Malakhi Stremlow figured his basketball career might be over last winter. He found love and redemption in the summer. Now, a year later, Stremlow is a college signee. 


 

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alakhi Stremlow was lost.

He knew this gym as well as anyone. It was like a second home to him, sometimes even first. He didn’t know it from up here though. He didn’t know it from this lonely perch atop these plastic bleachers. His knees were folded awkwardly. It was either that, or let his long legs dangle over the row below. He didn’t fit.

Stremlow was used to being down there, on the hardwood, getting buckets and crashing boards with his buddies. Not really winning a lot of games, if we’re being honest, but he loved it still. Up here, though, alone? Nah, this wasn’t it. He pulled the drawstrings of his sweatshirt tighter around his head. A hood full unruly hair seemed ready to explode.

“How did I get here?” he mumbled to himself.

He’d ask himself the same thing 10 months later, on stage with friends and family celebrating around him.

It is a good question. How did a guy who wasn’t even on the team last winter end up a college-bound standout less than a year later?

“It’s crazy,” Stremlow said shortly after signing his letter of intent with Newberry College last month. “It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster.”

The ride isn’t over either. Stremlow is out in front, guiding Cane Bay — winner of just three games last season — to one of its best starts in the school’s short history. The Cobras won more games before Christmas this season than they had total in eight of the 11 years the school has had a team.

Stremlow figured his basketball career might be over. Cane Bay was one of the worst teams in town. That seems like so long ago now. 

“The lesson is, you have to keep fighting,” Cane Bay first-year coach Jacob Smith said. “That’s the approach that he’s taken and the approach that we’ve taken as a program.

“You keep believing in yourself. You have to keep fighting.”

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***

Stremlow knew he was done by Christmas.

His junior season was really just beginning last winter. Maybe 8-10 games had passed. He’d made up his mind, though. He was done.

“I wasn’t even enjoying playing basketball anymore. At all,” Stremlow admits. “I’ve always loved basketball. But the situation was so…”

He pauses for a moment to find the right way to put this. “The situation was so toxic, I started to hate it.”

Cane Bay lost its first seven games of last season. Stremlow, then a still-growing 6-foot-5 junior was expected to be one of the top players in the area. He floundered as the team did.

It wasn’t just the losing. Stremlow didn’t believe in the direction of the program and says others didn’t either. He didn’t feel like the players had a voice. As the team continued to sputter and no improvement was made, the situation became increasingly frustrating to him. He began to dread practice. Even the games became intolerable. He made up his mind by the end of December. He was quitting.

“Very tough decision,” he said. “There were just a lot of emotions around it.

“My dream has always been to play basketball at the next level. And sitting out my junior season — one of the most important seasons — honestly, I felt like it was all over. I was just going to be a regular student.”

Maggie Brown doesn’t tolerate quitting. She works in the operating room at a veteran’s hospital. She’s tough — the no-nonsense type. She’s had to be as a single mother of four.

She and her son discussed his options. She knew he was unhappy and hated that basketball was the issue. Brown doesn’t let her son quit at anything. They both have stories. Games of Monopoly or whatever game it was — they’d drag on forever because no matter how hard Stremlow pleaded, his mother insisted he finish what he started.

Only, this wasn’t a board game. Stremlow felt like he was standing up for something important. He didn’t see it as quitting, necessarily. He hates that word.

He thought he was a revolutionary, walking away with his head held high. He ended up more of an outcast, though, head hung as he watched the second half of the season from a lonely top row of the stands.

“I’m not going to lie, that was one of the most difficult things, watching him go through that,” Brown said. “I had to realize he was standing up for something though. He felt he was doing it for the right purposes. But it was hard.

“It was hard.”

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***

Antoine Saunders spotted Stremlow from across the Porter-Gaud gym. There were a hundred or so high schoolers in the gym that day trying out for the TMP summer AAU team that Saunders operates alongside Cyclones coach John Pearson. It can be tough for kids to stand out. A two-handed throw down off of a smooth drop step caught Saunders’ eye from 100 feet away. The backboard was still swaying long after Stremlow landed.

“We didn’t really know much about him at the time,” said Saunders, head coach at First Baptist and the all-time assists leader at Wofford College. “But everyone who watched him said, ‘Hey, who is that? That kid is pretty good.’”

“Where do you go to school?” Saunders would ask Stremlow.

“Cane Bay,” he told him. “Right now.”

