STILLWATER — Samatha Nash locked the sliding door behind her, swears she bolted it shut before briefly heading to an adjoining room.
Her three nephews, between the ages of 3 and 5, were at play in the vacated area of her sister's second-story apartment. Her 18-month-old son, Le'Bryan, was with them.
But soon after exiting the room, Samatha heard the transitional noise that triggers fear in so many babysitting parents: Loud children one moment, stunned silence the next.
“We rushed out looking, and all I saw was my nephew running to us,” Samatha recalled. “And he just said, ‘Le'Bryan fell.'”
“He was face down and all I saw was blood. I honestly thought my son was dead.”
For nearly two years running, Le'Bryan Nash has been a puzzling on-court case for Oklahoma State fans.
He was billed as the Marcus Smart before there ever was a Marcus Smart. A can't-miss one-and-done with the potential to win Big 12 Freshman and Player of the Year, at the same time.
But today, Nash sits in Smart's shadow, a talented but enigmatic role player who's trying to develop a skilled but flawed game and shoot back up the NBA Draft boards he once appeared regularly on.
But to understand the mystery that is Le'Bryan Nash, you must first go back. Back before his perceived stock took a plummet. Back to another fall, a nearly crippling fall, that defined his early childhood.
And back to the two reliable forces — his hard-working mother and the game of basketball — that helped in the initial recovery process and have since pushed him forward, toward Oklahoma State, to become the first member of his family to attend college.
The nearly one-inch scar on the left side of Le'Bryan Nash's head is hardly visible. His hair covers it. And his memory of the accident is vague. How could it not be?
Nash wasn't even age 2 when he fell from that two-story balcony, dropping to the pavement and cracking the left side of his skull.
He's far removed from it now. Even the line of questioning seems to surprise him a bit. It's a subject he rarely, if ever, thinks about these days.
But in a way, the accident still shapes him, still remains with him, even though doctors have assured Nash that he's fully healed from the nearly crippling fall.
That's because, in the immediate aftermath, those two dependable figures first emerged. Basketball to help nurse him back to health and his mother to help pave the way.
Samatha Nash put Le'Bryan in physical therapy right after the injury. Paid for medical bills that would put her in financial debt. Incessantly worried about her only child. Did anything the doctors said.
At the age of 5, Le'Bryan started to show signs of recovery. But he was still clumsy, falling more than normal boys. So they told Samatha to put him in basketball. The game could help him establish a better equilibrium, which is controlled by the left side of the brain.
“When he played games at 5-years-old, he would fall,” Samatha said. “I would want to pull him. And he'd say, ‘No, mommy, I can do this, I can do this.' He was so strong.”
Didn't take long for Le'Bryan to catch on. He was a natural for the game, consistently scoring 20-plus points on older competition. And his size didn't hurt. He was well over 6-feet tall by age 12 and dunking in the sixth grade.
“After that head injury, (basketball) helped me progress faster, helped my reaction time,” he says. “And off the court, it helped me realize to be grateful that I'm on this Earth.”
There's plenty of reasons why Le'Bryan Nash is here, playing high-level Division I basketball — genetics, natural talent, hard work — but chief among them, lightyears more important than the rest, is his mother.
From AAU through his first two seasons in college, Samatha has tried to make every game. It was a top priority. “Because I knew there wasn't nobody but me,” she explains.
Le'Bryan's father was rarely around. Their relationship, which doesn't exist today, was nearly nonexistent by age 10.
Former OSU guard Byron Eaton is Le'Bryan's half-brother, from their father's side. But the two never lived together. Just occasionally interacted through basketball.
So it was just the two of them. Le'Bryan, Samatha's only child. Samatha, Le'Bryan's only provider.
They lived in a one-bedroom apartment before he reached high school. Le'Bryan slept on the couch. Says he enjoyed it.
Samatha would get up every morning at 4. She had to be at work by 5. Her shift at the Zale Corporation warehouse, a jewelry outlet where she did data entry and other processing, didn't end until around 6 p.m.
And if there was a basketball game to catch, those 14-hour days would often be stretched to 17.
“When I was younger, I cried when she got home from work, told her, ‘It's gonna get better,'” Le'Bryan said. “She'd come back, her feet are hurting. She'd be so tired.”
Because of that hard work, Le'Bryan never lived in poverty. The bills were paid and the essentials were provided.
But he couldn't live in excess. Couldn't get some of the material things so many kids desperately crave. “(But) he was very understanding of our situation,” Samatha says.
