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Once a Pro, Santa Cruz Warrior Travis Leslie is Battling to Get Back

At 22, Leslie is supporting his parents and siblings and hopes to help them by getting back to the N.B.A.

A half hour after the battle between the Santa Cruz Warriors and the Los Angeles D-Fenders is over, only exhausted workers, media and the players, are left in the echoing Kaiser Permanente Arena.

Travis Leslie, the All-Star guard, turns around decked out in a grey hoodie, blue designer jeans and a pair of Jordan Retro 13’s that would make a sneaker-head envious. He stands at 6 foot 4 inches towering over media members, but by the look in his face he feels half his height.

He's filled with frustration and pain after a game in which he scored just six points because of cramping in both his calves.

Was he burnt out from All-Star weekend in Houston? 

“Ha. Maybe, man," he says joking, with a tight smile.

It’s nights like these that keep the hopeful star level-headed. For the 22-year old from Decatur, Ga., life can be stressful, as he fights to make it back to the NBA after his first stint ended in disappointment. 

During his rough rookie season with the Los Angeles Clippers, his mother lost her job at the Boys and Girls Club and was unemployed. His oldest brother Melvin, 28, also lost his job and was living back at home. His middle brother Marcus was in prison.

He had become his family's support system, and now that he's making a fraction of what he was making last season in the NBA Travis understands that he must work to get back, not only for himself, but also for his family. 

Yet, somehow he keeps the same childish smile he's had since he was a kid.

Leslie was born in Atlanta in 1990 to Virginia Leslie and Ulysses Branch, the youngest of four kids. His mother and father did not live together, but his father did help support her and Travis’ three siblings.

“My mom raised me,” said Leslie. “My father was there, but he didn’t live with us, but he always came by and supported my mom and showed me love. I still keep in touch with him.”

Leslie began playing basketball on the playgrounds around Decatur and then moved on to playing at the Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCAs around his town with his friends just for fun. 

“I didn’t start playing organized basketball until I was in high school,” said Leslie. “I’m kind of disappointed that I didn’t, because I could’ve been better than what I am now." 

It’s a scary thought that a player who averaged 21.3 points, nine rebounds and four assists in his senior year in high school could possibly be better. During his three varsity years at Columbia High School in Decatur, Leslie won two 4A state titles. He lost in his junior year to a team led by MarShon Brooks, who now plays for the Brooklyn Nets.

His raw tools led him all the way to the University of Georgia basketball team. They also lead him to many dunks. His dunks had been his ticket to an education and a possible road to the NBA. They had also been a quick buck for some of his friends in high school. 

“There was a section at my high school where they would bet on me. They would bet if I was going to get a dunk, who I was going to dunk on. That’s all I really did.” 

In his freshman year of college he found out the hard way that his tools would only get him so far. He averaged only 6.3 points per game. During the offseason he worked to refine his game and show the basketball world that he was more than just high-flying dunks. 

He studied with the Bulldogs’ trainers and coaches to build a better jump shot and hone his rebounding.

“I noticed I had a chance to make it to the league so I worked on my game.”

He came back from disappointment with a new number and a new attitude, symbolized by the switch from number 22 to the simple number 1.

It worked. 

His sophomore and junior year performance made SportsCenter's top 10 plays regularly. His dunk against DeMarcus Cousins, who is now with the Sacramento Kings, is still considered by many college basketball fans to be of the dirtiest dunks of all-time and has thousands of views on Youtube.

He averaged 14.8 points and eight rebounds per game as a junior and was named the most improved player of the season by Rivals.com

Through all this past and present success he’s managed to keep the same kid mentality. He Twitters often and let’s all his followers know when it’s Call of Duty or NBA 2K time. He smiles even after questionable fouls are called on him. He jokes around about guarding one of the best players in the D-League saying he had a “easy” night. 

His teammates have called him "pretty boy" and he just takes it in stride. He even sings Taylor Swift in the shower, allegedly. 

This attitude has kept him even keel through the rough times, including his rookie year when the Los Angeles Clippers selected him with the 47th overall pick in the NBA draft.  

“It wasn’t the best situation for me,” he said of a season in which he played just 45 minutes. “I didn’t get a lot of time and I never got to show what I can do.”

In Leslie’s rookie year he was already forced to compete with established guards Eric Bledsoe, Chauncey Billups, Nick Young and Mo Williams for playing time. He was sent down to the Clippers D-League affiliate, the Bakersfield Jam, for 10 games and he continued to struggle to find his place. 

In those games Leslie, and his relationship with the Clippers, would be challenged and pushed to the limits. Usually, assignment players are automatic starters when they are sent down from the NBA ranks, but Leslie only started three games for the Jam. He also never saw more than 30 minutes of playing time. 

After that tumultuous first season he came back  with a new mind set, but he would soon come face to face with the ugly business side of the NBA. After surviving the Clippers training camp he was let go on Oct. 30, one day before the start of the regular season.  

“I didn’t take it for granted, but once I got there I kind of got too comfortable. I should’ve worked harder. Now I know that once I go back I can’t do what I did my rookie year. I have to go in stronger and harder and stay.” 

Most people would think that the Clippers had stabbed them in the back, but Leslie understood that it is, and always will be, a business. 

All he needed was a chance and the Warriors gave him one, picking him 13th in this year's D-League draft. 

From day one in training camp Leslie was out to make it back to the NBA. In his first 24 games he separated himself from pack. 

He showed that he can not only score, by averaging 16.4 points per game, but that he could do it efficiently by hitting 52 percent of his shots. He showed that he had been working on his defense by having 12 games with multiple steals.

He showed that he was still an amazing rebounder by leading the team in boards per game. Lastly, Leslie showed everyone that he could still fly high and dunk on anyone that got in his way.

“He going to be in the NBA,” said Bjorkgren. “I’d say his chances are 100 percent.”

Leslie, whose family is depending on him, prays he's right. 

“Like I said, everything happens for a reason,” said Leslie. “I feel like God won’t put me in a position that I can’t handle and I know I’m a strong man.” 

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