Heartbreak fuels Renardo Sidney’s new sense of purpose
Renardo Sidney no longer wanted to be one of The Best That Never Was. We’ve heard that before, again and again, but this time it was different. This time he had a daughter on the way, due to be born in the summer of 2014. Sidney’s paternal instinct kicked in. He wanted to support her, provide for her, take care of her. “She’s the reason I got back out there to start working out,” Sidney said. “Having a kid, I wanted her to have anything [she wanted].”
On June 28, 2014, Madison Olivia Sidney was stillborn.
“That was my first little girl,” Sidney said. Her name is now tattooed on his arm. He was heartbroken. “After she passed, it just felt like a light that came on that told me to get up off my butt. I’m still young. I could still keep trying.”
He couldn’t be the can’t-miss prospect that missed, a cautionary tale of all that can go wrong in grassroots basketball. He couldn’t keep watching guys that were once ranked below him by every recruiting outlet in the country -- guys likes John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Kawhi Leonard and Eric Bledsoe -- make a lasting mark in the NBA while he watched on TV, his only lasting impression being the grooves he made in the couch.
The kid everyone once knew as Big Sid was up to 340 pounds, a year removed from a stint with the LA Defenders of the NBA’s D-League, and he was finally ready to make his comeback.
Renardo Sidney is anything-but a household name, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way.
His name may conjure up memories of an NCAA suspension or a brawl in the stands during a game in Hawaii. Some of the more dedicated college hoop fans out there may remember the season and a half that he actually played at Mississippi State before going undrafted in 2012.
What you may not know, however, is that Sidney was a surefire lottery pick before he ever set foot in a high school classroom. He exploded onto the recruiting scene in 2005 as a rising freshman at Sonny Vaccaro’s famed ABCD All-American Camp. Here was a 6-foot-8, 230 pound, 14-year-old from Jackson, Miss., blessed with the physique of a college senior before he could grow a mustache.
And he was torching everyone at the best summer camp in high school hoops.
“Of all the players I’ve ever seen in the summer, I’ll put Renardo Sidney against any in the last 15 years,” said ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman, then a National Recruiting Analyst for Scout.com. “He was probably one of the top five talents I’ve ever seen at that stage of their career.”
The setting for these showcase camps are tailor-made for players with perimeter ability. Free-flowing, back-and-forth basketball with limited defense, one-on-one play emphasized and a priority made on highlighting the matchups that will draw the most attention. It was all about exposure and Sidney’s unique skill set made him impossible to ignore. He could handle the ball, he could shoot, he could lead the break, he could throw no-look passes, he could back you down and dunk on you. He was a right-handed Lamar Odom, another Chris Webber. Some thought him the second-coming of Magic Johnson.
The camp’s all-star game is where the Legend of Sidney really began to grow. As Goodman put it, “it was the Renardo Show. No one could handle him.”
“You never know how a player will eventually develop,” said Mark Gottfried, “but it’s hard to imagine there have ever been better, more skilled [prospects] at that age. He also had a high basketball IQ for his age. It was like, ‘Man, this kid is really advanced.’”
Gottfried is now the head coach at N.C. State, but back then he was coaching Alabama. Prior to Sidney’s arrival at ABCD, Gottfried had Sidney on campus for the Alabama team camp and actually landed a verbal commitment from the young star.
“At that point in time, it wasn’t taken very seriously,” he said. “You kind of knew that there was going to be a lot of twists and turns, and this thing is going to be all over the place.”
And all over the place it was.
Sidney didn’t play as a freshman at Piney Woods HS in Mississippi after being ruled ineligible due to illegal recruiting. Still, his stock continued to soar, as he teamed with with Pat Barrett’s Southern California All-Stars, a Reebok-sponsored program that some believe is the most talented AAU team ever assembled. It featured the top player in the Class of 2007 (Kevin Love), 2008 (Brandon Jennings) and 2009 (Sidney, at the time) while also featuring Taylor King (Duke and Villanova), Daniel Hackett (USC) and Malik Story (Indiana and Nevada). Sidney’s father, Renardo Sr., would eventually sign on with Reebok as a consultant, a job that reportedly paid him $20,000.
Sidney’s summer in 2006 pre-empted the family’s relocation to Los Angeles, where he finally played his first season of high school hoops. But as the hype grew, Sidney’s ability began to stagnate. He put on weight, he got overwhelmed -- or swallowed up, depending on who you ask -- by the amateur hoops scene in LA. Things began to spiral.
