Malik Monk’s journey from ‘The Woodz’ to NBA’s Hornets

Charlotte Hornets 2017 draft picks Malik Monk, center, hands an autographed hat back to a fan as Dwayne Bacon, rear, laughs with a team staff member while greeting fans in uptown Charlotte on Friday.
Charlotte Hornets 2017 draft picks Malik Monk, center, hands an autographed hat back to a fan as Dwayne Bacon, rear, laughs with a team staff member while greeting fans in uptown Charlotte on Friday. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Everyone in town knew the place as “The Woodz,” although there was hardly a tree to be found there.

There was an outdoor basketball court, though, set near a cotton field. And it was on that court in Lepanto, Ark., (pop. 1,893) that new Charlotte Hornet Malik Monk learned the game.

Get pushed down. Jump back up. No cheap fouls. Winners stay. Losers sit. Play until it was too dark to see. On Sundays after church, take on players from other nearby towns in games that could last for hours.

“We called it ‘The Woodz,’ although really it was just the last three streets of Lepanto where most of the black people live,” the former University of Kentucky star said. “But The Woodz — that’s what made me.”

Even after he moved away from Lepanto at age 15, “The Woodz” has stayed with Monk. He has made sure of that by literally having the place etched into his skin.

Monk has come to Charlotte as the 11th overall pick of the 2017 NBA Draft and sporting a complicated tattoo that stretches over his entire chest — “The Woodz” in all its inky glory. The basketball goal where he taught himself to dunk covers much of his left pectoral muscle. There was some artistic license taken — there are a lot more trees flourishing in Monk’s tattoo than there are in real life.

At the NBA Draft on Thursday night, Monk flashed the inside lining of his suit jacket not to show off but to display the words “The Woodz” repeatedly emblazoned on the inside.

‘Brother, father, best friend’

“You’re too small, Malik,” his mother, Jackie Monk, remembers the grown men who dominated the court saying to her son. “You can’t play yet.”

But Monk had an “in” — his older brother, who was the family’s star athlete long before Malik ever put up 47 points against North Carolina. It is difficult to overstate the importance in Malik Monk’s life of Marcus Monk — NFL Draft pick, former Arkansas Mr. Basketball, high school valedictorian and briefly a Carolina Panther.

“He’s brother, father, best friend — whatever,” Malik said. “Marcus comes everywhere I go.”

Marcus Monk, now 31, will move to Charlotte with his 19-year-old brother.

“This gift Malik has comes with tons of responsibility,” Marcus Monk said. “And with him being so young, he can only digest so much. So I’m just going to try to help him maneuver through that.”

Jackie Monk will stay back in Arkansas, where she is employed as a social worker in a nursing home. She said she plans to keep the job even after her son signs his first NBA contract, although Malik said he hoped to talk her out of working one day. Since his biological father has rarely been involved in his life, Jackie and Marcus have mostly raised Malik.

“We’re his backbone,” Jackie said.

Marcus Monk could get Malik onto the court at “The Woodz,” but then Malik had to learn to hold his own. He did that so well that by the time he finished ninth grade he was regarded as a budding superstar.

At that point, Jackie Monk moved across the state to Bentonville, Ark. — five hours away and known mostly for being the corporate headquarters of Walmart. Why?

“More opportunities,” Jackie Monk said. “The high school he would go to in Bentonville was awesome, and I wanted to be closer to Marcus.”

The first Monk brother

Marcus Monk was in graduate school at the University of Arkansas at that point — only 30 minutes from Bentonville. Malik would attend Bentonville High, which currently has 3,400 students, almost double the population of his entire hometown. Malik Monk wouldn’t have as many opportunities to go hunting and fishing and ride his beloved four-wheelers as he did in more rural Lepanto, but Jackie thought he would have a better life in Bentonville.

Many sports fans in Arkansas also thought that Malik Monk could — and should — go play at the nearby University of Arkansas, too. Marcus had gone there, after all, as a lanky wide receiver, and during his junior season had 50 catches for 962 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also had dabbled in basketball at Arkansas after being the state’s Mr. Basketball in high school in 2004. He didn’t play much basketball for the Razorbacks but once came off the bench to guard Blake Griffin when several other team members were in foul trouble and helped key an upset of Oklahoma.

In his senior year, though, Marcus Monk had sustained a serious knee injury. That dropped his NFL Draft stock considerably, but he was still chosen in the seventh round of the 2008 draft by the Chicago Bears.

The Bears cut him, but both the New York Giants and the Panthers liked him enough to give him another chance. Monk was with the Panthers for the entire 2009 training camp — playing some in the preseason — but was cut just before the first game. “It was a great experience,” Monk said. “I loved the city of Charlotte. I grew up about an hour away from DeAngelo Williams, so we got to know each other a little.”

Once the Panthers cut Monk, though, no one else gave him a tryout. He went back to basketball then and played overseas in Germany for a couple of years before returning to Arkansas.

The Kentucky decision

It was Marcus Monk who helped keep his younger brother’s recruiting calls to a manageable level, but Marcus also felt it was his duty not to sway Malik toward his Arkansas alma mater or any other school. Recruited hard by North Carolina, Arkansas and many others, Malik picked Kentucky — the acknowledged home of the “one-and-done” players like he hoped to be. He got a good bit of social-media hate for that, but he said Friday he doesn’t much care.

“I was looking at it for me and my family,” Monk said. “I’m not looking out for the fans. It’s good to have fans on my side but they aren’t going to come out and play for me. They aren’t going to get a paycheck for me or get my Momma a house or anything like that. Kentucky was the best decision for me.”

Monk’s one year in Kentucky was awfully good. He averaged 19.8 points and was the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year. He developed a reputation as a binge scorer. He scored 47 in a game against North Carolina — the most ever against a Roy Williams team — and 30 in a single half against Florida.

There were a few down moments. The Wildcats lost the rematch to North Carolina in the Elite Eight. Monk made a throat-slashing gesture twice at the Arkansas bench in the SEC championship game and got a little negative publicity for that.

But in general, it’s hard to fault Monk for the path he took — a trip that has led him from Arkansas to Kentucky to Charlotte. He doesn’t get back to Lepanto much anymore — although he still has many relatives there – but he sees a part of it in the mirror every day.

This season Monk will pull on a Hornets jersey each day over that chest tattoo. His new team’s logo will be what everyone can see.

But underneath the purple and teal, hidden from public view, “The Woodz” will always surround his heart.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader