Grandma's advice helps propel Malaki Branham to basketball stardom, Ohio State future

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Malaki Branham's grandmother, Luzon, shows a photo collage of her grandson after he signed to play basketball for Ohio State.

AKRON — A long, steady climb has brought Malaki Branham to Ohio State.

There are times, though, when he has been able to take his play up a notch. There’s a common theme to those games, and she has been supporting him since Branham started to show solid shooting form on a hoop given to him for Christmas when he was 2 years old.

Her name is Luzon Branham, she’s a 66-year-old Columbus resident and she has been giving her grandson the same three-letter, two-word piece of advice since he started playing AAU basketball in third grade.

“Do you, but it’s just spelled ‘Do U,’ ” she told The Dispatch from inside The LeBron James Arena at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. “I used to tell him, it was, ‘You can’t play like everybody else. You have to do you, what’s inside you. You have to be who you are on the floor. It’s not to imitate anybody. Do you.’ ”

Spell it however you’d like, the words of wisdom have worked. Friday afternoon, she was alongside the rest of Branham’s immediate family to celebrate the highest-rated player in seven years to sign for Ohio State putting pen to paper during a low-key press conference.

Branham’s coach, Dru Joyce, said the four-star combo guard typically plays better when his grandma is in the stands. Now, when he starts his collegiate career, she can be there for every home game.

“She just tells me to ‘do me’ and that’s what I’ve been doing,” said Branham, who averaged 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two blocks per game as a junior. “Every time she’s here, I love to put on a show. I’ve got to keep that up every game now.”

Keeping true to what was a quiet recruitment for a player ranked No. 28 in his class by the composite rankings, Branham’s signing day was a laid-back affair. His teammates watched as athletic director Willie McGee and Joyce delivered short speeches to an audience of mostly family members. Branham’s 2-year-old brother, Micah, carried Malaki’s scarlet Ohio State hat around the court, tossing it to anyone who came near.

Once the signing was complete, Malaki went for a walk to the quiet end of the court with his uncle, Lawrence, an Akron native who has hosted his nephew during his high school career. When they finished speaking and hugging, the future Buckeye was wiping away tears.

“Oh, yeah, tears of joy,” he said. “It was just everything, just letting my feelings go out. I’m just appreciating everybody that’s sacrificed for me. That’s really the big thing. That’s why I was really crying.”

Although LeBron James has publicly said he would have gone to Ohio State if he had played college basketball, Branham is only the second player from SVSM to play for the Buckeyes. Curtis Wilson, who averaged 8.9 points and 2.0 rebounds in 126 games from 1984-88, was the first.

The Buckeyes had to work at it, too. Although Branham’s mom, grandmother and other family members live in Columbus, Joyce said he instructed both sides not to take anything for granted during the recruitment process.

“I told Malaki, ‘Make them recruit you,’ and that’s what he’s done,” the coach said. “That’s what he and his uncle and his family have done in a big way is make them recruit him. They did it the right way.”

Throughout, his mom, Matia, remained in the dark on his final decision by choice for fear her lack of a poker face would give away where her son was leaning. Learning that he would be returning to Columbus was icing on the cake.

She said she’s heard that her son was going to be a good basketball player since third grade, years after he first started intently watching basketball games with grandma to start understanding the game. But it would take a while for her to realize just how good he would become.

“I didn’t know it was going to take off like this,” she said. “Being his mother, it’s looking at it like, ‘Wow, this is my son. Woah, I’m Malaki Branham’s mom.’ I’m very proud of him.”

Branham’s press conference was scheduled so his family could attend, but it also meant delaying the start of his team’s practice. Once the table and podium were put away, it was time to get back to work.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air, for real,” he said. “I’m just happy to be part of the Ohio State Buckeyes now, officially. I’m ready to get to work.”

Then he was off, ready to join a practice a practice that was already in progress.