Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a “Where Are They Now?” series that will run each month during the Kenosha News’ 125th anniversary year. The series focuses on former Kenosha County standout athletes and their lives after sports.
Brandon Morris remembers the shoeboxes.
The ones full of letters from major NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs. The ones belonging to Andre Speed.
Speed was a standout at St. Joseph then. And not just any standout. He was the show at Madrigrano Gymnasium, the heir to Nick Van Exel’s throne for the Lancers, the next player from Kenosha who was going to make it big.
Morris and David Tolefree, both future standouts at St. Joseph themselves, were in middle school, and boy did they look up to Speed.
“We were going into the stands watching those games, excited because of Andre Speed,” Morris, who recently completed his first season as the St. Joseph boys basketball coach, said over dinner with Speed and the reporter of this story recently.
“And then, once we were able to build a relationship with him — as little seventh-graders — and then going over to his house and seeing shoeboxes full of college letters and all that stuff, it was just like, ‘Dude, we’re going to St. Joe’s. We’re going to be like ‘Dre Speed.’
“And that right there, it was just amazing.”
In a Feb. 29, 1996, story that ran in the News, Speed — then a junior and recently named the Metro Conference Player of the Year, a conference that was loaded with talent — was asked how many letters he’d received.
“A few,” Speed said.
How many is that?
“A few thousand,” Speed replied.
Now 41 years old, Speed rattled off some of the schools when asked again which programs were pursuing him.
“Syracuse, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Arkansas, USC,” Speed said. “I mean, all of them. Kansas.”
Andre Speed was going to be a basketball star known well beyond Kenosha. He was going to make it, at a major college, then in the NBA.
And then, he didn’t make it.
A new path
It’s been a long time since Speed was a basketball star. He’s not famous now, at least to those who don’t remember how great he was at basketball. He goes to class, just another college student, albeit older than most of his classmates.
At 41, Speed is just weeks away from earning his master’s degree in sports administration from UW-Parkside. He decided to go back to school at an advanced age, earned his bachelor’s in sport management from Parkside in 2016 and is now on the verge of getting his master’s.
Speed’s classmates don’t know him as the one-time can’t-miss basketball star. He admitted that’s kind of refreshing.
“They don’t (have any idea),” Speed said. “I do (like that), because they don’t know the history. When I shed light on certain things, then they’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you knew that.’
“Well, I know a little bit about a little bit.”
Indeed, Speed learned a lot of things the hard way.
Today, Speed is on the path to a master’s degree. He does fitness training and looks like he could still run a few games at a local gym, but he said his playing days are over.
“Father Time is undefeated,” he said. “In my mind, I think I can go, but the body does not follow.”
Speed truly seems at peace with his life now, but it wasn’t easy to arrive where he’s at.
See, here’s the thing: You can’t escape it. When you’re an athletic star who’s supposed to make it big and you don’t make it big, the question never really goes away.
Why didn’t you make it?
Speed maintains he made peace a long time ago with the answer to that question, but of course other people couldn’t understand. Why was Andre Speed, a local basketball legend, back in Kenosha in his early 20s after just one season of Division I college basketball at Centenary University in Shreveport, La.?
“It was very, very difficult,” Speed admitted when asked if it was hard to accept that his basketball career was essentially over at 23 years old and people couldn’t understand why.
“If you’ve ever played sports, it’s hard to pick up the pieces and figure out what you’re going to do afterwards. For me, basketball was my life. I played since I was eight years old, competitively, all the way up until 23 years old.
“So, understanding all the hours that I put in and the training, the coaching, it was just frustrating to really put it down.”
To Speed, though, the answer to why his career didn’t pan out the way he and others thought it would came rather quickly.
“Honestly, right after I stopped,” Speed said when asked if there was a point where he came to grips with the end of his basketball career. “I knew it then, because at the end of the day, there’s a lot of politics in sports, there’s a lot of things that have to go your way.
“At the end of the day, you truly have to be gifted. You have to be one of those special ones in order to really make it at that elite level. And I understood that. I’m a God-fearing man. I prayed a lot, and I asked God every day.
“To that point, I wasn’t chosen.”
At one point, though, it didn’t seem like there was a more perfect person to be chosen to be a basketball star than Andre Speed.
A 6-foot-4 forward/center with immense strength and athleticism, Speed burst onto the scene with the Lancers, scoring 20 points — including a dunk — against Central in his first game as a freshman in 1993.
Quickly a star on the court, Speed — who moved to Kenosha from Arkansas as a young child — also found something else at St. Joseph that he’d been lacking.
“What I noticed right away was just how close-knit St. Joe’s and the families were,” Speed said. “Me, coming from a single-parent home, I didn’t get that support, that moral support, (like) most kids that I went to school with.
