There was a time when Christmas didn’t mean much to Avery Bradley. In fact, Christmas was more a time of dread than of celebration when he was growing up.
When he was in elementary school, Bradley’s parents divorced and his three older siblings moved with his mother to Texas — and things got hard. Kids and Christmas generally pair together naturally; for Bradley, the holiday only stirred memories of despair and embarrassment.
It’s been a gradual transition to change his mindset and make Christmas special for the first time in his life.
“We probably had one or two Christmases with a Christmas tree — but there were only one or two gifts,” Bradley said in an exclusive interview with The Detroit News. “I was never a fan of Christmas. Christmas was a time where you get all the stuff you want — and I never really experienced that.”
Credit his late mother, Alicia Jones, a cheap blue coat and a pair of flip-flops.
It’s gotten better for Bradley, 27, who is in his first season with the Pistons, after spending his first seven with the Boston Celtics.
Bradley enjoys giving back to the community, as he did last week, joining teammates Andre Drummond and Anthony Tolliver in adopting 10 Detroit families. The trio hosted them for a surprise dinner after the game against the Orlando Magic at Little Caesars Arena and presented gift cards to brighten their holiday.
For Bradley, it was a small expression of the toil his mother — who had her first child at age 15 — made for him, his two brothers and sister.
“(Helping others) was something instilled in me and I enjoy giving back. We used to be mad as kids because we had nothing and my mom would be giving stuff away,” Bradley said. “We were raised in the church and my mom’s thing was that God’s going to bless us. Don’t worry about it; you’re supposed to always give.
“If you ask anybody about my mom, she would give everything away. If we bought some cereal and that was our one box and somebody at the church needed it, she was giving that cereal away. That’s just how she was. We’re all the same way, without even knowing it.”
Jones passed away in 2013 after a massive stroke at age 46, leaving a void in Bradley’s life that he admits still hasn’t filled completely, even with the birth of his first child, Avery III, a couple weeks later. The juxtaposition of new fatherhood and coping with losing his mother was a lot for Bradley to process in a short period.
Four years ago, he spent his first Christmas without his mother — and simply tried to make the best of it. It turned out to be a memorable one, with his family as a support network around him, casting off a dour pall of grief that blanketed Bradley like fresh-fallen snow.
“The only Christmas we ever spent together is when my mom passed away and my family moved to Boston with me for that year,” Bradley said. “That was the first Christmas I ever remember us all having gifts.
“That was the first Christmas where everybody said they got what they wanted, with everybody in the house. My dad wasn’t around much, but that Christmas, he moved to Boston as well.”
Jones and Bradley’s father, Avery Sr., had a middle class-family when they were married, but after the divorce, being with a single mother made things tougher. Bradley and his siblings moved to Texas with his mother and the struggle became really real.
“I had a blue and orange coat I used to wear and the people used to make fun of me because the feathers used to come out,” Bradley recalled. “To this day, that’s why I do a coat drive every single year around this time — because I know how it feels to not have a coat, or only have one coat.
“At that time, I was embarrassed and I knew (we were poor) but because you’re trying to figure it out. With your family and friends around you, you help each other out, so you don’t worry about it. Looking back now, that was the most fun time in my life; I enjoyed that time.”
Now that he has the means to help others, Bradley gives to the less fortunate whenever he can, both during the holidays and throughout the year. It’s the best way to honor his mother. Even when his mother didn’t have the resources to provide for others, she gave more than what she had — from her heart.
“That’s what makes me enjoy Christmas now: once my mom passed away, I really got into Christmas a little more,” he said, “because it made me want to do more for people. That’s when I really started doing it.”
In many instances, the good part of being poor is not having that poverty be pervasive in everyday life. The thought is that if everyone else is poor, there’s no real differentiation. Bradley said he didn’t have a clear notion until around his early teenage years.
“When I was in middle school, I wore flip-flops to school. The front of the flip-flops looked like a tennis shoe but the back was a flip-flop — and I used to wear them with jeans,” Bradley said. “My uncle got them and sent a box to the house to help us out. I remember that’s when I knew we didn’t have much.”
Even when he and his mother moved back to his hometown of Tacoma, Wash., things didn’t get much better for Bradley — but at least he was near family. His mother couldn’t afford new Nike Air Force One shoes, so he had to settle for a cheaper pair.
“I was so embarrassed that I would wear my sister’s shoes sometimes. She had Chuck Taylors and she was two sizes smaller,” he recalled. “I would wear my second-older brother’s shoes. They were too big for me but I wore his shoes all the time.
“He lived with me my rookie year and he would always wear my shoes and joke about it and I would be so upset. I guess it was payback.”
Bradley is in the last year of his contract and he stands to gain a king’s ransom in free agency this summer. Still, it hasn’t changed his view of Christmas and how he wants things to be for his wife, Ashley, and three children: Avery III (age four), Anderson (one) and Alicia (five months).
Even in their early age, he doesn’t overdo things at Christmas, but Bradley wants to instill a sense of giving, to instill the thought of helping others and giving back to those less fortunate, especially during the holidays.
“That’s how I want my kids to grow up and think: we’re very fortunate and blessed by God to provide for our kids throughout and get things they want,” Bradley said. “I want them to understand the importance of giving to people in need and that God is going to bless us for that — it’s the right thing to do.
“It’s not all about getting more and more (stuff). You have to want to give more than you receive.”
That’s the Christmas spirit: for richer or poorer, a legacy gift specially wrapped and given to Bradley by his mother.