Written by Justin Prince.
Conversations between people usually have a theme, a central focus that the rest of the discussion takes place around. A conversation can be fluid, flowing it’s way around the main theme, but as a river’s water will always find its way back to the ocean, a conversation always seems to find its way back to the heart of the original dialogue.
When I spoke with Tamar Slay, the Beckley, West Virginia, native and Marshall Athletics Hall of Famer, I anticipated that the core of our conversation would be basketball. After all, it was on the hardwood at Woodrow Wilson High School where Slay first made a name for himself, leading the Flying Eagles to back-to-back state titles in 1997 and 1998.
Following the second title in 1998, Slay would also be awarded the Bill Evans Award, an honor bestowed on the best prep player in the state of West Virginia by the state’s Sports Writers Association. The successful senior season had garnered Slay plenty of attention from major college basketball programs, leaving him with a tough decision to make.
“I was recruited by a lot of different schools,” Slay said. “Georgetown was one, Rutgers was one. All these schools were sending me letters, reaching out to my mom offering me full rides.”
But Slay wouldn’t end up playing in a power conference like the Big East; instead Slay would end up at Marshall University about two hours from his childhood home up Interstate 64 in Huntington.
“There was just something about my visit at Marshall,” Slay recalled. “J.R. VanHoose was there, they introduced me to him, they had me watch a game with Randy Moss and I had a good buddy of mine who had just transferred from Tennessee, Cornelius Jackson that was going to be playing that next season. So the combination of all of those things just made me feel at home.”
There it was, the theme of our conversation wouldn’t be basketball, it would be home. It would be West Virginia, and staying in state was as much a part of ending up at Marshall as the welcoming party of VanHoose, Moss and Jackson.
“Growing up in West Virginia no one respects us as players,” Slay said. “It’s one of the reasons I chose to go to school in West Virginia. I wanted to put Marshall basketball on the map, I wanted to put the state on the map and I always got fired up going against players from New York or L.A. who thought just because we were from the country we couldn’t ball.”
Marshall Career (1998-2002)
During his first season at Marshall, the former high school star would appear in 27 games averaging about 15 minutes of court time in each one. For a true freshman, his statistical contributions were solid as he averaged six points and three rebounds per game, but they didn’t reflect the true potential Slay had simmering below the surface of his 6-8 frame.
“I didn’t go home that summer,” Slay remembered. “I stayed on campus so I could stay in the weight room and stay in the gym. I was 173 pounds that freshman year, but I always had a tremendous work ethic. So I just stuck with the process and did what I was told to do and then did 10 times that on top of it to give that little bit extra to keep getting better.”
The summertime effort paid off that fall as Slay exploded as a sophomore guiding Marshall to a 21-9 record and a Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinal appearance, while averaging nearly 20 points per game.
The next season Slay would make another leap forward as a player. His points per game would dip slightly to 17.3 but his rebounds, steals and assists all went up as the Thundering Herd had another successful season finishing second in the MAC’s east division behind Kent State.
“My goal was never averaging 20 a game,” Slay said. “My goal was just to do what I had always done and that was work hard, keep getting better and when you do that the other stuff falls in place. All I wanted to do and all my teammates wanted to do was win basketball games.”
The Herd would again however, suffer a set back the next year in the conference tournament losing to Ball State by three in the quarterfinals. As a senior, Slay’s individual numbers would once again be among the best in the conference as he averaged 19 points, 5.4 rebounds, three assists and nearly two steals per game.
For his career, Slay scored 1,792 points (6th all time in school history), dished out 250 assists (21st) and made 142 (7th) career steals. He also sank 251 shots from behind the arc, which was the school record for career 3-pointers until Austin Loop broke it just last year.
But, the team success wasn’t there. Marshall would have the worst season of Slay’s career finishing just 15-15 and once again getting knocked out of the MAC tournament in the quarterfinals extending the Herd’s NCAA tournament drought.
“That was the goal,” Slay said bluntly. “Win a championship, make the NCAA tourney and make a run there. We thought we were good enough, we knew we were good enough. It just didn’t happen and I still wake up sometimes thinking about it. It’s a huge void in life that I didn’t get to experience.”
