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Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers smiles and laughs during practice and media availability as part of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 3, 2017 at the Warriors Practice Facility in Oakland, California. Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
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Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue and his uncle formed lasting bond over basketball

In Mexico, Missouri, Lue learned to love the game from his mother’s brother

Believe it or not, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue has a street named after him in Mexico.

That street isn’t in the country of Mexico. It’s in Lue’s hometown of Mexico, Missouri.

Kids growing up in a major city often idolize a sports star or celebrity from their hometown. In a small city of about 11,600, Lue found a role model with the same blood in his uncle Jay Graves.

“You don’t see celebrities or professional athletes [in Mexico],” Lue told The Undefeated. “Growing up not having that, my uncle was my idol. Guys you grow up watching play high school sports, those were your idols.

“He was a 6-4 point guard who averaged a triple-double his senior year in high school. He played with the Globetrotters and he played in college. He was my idol, and I always looked up to him when I started playing basketball.”

Graves, who is the brother of Lue’s mother, starred at Mexico Senior High School before playing at Moberly Area Community College, where he became an All-American. He next went on to star at Talladega College, Alabama’s oldest private historically black college, where he became a 1991 NAIA third-team All-America selection. He also played briefly with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1992.

Graves still wonders whether he would have had stronger college opportunities had he played in a bigger town.

“They used to say, ‘He’s from Mexico, Missouri. Can he play?’ They didn’t think I could play against big-time competition,” Graves said. “Eventually, they saw that I could.”

Lue and Graves enjoyed basketball together. Graves said he could tell early on that his nephew had a chance to be a pretty good player because of his commitment to work on the game no matter the challenge. Lue would follow his uncle around to the park. They also would put heaters near a basket to shoot in the winter in front of the house. And when it was too cold, they would shoot indoors at a hanger on a door.

Tyronn Lue’s high school yearbook photo.

Graves, 49, also noticed that Lue had an amazing ability to dribble while sucking his thumb.

“He loved basketball, but he sucked his thumb as a kid,” Graves said. “He’d bounce the ball all day long, in the house, out the house, back in the house to the park, always sucking his thumb. But you could never steal the ball from him. If you tried to take the thumb out of his mouth, he would smack it away and still be bouncing the ball and put the other thumb in his mouth. He would still be bouncing the ball.

“He’d probably kill me for telling that. But that’s a funny story. As a young kid, you could see there was something special about this guy. At about the eighth grade I started seeing him do some things. I thought, ‘This is something special we got here.’ Eventually, gradually, he got better.”

Lue played basketball at Mexico Senior High during his freshman year, but he and his uncles were disappointed that he wasn’t on varsity. Lue said he began getting into some trouble during his freshman year, which he declined to go into detail about, and believed a change was necessary. As a sophomore, he departed from Mexico to move to the Kansas City suburb of Raytown with his uncle Kevin Graves. Lue went on to star at Raytown High School and accepted a full basketball scholarship at Nebraska.

Freshman Tyronn Lue drives toward the basket during a game against Moberly High School.

Mexico High School Yearbook

“We were like, ‘This is the best thing for you. You see how it turned out for me, so there is no sense of you falling to the same blueprint that I did.’ He ended up moving in with my brother, Kevin, in Raytown, and the rest is history,” Graves said.

Nebraska guard Tyronn Lue (No. 10) takes to the air as he heads downcourt against Kansas on Feb. 1, 1997, in Lawrence, Kansas. Lue was the game’s top scorer with 26 points.

AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

Lue played on the Cornhuskers’ 1996 NIT championship team and finished his college career ranked third all-time in assists (432), fourth in 3-pointers made (145) and attempted (407), fifth in steals (154) and seventh in scoring (1,577) for Nebraska. The 23rd overall pick in the first round of the 1998 NBA draft won two NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers during an 11-year journeyman career. Lue credits his departure from Mexico as the spark of his basketball career.

