Steve Blake was eager for a game. Fresh off signing a deal with the Trail Blazers in the summer of 2014, the guard stepped onto the court at ClubSport Portland to commemorate his second stint in Rip City.
Across the street from the team’s practice facility, the fitness center is the city’s best spot for high-level pick-up ball, a multi-court mecca where ex-pros, college stars, and backyard savants regularly compete: 15-minute games, first to reach 21 points stays on the court. The facility is known for hosting current and former Trail Blazers; Blake just wanted to ball, so who better to go against than the 100 or so players that showed up on a summer Saturday morning to get a run?
The first games were relatively easy, barely enough to keep Blake interested. But then he matched up against a team led by someone he immediately took to be a ringer—a guard with muscles rippling in his 6-foot-5 frame. The game quickly devolved into one-on-one, Blake versus the ringer. The pro assumed his opponent must have played in college, and at least a pro stint overseas, but no matter: this was his court. The newly minted Blazer used his agility and shifty dribble to drive past the mystery guard, but on defense, Blake was at the mercy of the ringer’s athleticism and strength, unable to stop him from getting to the block and scoring with ease in the paint. The game went back and forth, neither team building much of a lead, and while it doesn’t matter which team actually won the game—and frankly, no one remembers—it was clear this anonymous hoopster could ball. So Blake asked him, where’d you play?
As a high school freshman in 2009, Jordan Tebbutt ranked as one of the nation’s top 10 players. College coaches were enamored with his freakishly dominant skillset, and envisioned a bright future for whichever school could get his commitment. Because Tebbutt played at Horizon Christian School, a loosely religious school of 100-plus students 20 minutes south of Portland, his high school coach often brought him as a ninth-grader to train with the Trail Blazers; he was too good to practice against even local college competition. And he similarly held his own against higher-ranking high school peers—like Terrence Jones, who’d later play for Kentucky, against whom Tebbutt scored 24 points. He spent each summer playing for hyperselective AAU teams and at invitation-only tournaments—he seemed unfazed, no matter the competition.
According to Landen Lucas, an Oregon native who was friendly with Tebbutt and who later played at Kansas, “From about the age of 16, he had a NBA-ready body and the athleticism to go with it.”
By his sophomore year, Tebbutt ranked as the class of 2012’s 19th-best prospect, and led his team to a high school state title (an accomplishment he repeated his junior year), effortlessly posting 40-point games throughout the season. He had transformed tiny Horizon Christian into the ultimate David, a squad others in Oregon and nationally dreaded facing.
By his senior year, though, Tebbutt was looking for more of a challenge before what he and his peers assumed would be a one-and-done season at a high major school like Washington, Virginia, or Georgetown (all among the schools heavily pursuing him), so he transferred to Oak Hill Academy, a Virginia-based basketball powerhouse. At Oak Hill, Tebbutt teamed up with D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Jordan Adams, and AJ Hammons (among other high-major future DI recruits) to go undefeated, winning the 2012 national high school title.
This is typically the point in the story in which the player either shines in college, fulfilling a destiny that has been 18-plus years in the making; or when the plan falls apart in a way that no one could have predicted. But what happened with Tebbutt was more complicated, harder to explain: he just disappeared.
He completely ghosted on friends, former teammates, and coaches. According to one member of that vaunted Oak Hill squad, “No one has spoken to him in five years, and we don’t know what happened with him, so some of us worry.”
Austin King first met Tebbutt in junior high school, and it’s been more than four years since he last heard from Tebbutt, one of his closest friends at Horizon Christian. “All of us cared about him, and wanted to make sure he was not going to be taken advantage of,” King says. “When he then cut all of us out of his life, it was just weird.”
Tebbutt was famous before he understood what being famous truly means. Identified early in his development by recruiting services as a prospect with immeasurable upside, that hype slowly paralyzed him even as it seduced him. He was overwhelmed and confused, and by the time he should have made his commitment to a college, those same teams had moved on, and the foundation of Tebbutt’s entire life up to that point appeared to have failed him.
“Some people are gifted with a unique ability to play basketball,” says CBS Sports reporter Gary Parrish. “But after a while, that dream can become a burden, and when it doesn’t work out, it can become damaging, even devastating.”
How does a highly decorated prospect just vanish from organized basketball altogether? God only knows.
