“What’s Your Why?” are the simple words inscribed in a bracelet on Lourawls Nairn’s wrist.
The three-word phrase serves as a daily reminder to the native of Nassau, Bahamas, of why he does what he does every day. His end goal – his “why” – is of constant focus.
“My why is to move my mom to America and move my family to America and get them out of the situations they’re in in the Bahamas,” he said.
The Michigan State freshman point guard – known as “Tum Tum” – hails from a poor neighborhood in the Bahamian capital. These days, he resides a long way from the area he calls “Fleming Street.”
“I grew up in a neighborhood where all of my friends now are basically dead or in jail,” he said. “My friends, everybody I grew up with, I’m the only one that made it out the ghetto.”
That is the home that shaped him, where his passion and drive were founded and it makes him want more.
“It’s not a neighborhood that I would want my kids to grow up in, I can tell you that,” he said, “but I think I wouldn’t want to grow up anywhere else because I don’t think I would be the same person if I would have grown up in the suburbs.
“I don’t think I would be the same person.”
A nickname is born
Monalisa McKinney was told she would never have kids. She and Lourawls Nairn, Sr., have two. It is that fact alone which makes Tum Tum, 20, and his younger brother, Laquan, 18, special, she said.
“He is special because of everything I have been through just to bring him here,” McKinney said. “It makes him who he is. I always knew that he was going to be something special.”
It took a little while to find out, as McKinney was hospitalized for four months after Tum Tum was born and given his father’s name. The nickname by which everyone knows him was set in motion during McKinney’s pregnancy. In that time, she took a particular liking to a movie, "3 Ninjas," the tale of three boys with the nicknames Colt, Rocky and Tum Tum.
“I always said to myself as soon as he gets here, I am going to sit down with him and watch this movie,” she said. “He was an eater. He has a very healthy and strong appetite. The little boy in the movie, his name is Tum Tum. As small as he was, he ate for everybody in the family. That was where his nickname came from.”
McKinney is a secretary at a private school now, something that was not always the case as the boys grew up.
“Most of the time, she didn’t have a job,” Tum Tum said. The elder Nairn is a steelworker.
“I know growing up I didn’t have much, but my mom and dad did the best they could to support me and my little brother,” Tum Tum said.
In not having much, he was raised to work hard.
“I grew my boys up with an understanding that everything you want in life you have to work hard to get,” McKinney said. “Nothing is handed to you.”
A need for speed
Early on, it appeared Tum Tum was handed something – at least born with something: speed. He ran track for a club on scholarship at a young age and succeeded at meets, winning in the 100- and 200-meter dash.
“There wasn’t anybody who could really come close to him,” McKinney said.
Tum Tum was about 9 when he was walking home from track practice with his father when his uncle and cousin suggested he play basketball with them.
“The only thing I could do was dribble and I was fast,” Tum Tum said.
He continued running track, while also playing basketball. The team aspect of the game had him hooked. He was undeniably talented when it came to track sprints, but the opportunity to be a part of a team and help others become better was enthralling.
When he was 12, he quit track without telling his parents.
“When they thought I was at track practice, I was really at basketball practice,” he said. “They didn’t know until my mom, she went looking for me, and I wasn’t at track practice, I was at basketball practice. …I got in trouble”
It took about a month for McKinney to realize he had changed what he was focused on, but when she caught on, she understood.
“He wasn’t running anymore,” she said. “He used to talk more about basketball. Everything was about basketball basically.”
By the time he turned 13, basketball was the No. 1 sport in Tum Tum's life. The game had an impact on him immediately, as it made a passionate person become even more determined to use the game to find better.
“It was from at the age of 13 when he wanted to do something with his life – something awesome – to make a better life for himself and for myself,” McKinney said.
Tum Tum prayed for a chance to play basketball and be noticed. One came quickly. A recruiter from South Florida Christian Prep Academy came to his house and offered him the chance to come to Florida to play basketball and pursue his dreams.
His parents were hesitant to let him go, but eventually they consented that he could make the move, so he hopped on a flight with a one-way ticket.
“My parents have always had that faith in me to let me make decisions for myself,” he said. “That one was kinda hard for them to swallow.”
When he arrived in Florida, the dream opportunity proved to be closer to a nightmare.
The basketball coach also was the school's athletic director and founder. Tum Tum was placed in a house with 20 other students and only one bathroom. There was little regulation, as the “campus” consisted of places such as a space in a strip mall above a liquor store and was eventually condemned as unfit for habitation.
“I knew as soon as I got there, I knew how bad it was,” he said, “but the person inside of me, I didn’t want to go back to the Bahamas because I felt like I wasn’t good enough to get another opportunity to play basketball in America. I just stuck with it.”
