Some of the most interesting stories on a basketball team can be found at the end of the bench, where the walk-on players and managers tend to congregate. Willie Herenton is one of those stories.
The University of Miami sophomore guard, a walk-on from the Chicago area, is the son of Harvard graduates and the grandson and namesake of five-time Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, the first elected black mayor in the city’s history, a former school superintendent and five-time Golden Gloves boxing champion.
Despite his grandfather’s passion for public schools, Willie and his two brothers were home-schooled through middle school by their mother, Andrea, who earned a Master’s degree in education from Harvard and was a GM Scholar in electrical engineering at Tennessee State. Willie’s father, Rodney, earned a Master’s in business from Harvard and is a founding partner of a successful financial management company.
“I’m going to be perfectly honest, when Andrea informed me that she was going to home-school the boys, I was appalled, shocked, and in distress,” said the elder Willie Herenton. “Home-schooling is antithetical to everything I believe in. I believe kids get a better education when they’re in a diverse social environment, not isolated, and so, I was opposed.
“But I have to say Andrea did a wonderful job of providing education for my grandboys. She was so devoted. They had a regimented schedule, and it’s been an overwhelming success how educationally and socially equipped my grandsons are.”
Willie’s older brother, Rodney Jr., is a junior walk-on guard at Stanford, where he is majoring in International Relations. His younger brother, Samuel, is a three-sport athlete and senior in high school.
“I have three black boys, raising them in America, and I looked at that as a ministry,” Andrea Herenton said. “When I was in grad school, I was developing educational software, and the buzzword of home school came up. At first, I thought, `Who would ever teach kids at home?’ It was the most absurd thing I ever heard. But the more I saw home-schooled kids and how they were raised, with manners and respect and the virtues I learned in my home, the more it appealed to me.
“I really wanted that type of upbringing for my children. In Memphis [where they lived at the time], all I saw was all black or all white. It’s the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. This is where Dr. King was slain. I didn’t want them in either culture. I decided to handle their education on my own.”
The boys were required to wake up early, make their beds and fold their clothes military style. They were also expected to wake up in a good mood. Grumpiness was not tolerated.
“If the boys woke up whiny, I’d send them back to bed,” Andrea Herenton said. “You wake up joyous, with a happy heart, or you go back to bed. You can’t join us today if you’re not happy. The boys would advocate for each other. Willie would say, `Mom, Sammy has a happy heart, can he join us now?’’’
Each day began with Bible study, and then they would move on to math, science, history, English and poetry. The boys learned to recite poetry, and when it was their mother’s birthday or Mother’s Day, the only gift she asked for was a recitation from each son. She also took them on field trips to museums and other educational sites around the Chicago area.
On Grandparents Day, she had them cook and clean for their grandparents, and plant flowers in their flower beds. The report cards she gave the boys included regular grades, and also grades for kindness and gratitude. Their family motto: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is your best.”
All three boys played competitive sports, and that is where they got socialization, along with weekly gatherings with other home-schooled kids.
Willie says it was a little tough to adjust socially when he got to Whitney Young High School as a freshman, but he felt comfortable by the time he transferred to Stevenson High as a junior. He would not change anything about his upbringing.
“Since I was young, my Mom home-schooled me, and she knew exactly what I needed,” he said. “Socially it was fine because I played club basketball, so I had teammates there. And I had cousins I hung out with. I didn’t really have friends like normal students had, but I did have a few friends I hung out with.
I was a quiet kid. By the time I was a sophomore and junior I felt more confidence, and I’m really getting out of my little shell now at UM.”
Miami was always Herenton’s dream school. His father had done business in Miami and he came along and immediately fell in love with the city’s diversity. Once he visited the UM campus, his mind was made up. Rodney Herenton contacted the UM coaching staff, and asked if there was a spot for his son, who had played on high-level AAU teams. He tried out as a walk-on last season, but they already had two walk-ons on the roster, so they asked him to be a manager, and he joined the team as a walk-on this season.
UM coach Jim Larranaga said Herenton fits the profile of the perfect walk-on, following in the footsteps of Chris Stowell, who graduated last May with a triple major and a 4.0 average, and Mike Robinson, who came highly recommended by UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma.
“Those guys made all the same sacrifices as the scholarship players, the same practice time, lifting, travel, all without much reward of playing time,” Larranaga said. “It takes a special kind of person, and Willie is like that, too. He’s improved an awful lot, and with our roster being so thin this year, he better stay ready because we will probably need him to step in at times.’’
Herenton has played in four of the Hurricanes’ 13 games this year and scored a total of five points. He is loving the experience so far, and looks forward to helping the team even more.
“True education is so much more than learning ABCs and 123s,” Andrea Herenton said. “I asked Willie, and my other sons, `Which wing is more important on an airplane, the right or the left?’ The answer is both. Same with academics and character. You need both to soar. And I believe my sons will soar.”