Lester Hudson a maestro on the court and survivor off it
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- One of college basketball's best-kept secrets, Lester Hudson is a maestro on the hardwood.
He's also the quintessential survivor.
Name it, and the Tennessee-Martin junior guard can do it.
In just his first season at UT-Martin, Hudson is third nationally in scoring at 25.8 points per game and leads all Division I players with 85 steals. He's a good enough shooter that he's already made 115 3-pointers, the second-most nationally, yet is equally dangerous off the dribble and can get to the basket and finish with fearless consistency.
Hudson is listed at 6-foot-3, and that's probably stretching it. Nonetheless, he rebounds like he's 6-9. He's grabbed 10 or more rebounds in a game 10 times this season.
And when you talk about the ability to see the whole court and find open teammates with precision passes, Hudson does that as well as he does anything.
"He's the heart and soul of this basketball team," UT-Martin coach Bret Campbell said. "Even if he doesn't score, and that doesn't happen very often, he just makes everybody around him better. He's got a great feel for the game. He's one of those guys who has a high basketball IQ and understands it.
"He also has a great love for the game. There are a lot of guys who play basketball. Lester lives it."
The fact that he's on scholarship -- and playing college basketball at all -- is a story unto itself. It's one of faith, hope and belief all wrapped into one.
Even now, Hudson still pinches himself occasionally and wonders how he made it out of one of the roughest neighborhoods in Memphis, his thoughts drifting back to all those times he wanted to give up and all those times when the thought of playing Division I basketball seemed like a fairy tale.
But this is no fairy tale.
This is the real thing, and so is Hudson.Three games into his UT-Martin career earlier this season, he became the first men's player in Division I history to record a quadruple-double with 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals in a 116-74 win over Division II Central Baptist College.
But he's also showed greatness against the big boys, erupting for 36 points, nine rebounds and six assists against Vanderbilt, 35 points and 10 rebounds against Memphis and 27 points and 11 rebounds against Mississippi State.
In his most recent outing, a 98-85 win over Southeast Missouri State on Feb. 16, Hudson turned in a triple-double -- 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
Campbell coached NBA players Trenton Hassell and Bubba Wells as an assistant at Austin Peay and says Hudson is a more complete player than either one of them.
Back in December, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings saw all he needed to see of Hudson to know that the UT-Martin star could play anywhere.
"He's really good; good offensively and he's good in every way," Stallings said. "He can pass. He can handle the ball. He can make tough shots. He can get into the lane and get to the basket, and he's got deep range.
"Defensively, he's a gambler, but he gets a lot of steals. I was very impressed with his game, and he could play for any team in our league."
Had it not been for academic difficulties in high school, Hudson probably would be playing in the SEC or possibly at Memphis right now. Hudson didn't go to school often, and even when he did, he didn't always go to class. Most of the time he'd find his way to the gymnasium, which was his sanctuary. He played only one year of high school basketball and was walking the halls when Central High coach Andre Applewhite found him.
"To be honest, I really didn't know how to study. I'd never had to, never really had anybody pushing me to. All I wanted to do was play basketball," said Hudson, who will turn 24 in August and spent two years at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis before landing at UT-Martin.
Hudson credits Applewhite for saving him in more ways than one.
"Sometimes, I think Coach Applewhite believed in me more than I believed in myself," said Hudson, who never played AAU basketball and seemed destined to be one of those playground legends nobody would ever hear of outside of Memphis.
Applewhite was determined not to let that happen.
He'd seen Hudson toying with some of his varsity players in gym class and had little doubt that Hudson was the best player in the school, maybe one of the best players in the talent-rich city of Memphis. But Applewhite also wasn't going to just hand Hudson a spot on the high school team. First, Hudson would have to prove that he was going to truly apply himself in school.
And that started with regularly going to school and not hanging out in the streets.