Tebbutt was raised in a religious family. His parents Brad and Jennifer spent years answering God’s call through various missionary trips in locales like Guatemala. At some point, the couple decided to augment their religious commitment with adoption, first with a daughter and then, two years later, adding Jordan, who was born in Arkansas. From the start, basketball appeared to be Tebbutt’s calling: in an article several years ago, Brad recalled buying sneakers for the newborn. How funny, he thought, “if we went out and got him Air Jordans for his first shoe?”
Brad struggled to find full-time work stateside and bounced around western Oregon before landing a job in the mid-2000s as the bible teacher at the just-opened Horizon Christian School, a non-denominational religious academy that had opened on 40 acres outside of Portland. The family settled into a school-owned house nearby its campus, and like any other new student, there was curiosity about Tebbutt when he enrolled as a seventh grader—especially since rumors quickly swelled that the 5-foot-9 newcomer had NBA-level talent.
By the time he arrived at Horizon Christian Tebutt had already begun training with Dony Wilcher, a local hoops fixture raised on the courts of Los Angeles, where he balled daily against Schea Cotton and Paul Pierce. Tebbutt was a gangly pre-teen wearing dozens of Livestrong bracelets when he first started working out with Wilcher, but by the seventh grade, he already looked the part of once-in-a-generation talent. “We grinded hard,” Wilcher remembers. “He was a workhorse.”
Dave Brown was an early believer. Brown has coached high school basketball for 50 years, starting in southern California, where he won more than 500 games, and in 2006, he became Horizon Christian’s new basketball coach and athletic director. As Brown walked the campus grounds, wondering how to build another hoops dynasty, he bumped into Tebbutt. Other than the kid’s physique, Brown says didn’t pay Tebbutt much mind. That is, until another teacher mentioned that he was ranked as the nation’s fourth-best eighth grader.
“I didn’t realize players were ranked that young,” Brown recalls, “but I was interested. I always thought God gives us gifts, and expects us to use those gifts properly, and God certainly gave Jordan ample gifts.”
By the mid 2000s, around the time Brown first met Tebbutt, the ranking of middle school (and younger) players was largely an afterthought. Sneaker company executives didn’t see the value of catering to pre-teen hoops prodigies: as George Dohrmann recounted in Play Their Hearts Out, when Joe Keller partnered with Adidas to launch his Junior Phenom camp—which introduced an AAU-like structure to sixth through eighth graders in 2004—most thought the idea was unnecessary and somewhat foolhardy.
According to Dohrmann, “It was hardly revolutionary, yet no one idea had tried it before, in part because it was difficult to identify the top players. Who really knew who the best sixth, seventh, and eighth graders were?” But the 2010 creation of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL), which housed the nation’s premier 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old hoops talents, helped solidify the need for a system—like Keller’s camps, worth a reported $30 million as of 2015—to identify talent at younger and younger ages.
Tebbutt wasn’t regarded as a prodigy yet, and he was content to showcase his game at the local level and play with Wilcher’s Showtime Athletics, a non-profit club program in Portland. Eventually, though, those appearances were eye-opening enough to begin drawing interest from talent evaluators and recruiting analysts. His parents had some reservations: they didn’t want him to fully immerse himself in the AAU scene. They had seen the basketball culture, and its way of forever altering people. They believed that the constant travel and exposure would be a detriment to his spiritual growth. In essence, he would lose himself.
“There was always a fine print of ‘we want everything you want to give us, but we want to do it our way,’” says someone close to his family at the time, who requested they not be identified for this story.
Still, when Wilcher explained to Tebbutt’s parents that he wanted to partner with another local AAU team and further Tebbutt’s game, they were interested. And therein lay the tension: For all the protestations and fears that the dog-eat-dog world of amateur hoops would corrupt their son, Tebbutt’s parents truly did believe his hype. While neither had a background in sports, they understood their son had a gift, and to not use his God-given talent would be spiteful. They’d foster his skills no matter what setbacks they endured on his path, because they knew that path would end with Tebbutt outfitted in an NBA jersey. After all, they had prayed on it.
