Lester Quinones walked into the lobby of the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center where he’s been training for going on four hours.
It’s shortly after 9 a.m. on a Thursday in August and Quinones, now a junior with the Memphis basketball team, confirms what has obviously changed.
“I’ve definitely cut down probably 10 pounds of fat and added probably 8-10 pounds of muscle,” he said.
Besides that, Quinones is sporting a beard and a pair of new tattoos.
His Joker tattoo aligns with other movie villains – Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees – Quinones has on his right forearm. On his right biceps he got ‘Shed blood to succeed’ superimposed over a lone king piece on a chess board.
“I was like, I do need something with some color and words do kind of go with my image,” Quinones said. “I work hard. I work my (butt) off.”
Which is the crux of the story behind Quinones’ change. The once fresh-faced, fun-loving free spirit is all grown up. No longer is the native New Yorker a newcomer. Once an integral part of coach Penny Hardaway’s first No. 1 recruiting class, Quinones is one of only two members still in a Memphis uniform as the team ushers in another top-ranked, star-studded wave of potential game-changers.
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The 6-foot-5 guard is listed at 208 pounds and in the best shape of his life. Now, as his third season with Hardaway approaches, the air guitar-strumming, short shorts-wearing Quinones is intent on leading the Tigers to a national championship (“that’s all anybody talks about around here”) and proving he’s ready to take the next step in his basketball career.
“I kinda feel like I’m behind a little bit,” said Quinones, who didn’t take up basketball until the sixth grade after he gave up what was, according to his father, a promising future as a wrestler. “Just seeing the guys that I went to high school with and stuff like that, they made it already. Penny says it a lot, you can’t just be a pro on the court. You have to a be a pro everywhere, 24-7. Keeping that same mindset every single day. Making it a routine to just be great.”
How basketball won over wrestling
The concept of establishing and sticking to a routine is not foreign to Quinones. When he eventually told his father he no longer wanted to pursue wrestling, his dad struck a deal with him.
“I just dove into the internet, looking for the best stuff I could find. I studied hundreds of hours of YouTube videos of the Steph Currys and LeBron James’,” said Lester Quinones Sr. “I watched videos of parents training their kids for the Olympics. So, I just took a page out of their book and tried to duplicate that. I told Lester I would train him, but I told him we were so far behind that the only way to catch up is to get him up every day at 5 (a.m.) and go to the gym.”
Quinones, then 12, shook on it immediately. Father and son – five days a week for more than five years – made the 5 a.m. commute from Brentwood to the New York Sports Clubs location in Deer Park. They would work out for an hour, shower and pick up breakfast on the way to school.
“I remember you had to be 13 to work out at the gym, so we kinda had to lie the first year,” said Quinones, the oldest of four children. “But I was already kinda bigger, so they didn’t ask too many questions.”
The gamble – and the routine – paid off. Although, not right away.
“We were a wrestling family. That’s what me and his uncles did,” Quinones Sr. said. “A lot of people around Brentwood expected him to be like the next big kid on the wrestling scene around there. Even when he started playing basketball, his friends, they were running circles around him. But we made it work.”
Quinones is still working. The AAC All-Freshman selection two seasons ago is a career 41.8% shooter who is averaging 10.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and two assists a game. He stays in the gym and weight room whether he’s in Memphis or back home, where he is trained by SUSA Sports’ Mike Kaplan.
“He’s definitely gotten a lot stronger, but in a leaner sense,” Kaplan said. “But it’s not just physical with him. As he’s getting older and maturing, he sees what the end goal can be. He knows if he wants to be a pro, he’s got to work out like a pro. So, when he comes in, it’s all business.”
Quinones is also benefitting from having perspective and experience on his side. Memphis coaches believe if he can carry those things with him into games, he has a chance to realize his full potential.
“(Hardaway) has really honed in on helping Lester continue to develop emotionally, really,” Tigers assistant Cody Toppert said recently on ESPN 92.9-FM. “He’s as explosive as he’s ever been. We know he’s one of the best rebounding guards in the nation. We know he’s a 40% 3-point shooter. We really want him to have a short memory when it comes to his mistakes.
“Hopefully, him taking that next step mentally turns him into a leader and someone who’s kind of the heart and soul of this team.”
Reach sports writer Jason Munz at email@example.com or on Twitter @munzly.