Stuntin’ like his daddy: How Devin Booker’s father paved his path to the NBA
The preservation of a basketball legacy strengthened Melvin Booker’s relationship with his son
After his first day of high school in Mississippi, Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker had his dad quite worried that he was going to pack his bags to go back to Michigan.
It took a lot of persuading for former NBA player Melvin Booker to get his son to move to Mississippi away from his mom to best aid his hoop dream. It wasn’t an easy move for a teenager who only knew suburban life to switch to an “urban environment” at a high school where his dad was a star. While going back to Michigan did get strong consideration, Devin Booker’s perseverance not only led to an NBA career but also a close bond with father.
“He’s from a suburban, predominantly white town,” Melvin Booker told The Undefeated. “The city I grew up in and the high school was predominantly black. I remember dropping him off at school that day and staying about an hour to make sure he had his classes scheduled correct. So I came to pick him up after school and the first thing he said was, ‘I don’t know about this, dad.’
“This was a social setting he needed to be around to know how blessed he had it because he was around a lot of kids with the typical urban story with no father in their lives … Those were the things he needed to see and didn’t see before.”
Devin Armani Booker was born on Oct. 30, 1996, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Melvin Booker, his African-American father, played for the Continental Basketball Association Grand Rapids Mackers during the 1995-96 season. Devin’s mother is Victoria Gutiérrez, a Mexican-American who has two other children. The couple never married and cooperatively co-parented their son who was predominantly with his mother due to his dad’s professional basketball career.
Devin grew up in Grandville, Michigan, a predominantly white town of about 15,000 people that is a suburb of Grand Rapids. He spent the summers with his father in the latter’s hometown of Moss Point, Mississippi, a predominantly black town with around 13,000 people that also had its share of crime and poverty issues.
Melvin Booker gave strong credit to Gutierrez for doing “a great job of keeping me connected” while he was playing professional basketball and allowing him to get off-season time with his only child.
“She made it happen. I owe her all the credit for allowing that to happen,” Melvin Booker said. “Ever since he was 8 months old he was coming with me in the summertime. It was special. I was trying to make up for the times I missed when I was gone.”
With Devin Booker falling in love with basketball as a child, he had an easy role model to follow in his father.
Melvin Booker averaged 28 points as a senior at Moss Point High and signed with the University of Missouri. The 6-foot-1 point guard was a consensus 1994 Associated Press second-team All-America selection at Mizzou. The 1994 Big Eight Conference Player of the Year averaged 18.1 points, 4.5 assists and two 3-pointers per game during his senior season.
“I meet a lot of people around the basketball business that talk about him like, ‘People may not know who your father is, but he could hoop,’ ” Devin Booker said. “Me taking my visits from Missouri from eighth grade on, just the love that he got there is something that I’ve never seen before. Everywhere we went, everyone knew him. Everyone loved him.”
Unfortunately, the NBA teams didn’t love Melvin Booker during the 1994 NBA draft. The undersized point guard was stunned as he went undrafted. His scoring talent was probably more suited for today’s game as his height — at his position — was held against him.
“My draft night was one of the worst nights ever,” Melvin Booker said. “I was with my family back home. I felt like and thought I would be drafted. It’s unheard of for a player of the year in his conference and a second-team All-American to go undrafted for reasons I don’t even know today.
“I don’t look back on that. But draft night was one of the worst nights of my life.”
Said Devin Booker: “I could tell he is still kind of hurt by it.”
Melvin Booker played in the American minor leagues for the Hartford Hellcats and Pittsburgh Piranhas and had two stints with Grand Rapids. He did eventually make it to the NBA, first playing 11 games for the Houston Rockets during the 1995-96 season. After being cut by the Atlanta Hawks in training camp, Booker played five games with the Denver Nuggets and 16 games with the Golden State Warriors during the 1996-97 season.
Melvin Booker averaged 5.2 points in 17 minutes in just 24 NBA games and believed that he didn’t get a true shot. Even so, he did have some lasting memories.
