If we win the NBA Championship someday, I’ll pop the champagne, but I’m not drinking it.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

A lot of people are surprised when they get to know me and find out that I’ve never had a drink in my life.

My decision not to drink started when I was about 10 or 11 years old. My older brother, Antonio, and I decided to make a pact, where we’d never drink, never smoke and never put tattoos on our body.

Those were the three decisions that we made and we’ve stuck to them.

We grew up in a rough environment, in Joliet-Lockport, which is located in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. There is a lot of gang activity there, and it was even worse during the 1990s. We called Joliet the “prison” because the Statesville Prison is there. I remember inmates would break out from time to time, and even those that served their sentences and got out would often stay in Joliet.

We saw a lot growing up – gang activity, murders, a lot of guys getting killed and a lot of people dying from drug use. I have friends that have died and even in college I’d hear every other week about a friend or someone I grew up with getting killed or dying. A lot of times we’d hear gunshots and be scared for our lives. We had a two-floor house that we lived in and after 8 at night we had to be upstairs because we were scared that a stray bullet could come through the window.

Gangs like the Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords and the Latin Kings were all around where I grew up. From them, you had other little groups breaking off to form their own little gangs. It was all within a matter of blocks, too. If you went down the street a few blocks there’d be one gang and if you kept going a few more blocks there’d be another. And sometimes you’d have to walk through it to get to school.

Seeing all that violence and death up close at a young age, we vowed to be better than that and not get caught up in that. We said that we’d be different and we talked about how we had to move our family away from that situation.

I was raised by my mother in a single-parent household. My grandmother was around a lot, too, but since I didn’t have a father, Antonio was like my father figure. Growing up, I kind of followed him and stayed around him. So I grew up fast because he was four years older than me. I was making decisions at 8, 9, 10 years old that 14 and 15-year-olds do.

My brother and I used to talk a lot when I was younger, and he always encouraged me to read a lot of books, great books like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” I read that when I was 10 years old. In 8th or 9th grade I sat there with him as he read the Bible cover-to-cover. He read the holy Koran, too. As a result, I was able to learn all of that through him and it helped me mature at a young age.

To this day, he and I are still super-close. Growing up, we couldn’t be detached. We’d talk all the time and we’d always go back-and-forth and ask each other questions before we made a decision. It was like we were a couple. We’d talk into 1 or 2 in the morning.

Antonio went off to the army when I was a freshman in high school and that kind of made me the man of the house, because I also had a younger brother and sister. Along with my mother, I pretty much raised them. I was always working and hustling as a kid to try to make some money. At 8 years old I’d go around the neighborhood cutting grass and doing other little jobs to help provide for my family.

My little brother and sister looked up to me and that played into my decision to avoid drinking, too. That’s why the temptation was never there, because I knew I had them at home. They were like my son and my daughter.

I had alcoholism in my family, as well. My grandmother was a bartender and she went through it. My mother didn’t really drink – maybe some wine here and there – but I saw it a lot with my mother’s boyfriends. My younger sister and younger brother’s dad was pretty much an alcoholic. Through that, I saw a lot of abuse and how alcohol can come into play.

I’ve seen alcoholism lead to domestic violence way too many times in my life. Seeing domestic violence with my mother being involved really left an imprint on me. It’s always going to be in your head and it’s something Antonio and I talk about to this day. Growing up and seeing my younger brother and sister’s dad doing that to my mother left a stain in my head… and I’ll never forget that.

When my father was with my mother he was an alcoholic. I guess it was pretty bad, but once I was born, he quit drinking and became a Jehovah’s Witness. He doesn’t drink to this day. He changed his life completely around once I was born. That was one of the things that I didn’t know growing up, but that my mother told me later on.

He was always there financially for me, but I never had a relationship with him because I didn’t understand the situation. He and my mother separated, but they are still friends, and there aren’t any bad ties there. But I didn’t understand that growing up, so I didn’t accept him as a father. But once I got to college I gave him a chance and we’ve established a great relationship in recent years.

It was never a thing where my mother told me, “You’re not going to drink like you’re father did before you were born.” Every decision I made came from me and my view of my situation. My mother did a great job of raising us and keeping us out of trouble. When you’re a young boy, you’re going to get into some trouble, but you have to learn from your mistakes.

But I always watched others and I tried to learn from others’ mistakes as opposed to just mine. Everyone always says you learn from others’ mistakes, but I tried to learn the other way. I would see what happened when other people went down the wrong road and I’d try to avoid that.

