Getting the opportunity to play professional basketball is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, whether you’re a blue-chip prospect or someone who didn’t play serious minutes until your senior year of high school.
For Tahjere McCall, his road less traveled may be one of the most barren routes taken to get an opportunity at a career in basketball. A North Philadelphia native, McCall attended Carver High School of Engineering and Science where he didn’t start playing hoops until he was an upperclassman. As a senior, McCall averaged 15.4 points per game, a solid number, but not a figure that would be grabbing the eyes of college coaches across the nation.
The jump from playing just two years of high school basketball to being in the gym of his hometown Philadelphia 76ers on June 5 to audition for a job playing that same sport is almost storybook for McCall.
“I didn’t always play basketball like I was ok,” McCall said. “I didn’t really play until my 11th-grade year, 12th-grade year, I only had one scholarship. Just to be in the position like I am now, it wasn’t guaranteed. To be in Philadelphia for my first workout, I can’t make that up.”
Since McCall picked up the game so late, his only option for college ball looked to be in Division-II, where he was committed to play at Holy Family. But at the eleventh hour, McCall’s lone Division-I scholarship came by way of Niagara University.
After playing his first two seasons at Niagara, under two separate head coaches, McCall felt that to continue furthering his career in basketball, he neeeded to move on to another school. While McCall turned in respectable numbers, averaging 7.5 points a game and leading his team in steals nine times during his sophomore season, there weren’t a plethora of schools clamoring for his services — just like when he left high school.
But once again, the Philadelphia native took his one opportunity and ran with it.
“I transferred, once again didn’t have no offers,” McCall said referring to his situation coming out of high school. “Tennessee State, I played with Anthony Mason’s son, Antoine Mason at Niagara. So he called Tennessee State and they gave me a shot. And then the rest was history. I kept getting better. I always had one opportunity to make myself so I’m used to having one opportunity and making the most out of it.”
After his jump to the Ohio Valley Conference, McCall began to carve out his place as a potential pro basketball player. With defense as his calling card — in 2015-16 McCall became the first Tennessee State player to win OVC Defensive Player of the Year — he began to shape the offensive portion of his game. Throughout his two seasons at Tennessee State, McCall averaged 14.5 points per game and eventually eclipsed the 1,000-point mark for his Division-I career on Jan. 7 against UT Martin.
McCall’s senior season, however, was the year that helped him get onto the NBA radar. As the second-leading scorer on the team at 14.3 points per game, McCall also was able to average 5.1 assists and five rebounds per game as well. By securing his second consecutive conference Defensive Player of the Year Award, and becoming just the third player in conference history to win the award multiple times, McCall earned First-Team All-Ohio Valley Conference honors.
After hearing from his agent just a few days before Monday’s workout that he was going to be trying out for the team that consumed his childhood fandom, McCall reached out to a current Sixer to get some advice on how to take control of his latest opportunity.
“Rob Covington went to my high school, so he’s a close friend,” McCall said. “[Covington said] just play your game. You go into something trying to impress people, you do something sometimes that you’re not comfortable doing or that’s not your strong suit. He just said be yourself and play your game and everything will take care of itself.”
During Monday’s workout, McCall did exactly as Covington suggested — he played his game. And some important people took notice.
“You talk about a kid who’s tough,” Vice President of Player Personnel Marc Eversley said. “He brings toughness to the basketball court. I think he plays in a stance. He’s got great length. He brings a toughness to the court – two-time OVC Defensive Player of the Year. He brings a toughness to the court. I think he’s got to work on his offense a little bit, he’s got to develop a jump shot, but again, I think he’s a defender and I think that’s his elite skill: toughness.”
Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo agreed that McCall had a good workout.
“[He] was impressive defensively today,” said Colangelo.
After completing his workout for the Sixers, McCall will wait for his to determine where he will head to next. In the meantime, he’ll stay positioned at his mom’s house in the familiar world of North Philly. As McCall said, her homemade ribs, fried chicken and collard greens are hard to leave behind.
“You can’t beat that food man. Ya gotta stay with your mom, she feeds me,” McCall said. “I can’t leave. I’ll either bring her with me or I’m coming back here. I will never leave.”
While he’s waiting and working to secure his dream, McCall is simply happy to be in the position he is in.
“It’s all I could ask for,” McCall said about his opportunity to play professional basketball. “Because I didn’t expect this when I was playing in high school. I would just think I’m playing for fun. Then it would just keep gradually getting better and gradually getting better and now hopefully I can help my parents and mom, doing something I love to do. It’s just a dream.”
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