“So a lot of my friends at that age, their parents confided in me, and I confided in them, and it worked out for the best.”
Meanwhile, Speed’s basketball career kept ascending.
As a junior, he averaged 21.1 points, 14.8 rebounds and five assists per game despite battling double- and triple-team defenses. He led the Lancers to the now-defunct WISAA State Tournament, was named the Metro Conference Player of the Year and first-team All-State by both the Associated Press and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Speed was the first Kenosha County player since Van Exel to receive a first-team All-State honor. By that point, Van Exel was playing for the Los Angeles Lakers.
The comparisons were undeniable, even though Van Exel — a quick, sharpshooting guard — was a much different player than Speed.
“To put Andre in the same sentence as Nickey, who is one of the best guards in the country … I just don’t see it,” then-St. Joseph coach Rocky Tirabassi told the News in February of 1996.
“Andre is just getting the car out of the garage and warming it up, while Nickey is already there.”
Still, it wasn’t hard to make the comparison.
Speed was the Lancers’ star, and the shoeboxes were filling up with major college offers.
Then, everything changed in one day.
While Speed takes full accountability for the incident that occurred during the summer between his junior and senior year, as he relates it, it was as much a matter of bad luck and bad timing as anything.
Speed was in Green Bay one day, hanging out with friends and playing basketball. It was a Sunday, and he needed to get back to Kenosha on Monday to attend a summer school class.
Quite simply, Speed said, the ride he was relying on to get home left without him, and he ultimately missed class.
“That’s the story,” Speed said. “It wasn’t me being a bonehead or anything, just an unfortunate situation that I put myself in.”
All these years later, though, Speed blames nobody but himself.
“I’ll say this: It was a time that I should’ve been focused, and I dropped the ball,” he said. “It was all on my shoulders. Huge mistake as far as me getting a high-major Division I scholarship.
“A lot of high-major schools backed off of me because of that reason.”
The “reason” was that, because of the missed class, Speed was ruled academically ineligible and couldn’t rejoin the Lancers until late January of his senior season.
He couldn’t even practice with the team.
“That hurt me the most,” Speed said of not being able to practice. “The mistake was made, and I had to deal with it. I’m the type of person that’s going to be held accountable for his own actions.
“So when I made the mistake of missing the summer class and unfortunately being suspended for the first semester, I knew it.”
Speed did put in the work to return by taking courses at Gateway Technical College. He played the second semester of his senior year and graduated from St. Joseph in 1997.
But the interest from major colleges dried up.
Speed said he was already working to boost his ACT score high enough to qualify for the schools pursuing him, but the suspension incident was a critical blow, fair or not.
“I mean, absolutely,” Speed said when asked if it hurt to watch all those major college basketball programs fade away. “You’ve got to think about it: Here’s a kid that comes from Arkansas, single-parent home ...
“I think I handled it fine. A little frustrating, absolutely, just because the name, you build (it) up, and then the anticipation of possibly going to a great institution, and then you let it all fade away a little bit, it was a tough cookie to swallow.”
But there was still a chance at redemption.
Speed played for two years at Dodge City Community College in Dodge City, Kan., and he didn’t just succeed on the court.
“Andre did excellent in the classroom, just tremendous,” Dodge City coach Mike Rohn told the News in April of 1998. “He finished with a 3.4 grade-point average in the first semester and just missed being on the honor roll.”
After two years at Dodge City, Speed went to Centenary. He was playing Division I basketball, but he had left a different opportunity on the table, a decision he now says he regrets.
Playing for Wisconsin at the time were guys that Speed competed against in high school, such as Whitefish Bay Dominican product Andy Kowske and Milwaukee Pius XI product Mike Kelley.
Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett had apparently not forgotten about Speed, either.
“We had a meeting, sat down and had a great conversation for me to walk on that year (1999-2000),” Speed said. “The offer was I walk on that year, and then I catch a full ride the following semester, because all of the scholarships were taken up.
“(Bennett) remembered who I was, because I attended one of his camps, and he always followed me. … But to make a long story short, I didn’t accept it, because I didn’t know where the funds to pay for my tuition (were) going to come from. So I was a little scared.
“But now thinking back on it, I promise you I would’ve took that offer.”
Instead, Speed played in just eight games that season at Centenary. The Badgers, meanwhile, made a Cinderella run to the Final Four.
“It was rough,” Speed said of watching Wisconsin reach the Final Four in 2000. “Every night, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I had that opportunity.’
“I’ve got friends calling me from Madison saying, ‘Dre, you should’ve been on that team. You were on that team. I can’t believe you let that go.’”