I’m very strong-willed, so I never had the temptation to drink. I went to Wisconsin, which was the No. 1-ranked party school in the country when I was a sophomore or a junior. Despite that, I never once took a drink and I’m proud of that. That is just another accomplishment in my life that I hold high.

My freshman year we won the Big 10 title and all of the coaches and players were out. We had a big party. Everybody was out and I was the only one not drinking. All of my teammates were like, “You gotta take a drink.” By the end of the night they were like, “We know you’re not gonna drink,” and they bought me shots of Sprite. So I’d take a shot of Sprite when everyone else took their shots with alcohol in them. I think after a while it just becomes accepted.

Most of the time, guys respect my decision to the fullest. They see how serious I am and they know after being around me what type of person I am. I remember when I went to college that guys would make bets that by my sophomore or junior year of college I’d be drinking. But by the time that came around, they would say, “I better never catch you with a drink.” It was like they’d started pushing for me.

It was kind of like that in high school, too, even though I hung around a tough crowd. My friends knew that I was focused and that I wanted to do something besides hang around my neighborhood. They knew that I had a family that I was looking after and trying to take care of. I was always talking about going to college, getting a degree and possibly making it to the NBA. From the time that I was young that was something I set my sights towards. It was like I had tunnel vision. I couldn’t see anything else but the goals that I had set, and it kind of kept me going. I think that once everyone saw that, they kept pushing for it. Even some of the guys involved in gang activity never wanted to see me out there. They used to say, “This kid, we’re going to keep on the straight and narrow.”

I wouldn’t marry someone who drank either. I’ve had girlfriends who have, and I don’t try to push them away from it when I’m first dating them, but I tell them, “If we’re going to get serious, if I could look at you as someone I could marry, I would want you to be an extension of myself.” When you get married, then you’re one. And if I’m a non-drinker and a non-smoker, I can’t see my wife doing it… Those are pretty much the only things I’m against when I look to finding my better half.

I make jokes and I tell my mother that on my wedding day we’re going to have Kool-Aid at my wedding. We’re going to have a non-alcoholic wedding. I told her I’m going to do something different. I’m going to push the limits because I’m that type of person.

If we win the NBA Championship someday, I’ll pop the champagne, but I’m not drinking it. I’ll get that sparkling apple juice ordered for me. It’s all about the message that I’m trying to send. It’s not a religious decision. It’s a social choice and how I want to be remembered as a person.

When you see what I’ve seen growing up, it changes your perspective on things. I mentioned gambling earlier. As a kid, I’d watch people play dice games in the neighborhood and I’ve seen people get killed in front of me. When you see a situation like that happen, it’s shocking.

I realize gambling could definitely be controlled in how you do it, but I just stay away from it because that’s something I told myself I wouldn’t do. Gambling can become competitive and I’m a competitor, so it may start off little, but then it can become addictive pretty quickly. I don’t even do friendly bets with guys in the locker room on football or anything like that.

It’s also common for guys in the NBA to have tattoos, but I’ve always wanted to be different and stand out in a crowd, so that’s just one more reason I don’t drink or have any tats. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with tattoos, but it says a lot about someone’s character to strive to be different. It says a lot about a person if they don’t want to be like everybody else.

I hope that I don’t sound judgmental. I never criticize anyone about the decisions that they make. I never look at a person differently. I look at it as is it’s just them. One of the messages I want to get out is that although I don’t do some things, that doesn’t mean I find it wrong for other people. I think drinking socially is fine and everybody knows the limits that they have. It’s up to them to be able to handle it and set those limits for themselves.

In fact, I’ve bought people drinks in college. I’ve even had liquor in my house. When guests come over I like to accommodate them, as I play host. I’ve had times where I’ve had get-togethers and guys come over, but I just don’t drink. Drinking is common where I’m from and to me, it’s a mind over matter thing. I want to send out the message to kids that they can overcome their environment. If I can overcome the environment that I was in, they can do the same, because it’s all in your mind.

So that’s why I decided to share my story you. I don’t drink because it’s become a part of me. It shapes who I am right now and it’s one of my principles. It’s not the norm and I stand out because of that. The situation that I come from, everyone back home knows that gang activity, drug activity and alcohol dominate the environment. And I want to be, especially for younger kids, the person they can point to and say, “Well, if he can do it, then we can do it.”

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