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Tyler Honeycutt's loved ones search for answers they may never find after ex-UCLA star's shocking death

Tyler Honeycutt’s family and friends are struggling to explain his shocking death last Friday night (Getty Images)

Hours before he fatally shot himself during a standoff with police last Friday night, ex-UCLA basketball star Tyler Honeycutt asked his former high school coach to drive over to his suburban Los Angeles home so they could talk.

Bort Escoto wasted no time jumping in his car to heed Honeycutt’s cry for help.

Escoto had been worried about Honeycutt since mid-June when the gregarious 27-year-old began acting abnormally after he returned home from Russia at the end of his club’s basketball season. Honeycutt, long notorious for bringing a flock of friends or family members with him anywhere he went, suddenly preferred to hole up in his bedroom alone for days at a time.

When Escoto asked Honeycutt’s mother if something was wrong, she admitted that she too was concerned. She told Escoto that Honeycutt had not been eating or sleeping well and was experiencing sudden mood swings that made it difficult to be around him.

“We were all trying to intervene — his mother, his girlfriend and myself — but he kept pushing everyone away,” said Escoto, a mentor and father figure to Honeycutt throughout his basketball career. “He actually called me a couple times saying he wanted to talk and then he’d cancel and say he was too tired or he needed a nap. That’s not like him to do that. That’s not the guy I know.”

Escoto wasn’t taking any chances on Honeycutt backing out again Friday afternoon as he sped off in the direction of the family’s Sherman Oaks home, but plans changed when Honeycutt’s mom contacted him while he was still en route. Honeycutt had been acting erratically and she feared for his safety, so she called the police and asked them to come to the house.

What happened next was a nightmare no one close to Honeycutt saw coming, one that they’re still struggling to digest even three days later.

According to the Los Angeles Police Department, a suspect since identified as Honeycutt fired a shot out of the house during his initial encounter with the officers and they subsequently returned fire. Honeycutt then barricaded himself inside the home for nine hours until police finally busted in and found him unresponsive.

An LAPD investigation determined Honeycutt “was not struck by an officer’s gunfire” and instead “sustained injuries consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.” The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office is investigating Honeycutt’s death as a suicide or accident, pending autopsy.

Honeycutt’s shocking death leaves his friends and family with a difficult set of questions to entangle.

What caused Honeycutt to begin acting erratically recently? What role did the former second-round pick’s inability to stick in the NBA play in his bouts with anxiety and depression? And, above all else, why would an extroverted 27-year-old with a loving family and supportive friends not ask for help before resorting to taking his own life?

“I’m still in shock. I can’t believe it,” said Anthony Stover, Honeycutt’s friend and former UCLA teammate. “I need to know more because it doesn’t sound like the person I’ve known and loved for years. I’ve never heard any negativity from Tyler. Whenever I’ve talked to him, it’s been nothing but love. It’s crazy to me that the details coming out don’t sound like the happy-go-lucky, joking guy I know so well.”

Honeycutt’s rise from fun-loving kid to NBA prospect

To understand why Honeycutt’s friends and family never saw this coming, you have to get to know him through their eyes.

You have to learn about the son who’s biggest motivation was earning enough money to make life more comfortable for his single mother; the basketball player who would sneak into his high school gym late at night to get up extra shots; the loyal friend who refused to quit volleyball even after it became clear that basketball was his calling because he had made a commitment to his high school teammates.

There were few signs Honeycutt had a future in either sport when he enrolled at Sylmar High School in 2005. He was barely six feet tall and toothpick-skinny as a freshman and his outgoing personality and fun-loving sense of humor jumped out more than either his jump shot or jump serve did.

Tyler Honeycutt’s signature performance at UCLA was a 33-point masterpiece at Kansas. (Getty Images)

When Honeycutt made Sylmar’s varsity basketball team as a sophomore after sprouting to 6-foot-5, he insisted to Escoto that he intended to earn a college scholarship and play in the NBA someday. A chuckling Escoto noted that would require a lot of work and decided to test his young pupil’s level of dedication.

“I told him we’d work out every day during the offseason, and I purposely would not show up just to see how badly he wanted it,” Escoto said. “He kept calling me, ‘Hey coach, Where are you?’ and I would make an excuse and say, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ By the third day, I realized, ‘OK this guy is serious.'”

As Honeycutt grew to 6-foot-8 by his senior year of high school and showcased soft hands, bouncy athleticism and deft passing ability, he quickly evolved from a total unknown to a consensus top 50 prospect coveted by some of college basketball’s premier programs. Coaches from Arizona, USC, UCLA, Gonzaga, Texas and Washington rang his phone or beat a path to his family’s doorstep, not that Honeycutt always recognized when he was speaking with college basketball royalty.

“We were in the weight room one day and I told him, ‘Get off the phone. We’re about to start practice,'” Escoto said. “He hangs up the phone and he’s like, ‘Coach, Who’s Lute Olson?’ I just shook my head and laughed. He was a typical high school kid. He didn’t have any sense of history.”