Slay’s senior season wasn’t all disappointment as what he considers his favorite moment from his time at Marshall occurred on Wednesday, January 23, 2002.
Facing in-state rival WVU and the scored tied at 79 a piece, Slay had the ball in his hands and a chance to beat the Mountaineers for the first time since 1996. Slay put up a shot that found the bottom of the net and the Herd won 81-79.
“Beating West Virginia my senior year is easily my top moment,” Slay said. “We had played them the first three years. Played them tough too, my sophomore year I played with a bad back but think I made like nine threes and they beat us by one. Same thing the next two years with them just barely beating us, so to have the opportunity to hit the game winner against them was a great feeling.”
Draft Night & The NBA (2002-2004)
While Slay didn’t get the experience of stepping on the court in an NCAA tournament game, he did get an opportunity that even fewer basketball players get to experience when he was selected by the New Jersey Nets in the 2002 NBA Draft.
After four years of college basketball, Slay had positioned himself as one of the best individual talents in the country, but also wasn’t as highly valued as he had once been. Projected as a top 20 draft pick at one point before deciding to come back to Marshall to finish his career, his stock had fallen a little and the Beckley native knew he was no longer considered a first round pick.
“I could have came out after my sophomore year,” Slay recollected. “I was projected as a top 20 pick but Coach Greg White sold me on Marshall once again. He told me I could come back and win a championship. It didn’t work out quite that way, but I don’t regret coming back. Coach told me Marshall was the greatest school in the country and it is.”
On the night of the draft, Slay gathered with about 20 friends and family members at his mother’s house in Beckley. Slay had worked out for multiple NBA teams and his agent had been in talks with several coaches and executives giving the combo guard a pretty good idea of where he would be selected in the draft.
“I knew I wasn’t going to first round,” Slay said. “I knew the first real opportunity I had to get drafted was at 35 to Cleveland.”
So for most of the first round, Slay and his friends tossed around a football in the front yard, relaxed by the knowledge that he would be one of the first names off the board in round two. But, while Slay was relaxed, his mother and some of his buddies were more than compensating for his calmness.,
“Oh they were locked in and huddled around the T.V.,” Slay laughed. “Definitely more nervous than I was. I was trying to keep everyone else calm to be honest because I was confident that I was about to be picked.”
But while the Cavaliers went with Duke power forward Carlos Boozer, Slay remained calm knowing there were other teams that had a high probability to draft him left to pick. The next potential landing spot was a few selections later with the Houston Rockets at pick 38. But, Slay was again passed over, this time for Tito Maddox, a freshman sensation from Fresno State.
More picks came and went but Slay was still resolute that he would be drafted if nothing else by the Miami Heat with pick number 53.
“The Miami Heat said they would take me without a doubt for sure,” Slay said. “I had worked out for them and felt pretty good that I was going to get picked.”
Then the Heat announced that it had indeed selected a forward/guard combo player, but it wasn’t Tamar Slay. It was another mid-major product, Rasual Butler, from La Salle University.
“When the Heat didn’t draft me I was like ‘oh my God’,” Slay recalled. “My mom was crying and everyone was looking at me like ‘man this is crazy’ just kind of in shock. I was trying to tell everyone it’s okay. Telling them that I’d go overseas and I’ll do whatever I got to do to make it. Just trying to get everyone calmed back down and keep positive.”
In the commotion Slay had turned his back on the television, but Marshall teammate and current Thundering Herd assistant coach Cornelius Jackson was still following the draft’s action.
“He tapped me on the shoulder and was like ‘Yo, Slay. You got drafted’,” Slay said remembering the moment Jackson turned his attention back to the television. “I turned around when he said that and sure enough there is my little picture from Marshall on the T.V. and Charles Barkley and those guys talking about me.”
The house erupted with joy and in a matter of moments Slay had went on a roller-coaster of emotions that had him headed to New Jersey to join a Nets organization who just a few weeks earlier had lost in the NBA finals to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I honestly went through so many emotions, even now telling you the story gives me goosebumps.” Slay confessed. “I didn’t really grow up dreaming of the NBA, I thought it was something unattainable. It wasn’t until that sophomore year at Marshall that I was like ‘Okay. I can make it there’.”