Whenever possible, Le'Bryan would help chip in a few bucks, whatever he got from his weekend paper route or some of the local lawns he occasionally mowed.
“I didn't really need nothing,” Le'Bryan said. “I just needed a momma that cared and food in my belly. I didn't get the flashy car or all that, but I didn't need it.”
His 1996 Bonneville, handed down from Samatha, still sits in her driveway.
“It broke down just about every month, but I could still drive it today if I needed to,” Le'Bryan said. “I got a lot of memories with that car and she worked hard for it.”
To this day, Le'Bryan remains proud of his neighborhood. Speaks highly of South Dallas and wears dedicated tattoos to prove it.
He lived about a mile from Lincoln High School, the tradition-rich basketball school for which he starred.
And until he got his permit, Le'Bryan walked home every day. He ran from stray dogs and got in plenty of fights, especially in his younger years. That's just how it was.
“But I liked it,” he says. “I grew from that. It taught me a lot. To me, it was fun.”
But as he grew older, and the temptation grew thicker, Le'Bryan managed to stay out of trouble. Much of that, once again, can be attributed to his mother, who kept a sharp eye and strict curfew on him, and basketball, an extra curricular activity that earned him local respect and took up most of his spare time.
“This young man probably had every excuse to get in trouble and be a bad kid,” OSU coach Travis Ford said. “Probably had the opportunity, had the free time. But not Le'Bryan, I never heard a negative word, from the teachers we talked to, to the guidance counselors, to everybody you get to know from the recruiting process.”
The pitfalls were plentiful.
Drugs and violence riddle the area, but there's gambling, too. He even recalls hearing about bets on his high school games. People he knew, sternly letting him know that money had been placed. “But I knew I had to stay away from that type stuff. That's an NCAA violation,” he says.
There was even a time — when he and a friend were playing basketball in a neighboring area late one night — Le'Bryan had a gun pulled on him. He'd seen guns his entire life, but never a loaded one pointed directly at him.
It was during his senior year, with his already captured college dreams suddenly flashing before his eyes. Eventually the dispute was settled when the guy recognized him as a local basketball star but, as he says, “it could have gone in a different direction.”
“Lot of violence going on,” he said. “It's a crazy place to live. But it could also be the best place to live. It taught me a lot, taught me to keep fighting. When things going wrong, keep fighting. And it's a blessing that I got out.”
Le'Bryan Nash scored 13.9 points per game in 2012 and won Big 12 Co-Freshman of the Year. He's averaging 14.2 per game this season, including dominant performances of 24, 26 and 28 in the past month.
If he came out of high school named George Smith, the 92nd ranked prospect out of Texas, we'd be talking about a hidden gem the Cowboys swooped up.
But he's not. And that's fair. There were lofty expectations attached to his name and commitment, some self-induced, and he's still trying to meet them.
Like many others, Travis Ford is well aware of the inconsistencies and flaws in Nash's developing game. He deals with them, tries to correct them every day.
But it's the misconception of Nash as a person that bothers Ford, calling him the most misperceived player he's ever coached.
“What a caring person he is,” Ford said. “He's just a wonderful kid. Wonderful young man with a great heart.”
Ford would know. Since bringing Nash to Stillwater two seasons ago, the emotional sideline coach has been tough on his coveted recruit. Defensive errors are followed with death glares. Off-balance fadeaways are followed with a verbal berating.
But each time, Nash has replied with a ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.' mentality, absorbing the criticism and hitting the film room. He's willfully accepted a lesser role in the offense this season and happily yielded the spotlight to Smart.
“I've seen more than one McDonald's All-American, top-10 player cave in after a (freshman) year like that,” Ford said. “Start blaming everybody and not blame themselves. He wasn't like that.”
That, like almost anything else in his life, can be traced back to Samatha and the way she raised her only son. He's been through plenty and survived plenty. Absorbed blows and continued on.
Nash's basketball future remains in limbo. His name has disappeared from the top section of NBA mock drafts. He's aware of it (“If it's three or four years, then it's three or four years,” he says about his future at OSU.)
But make no mistake, he thinks about that first professional paycheck. He thinks about handing it to her, seeing her cry tears of joy just like she did the day he signed his college scholarship.
“I owe a lot of it to her,” Le'Bryan said of his mother. “I play for her first and worry about myself second. Because that's what she did. She worried about me first and herself second my entire life.”