MyCover: How Collin Sexton Is Fueled By Those Closest To Him

MyCover is the reinvention of the historic Dime Cover, where players are given the power to creative direct and help make the Cover that matters to them. First up is Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton, who is living proof that family truly does matter.

Every NBA player has an origin story. It’s that event where the dream crystalizes, takes hold, and never lets up. It’s that last crank, clank, and click on their ascent before the roller coaster crests and one is no longer in control. The rest is up to fate, faith, or any other number of phrases we ascribe to the endless dice roll of life to make sense of past, present, and future at the same time.

For Collin Sexton, that moment was born out of a parka, a backyard, and a garage.

Winters in Georgia aren’t known for heaps of snowfall, but cold is cold, and it can get pretty dang cold in the South, too. So a family built around basketball – dad coached, and the three kids were more likely to spend birthdays in a gym than at a bowling alley or a pizza place – needed a hoop, and the one they had in their backyard wasn’t going to do anybody any good if they were bundled up in coats and gloves.

Gia Sexton devised a simple solution, one that would alter the trajectory of her youngest son’s life – and, as a result, the family around him – for the future. She would just have 11-year-old Jordan and Collin (then seven) help her drag the hoop into the garage.

“I had 10-foot ceilings in the garage,” Darnell Sexton, Collin’s father, says. “Very high garage. So considering how old he was, his whole thing was, ‘I want to play, I want to work.’ So what my wife did — I was actually at work on that day — she moved the vehicles out of the garage and the three of them drug the goal inside the garage and secured it with some sandbags. I think they went to Home Depot and got some sandbags and secured the goal, and at that point in the juncture, that goal stayed in that garage. And that was their thing. Regardless of the weather, regardless of the conditions outside, we were always able to do it inside.”

From then on, they were the only kids in the neighborhood with a goal inside. Collin and Jordan would play until they weren’t allowed anymore, eventually until one or two in the morning, with Jordan often winning and Collin refusing to take the loss as finality.

This only served to showcase Collin’s fierce determination, a trait that would follow him as he rose in AAU and the recruiting rankings. It eventually led him to a Top 10 pick, the lone major holdover of the Kyrie Irving trade between Cleveland and Boston, and a major part of the rebuild after LeBron left for Los Angeles. His family has been right there every step of the way, pushing him the same way Jordan did in endless games on that hoop.


Sexton family / DIME

There are three things you should know about Collin Sexton.

No. 1: He’s fiercely loyal, especially to his family. He keeps his circle tight, and some can take that as him being aloof or dismissive.

“Collin is very into everything has to be structured in his life,” Giauna, his sister, says. “And he likes structure. He likes organization. That’s just how he is. It takes a lot to get to know him, because he’s also very shy, until you get to know him. Then he’ll open up to you. Once you come around and he sees that you’re a good person and don’t have any ill will, then he’ll definitely open up to you or anyone else. It’s just he’s very guarded. You don’t want to come off cold, but you also don’t want to give yourself too quickly to people that maybe didn’t earn it.”

No. 2: He’s a neat freak. We’re talking color-coded closet. Short sleeves to long sleeves. Blue jeans from light to dark. And shoes organized meticulously to a level where he knew right away after going on a trip for AAU that Jordan had borrowed a pair of his Air Jordans even though Jordan thought he put them back. Collin’s bed is made, his clothes are always put away, whether it’s at home or on the road. Maybe it’s tied to his lifelong appreciation for math; numbers make sense, numbers are organized, numbers have meaning.

No. 3: He’s as competitive as anyone. Nick Stapleton, a former standout at Austin Peay, had returned from playing overseas and was transitioning into training. He heard about a kid who was going into his ninth-grade year who kept being compared to him.

“I’m from Flint so I think he has like a Flint mentality,” Stapleton says. “Like against all odds, everybody is against us and I’m going to prove everybody wrong. I got a chip on my shoulder. Even if nothing is wrong I’m going to put something on my shoulder to get me motivated. When I seen that I was drawn to that, I got drew to that. I was like, ‘Man, this is how I would be if I was 15, 16, or 17.’”