Saunders thought he looked familiar. And when he asked how his junior season went?

“Not great,” Stremlow admitted.

TMP is widely respected as the top independent AAU program in the state and, lately, one of the best in the greater Southeast region of the nation. Nearly 200 players try out for about 45 spots each season. Certain standards and expectations help whittle down the crowd. Character matters to those in charge. Generally, a high school player in Stremlow’s situation would’ve been a red flag, Saunders says.

“But we judged him off of what we were seeing — a pleasant kid, quiet humble, hard worker. He’d come early and stay late,” Saunders continued. “He became someone we could depend on. Great attitude, great grades, great family.

“We love the kid.”

And Stremlow thrived. He averaged 12 points on 64 percent shooting with 10 rebounds per game for TMP last summer on the ultracompetitive Under Armour Rise circuit. The numbers are impressive, but even more so when considering the limited playing time available on an assemblage of 15 or so all-stars, and that competition regularly included respected high-major prospects.

“A blue-collar post player who is ultra productive,” Phenom Hoop Report high school basketball scout Jamie Shaw said of Stremlow. “He’s a hard worker, undersized in stature but filled to the brim with heart.”

Stremlow’s game isn’t always flashy. He doesn’t seek attention. Still, you’re naturally drawn to him during games. He’s constantly around the ball, putting himself in positions to make plays, and the right plays. He affects the game in a variety of ways and coaches recognize the value of that versatility.

“Malakhi has great hands, runs the floor well and has great feel for the game,” Newberry coach Jason Taylor said. “He made a lot of winning plays for TMP last summer and he’ll continue to do those things here for us.”

The hardest part of sitting out last winter wasn’t even necessarily the hoops. It was everything else. It was the competition. It was the camaraderie. It was being a part of something.

“I missed everything. A lot,” Stremlow said. “I’d just go home everyday and do nothing. My friends were at practice. I’d just be bored.”

He says he found that sense of brotherhood again with TMP. The players hardly knew him but embraced him from the jump. The coaches vouched for him when colleges started calling. He felt comfortable enough to enjoy himself again. It’d been a while since he’d lowered his guard. He even caught himself doing something on the court he hadn’t in so long — smiling.

“I was always the quiet guy and they took me in as family,” Stremlow said. His family wore TMP t-shirts on stage with him as he signed his letter of intent. “TMP knew I quit on basketball and they still gave me a chance.

“I fell in love with the game again.”

Stremlow didn’t want to lose that feeling again at the summer’s end. He considered transferring out of Cane Bay for his senior year. Saunders was among those who advised against it.

Smith was hired as the new head coach at Cane Bay in July. He’s an 18-year veteran of high school coaching. He’s been named Coach of the Year in three different regions from three different classifications. He’s been around basketball. He’s wary of the way cancerous situations can affect programs. He never saw that in Stremlow. He made him a captain.

“Everyone had a clean slate with me. I go by what I see. I saw a leader,” Smith said. “We were trying to change the culture and I saw someone who was going to help us do it. It starts at the top. My expectations for our captains are higher than anyone else. He accepted that responsibility right away.”

Cane Bay matched last year’s win total just 10 days into the new season. The Cobras’ resume so far is solid against what was a loaded first half of the schedule. A four-point win at AAAAA No. 5 Ashley Ridge stands out but the Cobras also beat Calvary Day of North Carolina and reached the semifinals of the Orangeburg County Sweet 16 holiday tournament.

Stremlow leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds per game. He’s shooting 60 percent from the field. He’ll tell you the stats don’t matter though. When you’ve seen the other side of things, just lacing his Kyries up at all is a blessing, he says.

Personal redemption isn’t the goal. People can think whatever they want. Stremlow isn’t bothered. It seems to him most of those with the strongest opinions never played a minute of college basketball. Stremlow will.

“The most important thing to me right now is this team,” he said. “I want to show people that we’re not the same old Cane Bay team. And that’s enough for me. I just want to win.”

Stremlow thought his career might’ve been over. He’s winning again. Cane Bay has never really won anything. The Cobras are all of a sudden.

There were times not long ago when it seemed the fractured relationships between the team and its best player couldn’t be mended. But an enlightened perspective and a better situation have changed everything. Stremlow and the Cobras are changing everything that the program is used to.

He pulls his jersey over his head — he’s traded his bushy afro for sort stubble — and jogs into the gym for practice. He’s found his way back.

“It feels like I’m home again.”