Melbourne United signing Rayjon Tucker is in Australia to ‘rebrand’ his basketball career, but he is carrying a very important part of his past with him too, writes LINDA PEARCE.
Rayjon Tucker wears his dead friend’s number on his back and carries special memories in his heart of a young NBA prospect killed in a car accident in Los Angeles at the age of just 19.
The Melbourne United import thought of Terrence Clarke as a younger brother, the pair having become close during Tucker’s time with the Utah Jazz, and it was while the athletic guard was in the No.9 jersey after a game for the Philadelphia 76ers 18 months ago that Clarke’s fatal high-speed crash occurred.
“I had just seen him, because we were just in LA and we were just talking about how after the season I’m gonna come back, we’re gonna get together, we’re gonna work out, we’re gonna have fun,’’ Tucker recalls.
“Just little brother, big brother vibes,’’ the 24-year-old continues of his relationship with a prodigy rated as a likely first-round draft selection, one who shared a management company with the likes of LeBron James and Ben Simmons and friendships with Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and many more.
“Just getting ready for him to do what he was gonna do in the league and (fulfilling) his potential. He was gonna do great things. Just being around him and watching him, seeing his passion for the game and how he went about just competing on the court and his work ethic, I knew it was inevitable he was going to be great.’’
Tucker’s idea for a tribute was to combine Clarke’s No.5 with his own No.9, and he decided on 59 rather than 95 when his mother, Tuwanna, reminded her eldest son it was at that age that Rayjon’s beloved grandfather had passed away.
“I was like, ‘Well, 59 it is’. It just all makes sense’,’’ says Tucker. “So that was the reasoning for me choosing number 59 outside of all the other numbers I have worn. As soon as I got signed with the Bucks, I changed my number to 59.’’
The combined remembrance is also part of a pre-game ritual that will debut in the NBL this afternoon when United meet the New Zealand Breakers at John Cain Arena in the opening round.
“Every time before I go on the court to play, I tell God that he’s with me, I tell T Clarke, ‘I know you’re with me’ and I tell my grandfather, ‘I know you’re with me’, and then I tap my head three times and then kiss the sky.
“Good or bad games I know (they’re) with me. Every time I step out on court there’s no doubt in my mind.’’
North Carolina-raised Tucker has played 39 NBA games with the Jazz, 76ers, Denver Nuggets and Bucks in the past three seasons, but had never left US shores until finding himself on a flight bound for Melbourne.
What he knew in advance about Australia, the country, was informed in part by his former Jazz teammate Joe Ingles, the Boomer he describes as an “OG” for the support and wise counsel provided during their time together in Salt Lake City.
Which apparently included a warning about the Aussie wildlife and creepy-crawlies, or “bugs’’ as Tucker calls them, including the bats and spiders encountered up-close at the recent pre-season Blitz in Darwin.
“Joe was telling me that in the city it’s not like that, but you do have a lot of stuff out here that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. When I’m back here in Melbourne, I haven’t really came face-to-face with anything yet, so hopefully it stays that way.’’
What he knew of the NBL itself was that it has become an increasingly-fertile NBA scouting ground, and what he heard from the likes of United CEO Nick Truelson and Vickerman was their plans for personal improvement that will, ideally, facilitate Tucker’s return to the NBA.
“Something in my gut and in my soul just resonated that this was the right decision for me to come over and in a sense rebrand myself and grow, become more mature on and off the court, be better developed on and off the court,’’ says the former high school footballer, who only made the switch to hoops in the 11th grade.
“So I know there’s still a lot for me to learn and to grasp, and I felt like here and just with the things they told me, just being around guys like D-Mac (United assistant Darryl McDonald), one of the best to ever come through here and play, I felt like it would be a good opportunity for me to come here and just get better.’’
Tucker had first come to United’s attention when it was still unclear whether Matthew Dellavedova and Jack White were US-bound. Eventually, to the Sacramento Kings and Nuggets, respectively, they were, with United aware it needed a player capable of making things happen when the structure is fractured or the shot clock dwindling.
“Firstly, you can’t go past the amazing athlete that he is, and he’s shown that to assist him in many different ways,’’ Vickerman says. “Obviously playing above the rim, but the strength and speed that he has allows him to easily go by people and create an advantage, and (also) make it hard for people to go by him.
“And he’s starting to really understand where his teammates are going to be, so not only can he just go by somebody, and score, he’s starting to really understand how to pass the basketball as well, so he’s a high-level late-clock decision-maker for us, but also early-clock in his ability to play at high pace.’’