Stapleton challenged Sexton during their first session, and told him if he wanted to get where he was going, he’d have to work harder. For Sexton, who already thought he was working pretty hard, it came as a bit of a shock. But instead of retreating, Collin stepped forward.

Nick asked what Collin’s end goal was. Sexton responded by saying the thing he’s dreamt of his entire life since telling his grandmother when he was three years old: to play professionally.

“Okay, so you got to do different shit,” Stapleton countered. “Like you can’t do what everybody else does. You have to sacrifice. And he’s all about that. But I’m like, you can’t have both. I don’t want to take away your childhood but I guarantee you will thank me later if you get to where you want to go. These little parties and this little shindigs, let’s go to the gym instead. Let’s go watch film instead. And he was all aboard. He was locked in. Three workouts a day. We was working, we was lifting, we was communicating, and we was learning every day. Every day we got better.”

The Young Bull earned that nickname for a reason. Anyone who has seen him on a high school YouTube clip, a college highlight, or on League Pass with the Cavs can see that competitive spirit with all the subtlety of an air raid siren.

It was there when Collin battled Jordan in the garage, often leading to mom having to calm things down. It was there when Darnell would sign Collin up for camps with a different name, or change his hair, or swap numbers with another camper to make sure Collin got the work in but was never given a written evaluation he could get frustrated by or attention he didn’t yet deserve. It was there after losses when he’d ride home with mom because he dreaded those conversations where dad is still a little too much in coach mode and hasn’t shifted back into dad mode.

“Growing up, my dad, he had different AAU teams and they were a lot older than I was, way older” Collin says. ”And I always looked up to them and always wanted to be like them. I was always running around in the gym, being the one shooting during halftime, me and my brother shooting during timeouts and just being in the gym made me really fall in love with the game of basketball. I’ve seen how hard my dad pushed those guys and how he wanted what’s best for them. And when it was our turn he definitely pushed us and I loved it. I definitely loved being coached. I definitely love my dad just always being hard on us because at the end of the day it definitely paid off. It definitely did.”


Sexton family / DIME

That eighth grade into ninth grade year was when Collin turned a corner athletically, finding a way to match the competitive streak with the it factor that led to him eventually making the NBA. Jordan had gone off to school at Hiwassee in Tennessee, and Collin and Darnell surprised him for his first game.

On the court after the game, Collin was shooting around like always, and he told Jordan to watch. Sexton threw the ball off the backboard and cocked back a one-handed slam, the first time Jordan had ever seen Collin dunk. Jordan knew the will to win was there. He’d seen it in the eighth-grade championship between Hillgrove and Wheeler as Sexton took over despite a nine-point deficit heading into the fourth, and eventually took the lead with 2:09 to play, before Wheeler sent the game to OT at the buzzer. Sexton missed a leaning three that would’ve sent the game to double OT and immediately doubled over. It was a loss he took hard, but even Jordan couldn’t have predicted how Collin would commit that summer, when most kids in their summer before high school are focused on friends and soaking up as much fun as they can before the real work starts.

“I went away to school and when I came back, I just seen a different side of him,” Jordan says. “I always told people, everybody at my college, I would say, ‘Hey, y’all don’t know his name, but in a couple of years, Collin Sexton going to be a household name.’”

That’s about when the relationship with Jordan started to change. Collin started being able to take him in one-on-one, and the fighting and scrapping in the garage when Jordan was back from school turned to training. Jordan is still there with him, watching and working, except now he’s the one throwing him passes rather than squaring up to try and beat the Young Bull.

“He’s the one that pushed me, when we’d play one on one,” Collin says. “He’s the one that got me as tough as I am. Always fighting, always being there for me, whether it’s a good game, bad game. He was always there, always the one cheering me up. Always the one to be hard on me. And I always appreciate him for that.

Sexton’s rise led to accolades at Pebblebrook High, including winning the Dunk Contest at the McDonald’s All-America Game, and placed him squarely among the top recruits in the country, including the top guard on 247. Despite strong interest from Kansas, NC State, Villanova, and others, Sexton joined Avery Johnson at Alabama, hoping to carve out a name for himself at a school known for football.

