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‘What Happened to Him?’

Basketball Star Jonathon Hargett’s Promising Career Derailed

Jonathan Hargett is in prison in Virginia serving the final months of a nearly five-year sentence for drug possession with intent to sell.

By 

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — From the playgrounds of Richmond, Va., to the highest levels of international basketball, the exploits of Jonathan Hargett still resonate.

Amar’e Stoudemire, a high school teammate, has called Hargett the best player he has played with at any level. Carmelo Anthony, a summer league teammate when both were in high school, vividly recalls Hargett, a frenetic 5-foot-11 guard with a 44-inch vertical leap and skills that evoked comparisons to Allen Iverson.

At the London Olympics, Kevin Durant overheard a reporter talking to Anthony about Hargett and asked wide-eyed about his whereabouts. Durant graduated from one of the four high schools Hargett attended, but he knows him only by his reputation.

His signature move was his ability to freeze an opponent with a crossover dribble, then blow past him toward the basket, lobbing the ball off the backboard and catching it and dunking it with one hand. It became known simply as a Hargett.

“Especially when you’re talking about memories and things like that from high school basketball and A.A.U. basketball, he’s definitely one of the names that comes up,” Anthony said. “What happened to him?”

The answer is jarring and sadly predictable. Hargett, who turns 30 this weekend, is an inmate at the medium-security Indian Creek Correctional Center here, serving the final months of a nearly five-year sentence for drug possession with intent to sell.

Tattoos are a tribute to Jonathan Hargett’s wizardry with the basketball.

How he ended up here, a decade removed from his one season of major-college basketball and far short of the N.B.A. career that many thought was his destiny, is a story that Hargett told recently in two jailhouse interviews totaling nearly seven hours. Wearing the standard-issue prison uniform of jeans and a blue button-down shirt that resembled a pajama top, Hargett spoke of dealing with an agent at 15 and of eventually choosing to attend West Virginia because he was offered $20,000. He also recounted his years of abusing marijuana and making nearly $1,000 a day selling cocaine, a way of life that resulted in his being shot with a bullet that remains lodged in his hip.

His family’s story is even darker. When Hargett was 6, his father died while in prison, lacking even a suit to be buried in. Hargett’s sister did not have a dress to wear to the funeral. Of his mother’s four other sons, one is dead and the other three are in jail — two for rape and one for armed robbery.

“It’s an American tragedy, in a lot of ways,” said Ernie Nestor, who coached Hargett’s brother Mike at George Mason. Mike died at 30.

Hargett is scheduled to be released Jan. 11. Highly sought after as a high school player — he was a top-10 recruit in the class of 2001, rated higher than the future N.B.A. guards Ben Gordon and T. J. Ford — he rarely receives visitors now. He spends his days helping make cleaning supplies in the hope of having $500 saved to spend on his two daughters when he leaves prison. With nearly five years to dwell on the mistakes that kept him from the N.B.A., Hargett has ultimately pinpointed one person for his failures.

“I can’t blame nobody,” he said. “I’ve got to blame myself.”

Those Amazing Stories

Around Richmond, the stories about Hargett are told like the basketball version of campfire fables. How, even as he cycled through high schools, his talent was such that many N.B.A. scouts thought he could be the first point guard to jump directly to the N.B.A. How he had tattoos on the back of his hands that read “Gifted Hands,” a tribute to his wizardry with the basketball.

Tyrone Sally, a high school and college teammate of Hargett’s, said he still is asked at least twice a week, “Whatever happened to Jonathan Hargett?”

George Lancaster, 67, has coached high school basketball in the Richmond area for nearly 40 years and has helped more than 120 players get college scholarships, dating from Gerald Henderson, who went on to play for the Boston Celtics. Lancaster said he never coached a more talented player than Hargett. But Lancaster described him as a portrait of contrasts. Hargett was shy but strong-willed, a thrill to coach yet lazy and stubborn, supremely confident on the court with self-esteem issues away from the gym.

Hargett’s mother, Nancy, worked multiple jobs to help support her six children. With his mother often working and no father figure around, Hargett began to form bad habits. Lancaster said that after Hargett’s ninth-grade year, he began showing up late to practice, and Lancaster noticed an entourage beginning to form around him.

“He listened to the streets and the people that took care of his immediate needs,” Lancaster said. “Imagine someone walking down an alley with mirrors everywhere. When you’re looking, you can only see the images and reflection of yourself. You can’t see anything on the horizon.”

Hargett began smoking marijuana in seventh grade and dabbled in selling drugs about then. By high school, he was smoking whenever he could, often when he woke up in the morning.

“I can’t blame nobody,” Jonathan Hargett said. “I’ve got to blame myself.” He added: “I made a lot of bad decisions. I don’t have no ego, pride or none of that no more.”

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