Flowers ready to bloom at Oxford
He springs into Deadstock Coffee in Portland's Old Town on a chilly, dank morning after Christmas, the bounce in his lithe 6-5 frame indicative of a young man on a fulfilling path.
Only weeks after his 24th birthday, Lincoln High grad JT Flowers has the world in the palm of his hand — or at least within his reach.
Yale graduate. Bound for Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. Working as a field representative in the Portland office of Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer.
"I can't describe how overwhelmingly thankful I am for the opportunities I've been afforded," Flowers says with a smile and a shake of the head.
It wasn't that long ago that Flowers was a star forward at Lincoln, dreaming of a career in the NBA.
Now, Flowers' ambitions stretch beyond the reach of sports.
A career in government? A run at public office? Flowers knows only that, once he is done with collegiate pursuits, he will return to his city of origin.
"I owe it to Portland and the state of Oregon to come back and provide a lifetime of work here," Flowers says. "My entire mission centers on increasing access to opportunity and social-economic mobility, ensuring that the circumstances a person is born into don't define the list of potential outcomes from birth to the grave.
"How will that manifest itself? I haven't the slightest clue."
Flowers grew up five blocks from Jefferson High, the only child of Jeana Woolley. He has four half-siblings from his father, Billy Flowers, who helped Grant High to the state basketball championship in 1968-69 and played one season at Washington State.
JT's parents never lived together, never married. He was raised as an only child by his mother, a self-employed neighborhood development consultant who somehow always made ends meet. "She has been doing it for 30-plus years," he says.
Flowers speaks in a poetic, lyrical fashion belying his upbringing.
"I grew up in a poor neighborhood; we were lower-bound working class," he says. "My childhood was incredibly tough in a lot of ways, but also really beautiful. I was exposed to life in its rawest form in pretty near every pocket of the city. I grew up in North/Northeast Portland. My grandmother, Lu Lytle, lived in outer Southeast Portland. I went to school in Southwest Portland.
"My childhood was defined not only by experience in inner North/Northeast Portland, but also through spending significant chunks of time learning, living and going through the process of opening my eyes elsewhere. I got exposed to the whole city. At a very young age, I was forced to learn how to navigate the different environments I've passed through."
JT, says his mother, "was bright, inquisitive, bold" as a child.
"He was a very outgoing, social kid," she says. "He liked his friends. We grew up in a house with just the two of us, but he has always liked to be around other people. He liked getting out in the world and being in the mix with other folks."
Flowers attended schools out of district through a Spanish immersion program, first at International School, then Ainsworth Elementary, West Sylvan Middle School and, finally, Lincoln.
"My mom was adamant in funneling me to a more high-functioning public education," Flowers says. "She bent over backward to make sure I had that opportunity."
Basketball was Flowers' passion through childhood.
"One of the first Christmases I can remember I got a Little Tyke hoop," he says. "My favorite movie growing up was 'Space Jam.' Pretty much everywhere I went, basketball was a fixture of life for me.
"All the kids I looked up to, and all the figures I looked up to, were basketball players. I had posters all over my walls — Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki ... I loved Allen Iverson."
Flowers was an immediate hit on the hardcourts, becoming a starter early in his freshman season and helping Lincoln to the state championship game. He played his first three seasons for David Adelman and his senior season for Sean Christensen, earning first-team all-state honors during his final campaign in 2011-12. Flowers also was a two-time second-team all-state tournament selection.
That freshman success, though, didn't come without some self doubts. Soon after he became a starter, Flowers stewed over a poor performance.
"I felt like there was a tremendous amount of pressure on me to be something I didn't quite know if I could be," he says. "I texted Coach Adelman, 'You gotta take me out of the starting lineup. I don't deserve a spot. I'm more than happy to come off the bench.' He texted me back: 'Not only are you a varsity basketball player, you are a starter for this team. Go out there and play your game, and you'll be fine.'
"That was a shot of confidence that radically transformed not only the way I fit into that team, but the way I looked at basketball in general. It made Lincoln feel more like a home. I felt like I had somebody in my corner."
Says Adelman: "JT was ready to play from the beginning."
Adelman says his work ethic helped get Flowers to the top.
"I gave him a key to the gym," says Adelman, now an assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets. "He'd get there early and shoot by himself. He'd practice with the freshman team in the morning. He had such a desire to get better."
By the time Flowers was a senior, "he was our most valuable player," says Christensen, now head coach at La Salle Prep. "He was a wing with guard skills. He could do everything — shoot, defend, rebound. He carried our team."