That meant hiding the situation from his family, as he would lie and say everything was fine when they called.
“I would ask him how he was doing and how it was and he would tell me, ‘Mommy, it’s good and I am comfortable,’” McKinney said. “I was not knowing what he was experiencing and going through, but I knew what his focus was and where his mindset was.”
For two years he maintained the lie until he broke down near the end of Christmas break in his freshman year.
“I looked in the mirror and I was like, ‘Tum you can’t keep doing this to yourself. You can’t keep lying to your family,’” he said.
He told his mom what he had been going through.
"She was kinda mad at me,” he said, while she said she was more upset with herself. He didn’t go back.
“I thought it was over for me, but God always has a plan and I believe that with all my heart,” he said.
“A totally different situation”
It was anything but over as another opportunity was presented to him after a few months of attending C.R. Walker Senior High back in Nassau. He went to a basketball showcase in Freeport, Bahamas, where another prep school from Florida was there to see him.
That school never showed, but Kyle Linsted, from Sunrise Christian Academy, in Wichita, Kansas, had made his annual trip to the showcase and was looking for a point guard.
“The first time he came down the floor I will never forget it,” Linsted said. “He was the fastest point guard I had ever seen in my life. It was incredible and right then I knew that was the kid I came there for.”
The pair hit if off. A person of strong faith, Tum Tum saw it as God having his hand on the situation.
“Talking to him and never even being around him other than that day, I wanted to go to Sunrise,” Tum Tum said.
It was not such a quick sell for McKinney. Sunrise and Linsted had built a solid reputation in the Bahamas after having other Bahamian players come through the school. But the thought of letting her son leave again was hard to fathom.
“I just basically told him that I wanted him in a situation where his hopes and dreams wouldn’t be crushed again,” she said.
Within two weeks, they were on a flight to Wichita to put McKinney’s fears to rest. She saw the campus and the type of people that would be around her son and was pleased. On the plane ride back to Nassau, the decision was made.
“It was so hard for her, but I told her, I said, ‘You gotta let me do this again. Let me do this and trust me,’” Tum Tum said. “She did it and it was a totally different situation.”
From that moment, she trusted Linsted with everything regarding Tum Tum and his future.
“Tum is their rock and she let him go at the age of 13,” Linsted said. “To love a kid is nothing new for a mom, but to love a kid enough to give him away and let him pursue his dreams and desires is a special attribute. It was hard for her to be away from him, but I’m so glad she trusted me and our program. …
“She is a special person and Tum is special.”
One in a million
When Tum Tum arrived at Sunrise, Linsted began to realize just how special his new point guard was. He knew the speed and ability, but he discovered he had a guy “that could take a program over.”
“There’s not too many like him, he’s a one-in-a-million leader,” Linsted said. “He takes heart in the team and he really cares about the team success, not just his. He is really selfless in that way. He understands what happens to the team is way more important than what happens to him.”
Moreover, he recognized and came to appreciate what drives Tum Tum – the “why.”
“I remember Tum saying, ‘Coach, I have to make it because I want to have air conditioning,” Linsted said. “Little things that we take for granted, that’s why he plays so hard. It means something. He wants to help his family. He wants to help his mom. He is gonna give it everything he’s got every time out, every practice, every shootaround. He is going to focus because he knows the end goal is to help others.”
On the court, his game continued to grow and grow. When McKinney came to see him play in an AAU tournament near the end of his junior year, she was stunned to see the player he had become.
“I cried the whole entire time,” she said. “I took a camcorder to actually record the games and I wasn’t able to record anything because I was excited and emotional at the same time.”
Fitting the Spartan mindset
Colleges already had taken notice and were coming calling. Schools, such as Kansas, Arkansas and more offered early. Michigan State showed interest, but as it looked like Kansas was the destination, the Spartans did not get involved.
As Michigan State’s recruiting board changed and targets went elsewhere, Michigan State assistant coach Dane Fife made another call to Linsted.
“We missed out on some guys and I noticed that Tum was still available,” Fife said. “I had followed him and knew he was down to three and was making a decision in a couple weeks. I called Kyle and I said, ‘I sit before you humbly, is Tum still available?’”
He was and was not satisfied with the options remaining. To Linsted, the phone call from Fife was something he will never forget.
“I know right where I was when my phone rang and I saw Dane Fife pop up on my phone,” he said. “Before I answered it, the thought that came to my head was Tum is going to Michigan State. I just knew that was a fit with Tom Izzo and that mindset. He just is a Spartan. He fits that mindset.”
As was the case with going to Sunrise, a visit was quickly set up for Tum Tum to see Michigan State. He called his mother in Nassau and extended the offer for her to make the visit with him. As a college basketball fan – more specifically, a fan of Izzo and Michigan State – it was not even a question in her mind.