“I got to see the guys like Michael Jordan play up close,” Melvin Booker said. “I was with the Rockets for the minute. I shared a locker room with [Hakeem] Olajuwon, [Clyde] Drexler and Sam Cassell.”
From 1997-2008, Melvin Booker made a living playing most notably in Italy with stints in Turkey and Russia. He called his opportunity “a blessing” because he was able to see the world. But it was also quite challenging to build a relationship with his son from afar despite a couple of visits overseas.
Telephone conversations between father and son weren’t the norm during the elder’s playing days since international calls were very expensive. Devin Booker said most of the communication when his dad was overseas was through e-mail, which was frustratingly sporadic due to the time difference.
“It was tough,” Devin Booker said. “The only real time with communication I had with him were the two to three months out of the year when I would go down to Mississippi [in the summer]. It was hard for me to understand then why we couldn’t communicate so much.
“But now that I’m a professional and I’ve been around this lifestyle, I understand how hard it is. This is a good life here in the NBA. I can only imagine how it is across the water. Playing in Russia with the time difference it would be 3 in the morning there and the middle of the day for us. But we did the best that we could.”
Melvin Booker says he turned down an additional contract year with Italy’s Armani Jeans Milano and retired in 2008, primarily with his son in mind. He became an assistant basketball coach at his alma mater, Moss Point High School, after retiring from playing professionally. He wanted his son to join him to not only grow as a basketball player, but as a young man in Mississippi and learn a better work ethic. He believed that his relationship with his son would grow, too, if he finally had him by his side.
With his father’s influence, Devin naturally fell in love with the game of basketball as a child. Melvin Booker also believed that his son would be much taller than him. He taught his son to shoot with the correct form. Devin quickly became a very good shooter and continued to grow to 6-foot-6.
“He always shot with the perfect form,” Melvin Booker said. “Seeing it, I would never let him shoot another way but the correct way regardless to whether he was shooting on a big basket or a small basket, big ball, small ball, whatever. He was always shooting with correct form.”
But Devin didn’t want to leave his mom and his friends. He played for the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams during his freshman year at Grandville High School in Michigan instead of joining his dad. Melvin Booker continued to try to sell Devin and his mother on the idea that if his son was serious about becoming a basketball star, he should move with him to Mississippi and that he could keep in touch back home via text and FaceTime.
“I had to convince them that he had to move to Mississippi if he wanted to move to that next level,” Melvin Booker said. “Sometimes I would go up to [Michigan] to watch him. Sometimes I would call and ask him, ‘What did you do after practice? Did you get extra shots up? Did you get to the weight room?’
“He didn’t understand. He would say, ‘So you want me to practice for two hours and then you want to do more stuff?’ I said, ‘That’s what you need to be great.’ I kind of knew he didn’t have an idea, so that’s when he came to me.”
Gutierrez and her son said yes before his sophomore season. Devin Booker said he owes his mom “the world” for allowing him to depart to Mississippi and primarily raising him beforehand.
“That’s part of the reason I grind so much,” Devin Booker said. “For a mother to just let her son move with a father I didn’t spend much time with … She raised me most of my life. It takes a powerful woman to do that. We all had an understanding that it would be the best decision for me reaching my dreams. For her to allow it to happen is unbelievable.”
Moss Point wasn’t suburban Grand Rapids where Devin grew up. This high school in the South had serious urban problems. Melvin Booker, however, believed that Moss Point High would benefit from his son’s presence on and off the court.
There was a family legacy at Moss Point as Devin’s father and grandfather also attended the high school. Melvin Booker also believed that his son would grow as a person from being at a school where most students didn’t have his blessings. Melvin Booker also thought the fast-paced, trash-talking and tough style of basketball would make his son better, too.
“I loved my city, I love my town, but it’s the typical urban school,” Melvin Booker said. “You have the same issues and same problems you have at most urban schools. That was the only reason I put Devin there. I also wanted him to be more of a role model to the kids to show that they could make it out of there. You could walk the same hallways, be a good kid and fulfill your dreams.