The Tebbutts practiced an Evangelical charismatic brand of Christianity that closely aligned with Pentecostalism, a belief system centered on decision-making through prayer. Whenever the Tebbutts needed to make a choice, they relied on prayer and scripture—“by releasing everything into God’s hands,” as another family friend puts it. Brown, Tebbutt’s high school coach, remembered that “as Christians, they relied on God’s direction for daily direction who function after praying on God’s word in scripture. Their decisions weren’t based on man-made background but from thoroughly praying.” And once a path has been decided upon, it wasn’t easily changed. “Brad and Jennifer would say we’ve thoroughly prayed it through, and it was God’s will for his life.”
So Tebbutt’s parents went along with the plan “to get Jordan on the grand stage,” as Wilcher puts it.
Wilcher organized a game with the Oakland Soldiers, one of the west coast’s most influential AAU programs. The game, which was played in Oakland, was supposed to be Tebbutt’s coronation, but the guard was “punked,” says Wilcher, who remembered “aunties and uncles” in the crowd talking trash and heckling the visitors. Tebbutt had never experienced anything like that and “had a complete breakdown.” Though the Oregon team only lost by a handful of points, the setback was enough to fracture the relationship the trainer had built with the Tebbutts over the years, and forever alter the family’s viewpoint toward the basketball landscape.
“Brad and Jennifer were trying to tailor this perfect environment where Jordan never heard ‘no’ and never had to face resistance,” says a family friend. “They fell into this mindset that the world needs to be one in which Jordan always succeeded … What happens when life becomes a curveball?”
Or, to put it another way, what happens when prayers don’t come true?
There weren’t many curveballs once Tebbutt began playing for Brown as a high school freshman. His struggles in Oakland were a distant memory by that point. Tebbutt could have gone to Central Catholic, Jefferson, or a handful of other Portland high schools with more storied basketball traditions, but he chose Horizon Christian simply because it was where his father taught. There wasn’t much of a discussion about it. His parents didn’t know how to “loosen the leash,” as one friend describes it. They feared that any freedom had the potential to derail the path that had been so carefully laid out for him.
“Jordan was going to be an important person, and his parents had to figure out how to care for and protect him,” says King, Tebbutt’s friend from junior high. “But he was also naïve and socially awkward, and he needed to go to a school where he could focus on basketball without any other distractions.” That level of control also extended to social media (he shared an account with Brad and Jennifer) and cell phones (“He never had a permanent phone, it was always a burner” that Tebbutt would change every few months, King remembers).
An AAU coach recalls, “One time, Jordan says, ‘I have to use the bathroom,’ and his mom goes with him. It was a very controlled environment.”
“He was pretty isolated,” King says. “Church, home, basketball—that’s all he did. He didn’t have any other interests, and didn’t have any connecting points to grow his personality.”
“I kind of view [the gym] as a sanctuary,” Tebbutt told a reporter in 2010. “I’m there to worship God, and then I’m there to do it on the basketball court, too.”
That laser-focused nature was a blessing on the hardwood; during his freshman and sophomore seasons, Horizon Christian won 51 games. “He was amazing,” says Brown of his star guard. Tebbutt idolized Brandon Jennings and modeled his skillset after the lottery pick, replicating the dominance he saw when Jennings and Oak Hill played at the Les Schwab tournament, Oregon’s preeminent high school event. In another era, Tebbutt would have been labeled a “tweener,” a player whose overall attributes didn’t fit within a defined position, but he was perfectly suited to what was then an evolving college and NBA game. Tebbutt had enough foot speed to drive past bigger players, and his strength overwhelmed any opposing guard in the post. Tebbutt’s size-18 feet suggested that he was still growing, and his parents told friends that he was expected to reach 6-foot-7.
Only a few videos featuring Tebbutt’s play from that time exist online, but his game is obvious. “An athlete of his caliber, everyone knew Jordan was going to score, but he still would get 50 points a game,” says Gregg Gottlieb, who, as an assistant coach, recruited Tebbutt to Oregon State. And yet, he was also “so skilled getting his teammates involved so it wasn’t just Jordan on the court,” says former Washington State head coach Ken Bone.
The footage is grainy, and lacks the editing finesse inherent to a high-major prospect’s highlight reel, but the clips underscore Tebbutt’s promise, a player uniquely capable of taking over a game, no matter the opponent, with a variety of moves. Like an array of jump shots, inside-out dribbles and counters (like his go-to hesitation crossover) to better hone his ball-handling, and nonstop physical work had produced a player capable of propelling a tiny 3A school like Horizon Christian to the top of Oregon’s high school rankings.