When Honeycutt arrived at UCLA in 2009 along with four other consensus top 100 incoming freshmen, the Bruins were in the midst of a transition that would prove tougher than expected. The pillars of Ben Howland’s three consecutive Final Four teams were all gone and the members of back-to-back decorated recruiting classes proved ill-prepared to lead right away.

No longer as talented, disciplined or defense-oriented as during the heyday of the Howland era, UCLA staggered to a dismal 14-18 record during Honeycutt’s freshman season. The Bruins dropped games against the the likes of Cal State Fullerton, Portland and Long Beach State en route to the program’s fourth losing season since World War II.

Honeycutt started UCLA’s final 18 games, led the team in rebounding and emerged as one of the program’s few bright spots that season, but his greatest contribution may have been off the floor. The stinging criticism that accompanied such a fiasco of a season would have been tougher for the Bruins to endure without Honeycutt’s playful jokes and positive attitude to help keep his teammates upbeat.

Having recognized that Stover inevitably forgot to rinse the soap from under his right armpit anytime he showered, Honeycutt would wait by his teammate’s locker to make sure he didn’t miss the chance to call out the excess lather. Honeycutt also voluntarily served an unofficial team barber, putting any teammates on blast whose hair looked sloppy and then inviting them to his room after practice for a fresh cut.

“He was an incredibly talented basketball player who could shoot it, pass it and rebound it, but he was also a kid that everyone loved to be around,” Howland said. “He had a great disposition. He was always upbeat, always happy, always with a smile on his face.”

While Honeycutt flashed occasional glimpses of his multifaceted talents as a freshman, he took a big leap during a breakout sophomore season that helped fuel UCLA’s return to national relevance. He scored in double figures in three-quarters of UCLA’s games, finished second on the team in rebounds and assists and made up for his poor on-ball defense with an uncanny ability to recover quickly and block shots from behind.

The signature performance of Honeycutt’s UCLA career was the one that cemented him as an NBA prospect. In a Dec. 2010 matchup with a star-laden Kansas team featuring five future NBA draft picks, Honeycutt outshined them all, blitzing the Jayhawks for 33 points on a barrage of soaring dunks, acrobatic transition layups and pull-up 3-pointers.

By the time Honeycutt curled around a screen and sank a game-tying 25 footer with less than five seconds to go in regulation, it was already clear Honeycutt’s sophomore season would be his last at UCLA. NBA scouts left Allen Fieldhouse abuzz and agents soon began ringing Honeycutt’s phone nonstop.

“I remember after that game I said to him, ‘Enjoy the NBA,'” Stover said. “You don’t play that well on that big of a stage without everyone in the world noticing. That was an unbelievable performance.”

Why Honeycutt’s NBA career fizzled after just 24 games

When the Sacramento Kings selected Honeycutt with the 35th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft six months later, he came down from the stands clad in a sharp gray suit, shook Adam Silver’s hand on stage and flashed a megawatt smile. The 20-year-old was so confident he was beginning a long NBA career that he bought himself a Mercedes and some expensive jewelry. He never anticipated that he would only appear in 24 NBA games before crashing out of the league.

Like many rookies who are too young and green to crack an NBA rotation right away, Honeycutt started his professional career in the D-League. Sacramento sent him to the Reno Bighorns at the start of the 2011-12 NBA season in hopes that he could get some experience, put in more time in the weight room and address the flaws in his game.

Tyler Honeycutt’s NBA career spanned 24 games with the Sacramento Kings from 2011-2013. (Getty Images)

The first impression Honeycutt made when he reported to Reno was far from ideal. Former Bighorns coach Paul Mokeski recalls Honeycutt arriving 30 minutes late to his first practice, a mistake he blamed on getting lost trying to find the facility.

“I told Tyler, ‘I’m not a BS guy,'” Mokeski said. “‘You need to be on time, and when I say on time, I mean 15 minutes early, on the court, ready to go.”

The next day, Honeycutt showed up to practice 20 minutes late, again complaining about trying to find his way in Reno. The third day, Honeycutt was a few minutes tardy once more. Only after Mokeski informed the Kings and the franchise docked Honeycutt’s pay did the rookie finally recognize the importance of showing up on time.

“When you’re given hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, at that age, it’s tough to always do the right things, keep your head on straight and stay humble,” Mokeski said. “I knew right away that Tyler had some growing up to do. He needed to learn to be a pro.”

As Mokeski got to know Honeycutt better during their stints in Reno, he gained more of an appreciation for the young forward’s big heart. Many D-League players treated making appearances at local elementary schools or boys and girls clubs as a chore, but Honeycutt cherished the opportunity to put a smile on a kid’s face. He related easily to kids, whether by jumping in a game of dodgeball or grabbing a box of crayons and a coloring book.

