple jobs throughout his childhood. When he was old enough to work, he pitched in himself by getting a job at a grocery store.
"I had to be the man of the house," Bledsoe said. "Early on too."
It wasn't an easy childhood. But when something was important to Bledsoe or his younger brother or sister, his mother stepped up and came through.
"She worked hard. She gave us her last. She never thought about herself," Bledsoe said. "We really didn't get Christmas presents. But she used to always find one thing for us that we wanted. She couldn't afford it, but she always found a way to get it."
Over the years, that spirit rubbed off on Bledsoe. It made him believe there was always a way to deliver on things, even if the odds were long. If she could do it, he could do it.
DeMarcus Cousins was the can't-miss NBA prospect in Birmingham in those days. Bledsoe was a fringe prospect. He had all the ability and athleticism but was considered too small to play at the next level.
Only smaller programs like South Florida and Alabama-Birmingham were interested. It wasn't until he led Parker High to an upset of Cousins' team in the playoffs as a senior that major schools like Kentucky took notice of him.
"Once Coach [John Calipari] got the job at Kentucky and came down, that was a wrap," Bledsoe said. "He told me he was recruiting John [Wall] too. I told him I didn't care who else he was recruiting. He loved me ever since."
Bledsoe had a similar choice after his freshman year. He had played well in his role alongside Wall but hadn't been featured on a team that had five future first-round picks. Most NBA scouts thought he'd be better off staying another year and proving himself as a point guard. Bledsoe thought they were wrong.
As usual, he bet on himself and declared for the draft.
"Most people would have gone [to Kentucky], not been confident and stayed three or four years," Bledsoe said. "But I knew I was going to do what I'm doing now, so I came out."
The Clippers loved his competitiveness and athleticism. Then-general manager Neil Olshey and his director of player personnel, Gary Sacks, crossed their fingers that he'd fall far enough into the first round that they could trade up to get him. When it got past the lottery, they could wait no longer. The Clippers traded a future first-round pick to Oklahoma City for the 18th overall pick and took Bledsoe.
Olshey left after the 2011-12 season to become the Trail Blazers' GM. Sacks was promoted to general manager and held on to Bledsoe at all costs. He knew what a gem they'd found. He also knew that Bledsoe was too good to keep as a backup to Paul for much longer and would become too expensive to keep. Eventually, and reluctantly, the Clippers decided to send Bledsoe to the Suns as part of a three-team trade that brought much-needed veteran outside shooting in the form of Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick.
The trade was bittersweet for Bledsoe. He loved playing with Paul, Chauncey Billups and Jamal Crawford. To this day, he hears their words echo in his head. But he'd been bursting at the seams to lead his own team for years.
I could've played alongside Chris [Paul]. But at the end of the day I wanted a chance to run my own team.
"- Suns guard Eric Bledsoe
"I didn't want to leave, but it was one of those situations where it was probably for the best," Bledsoe said. "I wasn't going to play in front of Chris. I knew that. He's an All-Star. He's achieved every goal. He's a winner. I could've played alongside Chris. But at the end of the day I wanted a chance to run my own team."
It seemed strange then, that the team that acquired him already had an established point guard -- Goran Dragic wasn't an All-Star like Paul, but the Suns had committed $30 million over four years to him the year before. Why did they need Bledsoe?
The Suns, though, saw things differently.
"I envisioned it like when I played in Phoenix with Kevin Johnson," Hornacek said. "I was a point guard and then we traded for Kevin, and he was a point guard. So we basically had two point guards who could push the ball and we ended up scoring a lot of points.
"We look at it like, if you have two guys who can penetrate, especially with the rules nowadays, the pick-and-roll is very hard to defend. Usually if you've got a good point guard, you end up with a 4-on-3 advantage. So we're lucky to have two guys, where if they do something to stop one of them, we just get it over to the other side of the court and hopefully the other guy can make a play."
It took a minute for Bledsoe and Dragic to wrap their minds around the idea, but neither bristled at it.
After an initial explanation, Bledsoe decided to embrace it. This might not have been how he envisioned things, but the opportunity he'd been waiting for was finally there. And besides, when had he ever been afraid of competition?
"I'm finally getting an opportunity to play through my mistakes," he said. "It feels great. Just playing, period."
There's time to get a feel for the game. Time to let it come to him. All that energy and athleticism doesn't have to be squeezed into 10 to 15 minutes off the bench. It can breathe a little. He can breathe a little.
"I was trying to do so much in the little time I had," Bledsoe said of his first three years in the league. "Some plays I'd try to do too much. Now I get to just play."
The results have been better than anyone could've expected. Bledsoe is averaging 18.4 points, 5.9 assists and 1.5 steals, and is shooting 49.2 percent. And the Suns, expected by many to tank this season as part of their rebuild, are 18-11 and in sixth place in the Western Conference.
"What he's done so far is what we thought he could do," McDonough said.
But they just didn't know for sure.
That's why when it came time to lock Bledsoe into a contract extension, the Oct. 31 deadline passed without a resolution, making Bledsoe a restricted free agent this summer.
"Sometimes that works out and both parties think it's a good deal for them. Other times it doesn't," McDonough said. "Obviously we don't have a whole lot of money committed for the future, we don't have a lot of long-term contracts on our books. So we'll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him."
Whatever it takes?
"Correct," McDonough said. "Any reasonable offer.
"We have some advantages. We're able to give him another year, five instead of four if we choose. We're able to give him higher-percentage increases than other teams too. And then if another team does make an offer, we can always match that. So we feel like we're holding the cards with Eric, and more importantly, I think Eric's had a good experience here so far. He's played well and the team has played fairly well. I think he kind of likes what we're doing."
For his part, Bledsoe said he's fine with the situation.
"I was telling [my agent] over the summer, if the contract doesn't happen I'm ready to play a full season," Bledsoe said. "I was confident because I'd worked hard all summer, and I knew that I was going to play a lot more than I did the last three years, so I was ready."
When that came to bear, Bledsoe said he put the situation out of his mind.
"I've just got to play," he said. "I'm focused. I need to keep moving. I'm not worried about [the contract]. If I get worked up about it, I won't be focused on the game."
There are those who will question the wisdom of the decisions both Bledsoe and the organization made. He took a risk by not taking what was offered before the season. The Suns took a risk by not locking him up while they had the chance.
But if you've paid any attention to the way Bledsoe has built his career, or studied any part of the way the Suns have remade their franchise, taking risks is simply how they're wired.
The right risks, that is.
In Bledsoe's mind, it is never wrong to bet on himself. Which, in turn, is also why the Suns feel so good about their chances of keeping him this summer.
You see, the rest of the league looked at Phoenix a little like folks looked at Bledsoe's decision to go to Kentucky even though Wall was already committed to go there. They assumed the Suns were OK with tanking this season and trying to get a high lottery pick, just as they assumed Bledsoe was OK with sitting behind Wall for a year before he finally had the opportunity to run the point.
The truth is, both of them are way too competitive to accept those assumptions.
"I think there was a Vegas line out there that had the over/under on our wins at 17," Hornacek said. "So the first thing we said to the players is that: 'You're going to read all kinds of stuff about us tanking. But you're not going to ever hear that from me. We're not tanking. We're too competitive as coaches to go that route. We expect to win.'"
It was exactly what Bledsoe needed to hear. It was what they all needed to hear.
"As we say around here," McDonough reiterated, "'Just because you haven't done it before, doesn't mean you can't do it.'"