“It instilled more trust in him. You know the stories about the light-skinned, biracial kid, are they tough enough?
Melvin Booker worried that his son might want to go back to Michigan after a bad first day of high school in Mississippi. Devin certainly considered it, but didn’t give up and it eventually worked out very well.
“I didn’t like it all,” Devin Booker said. “I didn’t tell him at all, but I called my mom that night telling her that I might be back soon. Of course, her being my mother, she said, ‘Just let me know when [you’re] coming back. I’m ready for you.’ But I stayed because of the mindset I had my whole life was just never giving up. I gave it some time.
“The respect I received from my family and everyone in the city made me want to stay. And it turned around. It ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I fell in love with the city. I’d do anything for them. I appreciate my dad actually telling me to make the move. It was better for my life.”
Devin and his father were around each other daily for the first time. The love was always there. But Melvin Booker said the relationship and bond grew “so much closer” during his son’s three years at Moss Point.
They mostly talked about and bonded through basketball. They worked out on the court together. They played video games together. Watched sports together. Devin played basketball with his dad and his friends. Dad was also an assistant coach on his son’s high school and AAU team.
“When I dropped my son off at school, it was the first time, and he was 15 years old,” Melvin Booker said. “Most people have been doing that all their kid’s life. But that was the sacrifice I had to make to provide for him and my family as well.”
Devin Booker says his father is now “one of his best friends.”
“As a father, he’d do anything I wanted to do. He’d play video games with me. Everything we did was competitive,” Devin Booker said.
The shooting ability was already there. Devin Booker, however, said much of his improvement as a basketball player at Moss Point came from the knowledge of the game his dad shared daily. Melvin Booker told his son that he needed to have a high basketball IQ since he didn’t own elite athleticism and running ability. He also taught his son some “tricks of the trade” he developed on the pro level.
Devin averaged 30.9 points per game as a senior despite being double- and triple-teamed during the 2013-14 season at Moss Point. He finished his three-year career as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,518 points. The 2014 McDonald’s All-American selection averaged 30.9 points per game in his senior season.
“I was fortunate enough to have a dad that was basically a blueprint for me,” Devin said.
Before his senior season, Devin narrowed his final college choices to his dad’s alma mater, Missouri, as well as Michigan, Michigan State, and Kentucky. Devin visited Missouri twice, but his dad says he didn’t pressure him to go there. With mom and dad by his side, Devin chose Kentucky in the blue chip recruiting class that also included current NBA players Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis.
“It was all his decision,” Melvin Booker said. “Going through it and playing at that level, I just told him all the pros and cons of all the schools that were recruiting him … It was a decision that he was going to have to make and live with. I wasn’t going to make the decision for him.”
Devin averaged 10 points, shot 41 percent from 3-point range for loaded Kentucky and was named the 2015 Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year. After his freshman year, he joined six Kentucky teammates by entering the 2015 NBA draft. With his mom and dad sitting next to him in the 2015 NBA draft green room, Devin was selected with the 13th overall pick by the Suns last year.
Melvin Booker was the epitome of cool when his son was selected, but inside the emotions were high.
“It brought tears to my eyes. It’s hard to explain. It’s a feeling like no other. It’s a night I will never forget,” he said.
Said Devin: “He said, ‘God had a plan,’ and it was for me to make it to the NBA. He is not living through me. But he said that me being drafted is better than him being drafted.”
Devin Booker hasn’t disappointed. He made the 2016 NBA all-rookie first team, quickly earned a reputation as one of the NBA’s top shooters and is the Suns’ leading scorer. His dad couldn’t be prouder.
“It means a lot to me. I am a very proud father and I know my son is living his dream. I remember him as a little kid and all he talked about is that he wanted to be a professional basketball player,” Melvin Booker said. “To see it turn out the way it turned, the process is quicker than he expected and now to see him having the success he’s having on this level is amazing. Me knowing Devin, he’s going to continue to work hard and continue to try to get better.”