Detroit — What a moment it was.
Shortly after Jaden Ivey, selected fifth in Thursday night’s NBA Draft, was introduced as a Detroit Piston for the first time Friday in Rouge Park, vice chairman Arn Tellem had a trick up his sleeve.
The “fairy tale,” as Pistons coach Dwane Casey called it, became even more surreal.
In addition to Ivey’s new Pistons jersey — he’ll wear No. 23, by the way — Tellem had a few more jerseys to give out in honor of the Detroit sports ties that bind Ivey to his new home: A Detroit Shock jersey for his mother, Niele Ivey; a Detroit Country Day School basketball jersey for his father, Javin Hunter; and a Detroit Lions jersey in honor of Ivey’s late grandfather, James Hunter.
For the second time in as many days, the gesture instantly made Ivey burst into tears.
“You could see my emotions a little bit,” Ivey said. “Just my family, what they’ve been through their whole lives and what they’ve worked for, they helped me get to this stage, just to see all the jerseys it just made me emotional.”
Here’s the thing: Those jerseys, Tellem told Niele, were made over three weeks ago — “just in case,” he said.
As parents, at the forefront of Javin and Niele’s desires for Ivey is to know that he’s in the right place. Sure, he’s in a place that he’s familiar with, that he came to love over his time as a kid. But is he in the right place with the right people? The Pistons have done everything they can to make sure that answer is a yes.
“Absolutely. I feel it. I feel the energy of the city, I feel the energy of the organization,” said Niele Ivey, 44, the Notre Dame women’s basketball coach who played for the Shock in 2005. “It feels like home. It feels like what we’re used to — the Notre Dame family, the Purdue family — and so I do feel like God has really placed us, because I’ve heard there were so many scenarios, there were so many things on the table.
“The fact that he’s here, I think there’s a reason for that.”
Javin Hunter, 42, was raised in Detroit and graduated from Detroit Country Day a three-time state champion in basketball. He went on to Notre Dame as a football player and had a short career in the NFL, which was cut short by an Achilles injury.
He lives in Hanover, Maryland, now, but as Ivey was growing up, he raised his son as a part-time Detroiter. He took him to visit his grandparents often, sent him to Greg Kelser’s basketball camp at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. He took him to Joe Dumars Fieldhouse.
Soon, Hunter said, his son will learn what makes Detroit truly special.
“How loyal they are and how intense they are … they’re going to take care of their own,” Hunter said. “I feel like they know that Jaden has the ties to the city and has lived in the city, he’s been here, so I feel like they’re going to take care of him.”
The only shame, Hunter said, is that Ivey’s grandfather, James, who earned the nickname “Hound Dog” for his ability as a defensive back with the Lions (1976-1982), wasn’t here to see it. James died in 2010 of a heart attack at age 56.
“He meant everything to me, that’s why I kind of got teary-eyed, because he got me. He sacrificed a lot for me, too,” Ivey said. “He’s why I get so emotional. To be here, to be a Piston, to be in the city of Detroit, it’s an honor to be here.”
If Ivey’s grandfather were still around, “he’d be doing backflips,” Hunter said.
“He loved the city of Detroit, obviously, he stayed here and worked for Anheuser-Busch when he was done playing, and my mother still lives here in Orchard Lake so you know, he would be ecstatic. He would be at every game. He’d want courtside seats for the games to see his grandson play. He spent a lot of time with Jaden, he loved Jaden to death, and I feel like he made something happen.”
The Pistons have made quite an impression on Ivey, but after hearing Casey and general manager Troy Weaver talk more about it on Friday, it’s that feeling goes both ways.
“I’m gonna say this,” Casey said, “the history and story of Jaden is unbelievable. It’s like a fairy tale. Even from me, and I’ve been in (the league) a long time. To understand his grandfather played here, his dad went to high school here, his mom played in the WNBA here, successful college coach right now, it’s beyond belief. And like (general manager) Troy (Weaver) said, the good Lord wanted him here.
“It’s something that — I’ve been in coaching a long time, and these situations don’t happen always, and so it’s a blessing and we’re lucky and happy and excited that Jaden’s here.”
A lot of athletes go through this process stone-faced, with somewhat of a false bravado, trying to display stoicism as their entire life changes in the blink of an eye before they can even legally have a sip of alcohol.
The emotions Ivey has displayed over the last day feel like a symptom of maturity — someone who understands the gravity of what’s taking place, the unlikeliness of it all, the extra dose of serendipity that’s wrapped around a moment serendipitous in nature.
“I think people take for granted this moment, this opportunity that you have in front of you, and you know, it’s OK to let your emotions out,” Ivey said.
Jaden Ivey is home. And he just can’t believe it.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.