It didn’t take long for Collin to find his way into college basketball lore. On Nov. 25, 2017, Alabama’s entire bench was ejected, another player was injured, and a member of the Tide fouled out. Down 10 with 10 minutes remaining against the 14th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers, the Tide was forced into playing 3-on-5. Sexton, in a 40-point effort, managed to get the lead down to 83-80 and had a chance to push it even closer but missed a shot with 1:18 left.

Collin points to it as an example of his determination, but mentions the missed shot in the same breath. Losses still get to him, although he’s learning how to channel that energy thanks to mentors like Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul (who coached Collin at The 8 Invitational in Las Vegas), and Kevin Love, the latter of whom has helped him manage the ups and downs of an NBA season, especially during rebuilding years.

“When I talk to Chris, he’s been on winning teams,” Collin says. “When I talk to Dwyane, I asked him, what’s the difference between a losing team that has a bad record and a championship team? And he gives me those answers. On the outside looking in, what do they see that we need to improve on? Different things. It’s kind of different types of scenarios and just picking their brain a little bit, which is definitely good and has definitely helped me.”


Sexton family / DIME

There’s always a dichotomy of teams in the lottery when it comes to fit. Certain players would excel anywhere. Certain teams can make almost any talented player excel. But for rebuilding teams, not every player can handle the losing and stay focused on the work it takes to turn things around. Sexton has recommitted to breaking down film and looking for little victories in-season to carry him (another tip from Love), whether that’s snagging a win against a team on a back to back, or getting a tough road win against a potential playoff team.

The work is there, and there’s tangible improvement in his two NBA seasons, with him making marked jumps around January of both years. It goes back to the motto the family has adopted: move with a purpose. It’s allowed him to stay focused in a war of attrition as Collin has dealt with the revolving door of coaches in Cleveland, but he’s managed to take something away from every coach as he tries to keep building. There’s lessons to be learned from whomever is at the helm, be it Tyronn Lue or J.B. Bickerstaff.

“My approach is to feel them out honestly,” Collin says. “I have a good discernment of people and understanding like who’s real and who’s really not. So I’m just talking to them and you can get to understand like he’s genuine about it. He’s not trying to show me up. He’s not trying to just embarrass me. And you understand those people who are like that, and those who aren’t. It’s not hard to pick out where the information is coming from. It’s just, who it’s coming from. And I feel like you have to always find out what the people’s intentions are.”

This stems from Sexton’s guarded personality. He’s a show-me guy; once you prove yourself to him, you’re in. It’s clear he wants stability, and he might have that in Bickerstaff, who he took to immediately in Cleveland when he was an assistant.

But as Stapleton notes, it’s not an excuse, and Collin isn’t in the business of being an excuse maker anyway, whether he’s playing his older brother in the garage or playing 3-on-5 in the most unusual of college basketball games.

“With him, he hasn’t had that [stability] yet,” Stapleton says. “I mean, it’s also the NBA so we get it. What, are you going to cry about it? Nobody is going to feel sorry that you got another coach. Nobody is going to care about that. But what you can do, figure it out, ask a question, talk to the coach, get a relationship with the coach, and let’s make this work. Simple as that.

Having all these coaches right now, that’s tough, but you’re not the only player that’s been in these shoes. There’s been a lot of players that have multiple coaches.”

Darnell agrees, and stresses to Collin that even if those coaches aren’t fits in Cleveland, or have short tenures, they all had success to this point, and all have earned their stripes at one time or another. There’s something to be gained from their knowledge base, and it’s on Collin (young or not) to filter that information and decide what to hold onto, and what to build off of until there’s some semblance of consistency with the Cavs.

“He understood there’s still some good in all these guys, but I’ve got to actually find what’s going to help me to help my team,” Darnell says. “I think over this time that we’ve been through coaching changes, it’s been good because he’s been able to take something from each one of these guys that has made them a great coach. So it’s helped in his maturation process or getting to the league. Being able to understand shot selections, bad shot selections, learning the difference in playing help-side in college and learning how to play help-side in the pros is different. If you’re late, you’re really late. So understanding what each one of these coaches is teaching is a major thing for him.”