“I could honestly say I probably was ‘Hollywood,’” Sidney said. “I just thought I made it. I thought that my talent would get me to the NBA.”
“The worst thing he did was move to California,” said Wayne Brent, who coached Sidney in high school in Mississippi. Brent is now the head coach at Jackson State.
Sidney’s ranking fell. He tried to commit to both USC and UCLA; neither school would allow him admission. He ended up at Mississippi State, where he was suspended for the entirety of the 2009-10 season and the first nine games of the 2010-11 season for illegal benefits the NCAA determined that he and his family received. After he was finally ruled eligible to play in college, he got in a fight with teammate Elgin Bailey in the stands of a nationally televised game in a Christmas tournament in Hawaii:
He averaged 9.7 points and 5.2 boards for the Bulldogs in 2011-12 before turning pro. He went undrafted and spent a short time in the D-League before his professional career stalled. He wouldn’t suit up against until he made the move to Canada in the fall of 2014.
“Just trying to find myself,” he said of his time away from the game. “I let a lot of stuff go on as a kid and it bothered me as a man. I just took a couple months off just to get myself together. Find out what I really want to do, if I really want to play basketball or not.”
The only person that’s ever stood in the way of Renardo Sidney is Renardo Sidney.
His attitude, his work ethic, his inability to keep weight off. Talk to him now and Sidney will freely admit that he thought that he had made it when he was 16. He thought the free shoes and the cross-country flights and all the attention and adoration he received as a high school phenom meant that his matriculation to the NBA was simply a waiting game. Kill time until you’re old enough to go pro, become an international mega-star.
That was the way it played out in his head.
“You’ve got to stay humble and stay hungry,” Sidney said. “I wish I could have told myself or someone would have told me that coming up.”
“I was getting all kinds of gear and clothes and shoes and I was No. 1 in the country. The internet and the TV. It kind of got to me, and as a young kid at that age, you just feel like you’ve made it already. I stopped working.”
Work ethic has been a struggle for Sidney, dating all the way back to his time back in Jackson. Brent has coached a number of highly-touted recruits during his time as a high school coach in Mississippi. In addition to working with Sidney during his one season at Piney Woods, Brent coached LaQuinton Ross, who was once the No. 1 recruit in his class, and Malik Newman, a top five prospect in the Class of 2015, at Calloway HS in Jackson. He also was an assistant at Ole Miss in the late ‘90s.
And Sidney, Brent says, was far and away the most talented player he’s ever coached. The problem? He never committed to getting into shape. He never wanted to work hard.
“He was so talented and it was that his downfall was work habits,” Brent said. “He couldn’t sustain anything for a very long period of time. The talent was there. Is was just, can he push through the grind to really become something special?”
That issue was exacerbated by his move to Los Angeles, where Sidney latched on with teams and coaches that enabled him.
“He played for two or three teams where he didn’t practice,” Brent said. “If Renardo said he didn’t want to practice, he didn’t practice.”
“I’ve been around a lot of kids. If you let them do that, than that’s what they do. You have a 15, 16 or 17-year old that already doesn’t want to work that can just say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to work today?’ [It would have been different] had he went somewhere where they had said, ‘if you ain’t gonna work, you need to get your stuff and leave.’”
The circus that was surrounding his recruitment only added to the problem. Not his college recruitment, but to a shoe company. Would he play for a Reebok, Nike or adidas AAU team? His father told the Washington Post at the time that his job as a consultant with Reebok was simply to “make sure he gets to [ABCD Camp] and Las Vegas” for the company’s tournament in July, and that he received repeated offers from rival shoe companies and competing tournaments to shuttle the younger Sidney to those events.
Sidney said the hype started to weigh on him, the pressure of having a target on his head every time he stepped out on the floor became hard for him to handle. He was his family’s meal ticket before he had a driver’s license, and it made the game less enjoyable.
“It’s scary. You can’t live your life as a teenager,” he said. “You can’t have a normal life as a normal kid. I couldn’t go to Universal Studios like I wanted to. I couldn’t go to the movies or go bowling. All you’ve got to do is basketball, basketball, basketball. It’s tough as a kid because you see all your friends going out and you’ve got to get up and go to the gym. It’s kind of overwhelming.”
Sidney became an example used for the ills of AAU basketball. The excess, the instant celebrity, the marketability of hype, the prioritization of the grassroots circuit over the high school season. To the casual observer, he was the personification of all that’s wrong with American basketball, a teenager who was surrounded by adults trying to find a way to get a cut of his future earnings.
It only got worse in college, as Sidney’s off-the-court issues exacerbated his declining skill set.