Slay would make his Nets debut on October 30, 2002 against the Atlanta Hawks. Playing a total of nine minutes, the 22 year old rookie would score two points, grab two rebounds and record a blocked shot.
Over the course of his rookie year, Slay would appear in 36 regular season games and six playoff matchups, as New Jersey would once again make it to the NBA Finals this time losing to the San Antonio Spurs.
He scored an NBA career high 14 points against the Orlando Magic making six of his nine shot attempts in a game earlier that year. In his second season Slay’s playing time with the team diminished as he only saw action in 22 games. With his contract up after two seasons with the Nets, the Charlotte Bobcats signed Slay in July of 2004. An ankle injury limited him to only eight games and Slay soon found himself without an NBA home.
Overseas Career (2005-2014)
There’s that word again – Home.
Now out of the NBA, Slay would have to make his home more than 6,000 miles away from West Virginia in Jerusalem, Israel.
The Hapoel Jerusalem Basketball Club, which plays in the Premier Israeli League as well as competes in the EuroCup, signed Slay in 2005. In his first season in overseas play Slay had an up and down year appearing in 34 games for Hapoel and scoring almost nine points per game.
“It’s a huge adjustment,” Slay said of going overseas. “Especially when you are coming from the NBA, where you’re kind of in this bubble, you’re pampered. It’s like going back in time as far as your living arrangements and traveling to games are concerned.
“Then, on top of that, it’s a totally different style of play; the coaches coach you in a different way than they do in the NBA. You don’t speak the language, the food is different, it’s just a culture shock.”
Israel in 2005 and even today is a country embroiled in the tensions of the Middle East region. The threat of war or terrorist attack seems to always be present and for Slay he would experience life in one of the world’s most at risk places first hand.
“Because they were at risk of terrorist attacks and there is so much tension in the region when we traveled we had to find secluded hotels,” Slay said. “Just to eat we would have to walk a couple of miles to small cafes and things just to get a bite to eat because it was important for us as players to keep a low profile.”
Slay’s time in Jerusalem would last less than a full year. He was let go by Hepoel in early 2006 and would return to the states to play for the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA D-League (now known as the G-League).
Slay averaged nearly 12 points a game for the Jam but still no NBA teams came calling. So, it was back overseas again, this time to Italy.
In his lone season with the Orlandina Basketball Club of the Italian A-League during the 2007-2008 season, Slay averaged more than 16 points a game, the most he had averaged in a season since his college days. But, while his numbers were improving, Slay was still struggling to adjust to being a basketball player in a foreign country.
“I remember when I very first got to Europe,” Slay said. “I was in one of the most beautiful cities there and I called my agent after about a week was like ‘man I’m out of here, I can’t do this’ and he was on the next flight out of D.C. to come over and make sure I gave it a chance.”
Slay did stick it out and Italy would become his home away from home as he bounced around the Italian A-League until 2014. During that time Slay would have his breakout season with the Pistoria Basketball Club in the 2009-2010 season where he averaged more than 18 points per game.
That year led to Slay signing with Reyer Venice were for the first time in his career in Italy he would enjoy some stability playing with Reyer for three seasons. During those three years Slay was one of the teams leading scorers averaging more than 14 points a game before leaving the team in 2012.
“Once you can get past the cultural differences and settle in to focusing on the game things start to work out,” Slay said. “It’s a different style but I learned to look at the game in a different light. Basketball over there is a beautiful art form where everyone is touching the ball, everyone is moving without the ball. It’s just a fluid beautiful game over there.”
He would enjoy two more successful stops before playing his final season in the Italian A-League in 2014 for Leonessa BS. In that year Slay scored 12 points a contest marking his eighth straight season of averaging double figures in what is considered one of Europe’s best professional leagues.
During his time in the Italian A-League Slay played in 219 games and scored 2,643 points, but more than growing as a basketball player Slay says he grew as a person.
“Being over there you have to really love the game of basketball,” Slay said. “There is no way you can make it if you don’t. I’m glad I stuck it out, I’m glad that I got the opportunity to play in Europe because if not I’d still be that sheltered, small town bubble guy. It taught me to open up, to be open to new opportunities and new cultures and it’s why I am who I am today.”