It goes back to Sexton’s childhood love of math. He breaks down film the same way he studied flashcards, with the same ferocious intensity he brings to family games of Uno, and there are endless anecdotes about his memory, even at a young age.

Once his decision making starts to mirror that repetition and the if/then equation of what he’s seeing on film, things should inevitably click. Pair that with the work ethic and his athleticism, and it’s not hard to see why he can take over games even at the NBA level, even on a sub-30 win team.

Giving the trust that he can be so hesitant to give to the team’s vets, like Love and Larry Nance Jr., will be huge in getting him to where he wants to go.

“Sometimes the guard needs to see like, ‘Oh, it’s not about being a shooting show,’” Nance says. “It’s not about pounding the ball into the ground. It’s about literally angles. It just takes a second to learn. You just got to be around it. And sometimes if you have somebody that’s can just kind of grab them by the hand, ‘Hey, check this out.’ And then they start to see it. [Sexton and Darius Garland] are so ridiculously talented. You can see it at practice every day. But it takes awhile to learn.”

Sexton’s had nothing but time in the COVID-shortened season. The Cavs had built up a bit of momentum heading into March, but the abrupt stop ran the risk of erasing all those gains. At home in Georgia, Collin focused on getting better, watching more film than ever, and using his time with his family as an unexpected blessing. He hasn’t had this much time directly with his parents, Jordan, Giauna, and Giauna’s daughter Gabby since before Jordan went off to college. Those valuable moments have brought him perspective and informed how he’ll operate once he’s back in the NBA grind.

“That’s one takeaway that I have had is when all this is all said and done is just continue to check in on them and make sure everyone is doing good,” Collin says. “Because once you get busy and stuff, you don’t forget about them, but you don’t communicate as much as you should with them. It’s a simple thing but I didn’t notice it until this happened. So then I was like, alright, now I notice it. So now I going to make sure that I do something about it and not just say I’m going to do something about it. You feel me?”

The Sextons brought back family dinners and game nights (with, of course, Uno), have spent time on the bike trail near their house, and – of course – have talked plenty of hoops. Stapleton wishes Collin had the time in the Bubble other young players have had, and references how good it’s been for guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but he’s confident the extra work Collin has put in will pay dividends as he enters Year 3.

If there’s anything Collin loves as much as basketball, it’s his niece. He took to her instantaneously, and any time Giauna brings Gabby over, it’s hard for him not to monopolize the time with her. They’ll watch Peppa Pig and he loves teaching her math flashcards. She’s even started to show the same stubbornness and mean-mugging facial expressions that Collin is known for.

“They make the same faces,” Giauna says. “I have plenty of pictures. I send my family pictures of him when he was little and pictures of her, and they’re identical. And it’s crazy because everyone always talks about how she acts just like him. If she’s mad about something, she makes his face or she’s very competitive, like him. So if she can’t figure it out, she gets so upset, just like him. Literally, it’s like I birthed another Collin. And I was like, I don’t even know how they got it.”

Collin lights up whenever Gabby is around, and if, as Tyronn Lue said prior to the 2018 season, it’s really about wins and lessons, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from these past few months of the pandemic. Sexton has embraced this time, a time to be around family and a time to keep getting better, even as so much is out of his control.

If anything, the pandemic (and the extra time with his family, especially Gabby) has helped him see how important he is to the younger generation, as someone still close enough in age to relate, but who represents the dream any young kid playing on a hoop – in the backyard, at the park, at the Boys and Girls Club, or yes, even in the garage – shares.

“Time is definitely more valuable and just spending time with them,” Collin says. “They can actually take that away. That’s something they’re going to remember forever. Those moments that you’re talking to them, just mentoring. And you can give money just to go the easy way, but if you’re actually taking your time in showing that you care and showing that you actually understand them, those are things that’s going to live forever with them.”

Sexton family / DIME