The end of one dream for Tommie Liddell III came a half-dozen years ago in the form of a sore leg, with pain that visited him in the unlikely location of a Chinese hotel room. After stints playing professional basketball in three countries on two continents, the 6'4" guard/forward was now in a third, Asia, to take part in the Chinese pro draft. Home to one of the world's better leagues, China regularly pulls in international players, especially Americans, to fill out its rosters. For Liddell, this was his latest attempt to find a pathway to the NBA.
Instead came a groin injury that hurt a lot more than it should have, arriving at the worst possible moment and for no particular pre-existing reason. With tryouts ready to begin and the media-saturated draft to follow, Liddell wasn't even able to walk properly, let alone hoop, and his career as a professional was, for all intents and purposes, done. The end came both suddenly and quietly. In China. Which is a long, long way from East St. Louis High School, where Liddell's NBA dreams began to take shape in the early aughts.
Now 32 and a near-decade removed from his time as a star for Saint Louis University's Billikens, Liddell is philosophical about the situation. A low-key type from birth, Liddell says that the years in the game were rewarding, but that he's come to terms with the end. "I don't have any thoughts about playing basketball" at that level again, he says.
You can't help but notice that his athletic frame looks exactly the same as it did a decade ago. He still looks the part, but says he only started playing again in the last month, just to stay in shape. "Since I've been in shape before, I know what it's like to be out of shape. Sometimes, I still try to find leagues to play in, but I'm not kidding myself that I can still play at that level," he says. "I don't feel 32, but I can't move like I used to. I don't go to the gym and dunk. I'm just slowly letting my body get back to a little of what is used to be. I'm kidding with the guys, 'Gimme two more weeks, and find me an agent.'"
That's a joke, one born of daydreams that linger less frequently in the corners of his mind today. Life has gotten more serious since he last laced up the sneakers for pay.
"Of course, you gotta find something you like to do," he says. "If something doesn't work out, find another plan. Set more goals. Then try to achieve them."
After pro stints in the Netherlands, Uruguay and Romania, Liddell was on a mission to make it in a world just as difficult to negotiate as sports: music. It remains his passion. Even as he's worked both day and night shifts as a supervisor at a fabrication and enamels plant, he was booking time in local studios, working on demos, releasing singles and videos, and gigging in east-side nightclubs, as part of a hip-hop collective called Future Millionaires.
When initially discussing a story almost two years back, Liddell mostly talked about that studio work. But he seemed distracted then — a few years into a job-job, all the studio time eating into his savings. Then 30, he hadn't found his next step, or series of them.
But now he has a new goal: Twenty hours short of an undergraduate degree in criminal justice, more than a decade after he dropped out of college, Tommie Liddell III is a student again. Music now jockeys for time in his brain with English 325, which he's taking this spring at, yes, Saint Louis University.
With a slight laugh, Liddell confirms that class as priority "number one." He adds, "Of course."