Vernard Hollins might be as good a storyteller as he is a basketball player. He attacks both roles in fast-break mode.
Hollins, 31, has played professional hoops in all sorts of sites, from Mexico to Sweden to Macedonia, in front of adoring as well as threatening crowds. The stories fill his first book, “The Disease Didn't Kill The Dream,” taking readers from Fort Wayne (still home) to all of those outposts and back again in blitzing transition.
The book is a quick, fascinating read.
It's part poignant, as Hollins describes taking care of his late father, the legendary coach Tharnell Hollins, in the later stages of his fight with diabetes (the disease in the title). It's part travelogue, as Hollins rolls from North Side High School to Wright State University to his European adventures.
It's all honest.
In fact, I'm struck most by the fact Hollins isn't afraid to tell the whole story, from his father's disciplinarian parenting style, his father's disease, his parents' divorce and Vernard's younger, more petulant behavior.
Hollins has a camp in Fort Wayne, “Always 100,” and a line of clothing by the same name that reflects his commitment to go all-in in everything he does.
“When my dad was coaching me, there was no way I'd ever get away with 80 percent,” Hollins said. “If you're running full court and you don't touch the line, you come up short. Same with life. Everything in basketball carries over to life.”
I was struck by the love and admiration Hollins held for his father, who died in 1997. Tharnell Hollins was a well-known figure in Fort Wayne who influenced many athletes, including Homestead standout Tracy Foster, who then became a mentor to Vernard Hollins.
Hollins and Foster are part of a brotherhood of sorts among Fort Wayne athletes. Foster introduced Rod Woodson before his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The connections extend to other notable Fort Wayne athletes, Hollins said, such as Roosevelt Barnes.
Foster was especially encouraging to Hollins as an example of an athlete who has become a successful businessman after his playing career ended.
Those who were around during Hollins' high school days in the late 1990s will be interested in some of his stories, including being recruited by several schools out of middle school. He also talks about the prevalence of marijuana use by some athletes during his time as a football player.
You can feel Hollins mature as he moves from a teenager to adult in the book.
“Tracy said, 'You've got so many stories, you should write a book,' ” Hollins said.
So writing became part of Hollins' routine during his months playing basketball abroad.
(You can buy the book, for $15, at a book-signing event from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday at South Side High School. Hollins will also be hosting a series of all-star basketball games throughout the day at the school.)
Stories of Hollins' time playing abroad are sometimes humorous, sometimes shocking in the inherent danger of playing in some climates.
Check out his first game in Macedonia:
“Fans were smoking cigarettes and drinking beer,” Hollins wrote. “Before the game the fans were throwing rocks and pebbles at me and making monkey sounds while I was coming out on the floor. Yes, I just happened to be the only black in the entire gym. I got a real taste of what my father went through back in the 50s and 60s. …There would be a minimum of 20 police officers with machine guns at every game just in case something happened.”
Hollins is able to make light of other incidents that could have easily produced a different response.
“Winning is a big thing when you play overseas, especially if you are an American,” Hollins wrote. “If you do not perform well, and the team loses, anything can happen. One time after we lost, I was in the mall and I saw my coach. He walked right by me and did not even speak to me because he was upset at me because we lost. In the next game, I scored 30 points in the second half and the coach took me to McDonald's.”
Once, in a game in Mexico, the roof started leaking and officials put a number of buckets on the floor to catch the rain. The game went on, Hollins said.
“I used one of those buckets for a screen,” he said.
Hollins said he hopes to inspire young athletes, with his camp here in Fort Wayne (open until mid-August at Imagine Schools), individual instruction and even with his book.
“So many things I learned growing up in Fort Wayne, I carry on with me in my everyday life,” Hollins said. “So many kids need that positive influence in their lives. They need a role model, someone they see comes from the same background. 'This guy went to North Side, he made it, I can make it.' ”
Hollins said he gets rejuvenated when he returns to Fort Wayne in the offseason and works with local kids. He plans to keep playing pro ball abroad as long as his body will let him.
His favorite place: Hungary.
“They have 4,000 or 5,000 fans every game,” Hollins said. “They light coins and throw them at the referees. They throw toilet paper. 'YouTube' my name and you'll see. It's ridiculous.”
That's quite a story. It's one of many that Hollins has, both in his book and in person.