Centenary, meanwhile, “just didn’t fit,” according to Speed. So he decided to come home and end his playing career.
“I just had to come to grips with myself,” Speed said. “’Do I want to continue furthering on my career, or do I just say, ‘You know what, I have to face reality and just say, it’s time for the real world?’
“And so I chose the real world.”
Speed found regular jobs, but the idea of pursuing a college degree never left him.
For that, he credited the Gagliardi family, who — as Speed puts it — basically took him in while he was at St. Joseph. He called Frank Gagliardi, now an attorney in Paddock Lake, his “best friend.”
It was Frank’s mother, Kathryn, who kept pushing the value of education on Speed.
“She used to say, ‘Andre, there’s more to life than just basketball,’” Speed said. “’You’re going to need your degrees, you’re going to need your education.’
“Education, education, education, education. She used to always say that, ‘Listen, I finished my education late. If you ever come into a situation, don’t ever be afraid to finish your education.’
“And so that always stuck with me.”
And so, Andre Speed, more than 20 years after he was a can’t-miss basketball prodigy at St. Joseph, is about to get his master’s degree.
“No,” Speed said with a hearty laugh when asked if he ever imagined he’d be doing this. “Oh no, not at all. I was done with the bachelor’s.
“... In all honesty, I’ve always kept Mrs. Gagliardi in the back of my mind. She was a huge inspiration for me growing up, and always to this day.”
Speed also said he’s always motivated to make his mom, Diane Young, proud.
As for Morris, he now looks up to Speed in a much different way than he did as a middle-schooler in awe of Speed’s basketball talent.
“The fact that he’s doing that, I’m like, ‘Man, this is just awesome,’” Morris said. “It’s amazing, because it speaks volumes as far as what you can achieve, where you need to go, how you need to do it, and the people that you can look up to.
“Whether you’re older, whether you’re younger. It’s amazing.”
Morris, who also went on to play college basketball after his career at St. Joseph, can identify with Speed over the difficult transition it can be from being an athlete to joining the “regular world.”
“Obviously, we’re at a point where we’re not looking to play competitively or do anything coming close to running up and down the court and putting the ball in the hoop,” Morris said. “But so many athletes, our (athletic) talents kind of cover up our other talents.
“So to see that Andre (is getting) his master’s, and he can be an athletic director or running a professional sports team or do any of those things … it just sheds light on athletes that we were always students, but the athlete part overshadowed that we were students.
“And now we get that to shine a little bit.”
When Morris accepted the job to coach the St. Joseph boys basketball team, he had a couple obvious calls to make to fill out his staff.
“As soon as the job was available and I thought about applying for it, right away of course I thought of a coaching staff,” Morris said. “David Tolefree (and) Andre Speed. So I called (Speed).
“I gave him a call just to see what he thought, if he was available, and if that was where he still wanted to go and make it happen.”
Once stars on the court at Madrigrano Gymnasium, Morris, Tolefree and Speed now roam the sidelines coaching a new generation. Assisting Morris has been a good fit for Speed.
“Just give them life lessons,” Speed said of his goal as a coach. “The dos, don’ts. If you really want to be great, the work ethic that you’re going to have to have in order to make it to that next level.
“... And just a shoulder to cry on or (someone) to talk to. … If you don’t have that moral support who’s been through it before, someone who can lead by example … that goes a long way.”
Speed does have someone to carry on the family name. His 14-year-old daughter, Alexandria, attends Indian Trail.
Speed said his daughter has tried every sport, including basketball, but he wants her to choose her own path. To this day, though, people know who her father is and the basketball star he once was.
“Just a couple weeks ago, she mentioned a story that a guy came to her — I guess he was a security guard or whatever — ‘Oh, I used to play against your dad, and he was awesome, yada, yada, yada. He beat me by like 40 points, and I just want you to know that your dad was awesome,’” Speed said.
“She says, ‘Dad, this guy comes up and tells me that you’re great. But, you know what Dad, they tell (me) that all the time.’ And I just said, ‘All right, all right.’
“She gets it. She gets it, and she understands it. I just tell her that, ‘Yeah, it was once upon a time that Dad wanted to become a professional athlete.’”
Well, in that regard, Speed never made it.
So, back to the pressing question: Whatever happened to Andre Speed?
He’s doing just fine. He’s about to get his master’s degree. He’s walking proof that life doesn’t just stop if you’re a one-time basketball phenom whose athletic career ended in your early 20s.
“It’s life,” Speed said. “I’m walking in God’s path. And I said this years and years go when I was a young man: For me, success is not measured by the things that you’re doing, per se. For me, it’s, Are you a good person?