“Once I got to college and my dad wasn’t around a lot, I felt like I could do what I wanted to do,” Sidney said, taking the blame for his tumultuous three-year stop in Starkville. “I stopped listening to the coaches. That’s when the immaturity kicked in.”
From there, it snowballed. Every mistake he made -- and there were plenty -- resulted in another story vilifying him, and perhaps the biggest mistake he made was to read every one of them. It was too much for Sidney to handle.
“I didn’t play for two years and people were still writing negativity about me, and I haven’t even played in two years,” he said. “I just wanted to fall off the face of the earth. Because it was stressful. It was very stressful. To think that a lot of people think you’re a headcase, which I’m not.”
“A lot of people just think I’m a bad person and all I wanted to do was play basketball. It was overwhelming.”
That’s what led to Sidney ballooning up to 340 pounds. That’s what led to his two-year hoops hiatus. That’s what led to a basketball prodigy refusing to watch NBA games -- refusing to watch guys he still considers friends, still talks to on a regular basis -- because he couldn’t handle the stress or the disappointment.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s tough knowing you’re supposed to be in the league and you’re not.”
Renardo Sidney made his return to professional basketball this past fall. He had already dropped 35 pounds when he was signed by the Island Storm of Canada’s NBL, the same team that had sparked former Arizona guard Josiah Turner’s return from basketball exile. It was Sidney’s chance to prove to everyone that this change in attitude that he’s been promising was actually coming to fruition, that the life-altering moment of having a stillborn child had turned him into a different person.
Sidney lasted five games with the Storm before being released.
That sounds bad, but Storm head coach Joe Salerno insisted that the issues that precipitated his release had more to do with Sidney’s conditioning than with his attitude.
“It was a good experience, better than I had anticipated,” Salerno said. “When his name came across my desk this summer while we were recruiting, I had read all the baggage and kind of knew his history but it was just too big of a talent not to take a risk on. I certainly had some reservations before we signed him and I was curious to see how it went.”
“It was fun working with him. As a person, I was pleasantly surprised. He had a great character. All the guys on the team enjoyed him off the floor, and he certainly came in with all the right intentions.”
The issue was that, despite losing those 35 pounds, Sidney just didn’t have his “basketball wind”. He couldn’t play long stretches without having to take plays off. He couldn’t be on the court for eight or nine minutes at a time without becoming a major liability on the defensive end of the floor. “When you’re trying to still get in shape during the season, it’s difficult to do,” Salerno said. “He wasn’t in horrendous shape. He was in decent shape for what he was.”
It created a conundrum for Salerno and his staff. Sidney was too talented offensively to simply cut ties with -- he scored 17 points in 17 minutes in his first game with the Storm -- but he still had a long way to go until he was in good enough shape to play an entire game. Eventually the coaching staff settled on a rotation for Sidney: three minutes on, three minutes off.
That didn’t work out.
“When any frustrations came out,” Salerno said, “it was because he wasn’t able to play long shifts,” noting that he believed Sidney had put in the effort, he just needed more time to get into shape.
And right now, time is all Sidney has. He’s still living on Prince Edward Island in Canada, training with a former teammate as he prepares for workouts that he hopes will lead to a spot in an NBA Summer League which, in turn, will land him a contract with a team in the NBA D-League.
At least that’s the plan.
Sidney says he is down to 290 pounds. His goal, according to his agent, Zachary Charles of 3pt Sports Management, is to get down to 275 pounds. Charles, who is at least the fourth agent that Sidney has had since leaving school, believes that this time it will be different. He believes that this is a new Renardo Sidney, that all he needs is an opportunity to prove it.
For the first time in his life, Charles says, there’s a plan of action, there’s a structure that Sidney is buying into.
“When it comes to work and dedication,” Charles said, “sometimes it takes a kick in the pants to understand what you had and what you lost.”
Renardo Sidney has fooled us before.
He’s told us that he’s getting in shape. He spent time working out with John Lucas, readjusting his attitude and his work ethic. He’s turned over a new leaf so many times that we’ve stopped counting, and he understands why there are people that won’t believe what he has to say. He knows that another story about his return to hardwood glory will be met with skepticism.
He knows he has to prove it before people will start paying attention.
“All I can say is just watch out for me,” he said. “I’ve been saying this over the last couple of years. A lot of people are tired of hearing it, but I’m tired of saying it. I can’t really tell you, because all I’ve been doing the last couple of years is talking. Now I’ve got to do the walking.”
“Just look out for me. That’s all I could say.”