Staying Connected to the Game & Helping West Virginia (Present)
Now calling just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina home, Slay and I talked about basketball and the current condition of our home state of West Virginia, as children chattered in the background.
Slay relived his basketball past with me while being in the middle of his basketball present as he and his middle school basketball team traveled to a game slated to tip off just a few hours before Slay’s former Herd team played across town at UNC-Charlotte.
“We lost on Tuesday so we have to bounce back tonight.” Slay said. “I think we will. I’m hoping after this to get over there to watch the second half of the Marshall game.”
Basketball is very much still a part of Tamar Slay’s life. On top of coaching middle school kids, Slay runs Tamar Slay Basketball, a basketball school of sorts where players attend camps and training sessions to work on their game from the fundamentals all the way up to the subtle nuances that only a professional veteran like Slay could teach.
Slay’s day job however is with the NBA Players Association working within it’s player development department.
“That’s how I pay the bills,” Slay said. “There are five of us that work in that department and I’ve got the southeast region which means there are about six teams I’m responsible for. We just do programming for players to help them make that transition to the league, help them with anything they may need during their careers and helping them adjust to life once their careers are over.”
One of the teams Slay is responsible for is the local Charlotte Hornets. Slay attends all of team’s games building a relationship with the game’s next generation. He credits his time growing up in West Virginia and lessons he learned here and the ones he learned playing abroad as being hugely influential in being able to give advice to younger players.
“We do the rookie transition program, we do a draft program,” Slay said. “Just different things to try and prepare these players for their basketball careers and life in general. It’s a wonderful position to be in it really is and I wouldn’t be able to do it if it wasn’t for the experiences that I’ve had in my own life and career. Basketball has been good to me.”
But, now Slay is trying to use basketball to be good to other people. His passion project is a non-profit organization called We Got Next. The main goal of We Got Next is to take underprivileged and at risk youths in the state of West Virginia and help them become successful leaders and provide them with a sense of hopefulness and belonging through the game of basketball.
“I’m really trying to get We Got Next off the ground and take it to the next level,” Slay said. “This is my baby right now. This is something that is very, very important to me. I want to be able to go back to West Virginia and take some of these kids that feel like they don’t have anything or have any role models and be able to show them the way and give them opportunities and encouragement.”
Despite all the places across the country and world Slay has traveled, it’s his home that he keeps coming back to in both conversation and in reality. When he first settled in the Charlotte area Slay says he drove back to West Virginia at least once a week. But in recent times, he’s had to take fewer trips as the drive started to wear on him.
“I was driving late at night sometimes and sometimes on very little sleep,” Slay explained. “So it was getting kind of dangerous, I had to slow down a little bit. But, I love my state to death and I want to do everything I can to help it improve. When I go back there now, it’s just not the same. It’s like the hope is gone and the mentality isn’t where it needs to be.”
It’s one of the reasons Slay has developed a good relationship with current Marshall coach Dan D’antoni and is a strong supporter of what the Mullens, W.Va. native is doing with the Thundering Herd.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to build a relationship with Dan since he took over at Marshall,” Slay revealed. “He’s a West Virginia guy through and through and he loves the state and Marshall University as much as I do. To me that’s what’s been missing and to have him know that a lot of the kids back home don’t get the respect that they deserve and for him to use his position to give those West Virginia kids opportunities to prove themselves at the Division 1 level is huge. It’s a big part of providing that hope and giving those kids something to work for.”
Slay hopes We Got Next will just be the beginning of restoring that hope to his home state and says he’s been working in the background with other West Virginians like former Marshall and NBA Star Jason Williams on getting other projects and programs going.
“I really think this is just the beginning and if I can spearhead the effort and kind of jump start it, I think others will come on board and we can get even more programs going for the state,” Slay said. “I think we as West Virginians have to all come together and be an example for the youth and show them something positive. Too often what they see is negative and we’ve got to be that beacon for them.”
After all they say home is where the heart is and it’s clear Slay’s heart remains in West Virginia.