Crowd-pleasing qualities being a bonus, according to Vickerman. “He should be a fan favourite, and we’ve got to tone down his celebrations at different times to make sure he’s ready for the next play, but he’s gonna have some fun with the game.’’
Asked what he brings to United, and Tucker reels off an impressive list.
“Just a winning attitude. A two-guard who can score, defend, score at all three levels, defend one through four, high energy, a sense of leadership, excitement with the dunks and just different highlight plays. Just a variety of things to call myself an all-round player.’’
Indeed, his insistence that he deserved to be rated as the league’s Best New Import in News Corp’s annual pre-season rankings, while chronicling the reasons why, was a cause for some comment – not least from Vickerman himself.
“I spoke to Tuck after it and just kind of let him know that Australian culture may perceive that as trying to put himself above other people and sometimes they don’t like that.
“And I talk to him any time there’s questions about him talking about the team and doing those things, as well. But again, it’s a cultural change, and the way he deals with media, people are going to perceive it differently in the confidence that they have, so I think he’ll find a good balance as the season goes along to understand how Australians think about it, and the confidence that he wants to put out there.’’
To CODE Sports, though, Tucker was unfazed.
“Nah, it didn’t surprise me how people reacted to it. You read the article, its context. It’s an opinion-based thing. I feel like every player should feel like that about themselves.
“I just believe in the work that I’ve put in to get to this position, and just where I’m at, and I’m still getting better, and the confidence is just based off the work that I put in, starting so late in basketball and accomplishing the things that I’ve accomplished knowing that I still have far to go. I think that’s just comes with it.’’
Having bounced around at various clubs and a couple of US Colleges before coming to Australia, Tucker retains the ambition to leave his mark wherever he goes, however short or long the stay.
As to what he hopes that includes this time: “Just a mark of a winner, a great guy on and off the court, great teammate, just one of those guys that is hard to forget.
“A name that’s hard to forget, a talent that’s hard to forget, being a part of a culture that’s hard to forget with Melbourne United.’’
There’s a tale from Tucker’s time in the second-tier G League with the Bucks’ affiliate the Wisconsin Herd – where he finished as the all-time leading scorer, averaging 21.3 points plus six rebounds and over three assists — that, after being guaranteed an NBA contract with the Jazz, and thus rested from the Herd’s final Winter Challenge game as a precaution, Tucker happily played water boy instead.
There’s another positive story now at United, who lost Next Star and starting centre Ariel Hukporti with a ruptured Achilles during a pre-season game against Perth.
It was the German-Togolese Hukporti who finished each huddle with a ‘one, two, three’ in his native language (or one of them), Vickerman says, “and Tuck was the one that put his hand up and said, ‘Yep, I want to take that on for Ariel and I want to be the one that leads that in every one of our huddles now to remember what Ariel means to our group’.’’
One thing Tucker brings is exceptional footwork and for a slightly unusual reason: Mum Tuwanna owns a dance studio, where she teaches ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop et al. “I used to dance from, like, two to about 14,’’ says Tucker, nominating tap as his favourite. “So dancing and music have always kinda been a passion of mine.’’
And also beneficial for his basketball. “Oh yeah, tremendously. Just with my body control in the air, my footwork, my speed, my athleticism, just the whole nine yards. It’s helped me a lot throughout my years.’’
He has promised to show Vickerman “a few steps”, chuckles the coach, who’s still waiting, while Tucker thinks the best dancer among his new teammates might just be captain Chris Goulding.
Back in Charlotte, North Carolina, which was bracing for a weekend of heavy rain and fierce winds as a result of Hurricane Ian, early-riser Tuwanna will tune in for the United-Breakers game, while Tucker laughs that if little brother Tevin, a high school senior and aspiring footballer, does not get up in time “he’ll probably just ask my mum like, ‘Yo, how’d Rayjon go?’’’
The explosive guard is going pretty well so far, it seems, although one of his coach’s priorities is to keep Tucker engaged and active both offensively and defensively when the ball is not in his hand.
“He’s got an elite skill, he’s got an NBA skill, in how great an athlete he is and how good a defender he can really be on the ball,’’ Vickerman says.
“I think while we’ve got him there’s already some habits, and winning habits, that I think we’ve started to assist him with, and just being with him for a year I think we can just round out parts of his game that I’m sure the NBA are gonna be pleased to see.’’
Yet for now it’s all about Tucker’s role at the new-look Melbourne United, where the guy in the No.59 jersey will be a hard one to miss.