“One day in seventh grade, Jordan asked me what he could do to get stronger,” Wilcher remembers. “I told him to do 250 push-ups a day. Within a week, he was up to 370. He was a man-child.”
“There weren’t many on the prep level that could contend with him,” says Matt Prehm, a recruiting analyst for 247 Sports whose specialty was the Pacific Northwest. “He looked like he was playing with fifth graders. Physically, no one could match Jordan.”
“Jordan was amazing,” says Brown. “For us, a small school, playing against schools of 2,000 with athletic budgets, that was when he really shined.” And win or lose, Tebbutt always put on a show. Like against Terrence Jones in 2010, in which the sophomore scored more than half his team’s points in a loss. Or the 2010–11 Les Schwab tournament, in which Tebbutt scored 41 points in the team’s first-round matchup; through four games, Tebbutt averaged better than 27 points, outshining Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Wiltjer, and the handful of other high-major recruits in the field.
According to teammate Michael Loomis, who later starred at the NAIA level, “At our school, to have a talent like Jordan was very unusual. Students and strangers would constantly come up to him and ask, ‘When are you going to the NBA?’ It was extreme.”
Recruiting analysts realized that Brown had unearthed a diamond, and soon, so did college coaches. Scouts began showing up to games that were, according to King, “literally in the middle of nowhere.” UW coach Lorenzo Romar was so enamored with Tebbutt that, hours after the team defeated California for the 2010 Pac-10 tournament title, the coach attempted to bring the entire squad to Horizon Christian’s state championship game. (The gym was at capacity, so only Romar attended.) Brown can tick off (in a cadence that suggests he has recited the list more than once) the high-major coaches that attended the team’s early Saturday morning practices: Ritchie McKay (Virginia), Scott Duncan (UCLA), Donny Daniels (UCLA), and Kevin O’Neill (USC). There were scores of coaches from other schools, including Georgetown, Oregon, Oregon State, and Arizona.
Tebbutt was featured in a 2011 Sports Illustrated feature on college basketball recruiting. As Raphael Chillious—then an associate head coach at Washington—told Bruce Schoenfeld, “I was the first person [Jordan] saw this morning. Other coaches are here for the game, but they weren’t here at 8:15. That stuff adds up.” (That comment ultimately resulted in a two-month investigation by the NCAA, which docked Chillious with a secondary recruiting violation for publicly mentioning a high school recruit by name.)
Tebbutt began to lose interest at Horizon Christian. By his junior season, he had already reached 14th on the state’s all-time scoring list. He was a big fish in a puddle, and while he was excited about the high-major college offers he had received, he and his parents believed that he needed to part ways with Brown to start hearing from the truly elite college programs. Tebbutt told friends he expected to spend just one year in college and then it was off to the NBA. Through daily prayer, he had realized the only way to achieve that goal was to leave his small-school roots and transfer for his senior year.
“His identity was tied up in his ego,” says Loomis. “He wanted to play at the highest level or no level.” Or, as King explains, “He always thought Oregon State was beneath him. The same with Washington—he felt that he was better than UW.”
What Tebbutt wanted most, he told friends, was to be recruited by Kansas and Duke, and though the Jayhawks were intrigued by his potential—“I thought he was a young Jimmy Jackson,” says KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend—the lack of competition, with Horizon winning games nightly by 30 or 40 points, was a concern. So, in the summer of 2011, during which Tebbutt ranked as one of the nation’s top 50 recruits and spent a week competing at the Adidas Nations camp (where he suited up with current NBA player Kyle Anderson), he transferred to the famed Oak Hill Academy—just like his idol Brandon Jennings had done five years prior.
“Horizon isn’t the best competition,” Tebbutt once said of transferring to Oak Hill. “God provided the opportunity, and it is a one-in-a-lifetime thing, and if He provides the opportunity, you’ve got to take it.”
His parents also believed Oak Hill would further enhance Tebbutt’s spirituality, which was crucial to them agreeing to the transfer, as this would be the first time in his life they wouldn’t be with him. Though both had life experiences, spending a chunk of their lives as missionaries, friends felt that they didn’t entirely trust the outside world. “[They] were afraid of the world, and how it can corrupt you,” says King.
