Clemson point guard Hall is a proud product of his environment
By Manie Robinson, Sports Columnist, The Greenville News
Drive along Washington Road in Augusta, Georgia, on a busy morning, and you almost can pass it without noticing.
It is Augusta National, home of The Master’s. Tucked behind a boundary of green gates, the golf club is revered globally for its tradition of elegance and exclusivity.
Yet, in the blink of a few stoplights, one turns away from Amen Corner onto a dreary bend where the pangs of poverty overwhelm the promises of prosperity.
Merely six miles south of Augusta National’s towering dogwoods sits Dogwood Terrace. The one-story buildings of this public housing community are lined as neatly as manicured fairways. There is no gate, but for many of its residents, there is no exit.
“Those red bricks,” Tracie Hall said, “it’s like they hold you hostage.”
Hall, 37, spent nearly 30 years of her life inside these brick fortresses.
“You don’t pay a lot to live there, but not a lot of people live there because they want to,” she said. “They live there because they have to. They don’t know any other way.”
Inside those bricks, the traps are lined with more than sand.
“It’s got everything — drugs, gambling, violence,” said Tracie’s son, Rod Hall, a junior point guard on the Clemson men’s basketball team that plays tonight at North Carolina. “You’ve really got to be tough. Nobody is going to give you any handouts. You’ve got to be able to hold your own. Basically, nobody makes it out. When you’re in it, it’s all you know.”
Tracie Hall wanted her son to know more.
“I wanted him to be the total opposite of everything he grew up around,” she said. “I had to stay on his neck. I wanted him to see something else besides those bricks.”
However, Tracie Hall had no proven escape plan to follow. Those fortunate enough to make it out left no instructions and seldom returned.
Her husband, Rod Hall Sr., was ensnared by one of those traps. He shared her desire to raise their children elsewhere, but in his desperation to realize that dream, he lost the very thing he was chasing.
Rod Sr. served three separate prison sentences for drug trafficking. He was released in August after a two-year stint.
“I know the reason why he did what he did to end up incarcerated,” Tracie Hall said. “It was for us to get out of what we were in. He just went about it the wrong way.”
“As a parent, you always want better for your child,” Rod Sr. said. “You want them to be able to play ball in the yard without wondering if they are going to get hurt. Rather than look it as a hole, we had to use it as a stepping block not to stay there.”
After years of scraping, saving and praying, the Halls moved out of Dogwood Terrace in 2005, when Rod Jr. was in the sixth grade.
Even through his intermittent absences, Rod Hall Sr. paved a path for his son to leave Augusta. He put a basketball in his hands.
“Probably at the age of 9 months,” Rod Sr. said with a laugh. “I always wanted him to be better than me, to focus on his dreams and not on what I was going through.”
Those red bricks hardened others. They sharpened Rod Hall.
Along those coarse sidewalks, he cultivated his character. He developed his quiet resolve and resolute toughness. He became protective of his words and his loved ones.
In the crowded lanes of Augusta’s street courts and community centers, he developed the defensive pride necessary to stifle quick guards and the grit required to attack the rim against 6-foot-10 centers.
“On those courts, nobody really called fouls,” Hall said. “Some games were just for contact. We’d bring the goal down to eight feet and try to dunk on each other. You know you’re going to get fouled, so you just play through it.”
Hall’s toughness was the first thing Earl Grant noticed.
During the summer of 2009, Grant, then an assistant coach at Wichita State University, traveled to a summer tournament in Charleston. Few coaches were there to scout Hall. Several were there to see the player Hall was guarding.
“The kid couldn’t find a shot. Rod really played great defense,” Grant recalled. “I knew where he was from, so I knew what he had been through. The first initial thing wasn’t even about basketball. I just saw toughness.”
Grant forged a relationship with Hall that endured even after Grant joined Brad Brownell’s staff at Clemson the following April.
Hall averaged more than 25 points per game as a shooting guard at Laney High. However, he never played as a pure point guard. Thus, initially, Grant was uncertain if Hall would fit into Brownell’s personnel plan.
Nevertheless, Hall was one of the first prospects Grant called from his new office.
“With my connection to him as a kid and what he was all about and what he was trying to accomplish,” Grant said, “it was hard for me to just let him go.”
Appreciative of Grant’s loyalty, Hall signed with Clemson in April of 2011.
