“You are not born a winner or a looser. You are born a chooser.”
Former Los Angeles Lakers’ swingman Adrian Branch drilled home that message, talking with the Highland High School and Highland Middle School students last Thursday. He later shared a similar message speaking with the St. Paul Catholic School students as part of Red Ribbon Week festivities.
A standout basketball player at the University of Maryland, Branch challenged the students to reflect on their attitudes.
Branch said the large ego he formed while being recruited to colleges as a high school student took over his life.
“My cockiness even got me cut from my high school basketball team,” he said.
Branch was a standout at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md. During his senior year, he played in the McDonald’s All Star game with Michael Jordan.
Branch went on to lead Maryland to the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship in 1984.
But his senior season at Maryland was temporarily cut short, after he and his teammate, Steve Rivers, were arrested and convicted on charges of possessing $10 worth of marijuana.
“I should have never been there,” he told the students.
Branch and Rivers pleaded not guilty. They were later found guilty of a misdemeanor charge, fined $200 and sentenced to 30 hours of community service. They were reinstated after the trial, although Rivers, decided to quit the Terrapins. Branch returned and, in interviews after his first game back in the starting line up, apologized for his actions.
On Thursday, Branch told the Highland students he was only helping Rivers, whom he only identified as being a teammate and roommate, when he asked for a ride.
“He asked me to stop, about two miles from campus, where he wanted to make “an exchange and shake someone’s hands,” Branch said.
Their arrest came several hours after Maryland returned from Notre Dame, where the Terrapins lost, 52-47.
Branch’s trial was originally scheduled about seven weeks after the NCAA championship game, but the date was reset after a plea agreement was reached with defense attorneys, prosecutors and the judge.
Branch did not talk to reporters after the trial.
“Fortunately, I’ve been raised around a good family that has pushed me to be the best,” Branch told the students.
Branch, who did not charge the Highland district for his presentation, believes his arrest has made him a stronger person today.
Death of a teammate
While at Maryland, Branch also played with the late Len Bias for three years. Less than 48 hours after being drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics, Bias died from a cocaine intoxication on June 19, 1986.
“Lenny got himself into something that he just couldn’t get himself out of,” Branch said. “I had a second chance, but for whatever reason, Lenny didn’t.”
Maryland basketball coach Charles Grice “Lefty” Driesell ended up resigning under pressure from the Maryland administration following Bias’ death.
Branch said he still speaks with his former collegiate coach, occasionally.
“Every time he talks, even if it’s on the telephone, I throw out my cigarettes and put my beer down. And I don’t drink or smoke,” Branch said.
Making the pros
After his senior season, Branch was drafted into the NBA in the second round by the Chicago Bulls in 1985. But he was cut in training camp.
“I failed,” he told the students. “It wasn’t even close.”
But Branch never gave up on his dream of becoming a pro basketball player.
He signed with Los Angeles Lakers the following year. He played a reserve role, helping the Lakers win the NBA Championship in 1987. But while playing with the Lakers, Branch said he liked “to hop” between the front and back of the team’s Greyhound bus.
On the front of the bus, he would sit near A.C. Green, who liked to drink Coca Cola. But on the back of the bus, there was beer, which Branch said he also liked to consume with some of his other teammates.
On Thursday, Branch warned the students about the dangers of alcohol.
“Throughout my high school, college, and my professional basketball careers, I had multiple opportunities to party and make poor choices,” he said. “Those choices changed for me when I realized that the consequences of my actions were a result of hanging out with certain people.”
Branch later played professional basketball in Australia, as well as playing in Spain, France, Monaco, Thailand, Philippines, Israel, Turkey and the Dominican Republic before he retired after the 1994-95 season.
For the past 20 years, he has been working as a motivational speaker with Sports World, where he said he has spoken to more than 2 million people through school assemblies, correctional institutions, collegiate and professional sports teams as well as at corporate events. In 2007, he started to work at ESPN as a college basketball analyst.
“So, I am now enjoying the best of both worlds,” said Branch, who will turn 52 on Nov. 17.