When Torrance Small played football as a child and then as a professional for the New Orleans Saints, nothing could keep him off the field.
“It could be cold, hot, raining," he said. "I loved it."
When Small’s youngest son, T.J. Small '20, began putting up hundreds of basketball shots on an outdoor hoop in the back yard at the family home no matter the temperature, the elder Small, 49, saw something familiar: the same kind of passion that carried Torrance to a 10-year career as an NFL wide receiver.
In this case, however, T.J.’s effort turned the Brother Martin senior into one of the top basketball players in the New Orleans metro area, one who is good enough to have his college future secured with an offer to play at Army West Point.
“He wanted to be special,” said Torrance, who began to push his son only when T.J. approached him during the summer before his high school freshman season, back when T.J. had been playing football and basketball.
At that point, Torrance asked T.J. which sport he preferred to play, and T.J. told him basketball.
“What about football?” the former football-playing father asked.
“Yeah, I can play football too,” said the son.
“Do you love football because of your friends, or do you love it because of the feeling inside you?’ ” Torrance asked.
“Because of my friends,” T.J. said.
To which Torrance replied, “OK, there’s going to come a time you have to make a decision about what you want to do.”
To be the best at something you care most deeply about, some sacrifices must be made.
Once T.J. decided to focus only on basketball, he flourished.
His first two seasons on the Brother Martin varsity came as a freshman and sophomore, after which he decided to push his game to another level.
Torrance joined T.J. for the backyard shooting sessions to keep a count on how many shots he made.
At first, T.J. didn’t stop until he made 200 shots. Soon after that, his target count reached 500 — commonly from various parts of the purple-and-gold tiled court that measured about 35 feet wide and 30 feet long.
“My freshman year wasn’t my best year,” T.J. said. “I had a lot of mistakes.”
His sophomore year was better, but still, he was limiting himself.
“I didn’t have confidence — that’s what I was missing,” he said. “My junior year I began to get that confidence. And then I began to do different moves, knowing I can score in different ways.”
Brother Martin coach Chris Biehl could see the growth.
“He wanted to be exceptional,” said Biehl, whose team plays at home Friday against top-ranked St. Augustine. “He started to put on a little weight; starting training exceptionally harder, coming in before school to shoot and staying after to shoot. He just made up his mind he was going to be as good as he can be.”
An early indicator of T.J.’s basketball skill came as far back as when he was 3 years old and playing in a league for children aged 4 and 5.
Torrance said how T.J. dribbled down the floor and attempted a shot from near the free-throw line to a hoop measured at 6 or 7 feet high.
“All net,” said Torrance, who turned to his wife, Denise, and said, “I think that’s going to be his sport.”
The latest example of T.J.’s basketball ability came Tuesday at Rummel.
With a clear path to the basket after a turnover, T.J. shortened his running stride as he dribbled toward the lane. From there, he completed something close to a 360-degree spin while in the air for an electrifying dunk.
He tried another similar dunk earlier in the game but settled for two-handed dunk with his back to the hoop.
On this one, he positioned his feet on the floor with his right side closer to the basket. Once in the air, he lowered the ball below his waist with his back to the hoop and then raised his right arm above his head as he spun counterclockwise and put down the one-handed dunk.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it at first,” said T.J., who previously only attempted the dunk while in practice.
In the game, he was unsure if he jumped high enough to complete the dunk.
“But once I turned around, I saw the rim was right there,” he said. “I had to put it in.”
The dunk drew plenty of social-media attention, with a video from the Brother Martin student section Twitter feed getting shared more than 500 times for more than 2,300 views.
With each retweet and separate video posting, T.J. received enough notifications on his phone to keep it from working properly the next day.
To Torrance, the dunk represented something meaningful.
“I told him, ‘You cannot hide work,’ ” Torrance said. “’You’ve been putting in the work, man. This is the fruit of your work.’ ”