Las Vegas Sun file
Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Julian Strawther is one of the country’s top basketball prospects, so the 6-foot-7 Liberty sophomore is used to playing in front of a distinguished crowd.
In addition to students, parents, fans and media, it’s not unusual to find famous college coaches dotting the bleachers when Strawther takes the floor. Recruiters from UNLV, Oklahoma, Gonzaga, Washington, Kansas and others have lined up to see him this year, but he blocks out most of the commotion while he’s playing.
There are only a select few voices that stand out to him.
One is his toughest critic. One is his role model. One is his loudest supporter. Together, they are his family.
As a young boy, Strawther didn’t dream of being a basketball star.
“My first love was cars,” he says. “I wanted to be a mechanic.”
But growing up to be an auto worker was an extremely unlikely path in the Strawther household, where Julian’s father, Lee, was a former player and coach, and his older sister, Paris, was a hoops prodigy (who is now a star forward at UNLV). His oldest sister, Paige, was also a big fan of the sport, and their mother, Lourdes, cheered everyone on.
So before Julian had a chance to develop his wrench and socket skills, he and Paris were staging kill-or-be-killed games on an indoor hoop in the kitchen. The 1-on-1 battles often devolved into arguing, shoving and fighting. Tears were shed.
He was hooked.
“Julian and I kind of had a sibling rivalry,” says Paris, who is five years older than Julian. “We fought a lot when we were younger. Whether we were playing basketball or just everyday activities, we would get under each other’s skin all the time.
“But it was a cycle,” she laughs. “Two hours later we’d be back playing with each other, then fighting again.”
Paige stopped playing competitive basketball in middle school, and that may have allowed her to maintain a slightly more functional relationship with Julian.
“Julian and I got along super well,” says Paige, who is nine years older. “He and Paris would argue more. We had our bickers too, but I feel he had a little more respect for me.”
Instead of brawling under a Nerf hoop, Julian and Paige would talk about music and cars. For the scrawny young kid who could never seem to beat his other sister 1-on-1, it was a welcome respite.
Like father, like coach
While Julian and Paris were trading flagrant fouls, Lee was encouraging them. As a former junior-college player, he spotted their talent early and gave them a not-so-gentle nudge onto the hardwood.
“My dad has been pushing me since forever,” Julian says. “He’s in his 50s now and still chasing my rebounds around every morning and helping me get better, and he’s always been like that since the very beginning.”
“They were always super close,” Paige says. “Even before basketball, when my brother was into cars and stuff, my dad used to go through magazines with him and walk up and down the street naming cars. Once basketball came into the picture, their bond obviously became stronger because basketball is my dad’s life, just like it’s my brother’s life.”
For Lee, bonding with his son through basketball was the most natural thing in the world.
“We’re not a typical family,” Lee says. “With all the basketball stuff, we’re a little different in that respect. We have a typical father-son relationship, but also our relationships are built around the game.”
That means drawing a line between being a coach and being a dad. As a coach, no one was tougher on Julian growing up than his father.
“Even if he has a great game, I’m like, ‘Yeah, but what happened on that one play?’ I’m always trying to teach and coach, in a sense, and he embraces that.”
No. 1 fan
Whether the kids were playing for pride in the kitchen, shooting around with Lee or suiting up for their various youth teams, Lourdes was there. Her presence at every event was a cornerstone of the family dynamic.
As the youngest of three, Julian got special treatment.
“My mom babied him so much,” Paige says. “Because he was the only boy and he was the youngest, so that was her little baby. You couldn’t mess with him. If anyone was being mean to him, we’d all get in trouble. He was so spoiled by mom. He was a momma’s boy for sure.”
Julian loved her for her unconditional support.
“She was my No. 1 fan,” Julian says. “She was the loudest person at every game. If I scored a layup she was screaming as loud as she could. She was definitely my biggest fan.”
In the summer of 2011, before Julian was about the start the fourth grade, Lourdes passed away due to breast cancer. It was a devastating turn for a family that had operated as a tight-knit lineup.
The grieving process was difficult. Lee wasn’t sure how to fill the void as a single parent. Julian was confused. Paris took a year off from basketball.
Eventually, they began leaning on each other.
“My whole family, we all grew tighter,” Julian says. “We all had that sense of feeling that loss, and we all had to come together and bring everybody back up.”
As the family built itself back together, the relationships changed.
Instead of fighting with Paris, Julian attached to her as a role model. When Paris went to the gym to shoot, Julian tagged along and brought his ball. When her AAU team traveled for tournaments, he went to all the games. When college coaches came to the house for recruiting visits, Julian plunked down next to Paris to observe.
Paige was a constant presence at their games. When Julian or Paris needed rides to practice, Paige was the family chauffeur. She got a job in order to contribute financially.
“Where our family changed is with the girls,” Lee says. “They were his sisters, yes, but they also became motherly figures as well. It was the girls protecting him, helping me raise him. It was the girls stepping up.”
Paris and Paige began watching over Julian.
“We became very protective of my brother,” Paige says. “That’s something that just came naturally for both of us. We don’t want anyone messing with him. If somebody is talking about him, we’re going to put a stop to that.”
That includes their father.
“If I go in too hard on him, they’re all over me,” Lee says. “They get me to back off. They’ll say ‘Go easy on him,’ or all they have to do now is look at me and I’m like, ‘Alright, I’m backing off.’”
Now, Julian finds himself rated as the No. 11 prospect in the nation according to Rivals.com. He is averaging more than 24 points and eight rebounds per game for Liberty, and he’ll likely follow in Paris’ footsteps as a college basketball star.
He says he is focusing on improving his defense this season, and Liberty coach Stefan Berg believes he could become a lockdown defender by the end of the year.
Julian’s focus extends beyond the court, however. He wants to make sure his family stays tight, and that means supporting each other in every way.
When Julian needs recruiting advice, he calls Paris. When he’s hungry for takeout, he calls Paige. When he wants a rebounder, he calls Lee.
“Any problems I have, I go right to my dad,” Julian says. “He just helps me with everything. If I have any sort of problem, he’s always there for me no matter what.”
“My sisters, I’ll call them whenever I need anything,” he says. “If I’m hungry and I need some food, they’ll come pick me up take me somewhere. If I want to chill out, I’ll go to their house, or we’ll all just lay on the couch and talk. My relationship is unmatched with them.”
With Paris playing for the hometown team, Julian is able to go to as many of her games as his own schedule allows. He’s a regular at the Thomas & Mack Center — and yes, Rebels fans are already encouraging him to stay home and commit to UNLV, like his big sister — and Paris returns the favor, taking in Liberty games as often as she can.
Paige zips back and forth between their games, even if she gets off work late and can only make it for the second half.
The effort from both sisters doesn’t go unnoticed.
“We try to support each other at every game,” Julian says. “I think Paige is the louder one. Paris is more subtle, more quiet, but I’ll hear her. My dad obviously, I recognize his voice. Paige is the one I can hear the most. But I definitely know when they’re there.”