Flowers' coaches appreciated him as a person, too.
"Very likable," Christensen says. "Has a great smile. Charismatic. Well-liked by everybody. The kids liked him, teachers liked him, administrators liked him."
"He's an eclectic kid, unique, involved in a lot of different parts of life," says Adelman, now an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets. "One of the best kids I ever coached. Really motivated, an inspirational guy to coach. He was very smart. When he struggled with classes, it was because he was bored by them. The stuff that interested him, he'd knock out of the park. It's cool years later to see what he's turned into. Just a complete person."
Flowers says he feels fortunate to have played for Adelman and Christensen.
"It was an absolute joy to learn from Coach Adelman," he says. "He's a brilliant basketball mind. He understands the game backwards and forwards. He earned the loyalty of his players through showing unparalleled commitment to every aspect of our team.
"He taught me a tremendous amount about the game on a systemic level, and he was a genius when it came to making do with what we had. We played a lot of teams that were far more athletic and talented than we were. The only way we stayed in games, and a lot of times ended up winning, were the schemes he devised to not only cloak our weaknesses but to emphasize our strengths. He looked out for me outside of the gym, as well. He was someone who always wanted the best for his players.
"Sean is a great guy. He inherited a tough situation my last year. We had a lot of seniors and an influx of transfers who came in, so he had it rough from the jump. But he made the best of what we had and put together a decent run. I look back on the year under him with joy, too."
Flowers' coaches note the involvement of his mother.
"After I learned about the Rhodes Scholarship, the first person I thought of was her," Adelman says. "She found the time to come to every summer league game, to all his AAU stuff, all our high school games. She was always there. So supportive."
"She was tough on him, had high expectations," Christensen says. "She was the one in the crowd you could alway hear shouting, 'Rebound!' She would constantly talk about work ethic. She was a great mom."
Flowers didn't knock it out of the park academically at Lincoln. He got good grades the first semester of his freshman year, then backed away from the classroom the next two and a half years.
"At first, I was eager to prove myself," he says. "As time went on, I became less engaged in school and more and more consumed by basketball. I started to see school as not only secondary, but as an environment that sought to stereotype me and strip me of parts of my identity that were important to me."
Flowers speaks of the "cultural divide" present at Lincoln during his time there from 2008-12.
"The vast majority of the student body, which comes from the Southwest Hills, is upper-middle class and wealthy white folks," he says. "You have a small number of black and brown students, some of whom come from the West Hills, but many of whom come from neighborhoods like mine.
"We had off-campus lunch. It seemed like all the white kids would go out and buy their lunch, come back, set up lawn chairs in the hallways and eat there. All the black and brown students would bring out their free and reduced lunch cards and eat in the cafeteria. And it felt like the academic structure was very much tailored for those students who ate their lunches in the hallways rather than in the cafeteria.
"There were people who believed in me and invested in me, but there were certainly others — teachers and peers alike — who assumed given the way I looked, the way I spoke and what I did initially, which was just basketball, that I lacked intelligence. It felt like investing in school would be to give in to this notion that I had to be good at school in order to be intelligent."
Flowers' goal was to play basketball at a major college, and he had drawn scholarship offers and interest from several Pac-12 schools. But he says two things happened at the end of his junior year. He suffered an injury that set him back, and he switched AAU teams to try to attract interest from the premier college programs.
"I went from being the best player on my team to the fifth- or sixth-best player on an incredibly loaded team," he says. "The gamble didn't pay off. A lot of schools retracted offers, and I started being recruited by schools that weren't as good in basketball but were far better academically."
One of those schools was Yale. Assistant coach Matt Kingsley had a message.
"Rather than thinking about the next four years of your life, you ought to think about the next 40," Kingsley told Flowers.
"That was a pretty good sales pitch," he says. "I'd never thought about college that way. I just thought about it as a means of getting out of my neighborhood and getting one step closer to pursuing my dream in the NBA. It completely rerouted my thinking."
Kingsley told Flowers: "You can't get into Yale next year, but there's a moon shot of a chance if you're willing to roll the dice and go to boarding school for a year. Take full (International Baccalaureate) courses as a senior and there's a chance you might be able to get into an elite boarding school next year. Then if you do well, there's a fractional chance you might be able to get in here."
Flowers took the full IB class load as a senior, raised his GPA from a 2.8 to 3.2 and qualified for a full scholarship to Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut.
