When US Monastir point guard Jerome Randle watched his college rival, Isaiah Thomas, play in the NBA for a decade, he could not help but feel a little jealous. Not because they're both 5'9" and could have had similar careers, but because IT'd had the guidance of his dad.
Randle, now 35, told ESPN that the difference between the two players was not necessarily talent but rather Thomas' upbringing with a present father. Randle, who played for the California Golden Bears in college, says he trusted the wrong people -- whom he calls 'leeches' -- while yearning for one.
While Thomas went on to play for 10 NBA teams, most notably for the Sacramento Kings and Boston Celtics, and was an NBA All-Star twice, Randle, now a Ukraine citizen, spent his career travelling the world -- playing in Türkiye, Belgium, France, Spain, Ukraine, and most notably Australia.
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Randle, who will play for the BAL defending champions in Dakar, Senegal over the next two weeks, said of IT, who is a friend: "He achieved everything that he wanted to achieve and I'm sure things are different now because of injury, but he did well for himself.
"We've gained a level of respect and brothership over the years. I have a lot of respect for him, because even at 5'9", he went to the NBA and he's done things that a lot of people can't do.
"I see that and there's a sense of envy, but not envy in a negative way. It's like: 'Damn, I thought in my heart of hearts that I'd be exactly like that.'
"It gives me great joy to know that he had his mother and father in his life to help him during those times - that he didn't have those leeches around - that he had his actual mother and father around to help him through those situations to make the right decisions.
"A lot of kids out here that are trying to become professional athletes are not fortunate enough to say that they have the right people in their corner to help them make the right decisions. I use my platform and the things that I deal with and dealt with to help kids as much as possible."
Randle expected to be picked in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets, but he says his representative turned down the pick against his will, arguing that it was better to go as a free agent and find another route into the NBA than be picked in the second round. Thomas was picked it the second round a year later, at number 60.
Despite several opportunities in pre-season and the NBA Summer League, Randle never took to the court in an NBA game.
Randle said he still regretted the advice given to him by people who did not have his interests at heart, and says his mother did not have the sporting knowledge to help him either: "I didn't have my father around, it was my mother.
"The lack of knowledge of what she needed to help me during those times... she didn't have the knowledge to help me pick an agent and make those decisions when I entered the time of being a professional athlete, so you look for mentors or people just come along the way.
"Everyone comes off as being a person that cares and wants to be there, but you never know the ulterior motives behind it. The only thing you can do is just trust, but you trust someone and things just don't go well. That's what happened. I put a lot of trust in someone for the absence of my father and it backfired."
All that being said, Chicago-born Randle has had a stellar career by most standards, playing in some of the world's best leagues, including Spain and France, where he featured for Metropolitans 92 last season, shortly before they signed Victor Wembanyama.
According to Randle, taller players like Wembanyama have more room to make mistakes on their way to the top, but for a player like him who does not fit the conventional mould, it is difficult to reach the NBA and one mistake could end all hope.
He admitted he has had moments where he has fallen out of love with the game, largely due to broken promises from teams he has played for.
He alleged: "I've lost, for sure, in contracts alone, seven figures just from teams not being professional, not paying players, not caring about contracts. Basically, in Europe, contracts don't mean a thing.
"They sign you and won't pay you and you have to go through FIBA and FIBA will take two or three years to get your money. It's a situation that's tough to deal with but what can you do?"
He is mulling retirement from professional basketball after the Basketball Africa League this year, and will look to use his life experience to be the positive guide and mentor that he never had.
After working closely with children during his time in Australia (2015-2020), he opted for one last shot at success in Africa in order to connect to youngsters on the continent.
Randle explained: "I always knew that I would be part of basketball in the way of giving back to those less fortunate, and kids, regardless, even if it's just advice on how to maneuver through difficult times, being a professional athlete or trying to be a professional athlete, going to college.
"During the (NBL) season, I'd do clinics with kids. That was unheard of. I'd have a game on Saturday and on Sunday, I'd be doing a clinic with 120 kids. My passion has always been to put a smile on the younger generation's face."
First, however, he will look to bow out of the game an African champion, leading by example on the court before shifting his focus to helping the next generation achieve their goals.
The BAL, which airs on ESPN's channels in Africa, starts on March 11 in Dakar, and concludes with the final on May 27 in Rwanda.