David Holston’s family never let his small stature stand in his way.
His grandmother balled two socks together and made a basketball rim out of a clothes hanger when he was just a toddler. He quickly graduated to plastic toy hoops and then, at age seven, to a 10-foot rim in the driveway of his parents’ Pontiac, Mich., home.
No matter how often the pint-sized boy asked him to lower it, his dad refused.
“You need to learn on regulation size,” Charles Holston said, fully aware that his son would probably never become a regulation-sized kind of basketball player. It wasn’t about pressure or punishment, they both say – just preparation for the reality that was ahead of or, rather, above him.
“I had to deal with it,” the younger Holston says, shrugging. “That’s usually how it was.”
And how it is.
Today, though the team roster at Chicago State lists the senior guard at five foot eight, he’ll tell you frankly that he’s more like “5-6 and half, or 5-7.” Short, yes – but still a powerful presence on the court, ranked among the top five scorers nationally both in total points and points per game.
Deliberately named for the biblical giant-slayer, Holston is a David among the Goliaths – unassuming and sometimes discounted because of his size, but armed with a killer shot.
“I just have to play my game,” the soft-spoken 23-year-old point guard is fond of saying, “and play harder than other people.”
Holston came to Chicago State, a commuter school on the city’s far South Side, as a walk-on. He quickly earned a full scholarship and, this season, has helped lead his team to their first winning record in more than 20 years. The independent Cougars (18-13) wind up their season Monday against Houston Baptist.
Now he’s ready for his next hurdle, persuading the scouts that he’s ready to play in the pros. And that means overcoming the stigma of his height, says Lindsey Hunter, a guard with the Chicago Bulls who’s been mentoring Holston since they met at church when Holston was in seventh grade and Hunter was playing for the Detroit Pistons.
He compares Holston to the New York Knicks’ Nate Robinson, a shorter guy who recently won the NBA slam dunk competition during the All Star weekend. Or Earl Boykins, a 5-5 point guard who played in the NBA for about a decade before recently taking a multimillion dollar contract with a pro team in Italy.
“David has the skills,” Hunter says after an afternoon practice with the Bulls, a team he recently joined to help mentor some of that team’s young talent. “He has the ability. He has the smarts. He’s quick. He’s strong – all the attributes to play on the next level.”
All he needs, Hunter says, is a chance.
For Holston, having to prove himself – again – is nothing new. He’s known that since way back, when he spent hours at that driveway hoop perfecting his shot and pretending he was playing one-on-one games against former NBA star Penny Hardaway.
Though he was winning free-throw competitions by age nine, teams he wanted to play with would say, “This kid? No, he can’t play,” says his father, Charles Holston. So he assembled their own rec league team when David was in middle school.
If anything, that just made the younger Holston try harder – something he learned from watching his parents get up before the sun rose to work 12-hour shifts at General Motors, all to give him and his two sisters a better life than they had. That included the chance to go to college.
Hunter saw the younger Holston’s quiet determination immediately.
“He never had a breaking point,” Hunter says. “David never would give up no matter how challenging a drill was. He wouldn’t stop until he got it. And I was like, ‘OK, that’s unique.’ Every kid won’t do that.”
He went on to help his team at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Mich., win a state Class B championship. Still, when he graduated, no scholarship offers came his way.
He thought about playing community college ball, but decided to follow his friend and now teammate John Cantrell to Chicago State, not exactly known as a basketball powerhouse, but worth a shot.
The first two years there were rocky, with fights in the locker-room and a coach who left the program. Holston kept his head down and tried to lead by example.
But his new coach, Benjy Taylor, wanted more from him.
“When I first got here, he wouldn’t talk. He was very introverted,” says Taylor, who worked with him to be a more vocal leader. “Now I can’t get him to shut up,” he adds, chuckling.
Carl Montgomery, a sophomore forward on the team, tells stories about Holston’s hyped-up, rants in the locker-room. “It’s surprising,” he says.
Holston’s girlfriend, Bonita Jones, has seen that intensity, too.
“He is sweet, but he’s also very driven,” Jones, a 21-year-old sprinter on the Chicago State track team. “If he was taller, he’d be Michael Jordan or something.”
If that were the case, he also might endure fewer taunts about his height.
Fans from opposing teams often call him “Gary Coleman,” a reference to the diminutive actor. They howl when he guards players who are well over a foot taller than he is (though the laughter usually stops when they’re guarding him and he manages to sink shots, anyway).
Holston casually insists that his height doesn’t bother him. His dad is 5-9. His mom is about the same height as her son. “No big deal,” he says – though his girlfriend has heard differently.
“If you sleep on your back, you’ll grow taller,” he recently told her.
“I don’t think he believes it,” she says. “He just says it.”
When he finds out she’s told on him, he looks a bit embarrassed.
He’d rather talk about the things he CAN do to help him get into the pros, bulking up in the weight room or improving his defensive skills.
He knows some question whether he’d be as good a shooter against better Division I college teams, though he had 33 points in a loss at Marquette this season, and 22 against an up-and-coming Northwestern squad.
He flashes a big smile when the subject of his stats comes up. Then he quickly brings it back to the team, as his father has taught him.
“He gets so mad at me when I say anything about stats,” he says of his dad, who’s also focused on his son getting his college degree.
“My dad says it’ll be the first time I’ll see him cry,” Holston says of his pending graduation. For his father, it represents perhaps the biggest giant his son could slay.
Holston wants the degree, too. But he’s holding on to his dream, the one he’s had since his dad put up that tall hoop in the driveway.
“I really am counting on basketball.”