"I thought I had been exposed to wealth, having been through the Lincoln pipeline since I was in grade school," he says. "I thought you could drop me anywhere and I'd be able to swim. But (at Choate Rosemary Hall), I felt completely out of place, not only because of how I looked and spoke, but because of my socioeconomic background.
"It was a different universe. I was going to school with kids whose parents owned the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas, with kids whose parents owned the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas. It was overwhelming. There was a subculture there that takes great pride in opulence among students."
But Flowers not only survived, he thrived.
"The school itself was critical to my success at Yale," he says. "It was the most rigorous academics I've ever been put through, including Yale. They overload you with work and expect you to be able to do it. It was one of the most critical experiences of my life. I did well academically, but it didn't come easy.
"I realized how little I knew in comparison to my peers. It wasn't that they were inherently smarter than me, it was that they were far better informed. I'd go into a class on art history and I'd be with a kid who spent summers interning in museums. I'd go into a class on government and be with kids whose parents were Congress people and senators.
"They could talk about these subjects with an incredibly granular amount of detail. I felt like I had to work twice as hard as everybody in the class to simply participate in the discussion. I had to play a lot of catch-up."
Flowers finished the year with a 3.7 GPA and had a good basketball season. Then it was on to Yale.
"When he said he wanted to go to Ivy League, I was like, 'You're smart enough, you're a good enough player to play there. It's a great fit,'" Christensen says. "That was a great move for him. And once he got there, he realized basketball wasn't what he was going to do for the rest of his life."
Indeed, Flowers' life goals were changing.
"I was a little bit checked out basketball-wise," he says. "I had banked everything on getting a basketball scholarship as the only means of getting out of my neighborhood. But at Choate, I realized I couldn't bank on my body as being a sole means of liberation. My freedom had to be tied to something beyond basketball."
Ivy League schools offer no athletic scholarship, only financial help based on need.
"I knew I'd be on full scholarship all four years regardless of whether or not I played basketball," Flowers says. "That was a game-changer for me. Once that set in, I slowly started to draw back from basketball."
Flowers played as a freshman at Yale, scoring 19 points in 10 games.
"That was largely a product of my own efforts," he says. "I'd always worked very hard on my game. It was the entirety of my existence. When I got to Yale, I did the bare minimum basketball-wise. I went to practice and meetings, but I wasn't working on my game. I ceased to see the game as a craft. I lost that survivor's instinct for the game."
That was to be the end of his basketball career.
"Quitting basketball was maybe the best decision I made while at Yale," he says. "Yale is not a place that was going to send me to the NBA. Though I was there as a basketball player, I'd be a fool if I didn't take advantage of the opportunities to throw myself into every aspect of campus life in the most complete way possible. I had never had the opportunity to just be a student. Now I could see what I could become as an individual."
As a fifth-grader at Ainsworth, Flowers had taken a class trip to Spain. "It was one of those experiences that opened my eyes to the world," he says.
He traveled extensively during his college years, all opportunities fully funded through Yale.
"I studied language in France after freshman year," Flowers says. "Saw Germany, Austria, Czech Republic. Spent a semester in Morocco as a sophomore. Visited Turkey, Liberia. I went back to France once a year. I had chances to do things I never dreamed of."
As a junior, he was part of a student group that founded an organization called A Leg Even. It helped provide low-income students the resources to cover school expenses via fundraising through the African-American Cultural Center at Yale. After Flowers enrolled as a freshman, he visited the bookstore to buy books for the first semester, believing his "full scholarship" would cover the costs.
"I come to find out it covered only two of my four classes," he says. "I had to choose which classes I wouldn't have books for. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I had to finesse my way through the two other classes for the whole semester."
Once Flowers learned to navigate the Yale system, he was able to find grants for such expenses. He didn't want other students to go through that experience. A Leg Even helps prevent that now.
After his junior year, Flowers was selected for a Truman Scholarship. It is a $30,000 federal grant for graduate education in memory of President Harry Truman, who wanted to endow a scholarship to fund the next generation of public service leaders.
Flowers graduated in four years with a degree in political science. Before he earned the diploma, though, came the ultimate opportunity — a Rhodes Scholarship.
Before his junior year, "I didn't see that as a conceivable option for me," Flowers says. "My only goal was to survive. I thought I had slipped through the doors and was going to sink like a rock upon arrival. The vast majority of students at Yale were the best students at some of the best schools in the country. I had never been the best student at any school I'd been to. I felt incredibly insecure, intellectually and academically. An opportunity like a Rhodes Scholarship wasn't even on my radar."
During his senior year, after he'd earned the Truman Scholarship, he decided to pursue the Rhodes. The process requires institutional endorsement from your university. He applied.
"The interview went poorly," he says. "I didn't get the endorsement."
After graduation in May, he spent the summer in Washington, D.C., interning for Blumenauer. He also spent time with a group of fellow Truman scholars.
"I've never been around such an inherently good-hearted group of people," Flowers says. "Every single person is committed to something beyond themselves. They devote all their energy to making their communities better. It has been a wellspring of inspiration for me."
Flowers returned to Portland in August to begin work with Blumenauer's office.
"It has been extraordinary to not only work on pressing issues at the federal level but to immerse myself in all the incredible work that's going on here at a local and state level," he says. "I'm getting paid to become a more informed citizen and to relate what is happening to our staff.
"The learning curve has been steep, but I've been doing my best to keep pace. I've grown a ton, not only as a professional but as a thinker and as a citizen."
Shortly after starting work with Blumenauer, Flowers decided to "throw my hat in the ring one more time" for a Rhodes Scholarship. This time, his interview went well, and he was endorsed by Yale. Flowers then went through a national scholarship process and was selected as one of 16 finalists in the Northwest district, which covers Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. Two winners are selected from each of the 16 districts across the country — 32 in all from the United States.
Flowers and his mother traveled to Seattle on Nov. 17 and 18 for the interview process.
"It was wonderful having my mom there," he says. "It meant a lot, given how much she has sacrificed for me."
Flowers exited the interview with the seven judges and thought, 'I've certainly lost this thing. No chance I won the scholarship."
The next night, standing before the judges, he was named one of the two winners from the district.
"I was beyond shocked," Flowers says. "I can't fully convey just how taken aback I was. I had fully written off the idea I had any chance to win. I was humbled just having been in the room, and I was sure I hadn't won.
"When I heard my name, I broke down crying. I had to turn away and walk to a corner of the room. I thought about how far I had come from the situation I was born into to that moment. It felt surreal. It still does. It hasn't wholly set in the opportunity I'm going to be extended for the next two years of my life."
His mother's reaction?
"I was overwhelmed," she says. "Elation and gratitude were the two emotions I was filled with. It's something JT has had as a goal since his junior year in college. That he can set a goal and be able to walk himself to that goal gave me a lot of joy for him. He has earned his stripes.
"And I had gratitude because there are a lot of people — coaches, friends, family members — who have in a million ways been there for JT, kept him propped up through the good and the bad times. I'm grateful he had that consortium of support in a lot of different directions. It made a difference in his life."
Flowers says his own sense of gratitude goes first to Woolley and to his grandmother, Lu Lytle.
"My mother has been the single-most influential figure in my life, from Day One to the present moment," he says. "She very much embodies the notion of tough love. She has always wanted more for me, and sacrificed selflessly so that I might have the opportunity to escape from the circumstances I was born into. I'm forever indebted to her for all she has given up so I might be standing where I'm at right now."
Lu Lytle, 91, continues to work as a window broker in Southeast Portland.
"My grandma Lu is the most positive and joyous human being I've encountered," Flowers says. "She is full of life and positivity. She has believed in me relentlessly and, when things got rough, has often pulled me aside to let me know they wouldn't always be that way. She has gone above and beyond to make sure I'm all right, and my mother, too."
Flowers says he also feels a "tremendous sense of pride" for all of Portland, especially the area in which he was reared.
"My city and my neighborhood is something I wear on my sleeve," he says. "That my community now has the opportunity to claim this as something it has produced means a great deal to me. It's not something I did on my own. Without the people who have invested in me, I don't know if I'd have even made it to college. There were people who constantly lifted me up and went out of their way to help me get opportunities."
Flowers, who is living with his mother, will continue to work in Blumenauer's office through the end of summer. He leaves for Oxford, England, in September, where he will spend the next two years pursuing masters' degrees in comparative social policy and public policy. He will then have the option to use his one year's Truman Scholarship for further education, if desired.
At some point, he will make a decision on what kind of career to pursue. He knows only that it will take place in his hometown.
"This is the place that built me," he says. "I wouldn't be the human being I am without the endless investment by not only the people, but the city. So much of the way I look at the world has been shaped by my past in different quadrants of the city, both on a literal and a figurative level.
"It would be a real shame if I didn't commit myself to trying to leverage the opportunities I've been afforded to open doors for people coming after me, in the same way people before have done for me. I want to do that in Portland."
Of course. Where else? Some day, we'll be able to say we knew JT Flowers back when.