Mom's lessons pay off for John Flowers
Legendary women's player Pam Kelly-Flowers passes gifts on to her son
PITTSBURGH -- Let's get this out of the way from the jump: Yes, when John Flowers was growing up, he and his mother would play pickup in the backyard and his mother would beat him.
In fact, until John was about 12, it wasn't even a contest. More of a walkover, frankly.
And he's OK with it.
No, scratch that. He expected it.
"What can you do?" Flowers said. "There was no sense in trying for a while.''
The list of basketball progeny currently dotting college rosters is a veritable who's whose -- Marcus Jordan (son of Michael) is at Central Florida, and namesakes Ralph Sampson III (Minnesota) and Juwan Howard Jr. (Western Michigan) have taken up the family game.
Almost every list, though, leaves off Flowers.
Yet, his basketball gene pool is every bit as rich.
Pam Kelly-Flowers, John's mother, is a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, a three-time All-American, a two-time national champion at Louisiana Tech, and still the school's all-time leader in scoring (2,979), rebounding (1,511), field goals made and free throws made.
She scored in double figures in 140 of 153 games; ranks first, sixth and eighth in the single-season scoring annals; and ranks first and ninth in single-season rebounding marks. In 1982, she was named both the Wade Trophy and Broderick Cup winner as the national women's basketball player of the year.
So yeah, John couldn't beat her for a while.
"I never threw it in their face, and they never thought it was a big deal,'' Kelly-Flowers said of John and his older brother, Nathan. "I always thought it was important that John have his own career and his own time. He doesn't have to live up to mine. He has to make his own way.''
And after three patient years of biding his time, Flowers is doing just that at West Virginia, which opens its Big East season against St. John's on Wednesday night.
Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins hasn't been overly thrilled with his team this season.
But Flowers is the exception.
The hard-to-please Huggins has been very happy with both Flowers' production (he's averaging 9.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game) and his commitment.
"John's been good, really good,'' Huggins said. "The thing about John is, he loves to play. He loves to compete. You don't have to get on him for that.''
That, perhaps even more than his skill set, is the greatest genetic gift from Flowers' mother. Kelly-Flowers was more of a power player in her day, a tough-nosed grinder compared to her son's more finessed style. But she taught her son to respect the game of basketball and to appreciate that nothing good comes without hard work.
Kelly-Flowers didn't plan to turn her boys into basketball players, although when she looks back, she realizes she didn't give them many other options.
"As soon as they could walk, we got them a little hoop in the basement and they'd be dunking on it,'' she said. "Now that I think about it, I guess that's really the only game we played.''
She served as coach for the boys during their peewee years, giving them a core set of fundamentals, and gladly offered critiques through John's high school career at St. Mary Rykens High, outside of Baltimore.
"I can remember in high school games, all I could hear was my mom's voice screaming, 'Box out, box out,'" Flowers said. "She was big on rebounding.''
The message got through. By the time he finished high school, Flowers was a steady double-double scorer, averaging 18 points and 13.2 rebounds in his senior season.
He wasn't a top-10 recruit, but his game was solid enough to attract more than his fair share of attention.
He chose West Virginia, a perfect cog for the system Beilein was coaching at the time.
But when Beilein bolted for Michigan before Flowers got to Morgantown, he wasn't sure what to do.
So he went to the source who never steered him wrong.
Everyone she talked to suggested Kelly-Flowers find her son a new school, that Huggins and Flowers wouldn't mesh. She ignored the advice and met with Huggins anyway, determined to keep an open mind.
"I didn't know anything about Coach Huggins, and to tell you the truth, everyone was giving me negative reviews,'' Kelly-Flowers said. "They told me that my son was too nice to play for Coach Huggins. Then he came to our house to meet with us, and I was so impressed. I was expecting a bear, I guess.''
And when the bear in Huggins invariably did show up, Kelly-Flowers didn't change her opinion. She has the good sense of a former player, recognizing immediately that sometimes a coach is going to scream, and sometimes, the victim might be her son.
She didn't interfere and never mollycoddled, trusting Huggins to do his job the way he saw fit. She never asked Flowers whether his coach was being too tough because she respected the golden rule of the locker room -- that internal matters stay internal, and that excludes mothers, too.
"I don't care if he yells at John,'' Kelly-Flowers said. "I've been there. I know why he's doing it, and I know John probably deserves it.''
So when Flowers, unsure whether West Virginia was the right spot for him his freshman year, called home, he found not the soft pillow he was hoping for, but rather the stern advice he needed.
"She said, 'We don't quit,'" Flowers said. "I'd be almost crying, and she'd just say, 'What are you crying about? Keep at it.'"
And to his credit, Flowers did.
In a logjam for much of his career behind a few players you might have heard of -- Joe Alexander, Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks -- Flowers took his minutes when he got them and his lessons from those in front of him.
Butler, in particular, shepherded Flowers through his first three years. He encouraged the Baltimore native to show his personality. During his freshman and sophomore seasons, Flowers had a bus stand-up routine in which he would become "The Preacher," cracking up his teammates with his "I believe " monologues. Last season, Flowers served as cinematographer for the Mountaineers videos that went viral during the NCAA tournament.
"We're still making them,'' Flowers said. "We're just not releasing them anymore.''
Butler also drove home the same message Flowers' mother had been hammering for years -- to respect the game.
If this West Virginia team is lacking anything, it is Butler's presence. His commitment to his team was both never-ending and contagious. He never arrived late or left a practice early, and so his teammates followed his lead.
He never quit on a game, and so neither did the Mountaineers.
"You need your best player to have that commitment,'' Huggins said. "We don't have that yet. John picked it up, but not everyone else has.''
Flowers' minutes have doubled this season, and he has been a model of consistency, a steady 10-a-game scorer who has become lethal on the boards and as a shot-blocker.
The season is still young and the end of Flowers' collegiate career is still a long ways off, but at least one person is thinking of the future.
Kelly-Flowers stopped playing when she graduated from Louisiana Tech. There weren't many options. There was no WNBA, no stateside teams to join. But Kelly-Flowers could have had a nice career overseas.
Instead, she hung up her high tops, started a family with her husband, Nathan, and took a job as a physical education teacher at Westlake High School. Twenty-six years later, she's still there.
Her games these days are limited to faculty-student scrums in which the kids take a special pleasure in climbing on and stopping their All-American teacher.
Immensely proud of her family, Kelly-Flowers is not a woman with too many regrets. But she does wish she had a post-college do-over.
"The one thing I'd encourage John to do is take advantage of every single opportunity to keep playing,'' Kelly-Flowers said. "Once it's over, it's over, so play as long as they let you play.''
And when all else fails, pick on your kids.
"Oh yeah, I beat them,'' Kelly-Flowers said. "I'd say, 'OK, we're playing to five.' I'd get the ball, score five quick baskets and never give them the ball. When they finally figured it out and started to play, well, that's when I retired.''
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.