Mokeski also learned how devastatingly athletic Honeycutt was from watching the forward’s jaw-dropping pregame warmup routine. Honeycutt routinely awed both teammates and opposing players with an array of soaring dunks.

“I’ve seen some crazy-athletic stuff, but in warmups before our games he would put on a show,” Mokeski said. “If there was a grade-school kid standing under the basket watching him warm up, he’d always bring him onto the floor and tell him to throw it up as high as he could. Then he’d go dunk it, like a lob dunk, and the kid would just be so excited. That’s the kind of heart he had.”

The trouble for Honeycutt was that too many of his highlights came in warmups. The Kings grew frustrated with Honeycutt’s habit of settling for contested jump shots on offense, taking plays off on defense and not consistently working hard enough between games.

Honeycutt appeared in only 15 NBA games as a rookie and didn’t log any meaningful playing time until the final month of the season. Then he suffered a pair of ill-timed offseason stress fractures, sidelining him for all of summer league and training camp and further hampering his efforts to carve out a niche with the Kings.

When Honeycutt appeared in only nine of Sacramento’s first 60 games during his second season and never logged more than seven minutes, it gradually became clear that he was no longer part of the franchise’s plan for the future. General manager Geoff Petrie dealt Honeycutt to Houston late in his second season in a cost-cutting deal that allowed the Kings to shed the salaries of Thomas Robinson and Francisco Garcia.

Honeycutt never actually appeared in a game for the Rockets. Eight games into a stint with Houston’s D-League affiliate, Houston waived him to make room for veteran Aaron Brooks on its roster, and just like that Honeycutt’s NBA career was over.

“His biggest regret was that he didn’t make the most of his opportunity in the NBA,” Escoto said. “He knew he made some mistakes his first couple years in the league and he was trying to do his best to fix that and get back in it.”

‘He told me he felt isolated and alone’

Unable to find another NBA team willing to take a chance on him, Honeycutt spent the next five years playing for high-level European clubs in Israel, Turkey and Russia.

He helped Khimki Moscow win the second-tier EuroCup championship in 2015. He captured the Turkish league dunk championship in 2016 by jumping over five people in the finals. Then he produced his best season as a pro this past year, averaging 9.2 points and 5.4 rebounds in EuroLeague play for Khimki Moscow while also shooting a remarkable 49.1 percent from behind the arc.

Honeycutt appeared content playing overseas to most of his friends and teammates, but he confided in Escoto that not sticking in the NBA ate at him. Not only was he remorseful about not conducting himself more professionally during his stint with the Kings, he also found it difficult adjusting to being so far from his family and friends while playing in Europe nine months out of the year.

“He told me he felt isolated and alone,” Escoto said. “He would always say, ‘I could have done things different or better and I’d be in the NBA and not be in Russia.'”

Tyler Honeycutt poses with two BC Khimki teammates last September in Moscow. (Getty Images)

Honeycutt had hoped to parlay his strong 2017-18 season into a summer league opportunity with an NBA team, but that did not materialize. As a result, he faced the specter of either resigning with Khimki Moscow or seeking out another elite European club willing to offer a comparable contract.

The idea of returning to Russia for a fourth season with Khimki Moscow was apparently particularly discouraging to Honeycutt. Honeycutt’s mother Lisa Stazel told Israeli Sport5 that Russia’s cold, dark winters were a massive culture shock for a California kid accustomed to nothing but sunshine.

“He did not like to be in Russia,” Stazel said. “He was there for three years and he was supposed to be back a fourth year, but he did not want to come back.”

Was the fear of returning to Russia the driving force behind Honeycutt’s recent erratic behavior and depression? Or was there something else bothering the former basketball star? No one can be certain because Honeycutt had been so reluctant to open up about his feelings in recent weeks. Many of his friends and former teammates had no idea he had been going through anything when news of his death first began to spread early Saturday morning.

Even those in Honeycutt’s inner circle who were aware Honeycutt had not been acting like himself are stunned at the apparent abruptness of his death. Stazel told Israeli Sport5 that she cannot accept the LAPD’s theory that her son committed suicide. Escoto simply says softly, “We never knew it was going to get to this point.”

“I wish Tyler could have talked to somebody else if it wasn’t me or his girlfriend or his mom,” Escoto said. “For whatever reason, he had a tough time opening up and it wasn’t like people weren’t trying to help him. Everyone around him was saying, ‘Hey you need to go get some help.’ Everyone was doing their best to help him.”

The lesson Honeycutt’s former teammates take from his death is to make it clear to one-another that they’re available to listen anytime someone is enduring a rough patch.

“I reached out to almost all of my UCLA teammates since [Saturday],” Stover said. “You don’t know what anyone is going through. You think the short conversations like, ‘Yeah I’m good’ or ‘No, don’t worry about it’ are small at the time, but you never know what a person is really hiding or what’s in their head.

“So talk to your loved ones and seek that out. That’s what I’m doing now.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!