“I said just let them know they can have my ticket ready tomorrow,” McKinney said.
With Tum Tum already on his visit, she headed for East Lansing. The pairing quickly was evident. McKinney saw a family environment, a home away from home and a father figure in Izzo.
“My spirit just automatically took to him and connected to him,” she said. “What he said to me when we were sitting down in his office talking, he said in spending a couple hours talking to Tum before you came here, I just want to let you know firsthand you have raised a remarkable young man.”
In an elevator, Tum Tum told her, “This is where my heart is.” Less than two weeks later, he made his verbal commitment to Michigan State.
“I think the world of this program”
The transition to Michigan State was easy. Tum Tum credits Linsted and Sunrise for preparing him for the demands and structure of college, while he has hit the ground running with the same work ethic and passion he often has displayed.
To be in his position is a blessing in his eyes, down to the little things like seeing his name on a locker with his picture.
“I think the world of this program,” he said. “Every day is a wow moment in my life. Every second, every time I walk in the locker room is a wow moment for me.”
The Michigan State head coach quickly saw what Linsted before him had seen in Tum Tum’s drive. In the fall, Izzo had to bring Tum Tum and his fellow freshman, Javon Bess, into his office and tell them to spend less time in the gym.
“Tum brings a whole different mentality as a human being much less as a basketball player,” Izzo said. “I can appreciate what he’s been through and what he’s done.”
In turn, Izzo has witnessed his players rally around him once he arrived on campus. The leadership, fire and magnetism of the freshman drew in others early – current and former Spartans.
“When Draymond Green leaves here and says, ‘If there’s ever a freshman that should be a captain, it’s him,” that’s about as good a compliment as you can get,” Izzo said.
Tum Tum says the leadership comes from realizing he was never going to be the tallest on the court, so he had to make up for it with a level of feistiness and talking loudly.
It also comes back to his past, from growing up in the Bahamas to all the stops before arriving in Michigan.
“I think that’s where that comes from, my past history and what I’ve been through in my life,” he said. “I think all that helped me to want to become a great leader. I think I’m an okay leader right now, but I want to become a great leader.”
He is doing it all still far from home, where his mother follows along online when Michigan State plays. In addition, she is kept in the loop by members of the Michigan State athletic department, as she receives pictures and videos of things such as his entrance at Midnight Madness.
“That really made me cry,” McKinney said. “I am kind of emotional when it comes to my boys because I know how hard I struggled to make sure they had the best possible life and everything.
“To see that out of people there in the arena being so warm and welcoming to him when he was coming out during his entrance, that made me cry. There are no words to describe that feeling.”
McKinney and the rest of Tum Tum’s family should have the opportunity to see him play soon enough. Michigan State has plans to play in the Bahamas-based Battle of Atlantis in 2016, Tum Tum’s junior year.
“That will be really exciting for me and I want to be able to show the guys around and show them how I grew up,” he said.
Better one day
For about a week this summer, Tum Tum was back where he grew up in Nassau with his family. He spent time with friends with ankle bracelets who had to abide by a 9 p.m. curfew. He stays in touch with many friends back home and they encourage him to keep pushing, as he is somewhat of a flag bearer.
“When I was home, I would talk to them, and they would tell me how proud they are of me and they want to see me playing in the big league one day,” he said. “I just gotta keep going because I remember nights that I didn’t get what I want, but my mom and my dad always made me and brother feel like we had the world.
“That’s what I want to be able to do for them. That’s what I want to be able to do for other people. Just show them that I grew up in a bad neighborhood, but there are still good kids from my neighborhood.”
At Michigan State, he wakes up every day in his dorm room and thinks back to where he is from, what he has been through and what he could be doing.
“I know I could be out there selling drugs, carrying around guns,” he said. “It’s not about me, it’s about what God is doing in my life and I know that’s what he’s doing in my life.
“He’s working everything out for the better, so my job is to continue to serve Him and give Him all the glory through this game of basketball.”
He has found ways to do that so far, which McKinney says is a tribute to the way he looks at life and gifts from God that she cannot explain.
“Where he grew up, it’s really neighborhood where you would say a young man would never be able to make it out of a neighborhood like that,” she said. “Here he is. He has done it because that was something he wanted.”
But in the end, the work is not done yet to Tum Tum because he is not done wanting. It always comes back to his “why.” His coaches know it. His family knows it. His mom knows it.
“I talk to my mom more than anybody,” Tum Tum said. “I can’t really call back home, but we text every single day.
“It really hurts her that she can’t be here, but I always tell her it’s going to work out for the better one day.”