'Closer to home'

For Aaron Holmes, there are few places he would rather be.

Published December 31, 2006

Aaron Holmes shifted in a swivel chair, staring out the seventh-floor window of the Wachovia Building in downtown St. Petersburg. The former St. Petersburg Catholic basketball star was with investment banker Scott Johnston, the only father figure he has known, explaining why he's considering transferring to USF or UCF after just one semester, pending his release from Florida State. "I just didn't feel Tallahassee was the place for me," Holmes said. "I wanted to be closer to home."

Holmes, 19, neatly dressed in a green polo shirt, blue jeans and matching green "kicks," was a world away from his childhood home, where he said he was the "dirty kid," living in the Clearwater projects.

Holmes grew up without a father, without much money in a situation that offered little hope.

Before he pushed himself to become the only three-time Times All-Suncoast Player of the Year in 2004-06, Holmes ignored the drug pushers in a place that molded him, a place he refuses to forget.

"He came from nothing," his brother Everson said. "I'm proud of him. He's done so much more than I ever thought he would."

The sound of a basketball swishing through metal nets at Jasmine Court served as a sanctuary of sorts for Holmes in his chaotic childhood.

In elementary school, he walked out alone, in the dark, and shot on the two full-length courts.

"Basketball never let me down," Holmes said. "It was always the one thing I could control."

With his father gone and his mother, Stacy, in and out of legal trouble, Holmes and older brothers Everson, now 23, and Herschell, now 21, controlled their destiny.

The brothers scrounged the streets, trying to scrape together a dollar in change so they could catch the trolley to Clearwater Beach.

"The problem with going swimming is that you'd get hungry," Holmes said. "A lot of times, we didn't have enough money for a ride back, so we'd walk.

"We walked a lot back then."

Holmes went hungry for days at a time. His grandfather, whom Holmes lived with until his mother got her life on track, did more drinking than cooking, Everson said. The three Holmes brothers made it a nightly tradition to walk to Checkers at Drew Street and Fort Harrison Avenue.

"Three Champ burgers, no onions," Everson said. "The guys who worked there already knew before we got to the window."

Clean clothes were another matter. Everson said the family didn't get a washing machine until his eighth-grade year. Before that, the brothers threw their clothes in a blanket, tied it up and walked to the laundromat.

"I made sure we did the laundry and my brothers did their homework," Everson said. "And I was in first grade!"

The security and consistency Holmes rarely had at home he found at Ozona Elementary School in Palm Harbor. There, from first through third grades, he leaned on teacher Theresa Lanni. The 48-year-old was instantly drawn to the sweet, quiet kid with an infectious smile.

When Holmes was in third grade, Lanni took him to his first Tampa Bay Bucs game. Overwhelmed, Holmes scanned the field and stands, where vendors sold beer and hot dogs.

"Ms. Lanni," he said, "I'm not going to be one of these people who pass out drinks or food. I'm going to be on the field."

Lanni's jaw dropped.

"And you're not going to be sitting in these seats," Holmes said. "You'll be sitting up in the box."

Lanni was one of several people who gave Holmes a glimpse of a life he never thought he could have. Former Ozona principal Mary Ann Sanchez bought Holmes braces. The Gentry family took the Holmes boys out on their boat and brought them Thanksgiving dinner. The Johnstons, a St. Petersburg family, met Holmes in middle school through son Brett, Aaron's AAU teammate.

The Johnstons welcomed Holmes into their home, a place he spent three days a week during high school. Scott Johnston found a local charity that helped pay for Holmes' SPC tuition.

"Aaron is like one of our kids," Scott said. "We love having him around."

Hoop dreams

College coaches soon fell in love with Holmes' spectacular shooting stroke.

Just ask Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. In the fall of Holmes' senior year at SPC, Prosser made a special trip to see the 6-foot-4 guard work out.

Holmes shot a few layups, then stepped back behind the 3-point arc.

He made 18 straight.

"Tell him he can stop," Prosser told SPC coach Mike Moran halfway through. "I've seen enough."

In one 24-hour span that fall, 10 college coaches strolled onto SPC's campus - such as Bob Huggins then Cincinnati, John Calipari (Memphis), Paul Hewitt (Georgia Tech) and Buzz Peterson (Tennessee).

"Some legendary coaches," Moran said. "And they all wanted Aaron."

Holmes took his time with his decision. After admittedly rushing into an oral commitment to N.C. State the previous summer, Holmes decided on FSU.

The Seminoles seemed an ideal fit: ACC school, up-and-coming program, close to home.

Holmes dreamed of taking the Seminoles to postseason runs like those he made at SPC, where he led the Barons to 99 wins, three "Final Fours" and four district titles.

"It was storybook," Moran said.

As Holmes found out, his book would have some plot twists.

Realizing he'd get few minutes behind sophomore Toney Douglas and juniors Isaiah Swann and Jason Rich at FSU, Holmes met with coach Leonard Hamilton and asked to redshirt.

"It's the ACC - not a lot of freshmen play in the ACC," Holmes said. "I knew that coming in."

"I think he wanted to be a little closer to his family," friend Brett Johnston said. "I think he wanted his friends and family to be able to come to his games."

"Aaron's a mama's boy," brother Everson said. "We never left home when we were kids, never went to camps and stuff. Basketball was the only time he got away."

Home, sweet home

Holmes' biggest fan is about 3 feet tall: a bubbly 6-year-old with braided hair.

"There's Aaron," said his sister, Chelsea, pointing to Holmes on an FSU team poster. "That's him."

In the doorway of Stacy Holmes' one-story home in Clearwater, Chelsea latches onto her mother's leg as lights from the nearby Christmas tree flicker.

Like many single mothers, Stacy said she lives paycheck to paycheck. She knows her son worries about her - and Chelsea - but wants him to do his own thing.

When he can, Aaron said, he loves to take Chelsea to school at Plum Elementary. He brags how she'll "be a big basketball star."

"She means more to him than he lets on," Moran said of Chelsea. "Aaron adores her, and I'm sure he wants to spend more time with her."

Holmes, staring out that seventh-floor window at Wachovia, points to some high-rise condos overlooking the Pier.

"I want to get my mom a place over there," he said. "That'd be nice."

Holmes, a business major, said staying close to home, close to the people who helped him through his rough childhood, may give him a leg up after basketball.

"It's been a long journey," Holmes said. "And it's not over yet."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8129.