"I'm proud of him, because he wanted more for his life than some of the things he was seeing around him," Applewhite said. "I encouraged him, but he did the work. Finally he started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes, it still didn't seem possible, and there were days I would have to go pick him up or hunt him down.
"It wasn't easy, but he stuck it out and has a chance to better himself now beyond basketball."
Hudson starred on Central's team as a junior, averaging double figures in points and rebounds. But he had already repeated one grade by then and turned 19 that summer, making him ineligible to play as a senior. He remained in school, but his academic struggles continued -- especially with basketball being taken away.
He left Central without his high school diploma and seemingly without much of a future.
"I was just in the neighborhood playing and thought it was over for me," Hudson said. "But anything can happen if you never stop believing in yourself and have others who never stop believing in you."
Applewhite, who played at Southwest Tennessee Community College, was able to convince his alma mater to take a look at Hudson in a tryout of sorts.
"I pretty much killed everybody in the gym," Hudson recalled. "They were calling me after that."
Hudson spent the next two years playing at Southwest, and earned his high school GED his first semester there. He excelled on the court and also maintained a 2.5 GPA. But he came up short on the necessary core requirements and failed to graduate from junior college.
Several Division I schools had shown interest in Hudson, but most of those backed off when it became apparent that he wasn't going to receive his junior college degree.
The one school that stuck with him was UT-Martin.
Jason James, in his sixth year as an assistant on the UT-Martin staff, had known about Hudson since he was in high school and also had a relationship with Applewhite. James knew it might be a gamble academically, but he also knew it was a gamble well worth it.
"When he left Southwest, I knew he'd be the best player in our league," James said. "You never predict somebody would be this good, but I knew he would be good. You could tell that by watching him."
Once again, though, Hudson's resolve was tested. Because he didn't graduate from junior college, the only way he would be eligible to play at UT-Martin was to sit out his first year and pay his own way through school.
Hudson took out a student loan and applied for every bit of financial aid he could find.
"I'd come that far. I wasn't going to give up," said Hudson, who took advantage of the academic support system at UT-Martin and in his own words, focused academically for the first time in his life. "My dream was to play Division I basketball, and I was going to do whatever it took to make that happen."
On those days Hudson felt himself wavering, he thought back to his childhood, one that saw him bounce around to different family members in different housing projects.
He thought back to the harrowing shootouts he witnessed, the gangs that ran the streets, the drugs that infested his neighborhood, and all those people he grew up with who weren't fortunate enough to make it out.
"There was more out there for me, and even though I put myself in a hole [academically], I was going to make it out."
That hunger is apparent every time he steps onto the court now. He takes nothing for granted. In fact, only once in his life has he ever played consecutive years of organized basketball, and that was during his junior college stint.
"I don't get the big head, not at all," said Hudson, who's been held under double figures only once this season. "What I've been through helped me stay humble, and I'm glad nothing's come easy. It's made me a better player and a better person."
He's been a hit at UT-Martin, which has already clinched a spot in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. The Skyhawks (15-14, 11-8 OVC) have won five straight games heading into their BracketBuster matchup with Elon on Saturday. Their 11 conference wins are the most in a season since they joined the OVC in 1992.
"The people at Martin have been great," Hudson said. "They're always willing to help and have always been there for me. Coach Campbell and Coach James stayed with me from Day 1. I owe them, and the way I can give back is by helping us get to March and play like I know we can play."
Hudson has another year of eligibility remaining at UT-Martin but will see what's out there for him professionally following this season. Seeing NBA scouts at his games isn't uncommon.
"I still think there are a couple more levels out there for me," Hudson said. "I think I'll probably be back next year, but you've also got to look at your opportunities."
Campbell has no doubt that Hudson will make a living playing basketball somewhere.
"He's just too driven and too talented not to," Campbell said. "He will make it. He knows basketball is his way out, and he's continued to use it to help make his life better."
Who says fairy tales can't come true?
Chris Low is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com.