Dec. 15, 1999
'Tis days before Christmas and Pullman is aglow with holiday cheer, and driving down Grand Avenue you can see sparse Christmas lights stretching across the street. It lacks the illumination of the Las Vegas strip or the Yuletide majesty of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, but so what?
This, after all, is Pullman. When Santa slides down the chimney Christmas Eve - long after WSU students have fled the scene post-finals - he can probably offer a reindeer to each remaining resident and still have enough left over to get back to Mrs. Claus. Besides, the holidays are supposed to remind us of the things that are truly important, things like friends and family. In comparison, all the other stuff is just plain silly.
Sports are silly, too. But don't tell Milton Riley. And don't misunderstand, because it's not as if Riley doesn't value his family. Boy, it's not that at all. It's just that every now and then, sports can be about more than winning or losing at play - they can be about winning and losing at life.
Right now Riley is fighting to get a full season of college basketball under his belt. This year he's already missed one game because of nagging injuries, and it was troublesome teeth of all things that forced him to take a medical redshirt as a freshman a year ago. He is also fighting just to learn, to succeed at a game that is still quite new to him.
Riley began his high school career at Leuzinger High in Longdale, Calif. Although his 6-foot-7, 198 pound frame of today screams basketball, back then Riley's sport of choice was football. Basketball wasn't even something to be enjoyed.
"I hated it," Riley said. "I was always that skinny guy with a little height, so just throw him in the middle and hope he gets a rebound. . . Nobody really gave me a chance."
Football didn't give Riley a much better chance. Injuries knocked him out of that sport in one year, almost out of sports entirely. He was ready to give up. Said Riley, "I just thought I'd go back to what I was doing, hanging with the homies and doing that thing."
That "thing" was mixing with the wrong crowd, the kind of crowd that sometimes never lets you leave. "As far as the street life," Riley said, "I really wasn't involved in it, but I was affiliated. And by being affiliated I had to take whatever else came along with it."
Sometimes that affiliation got him a little too close. Sometimes it robbed him of friends.
"My sophomore year in high school my best friend got killed in a dice game," Riley said. "It was hard for me to get over that. We had the same teacher, rode the same bus, until high school...I had a lot of other friends die who were not as close. Then right before graduating my senior year, my brother and his girlfriend were involved in the same kind of incident and his girlfriend died."
Years later, Riley's eyes still grew dim remembering it all. "It was madness," he said.
Thankfully, the same year one neighborhood took his best friend away, another neighborhood offered Riley a way out. Before his sophomore year in high school, Riley moved next-door to Dominique Street, an assistant basketball coach at Compton High. Street recommended that Riley attend an open gym and consider basketball.
Riley did both. He transferred to Compton his sophomore year, starting play on the jayvee team. Before the season was over, he was the youngest member of the varsity squad. By the time he was a senior, Riley was getting mail from universities courting his ability. A letter from WSU was among the first batch that arrived. Today it sits framed in his mother's house.
As high school was ending, Riley had seen enough to know that he could do something with basketball. He'd also seen enough to know that he had to get away from home. And it took just one visit to Pullman to know that it was where his basketball career and personal life could grow together.
"It's a very nice environment for me up here to get away from all that negativity that was in my life," Riley said. "Sometimes you wonder why those things happen, but God tests us to see if we'll fold under pressure. Obviously it has made me a better person because I'm here now. It took a lot of growing up to make a decision to come this far away from home."
Milton is the only Riley to see Pullman. His family can't afford to make the trip, so he hasn't seen them in a year. That's the price for being so far away, but Pullman is not without benefits.
"Up here you can practically walk down the street buck-naked, the worst that'll happen is someone will laugh at you," Riley said. "Back home you have to constantly be on the lookout wherever you go, you don't walk too slow. . . It's like a utopian society up here. It's so quiet, it's so peaceful you don't have nothing to do but focus on your school and basketball. I feel like I found myself up here."
What the Cougars have found a rising star - a player who is growing as much off the floor as he is on it. "He has had a really good impact," said teammate Mike Bush, another product of southern California. "Milton is from a real hard area and has grown up a lot. He's a fun spirit to be around."
Amidst the tranquility of winter on the Palouse, no one is likely to be heard shaking off a WSU loss by calling basketball a silly pastime. And few if any will recognize that the Cougars' greatest success won't be found on the game schedule or stat page.
But tucked away in tiny Pullman is Milton Riley, the biggest WSU victory of the season - even if the least spectacular of Christmas lights are often enough to distract one's self from the truth.
ADDITIONAL NOTES ON MILTON RILEY:
RHYME AND REASON: Milton Riley's talents aren't exclusive to the world of sports. As a matter of fact, one of Riley's other skills was discovered long before Riley discovered the hardwood: rapping. He doesn't have much time to dedicate to it now, but in the past Milton and his older brother Michael have written rap songs for the independent label Dunn Deal Records, a company started by Riley's uncle Darrell Reynolds and a friend. "It all started at our third grade talent show," Riley said. "We did a rap about the Mario Bros. (of Nintendo video game fame). It had a little street savvy to it and people really liked it." Thus, a hobby was born. After a few more talent shows and encouragement from his mother, Riley looked to advance his rap into a career. "She was the same way about rapping that she was about basketball," Riley said. "She always told me you have to find something you like to do. She told us to give it a chance, try it out for a while." Today basketball and schoolwork require most of Riley's attention, but he still makes a little time for rap. "It's a release," Riley said. "I can vent out a lot of pain and frustration, things I've seen, things I want changed, things I feel that can be better. I just write it down and see what it comes up to."
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