Less than one hour after his high school basketball career unceremoniously ended, point guard Jason Preston dribbled around the court one last time, wishing he’d made a difference in the game.
He had come to rely on basketball after the death of his mother the previous year, and with his biological father having never been in the picture, the hardwood court became his sanctuary.
But Preston’s on-court maturation took too long, and he was left to watch his final game from the sidelines.
His 2016-2017 Boone High School team in Orlando, Florida, lost to rival Edgewater High School.
“I was really excited to play them, and I ended up not even playing. I thought I might at least play a little bit. It really hurt, and it hit that I might need to move on to something else,” Preston said.
The team was deep and had perennial state championship aspirations.
“We had a very good team that year. We lost in the semifinals of the regionals to the team that went on to the state finals. We lost that game in overtime,” said David Martinson, Boone men’s basketball head coach. “We had a tremendous team.”
From that, it’s hard to fathom Preston being an NBA prospect, yet here stands, now a 21-year-old junior at Ohio University, as one of college basketball’s early season stars.
His breakout performance came last month against the eighth-ranked University of Illinois.
Though it was a 77-75 loss, Preston surprised the basketball world by scoring 31 points, grabbing six rebounds and dishing out eight assists, resulting in ESPN projecting him as a second-round NBA draft pick.
To many, the fact that he found a way onto a Division I basketball program would have been far-fetched a few years ago.
Preston drove home the evening of his last game and sat in front of the house, contemplating his next move.
“I stayed in the car for a solid hour. I was just in my own little space. I just didn’t really want to talk to anybody,” he said.
Just like that, his long-shot dream of making the pros was over.
The then-6-foot guard finished his senior season averaging a measly 2 points per game, not nearly enough to impress college scouts for a scholarship.
Life hadn’t been the same since losing his mother, Judith Sewell, to lung cancer when he was 16.
She was the one who put the round, orange ball in his hands. His earliest memories revolve around basketball, watching televised games and figuring out ways to improve.
That night, after getting out of the car, but before drifting off to sleep, he quietly hung up his basketball sneakers for good.
That summer, Preston enrolled in journalism classes at the University of Central Florida.
If college basketball — and, to a further extent, professional ball — wasn’t going to pan out, the next best option was sports writing.
“Sometimes, I was told by people that I needed a backup, so I wanted to do something that was close to the game of basketball and I wanted to write about basketball,” Preston said, adding he had begun freelancing basketball articles.
Suddenly, life intervened. The game he loved had come back for him.
Three weeks before the fall semester, a basketball acquaintance recruited Preston to play in an Amateur Athletic Union tournament, since the team needed an additional player.
In their first game, he played well enough to draw the attention of the UNC-Asheville coaching staff.
The coach wanted to offer a scholarship, but the team didn’t have any left. He suggested Preston take the prep school route.
Preston had another good game the next day, this time catching the attention of a prep coach who first convinced him to attend a nearby school before they both ventured off to Believe Prep Academy in Athens, Tennessee.
The decision didn’t go over well in Orlando, where loved ones wanted him to concentrate on his academics.
Barbara Whittaker, 63, was Preston’s mother’s best friend. Preston moved in with her and her son when his mother died. Whittaker promised Preston’s mother that she’d protect him.
The two mothers met in 1984 while living in Kingston, Jamaica, working at a high school. They bonded immediately.
Whittaker was the head of the English department, and Sewell, an economics teacher. The pairing came at the perfect time.
“She’s like a sister. Judith came shortly after I lost my sister to breast cancer,” said Whittaker, who gave the eulogy at her best friend’s funeral.
Whittaker supported Preston and his basketball aspirations as he grieved the loss of the woman who knew him best.
Ohio Bobcats guard Jason Preston.Emilee Chinn
“I think Jason used basketball to replace the void his mother left,” Whittaker said.
Still, endorsing his move to Tennessee was a hard sell.
“He was already at UCF and his education was important,” Whittaker said. “We were second-guessing him” and telling him, “I don’t think you did the right thing.”
She added, “He was on the [high school] basketball team, but he never actively played a major role.”
Martinson, who opted not to play Preston much, said his former player was better than his stats indicated.
“Senior year, he actually had a few games where he put up some decent numbers. It wasn’t always scoring. He was a tremendous passer, and that’s where he benefited us a little bit more,” Martinson said.
The coach said the death of Sewell set back Preston’s basketball trajectory.
“Jason basically lost his junior year in a lot of ways. He had to move in with friends and was closed off. He did not talk; we were worried about him,” his former coach said.
Eventually, Preston followed his heart and packed up for Tennessee.
“Jason had his mind made up and nobody could change it,” Whittaker said.
Disaster struck as soon as he unpacked.
The coach that took him there left the prep school after two weeks on the job.
With the remaining coaches unfamiliar with Preston’s game, he was relegated to the second team. The school had four prep teams plus a high school team.
As the season progressed, he was promoted to the first team, but much like the previous year, he didn’t see much action.
Preston made a tough choice: He asked to be sent down to the third team, where he could showcase his talents.
“He wasn’t playing how he could really play,” said former prep teammate Isaac Hill, 21. He recalled the times when they would dominate three-on-three pickup games.
Preston’s request proved successful, including one outing where he notched a triple-double.
Eager to show his college potential, one night, on an eight-hour bus trip back to school, he screen-recorded all of his highlights and had a friend create a mixtape reel.
Believe Prep posted the video on its Twitter account. From there, Ohio University called with a scholarship offer.
Since leaving high school, he’s grown four inches, to 6-foot-4, added muscle, gotten faster and grew his hair long.
Last week, against Purdue University Northwest, he totaled 22 points, 11 assists and three rebounds.
Preston is still dreaming of professional basketball — even if it was deferred.
“Definitely, my No. 1 goal is to get to the NBA, and it always has been,” he said. “I didn’t really have the smoothest route to get to where I am today.”
His circle of basketball friends aren’t surprised by how far he’s come. In fact, they expected it.
“I always saw potential in him. In my eyes, I thought if maybe with the opportunity he was going to do something special, but the talent and knowledge of the game was always there,” said Kobe Florial, 19, of Orlando. They met at a park playing two-on-two basketball years ago.
“He was really, really, good,” Florial said. “I hope he does [go to the NBA]. I would cry. Honestly, I don’t cry at all. I would definitely shed some tears.”
Some of his other friends wonder what took so long for the basketball nation to catch on.
“I’m not surprised at all by anything that’s happened. I already told him he was going to blow up and everyone was going to hear his story,” Hill said.
They say Preston losing his mother was emotionally draining, but he channeled his energy to make himself a better athlete.
“After his mother died, he was sad for the time being, but he instantly got back up, worked hard and saw the future in a way. He wanted to continue playing the sport that he loved for his mother,” Florial said.
Away from the court, Preston said he plays chess, listens to trap music and watches Netflix. He prefers to keep an even-keel demeanor and often looks up to the clouds at his mother.
“I still talk to her a lot, and hopefully I’m making her proud,” Preston said. “The path I’m on is something I always talked to her about.”