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At 7 Feet, 228 Pounds, Dominguez's Tyson Chandler Is About to Strike It Rich

June 24, 2001|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 14, he was featured on a "60 Minutes" segment that probed the influence of shoe companies on the club basketball scene. Chandler's team, the Southern California All-Stars, was run by Pat Barrett, who drew a salary from Nike.

"At the time, '60 Minutes' was a plus," said Chandler, who said he didn't immediately grasp the segment's negative implications. "I was a kid and wanted to get on TV. I didn't care what it was about. I didn't quite understand until I got older. I went back and watched the tape, and, bam, I realized what it was about."

But Chandler has a different view of Barrett, who provided him with opportunities to play with and against the best. They remain friends. Another Barrett protege, former Pepperdine standout Tom Lewis, 33, is Chandler's personal coach and closest advisor.

Powerhouse high school and club programs fueled by money from shoe companies particularly benefit an elite prospect such as Chandler. For less-talented players, the shower of adulation and goodies can result in false hope and a misplaced sense of entitlement.

Chandler recognizes that now, but grins when he says he is still "a Nike guy." He'll continue to wear the shoes and, no doubt, will be paid handsomely for doing so.

The system, however flawed, worked for him and he offers no apologies. But the media has characterized him as a symbol of that system.

A February national magazine story citing problems at Dominguez and on the club circuit focused on Chandler without accusing him of wrongdoing. As recently as Friday, a Washington Post columnist commenting about the draft wrote, "I'd . . . be awfully suspicious of a kid like Tyson Chandler, who has been a pro, for all practical purposes, for five years."

Is the criticism deserved? Is Chandler sensitive to the big picture?

For the most part he brushes it away, but he is bothered by the confusion reflected in the eyes of the kids who look up to him.

"Kids see that kind of stuff and it hurts them because they don't know what to believe," he said. "They know me and who I am, then they read something that is opposite of who they know. That's why it hurts me. That's what I care about.

"I'm nice to everybody. That's the way I was raised, that's the way I grew up. Then people take negative shots at me. I'm like, 'Wait a minute. I'm kind and respectful, what makes you want to take a shot at me?' I'm human. That kind of stuff hurts."

Chandler retreats from the scrutiny by going to the place he calls "Granny's Farm." Cleo and Tecel's Hanford spread was his first home and has been a favorite hideaway ever since. The family still gathers there several times a year.

"It is a place of love," said Vernie Threadgill, Chandler's mother. "Tyson was blessed to be around grandparents and adults who watched over him. I was a working mom and my parents helped raise him."

Vernie took a job in San Bernardino in 1992 and moved there with her son. Still, every summer and holiday were spent at Granny's. Cleo put Chandler and his cousins to work. Those were the best days of their lives. Long days too.

"We'd wake up at the crack of dawn, none of this 8 o'clock stuff, and do everything with my grandfather, just follow him," Chandler said. "After the cows were milked and the animals fed, he'd assign me and my cousins to tractors and we'd drive out into the fields and plow.

"Afterward, we'd all go fishing. When we came home, there would be food. A whole lot of food."

The sense of belonging and unconditional love was shattered in elementary school. Kids called Chandler names because he was over 6 feet and looked 16. His clothes didn't fit for long and he grew out of his shoes every month.

"My height didn't correspond with anything positive," he said. "I was tall and clumsy. Sometimes I had holes in my shoes. Other kids thought I was held back in school. I was teased without mercy.

"Imagine a 12-year-old looking like he's 17. Adults say things to a 17-year-old they wouldn't say to a 12-year-old. I got a lot of information early I probably shouldn't have heard."

When Chandler was 8, his mother married William Brown and had three more sons, now 13, 8 and 2. A former Marine, Brown brought discipline and structure to the household, as well as another steady paycheck.

Chandler considers Brown his dad, although he met his biological father, Frank Chandler, for the first time a few years ago. Frank is married, has children 11 and 9, and lives in Valencia.

There's no doubt where Chandler got his height: His father is 6-9.

"He wants to be a part of my life, but it's hard," Chandler said. "I want to have a relationship with him, and he is trying.

"He's a Christian now and all the things he did wrong in his life, he's going back and trying to make amends."

Religion is also important to Chandler. He bows his head and says grace before meals. His mother and grandparents are devout. His family believes his upbringing will enable him to stay grounded after he launches a pro career.

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