Tebbutt had been raised in a religious cocoon at home and at Horizon Christian, and his parents looked askance at basketball culture, which they believed was corrupted by vice and temptation, and which they feared was capable of swallowing a lesser individual, even someone with a robust spiritual background. They had sheltered Tebbutt his entire life, imposing a strict curfew or only allowing him to watch movies rated PG. One friend mentioned that Tebbutt’s parents monitored his computer usage because they were afraid “random girls would think he was high-profile and want a piece of him.”
Now he’d live across the country without a support system. Even Tebbutt’s friends thought the situation seemed perilous. “That sort of controlling didn’t allow Jordan to mature or grow emotionally,” says King.
From the moment Tebbutt stepped onto the 270-acre campus, he felt out of place. This was his first real experience of life beyond Oregon—the AAU tournaments and camps had each only meant a long weekend away—and he was shocked. Tebbutt told friends that his teammates didn’t possess the same Christian spirit. Mass marked the beginning and end of the team’s religious education. This was a world away from both how he had been raised, and what he had been told life at Oak Hill would be—there were no daily prayer sessions and certainly no one on the team was living life through God’s scripture.
Midway through his season, Oak Hill coach Steve Smith was quoted as saying, “It’s been a transition for him, but I think he understands the sacrifice of being away from home and what this means … He’s a very dedicated young man, very committed to his schoolwork, maybe even more so than basketball. That’s kind of refreshing.” (Smith did not respond to numerous requests for comment. That’s not surprising. Per Rivals’s recruiting analyst Eric Bossi, “coaches who run big-time high school programs whose guys go to big-time places don’t want to advertise a guy that didn’t meet those dreams. The last thing you want is some guy from Montverde pulling up article on [Jordan] about him not making it.”)
When he spoke with friends back home, Tebbutt said he was lonely and felt isolated, mentioning that he rarely left his dorm room at the very back of the team house, nowhere near the common area where his teammates congregated nightly. “He’d distance himself from us,” says Tyler Lewis, the team’s point guard, who would later play at North Carolina State and Butler. “Other than play basketball there isn’t much to do at Oak Hill, so you have to have a close friend group, and Jordan faded into himself. He hardly left his room.”
This discomfort ultimately wouldn’t have mattered if Tebbutt had continued to dominate on the court. But, says one source close to the Tebbutt family, “Jordan was sold a bill of goods. The family didn’t research who was already on the team, and how those same players who started the previous season would likely start even with Jordan on the roster.”
The team, which Smith proclaimed at the time as his “deepest” in his then-nearly three decades at the school, already had Lewis in the backcourt with Jordan Adams (UCLA) and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (Georgetown) at the wings; the only open position left was at power forward, next to AJ Hammons (Purdue) in the paint. According to a source, Tebbutt had been told he’d run Oak Hill’s offense, so shifting to the frontcourt was a change of plans that felt like a demotion. Even Lewis was confused when he heard Tebbutt would attend Oak Hill, saying, “I always got the sense he wanted to play point guard, and that he wanted the ball in his hands more, but he never really got that opportunity, and the reason to go to Oak Hill is to get yourself ready for the next level. He didn’t have a chance to do that.”
Though Oak Hill subsequently went undefeated and won the 2012 national Fab 50 high school title, Tebbutt largely played out of position and was often relegated to the bench. His talent, according to multiple teammates, was on par with theirs, but friends noticed a different player when Oak Hill returned to Oregon to play in the 2011–12 Les Schwab tournament. Tebbutt “was a shell of himself,” says Loomis. He averaged just five points; in the final, he attempted one field goal and played just 13 minutes.
King spoke with Tebbutt and his family following the tournament, and there was talk that he might not return to Virginia, but ultimately, his parents were steadfast: You prayed to God and he guided you to this commitment.
But now a dark cloud loomed over Tebbutt’s future. “There was the sense that if Jordan couldn’t do well at Oak Hill, and against top players, what does that say about Jordan for college recruiting?” recalls King.
Indeed, Tebbutt was one of two unsigned seniors on Oak Hill’s roster. There was mounting tension to make a college decision, but his spotty play worried those same coaches who had coveted him for years. UCLA stopped recruiting him, and other interested school like Washington, Washington State, and Oregon State also moved on. Those supposed scholarships from Kansas and Duke? A mirage. His scouting report, which once glowed, now read of unfulfilled promise: “His foot speed wasn’t good enough, so he couldn’t guard guys on the perimeter, and he had gotten heavy,” says one assistant that recruited Tebbutt.
