BY TERESA SCRIBNER / SEATTLE TIMES DESIGNER
COLUMBIA, Mo. – Nearly 2,000 miles separate Tramaine Isabell from the star player he once was and the star he’s destined to become.
The former Garfield guard and Class 4A Player of the Year is transitioning to a bigger and brighter stage at the University of Missouri, where Tiger fans are already taking notice. Isabell wasn’t expecting to be recognized by fans in Columbia, but that’s exactly what happened on his first trip to the mall. Becoming a local celebrity is just one of the many things Isabell is trying to get used to as a transplanted college student.
The Midwest heat is another.
It’s migration season, a time when kids across the country head to college. Many won’t leave the Pacific Northwest, but a few like Isabell will take the risk to do something different.
Isabell arrived at Missouri in early July, trading the convenience of city living for the slower pace and urban sprawl. And with a campus as expansive as Missouri, he’ll be getting a workout both on and off the court.
On Isabell’s daily trek to Mizzou Arena, the mile-long walk in Columbia’s stifling humidity makes Seattle’s summer heat seem laughable. Issabell, wearing a pair of dark Ray-Bans and his favorite Air Jordan sneakers, weathered his first thunderstorm on his first day in Columbia – hail, lightning and torrential rain.
“I’m not gonna lie; it shook me a little,” Isabell said of the storm. He was surprised by the broken glass and downed tree branches.
Isabell sticks to one corner of campus, barely moving past his familiar triangle of dorm, football field and gym. The one time he ventured off campus – a trip to Columbia Mall – he was asked for his autograph by a couple of boys. The experience caught him off guard; he didn’t anticipate people recognizing him in Columbia after only two weeks.
“It was surreal,” Isabell said.
Which brings up his biggest transition of all.
Isabell, playing in the high-profile Southeastern Conference, will be judged on everything from his style of play to the way he cuts his hair. He has over 10,000 Twitter followers and 5,200 on Instagram. Such scrutiny comes with negative comments, which can be hard for him and his family to not take personally.
“He deals with (social media) better than I do,” said Isabell’s mother Aiyana Brown. “He deleted a comment I made defending him. I’m still in awe of him.”
Isabell is just one break-out game away from making a name for himself, but one bad game from a different kind of public scrutiny. He tries to keep it all in perspective.
“None of those past accolades means anything,” he said. “Everybody is stepping on the same floor now.”
It’s a business
Isabell, a high-school star at Lakeside and Garfield, has a hard time comprehending what it’s going to be like playing on a national stage. He has already noticed how quickly the game shifted from basketball to business.
“It goes from people taking it lightly to a business real quick,” Isabell said. “They are paying for you to come out here … you’re expected to perform. They will have you in a gym no matter what.”
In June, Missouri hired Matt Herring, former San Antonio Spurs strength coach, to lead the team’s training. The work is already sculpting Isabell’s body, adding six pounds to his slender 6-foot-1 frame. He’s in the gym every morning at 6:30, lifting weights and conditioning, and drinks protein shakes throughout the day. Isabell runs every day and tries to put up 500 shots each afternoon with the help of a rebounding machine.
“I lose track of time,” Isabell said as he followed the machine around the three-point arc.
He knows the hard work is for a reason. Soon he’ll go chest to chest with some of the top recruits in the country in a conference that includes storied Kentucky. He grew up following many SEC teams and is ready to dive in.
“Rupp Arena will be bananas!” he said.
A past life
Isabell’s path to Missouri wasn’t without its twists, turns and regrets. He spent three years playing for Lakeside School before transferring to Garfield for his senior year. After committing to play for Washington State, he asked to be released when the school fired coach Ken Bone.
Isabell weathered insults and criticism but focused on the future. He has been characterized as someone who doesn’t like to lose, a highly competitive player with a chip on his shoulder.
“He’s got a unique skillset and drive,” said Isabell’s mentor, Rich Padden. “He brings a winning attitude. He’s gained a lot of confidence in the past five years.”
Isabell’s demeanor on the court is not all family and friends see.
“Tramaine is a very quiet guy,” said Brown, his mom. “The perception of him is not true at all; he’s actually a homebody. But if he’s your friend, he’s a friend for life.”
Isabell speaks fondly of Lakeside, which he says prepared academically for college, yet one memory eats away at him: a 2013 state tournament game between Lakeside and Rainier Beach. The Lions fell after Isabell missed a free throw, sending the game into overtime. He had another chance to win the game but came up short on a leaning three-point shot at the buzzer. Saved in his cell phone is the image of himself dejectedly sprawled on the court while Rainier Beach players celebrate in the background. He says not winning that game is the one regret about his time at Lakeside.
“I was there for so long and formed strong relationships with everyone from the players to the statistician,” he said. “I wanted to win with my boys.”
He spent his senior year at Garfield, where he finally walked away with a state championship. Still, Isabell wanted more.
“I wanted to go undefeated,” he said. “We went 27-1.”
The big leagues
Isabell can see how his family, mentors and coaches laid the groundwork to help him with the transition to college. He said Tavio Hobson, his former Lakeside coach, pushed him harder than anyone ever has.
“He (Tavio) didn’t give me any days off. He didn’t make it easy on you at all,” Isabell said. “He stressed the teammate part a lot. That’s when I first started realizing it was more than just basketball. It was academics, the way you carry yourself on and off the court, everything.”
Now, while Isabell is working on becoming a top-level collegiate player, he’s even more focused on building a strong team at Missouri.
“It’s been nice getting closer to the basketball team,” he said. “I’m glad I chose to go out on a limb and do something different.”
Isabell will return to Seattle for a few weeks before heading back to Missouri on Aug. 21. Isabell has accomplished so much and come so far, yet he says he knows the road ahead won’t be easy.
“I have a long way to go,” he said. “That’s what keeps me working hard.”
Teresa Scribner is a visual journalist for The Seattle Times and a media teacher at Cleveland High School. She met Tramaine Isabell while attending a journalism workshop at the University of Missouri campus. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2960. On Twitter: TScrib07
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