“Coach Grant’s like my uncle,” Hall said with a laugh. “We talk about basketball, and we also talk about life things. No matter how the day is going, he never changes.”
Grant molded Hall into a steady, reliable point guard. Hall quickly seized the role of Clemson’s primary perimeter defender. He played in all 31 games as a freshman and started nine.
“As a freshman, most kids can’t come in and do it physically and mentally,” Grant said. “Because of how he was prepared in his upbringing and the toughness he had, from day one, he could play and defend. He does his job.”
Hall has started 48 of Clemson’s past 49 games. This season, he has averaged 9.8 points, 3.7 assists and 1.3 turnovers per game.
“He’s a steady, consistent player. He makes other players better,” Brownell said. “He’s proud of where he comes from. He’s proud of his toughness. He measures himself by that, I think, in a lot of ways. If there’s a tough play to be made, he’s going to try to make it. He’s not going to shy away from it.”
Hall plays in appreciation for what those bricks gave to him, and in memory of what they took from him.
Darnell “Dee” Brown was Rod Hall’s twin. Even after Hall moved from Dogwood Terrace, Hall and Brown remained inseparable.
“He was my best friend,” Rod Hall said. “He was very strong, too, and played good defense. It was like playing against yourself.”
Hall and Brown won championships together in middle school and played on the same travel team during the summer of 2010. Before leaving for a tournament on July 4, the pair attended a cookout in Dogwood Terrace.
Hall left the gathering to retrieve an item from his parents’ home. When he opened the front door, Tracie Hall already had received the horrifying call. Minutes after Hall left the cookout, an armed man biked through the neighborhood and opened fire.
Brown was shot in the head.
His death drove Hall through periods of confusion, anger, grief and guilt. There are wounds that may never heal, because there are questions that can never be answered.
“If I were there, we would have been together,” he said, “so would it have happened the same way?”
“He asked himself, ‘Why didn’t I get him to ride home with me?’ ” Tracie Hall said. “I told him it’s God. It’s meant for you to stay here and for him to go on. He carries a lot of weight on his shoulders, because he feels like he’s doing this for the both of them. It makes him push even harder.”
A tattoo in memory of Brown is etched on Rod Hall’s left arm. After his freshman season at Clemson, Hall changed his jersey to Brown’s No. 12. He writes “RIP DEE” on the toe of his game shoes.
“I play with him in my memory and try to do things for both of us,” Hall said. “That was my brother. He was going to get out, too. I have a bigger reason to play instead of just for myself. I’m playing for him and Augusta.”
When he returns home, Hall visits his friends who still live in Dogwood Terrace. He attends games at Laney. He chats with older supporters and take photos with young fans who have watched him tossing alley-oops on ESPN.
“He’s a local celebrity,” Laney coach Buck Harris said, nodding as Hall greets some current Laney players during a late morning practice amid the Christmas break.
“He’s very strong, very humble, never changed who he was,” Harris said. “Our guys appreciate this, that they can see him. They have something to look forward to.”
Finally free from those red bricks, Tracie Hall sits comfortably in the living room of her own home. She pulls out a scrapbook where she stores mementos of her son’s accomplishments. As she flips the thick pages, she sighs and reflects on the traps he avoided and the man he has become.
“It took lots of prayer,” she said. “That’s the only way I see it, looking at all the people that were stuck, but we got out of there, then to see what he’s doing now.”
“It’s like living a dream,” said Rod Sr., who has not missed a Clemson home game since his release. “It’s just inspiring to me and to everybody who watched him grow up.”
Basketball has carried Rod Hall from Augusta, Georgia, to Rome, Italy. Yet, he never forgets those bricks. Those experiences in Dogwood Terrace enriched him just as much as the courses and galas he attends at Clemson.
It is a side of him he proudly shows because it is a side of Augusta people rarely see.
“People probably think Augusta is a beautiful place when they see The Masters,” he said. “That brings a lot of attention to Augusta, but people don’t know this side is here. People here just do what they know how to do to survive.
“I knew basketball was going to be the only way I was going to get out. If I had to pay for school, I wouldn’t have made it. Sometimes, I see other people who could play and think, ‘Why couldn’t they make it? Why am I the one who made it, and they didn’t?’
“I just thank God and my mom for keeping me out of trouble and guiding me.”