“I was getting in trouble in Mexico, so I had to move with my uncle,” Lue said. “Back in Mexico, you don’t get a lot of opportunities. Colleges are not coming to recruit guys in Mexico. I thought it was better to go near Kansas City, which is a bigger city and guys were being recruited by D-I schools. So that’s why I went to Kansas City, also.”

Although the 40-year-old Lue left Mexico in his early teens, the city never left his heart. He returned during his NBA playing days to conduct basketball camps, provide clothing for children and be a role model. Lue also has been putting on a Fourth of July fireworks show since his early days as a player when he received donations from then-NBA stars Kevin Garnett and Chauncey Billups. Lue pays for the show on his own now.

“Every year I have my Fourth of July weekend thing for the whole town and the whole community,” Lue said. “I go back for family reunions. I do a lot of stuff in the summer with kids, take them to Six Flags [amusement park]. I always go back and do a lot of stuff.

“A lot of guys used to donate, and I would make a banner thanking all the guys that donate. It’s great to do, and I love going back home and doing it.”

Tyronn Lue and his uncle Jay Graves.

Courtesy of the Graves Family

Said Graves: “It gets our whole family and Mexico together. That’s all we know, celebrating, getting together and the family reunion. That’s one way for him to come back and be around all the people he knows. They treat him like Tyronn, and we have all the family together at the same time. He loves Mexico, so he puts on a celebration for them.”

The city showed its appreciation for Lue on July 27, 2015, by changing the name of Walnut Street to Tyronn Lue Boulevard.

Lue attended the Tyronn Lue Boulevard ceremony at the community room of Garfield Center on Aug. 8, 2015, that led to smiles and tears from his family and friends. Lue’s mother, Kim, and his grandmother, Olivia George, sat in the front row next to him during the ceremony. Lue talked about the importance of family and of being a leader and a role model in his speech. Tyronn Lue Boulevard runs alongside Garfield Park, where Lue and Jay Graves grew up playing basketball.

“It was great not only for me, but for my family and friends just showing where I came from and who I’ve become today,” Lue said. “It is really a tribute to me, my family and my friends. That street is where the park is, where I grew up playing 1-on-0, by myself playing basketball every day.”

On Jan. 22, 2016, Lue was named head coach of the Cavaliers after the midseason firing of David Blatt. Jay Graves said his house was abuzz when Lue coached the Cavaliers to a 2016 NBA championship after being down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series to the Golden State Warriors.

Lue became the first African-American to coach an NBA team to a championship since Doc Rivers did so with the Boston Celtics in 2008. Rivers was the mentor who persuaded Lue to become a coach after he retired from playing in 2009.

“I have a young son and a daughter who love him,” Jay Graves said of Lue coaching the Cavs to a title. “When the clock ran out, the way Cleveland was screaming, we were in our house screaming. That was better than him playing and winning titles. He put so much into that. I know he put a lot into that because we talk all the time. That was emotional for everyone.”

Lue said earlier this season that he has the toughest coaching job in the NBA with the Cavaliers. That appears to be the case at the moment, as the Cavaliers were routed by an average of 20.5 points by the Warriors in the first two games of the 2017 NBA Finals. Lue, LeBron James and the Cavaliers have been placed in a must-win situation entering Game 3 at home on Wednesday night.

Lue’s uncle and family make a point to talk before, during and after every one of Lue’s games. While times are tough for Cleveland right now, Jay Graves said they are rooting hard and proudly for Lue.

“We are a close-knit family,” said Graves, who plans to attend Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday night. “We are on the phone texting before the games, ‘Let’s Go Cleveland!’ My sisters, his mom, which is my sister, everyone, we go at it. We’re speed-texting back and forth because we are so proud of this little guy who we know who grew up to be who he is now.

“We’re not taking it well right now, but this is the same boat we were in last year. We will be OK. Just a tweak here and there. Golden State is tough.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.