Denzel Valentine's path to NBA is a family affair

Carlton Valentine is a basketball coach. He's also a father.

To hear him tell it, the separation of church and state is an easy one.

He cried like a baby _ his words _ when youngest son and new Bull Denzel helped lead their shared alma mater of Michigan State to the NCAA Final Four in 2015. And despite advancing to three straight Class B state title games and winning two at Lansing's J.W. Sexton High, one season after oldest son Drew graduated, he pushed both his sons to the brink of a different kind of tears.

"We had our struggles, just like anybody would. But we always worked through it because we had a great relationship under that," Carlton Valentine said by phone. "Both my sons know that I had their best interests in hand. I coached them sometimes to the point where they didn't like it. But I didn't really care because I loved them. And I was going to push them like I pushed all the other players."

Valentine played for the legendary Morgan Wootten at Maryland's DeMatha Catholic High School, teaming with Danny Ferry in 1983-84 to earn USA Today's mythical national championship distinction following a 29-2 season.

He played for two NCAA tournament teams under Jud Heathcote at Michigan State, where an eager graduate assistant named Tom Izzo broke down film. He played professionally overseas.

"I knew what kind of work it took to win," Carlton said.

That's why he said little when Izzo told Denzel following his sophomore season in high school that he couldn't yet offer him a scholarship. Blue-chip players often get offered scholarships in mid-June before their junior season. Instead, Izzo told Denzel he needed to improve his shooting.

In the Valentine Family Way, filled with love and laughter and work and winning, that's like telling Yo Yo Ma to practice more cello.

Izzo offered Denzel a scholarship at the end of July.

"Every time you'd tell him he had to get better at something, he did it," Izzo said in a phone interview. "I remember mentioning ballhandling to him last summer and he went through all the Steph Curry ballhandling drills. Most guys want to work on their shot. He's working on that."

Then again, can you truly call it work when it's a labor of love?

When they were younger, Carlton would take his sons to his high school practices. A couple of games each season, there were special trips to Michigan State. There, they peeked behind the curtain, maybe watched part of a practice or visited the locker room.

Denzel was 6 { when he saw _ in person _ Mateen Cleaves, Jason Richardson and Morris Peterson lead Izzo to his lone national title in 2002. He and Drew, who played and now is an assistant coach at Oakland (Mich.) University, saw Final Four teams and All-Americans up close.

"He was ingrained in the culture of Michigan State basketball and winning," Carlton said. "Every kid who plays high school basketball in that area wants to go to Michigan State and play, especially with the program Tom has created.

"It wasn't so much following in my footsteps as it was following in the footsteps of the Spartan winning tradition. He always wanted to be a part of that."

Those were the lessons Carlton imparted. Don't focus on points in the box score. Watch them cut the nets down.

When Drew and Denzel went for offseason workouts, they took other players with them so that players bettered themselves as a group.

"Dad coached us all our lives," Drew said by phone. "Those talks to and from the practices and games stuck with us. My dad always talked about being a leader and a winner rather worrying about individual accolades. That's been instilled in us. Those are the core values that Denzel has."

Drew is 2 { years older and three grades ahead, so they only overlapped for one season while playing for Carlton at J.W. Sexton.

"The 'a-ha' moment was the first high school game of his career," Drew said. "I think he scored 20 points and hit four 3s in the first half. It was like, 'Damn, OK. You're here.'"

Injuries to both allowed them to play together for only three games. And Drew, who was good enough to also play briefly overseas, jokes about how the run to three straight title games began the season after he graduated.

But there's no sibling rivalry here.

"A lot of people think it's really weird how close we are. We're best friends," Drew said. "We're always looking out for each other. We didn't really ever get into it. It was just always positivity and love for one another."

Drew spent two seasons as a graduate assistant for Izzo while Denzel played there. Both coaches watched Denzel develop each year. One season, he'd improve his ballhandling. Another, his shooting. The next, his scoring.

The questions about his athleticism? Izzo laughs.

"You can go through it like you could Draymond Green and say, 'He's too slow for this, too whatever for that,'" Izzo said, referencing an overlooked Spartan who has stormed the NBA. "I told (Bulls general manager) Gar (Forman), why he's a different pick than most is three categories. His basketball IQ. His insatiable love for the game. And the third is he puts winning first. That's what separates him."

In fact, the aftermath of a victory is Izzo's favorite memory of Denzel's time at Michigan State.

The Spartans had just defeated Louisville to advance to the Final Four in 2015. Denzel sought out his family, including his mother, Kathy, who taught for 33 years in the East Lansing public schools. Carlton climbed over temporary fencing to embrace his youngest son.

"Watching that interaction of such a tight-knit family," Izzo said. "Every time I think of that, it makes me appreciate who he is."

Fast forward to Thursday night. Denzel's reaction to being a lottery pick and drafted by the Bulls has received the ultimate social media tribute. It has been made into a Vine, a loop of love.

"There was no, 'I'm too cool for school' there. He was just ecstatic," Izzo said. "He appreciates the moment."

Carlton thought back to times he told his sons they might not be the most athletic but they wouldn't be outworked. He thought back to all the sweat and love and tears, moments he calls some of the best times of his life.

"When I heard his name called at 14, it was surreal. I jumped up and screamed," Carlton said. "Matter of fact, friends sent still pictures from TV of me screaming and Drew screaming and my wife jumping up and down crying. As a dad, it was one of my proudest moments. I know how hard it is to get to that point.

"But you know what Denzel said to me (Friday) while we were walking? He said, 'Dad, you called it. In eighth grade, you told me I was going to be a lottery pick.' I just knew he had a special gift."

That's both coach and father talking.