“When coaches started watched him again, he was just a part-time player,” says one family friend. “Those assistants and head coaches couldn’t see where he needed to be. It cost him.” Or, as another assistant puts it, “Kids are like stocks—they rise and fall—and Jordan fell.”
Even though Tebbutt was no longer a prospect for the Bruins, then-assistant Scott Duncan says Brown asked him to speak with Tebbutt’s parents, who were confused by the sudden lack of recruiting interest in their son. (When asked about this, Brown denies having asked the assistant to reach out to the Tebbutts). He explained that schools like UCLA recruit multiples of players at a position, and are just trying to land one. Sure, the Bruins had liked Tebbutt, but he no longer fit the profile of what they needed. “At UCLA, we were playing for a national title every year, and Jordan could no longer help us accomplish that goal anymore,” he says.
He adds, “Recruiting is a nasty business, and his parents were naïve. They were confused by the ‘why nots.’ Jordan was a bright and nice kid, but society eats up people in all walks of life.”
In Tebbutt’s mind, he had one remaining option: he’d enroll at Kansas and force coach Bill Self to give him a scholarship. Tebbutt believed that he still possessed the talent that had ranked him amongst the nation’s best, and those who suggested he consider mid-major schools—“I thought he should have gone to Portland State, lead the Big Sky conference in scoring, and then transfer to Oregon or another high major,” says Duncan—didn’t understand that Tebbutt considered Kansas part of his plan, and God’s.
According to a family friend, Tebbutt told Self upon arriving on campus that he was “finally ready” to play for the team. He also checked in with Townsend, the assistant coach who had recruited him while at Horizon Christian, and asked whether he could walk on to the team that fall of 2012. Townsend was noncommittal—the team already was flush with walk-ons: Tyler Self, Evan Manning, and Niko Roberts, all the sons of Kansas coaches, had claimed the coveted spots. “I told Jordan to stay in shape and try out next season,” explains Townsend, adding that Tebbutt would have been a “great walk-on.”
It would have been a situation without much precedent. “I don’t know of any former top 25 players who decided to walk on to a team,” says Bossi. “Even a program like Kansas.” His friends couldn’t understand his continued obsession with the Big 12 school. “The normal thing is if you want Kansas but they don’t want you, you sign with someone else, which Jordan could have done,” says Brown.
He began training with ex-Jayhawk Aaron Miles, and playing pick-up with who he expected to be his future teammates. He bumped into Landen Lucas, then a freshman, on campus, and was invited to work out with the team during a few open gyms. “[The] only thing I remember is he looked great and almost dunked on Joel Embiid twice,” Lucas says.
Tebbutt easily outperformed the other walk-on candidates during the tryout the next summer, and entered his first KU preseason practice in 2013 believing he was close to achieving his destiny of earning a roster spot. The morning session of the two-a-day, though, was a disaster. After two-plus hours of constant drills, Tebbutt simply didn’t return for the afternoon session.
When Townsend called to ask where he was about his no-show, Tebbutt complained of full-body cramps. “He said he was almost dying,” says Townsend. A follow-up call from Tebbutt’s mother didn’t help: “I wondered why he didn’t come back and get thermal plunges and other treatment from our trainers. His mom said he couldn’t move, but that shouldn’t be the reason he doesn’t make the team.”
Townsend adds, “Don’t get me wrong, he would have been as good a walk-on talent-wise as we’ve ever had—most walk-ons can’t really play at all—but we get 30 guys who want to be a part of the team every year, and if he can’t make it through one practice, he can’t help us.”
That was around the time Tebbutt began to disconnect from those who had known him the longest; six years later, those same friends continue to wonder what happened to him. I interviewed nearly 20 sources for this article, people who had known Tebbutt at every stage of his life, and the consistency of his absence is glaring.
“Jordan married me and my wife,” says Dony Wilcher. “She’s now my ex-wife, and even she asked a little while ago, ‘Whatever happened to that Tebbutt kid?”
Calls placed to several phone numbers connected with Tebbutt over the years either got not-in-service messages or went unanswered. Tebbutt’s father didn’t respond to numerous phone calls or emails seeking comment, and according to sources at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, where Brad Tebbutt now works, the Tebbutts had no interest in participating in this story. According to the University of Kansas, Tebbutt graduated with a bachelor’s degree in general studies in 2017, and then enrolled in a graduate program—beyond that, Tebbutt is a digital ghost.
‘I talk to college coaches all the time, and they all ask what happened to Jordan, and I say, ‘I really don’t know,’” says Dave Brown. One college coach who recruited Tebbutt was more blunt: “To be that elite a player at a young age, and be recruited at the level he was, and then to fall off the map, I’ll never understand.”
It’s tempting to view what happened to Tebbutt as a byproduct of the hype, especially for players years away from college. “Maybe some of us got too excited and misevaluated him, and maybe he peaked too early, but I will never be able to explain how Jordan never played anywhere on scholarship,” says Bossi. “Kids develop self-esteem from rankings, and for those like Jordan who steadily slide down the rankings as they move through high school, something they feel good about is also steadily being taken away from them. As scouts, we need to take some ownership of this.”
The back-to-back failures at Oak Hill and Kansas were proof that Tebbutt had perhaps spent his life preparing for a future that would never exist. And that weighed on Tebbutt. All that training and all those daily prayers hadn’t protected him from public embarrassment. “He didn’t want to repeat the process of failing again,” says Austin King.
Tebbutt’s life was of course driven by faith, but that spiritual foundation was buttressed by the faith, specifically, that he was going to be a success on the basketball court. When that didn’t happen, his belief in those convictions—his sense of self—crumbled.
Michael Loomis, his high school teammate, adds, “He was comfortable being comfortable, and he had succeeded his entire life in that space. Oak Hill was his first taste of discomfort, that playing basketball might not work out the way he’d envisioned. It wasn’t just Jordan—the entire family’s life was built around Jordan and basketball. It had to be a shock.”
When friends did hear from him, he told them that he was still in shape, playing pick-up basketball whenever he could, and was ready to give college hoops another chance, but whether that was true was murky: “With Jordan, you never knew what was actually going on,” says King.
Colleges were still interested. Before he was fired from Washington State, Ken Bone again tried to land Tebbutt, a player he had first recruited as a middle schooler, even going so far as to organize a “Christian night” with the university’s youth ministry group during the visit, but Tebbutt declined the invitation.
When Wayne Tinkle was hired as the new head coach at Oregon State in 2014, his staff similarly reached out with a scholarship offer, but Tebbutt demurred. Loomis, who became an All-American at Northwest Christian University, thought he and Tebbutt could rekindle the chemistry and success they had shared at Horizon Christian, but Tebbutt was even more disengaged—if he wasn’t going to play at Kansas, then he wasn’t going to play at all.
“Everyone at Oak Hill wondered, ‘This dude can go anywhere in the country and play basketball,’” says Lewis. “Why would you want to turn that down?”
And so the basketball world moved on. Wilcher still trains the next generation of high-major hopefuls. Loomis decided against pursuing a professional basketball career, while Lucas, fresh off stints playing in Japan and Estonia, is attempting to become a professional poker player. After tearing his ACL twice, King retired from the sport, while Brown coached until this past season, ultimately winning his 800th career game before leaving the Horizon Christian and relocating to Florida. Romar and Bone are both now at Pepperdine. As for Tebbutt, though, no one knows.
According to Brown, Tebbutt’s religion was the scaffolding on which his basketball future was built, and his life now can’t be separated from that. “Though his decision is almost heretical for the basketball community, it’s understandable for the faith community,” Brown says. “If you had a chance to talk to him, it makes all the sense in the world. God is in charge, and he has other plans for Jordan’s life. I suspect there is very little Jordan looks back on or is disappointed with.”
Brown says he thinks about Tebbutt constantly, and in three separate conversations he mentioned the pickup game against Steve Blake in Portland. Left unsaid each time was that Tebbutt should have been his hoops masterpiece, the retired number hanging from the Horizon Christian rafters. “I am a professional at this, and not some dad that just stumbled into coaching,” Brown tells me during our final interview. “I’ve coached a lot of players at the highest levels, but he was special. God gave him a gift and he didn’t use it.”
Matt Giles is a writer for Longreads, and he also freelances for several other publications, including the New York Times, New York magazine, the Washington Post, Bleacher Report, and FiveThirtyEight.