Tyrese Maxey and his family’s incredible Christmas comeback story

    Maya A. Jones is a writer and reporter. She joined ESPN in 2012 as a part-time researcher before moving on to cover a variety of topics within the NFL, NBA and NASCAR. She is a proud New Orleanian and HBCU graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana.

IT’S CHRISTMAS EVE at Tyrese Maxey’s South Jersey home in 2021. Tyrese and his family are dressed in pajamas, singing along to The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).” Tyrese, imaginary mic in hand, encourages family members who are seated to join the party as others clap, sing and dance. The Maxey family traveled from Garland, Texas, to Voorhees Township to spend the holidays with the Philadelphia 76ers point guard in the middle of his second NBA season. When his busy schedule makes it impossible for him to visit home for the holidays, his mother, Denyse, says the family will travel to him. They will always be together, and Tyrese will never be alone.

The Christmas Day preparations are over. The presents are under the tree with the exception of gifts hidden away as a surprise for Tyrese’s twin nieces. But before the night continues, to be filled with more games, dancing and laughter, the Maxeys decide to take a nap in the basement around 2 p.m.

A few hours later, they wake up to close friends arriving to the celebration. Tyrese’s personal chef puts the dinner on display: lobster fried rice, salmon burgers and his signature chicken wings — Tyrese’s favorite. The family forms a circle around the kitchen’s island, holding hands and bowing their heads to pray.

Each family member fixes a plate and sits down to eat. But Tyrese’s youngest sister, Denasia, thinks something feels off. “It smells like something is burning,” she says.

The adults begin searching for the source. They investigate the oven and microwave. No dice. As the smell grows stronger, they notice white smoke seeping through the top of the laundry room door. Tyrese’s father, Tyrone, and Denyse open the door to see flames inside the garage.

None of the family members has experienced a house fire and they’ve never planned for one. They all assume they are dealing with a small fire. Still, Denyse puts the family in motion. Tyrese walks his grandmother and two nieces outside. Denyse and her brother Brandon rush upstairs to grab a fire extinguisher and Tyrese’s 1-year-old puppy, a Cane Corso named Apollo. Tyrone gathers personal items and everyone heads toward the front door — where they’re met with thick, black smoke.

Now outside, Tyrese realizes the fire is far from small and containable. The flames engulf the lower left side of the home and quickly spread upward toward the attic. He yells for everyone to get out of the house as he calls 911.

All the family members make it outside safely, without any injuries. Shoeless, and still wearing pajamas, they watch the blaze shatter windows and melt what’s left behind as they shiver in the 41-degree night. Firefighters quickly arrive and attempt to save the home.

Tyrese slowly sits on the ground as he watches his new home burn. He rented it just three months ago. For the first time in a long time, the infectious smile Tyrese is known for disappears and tears run down his face.

“This was my first time being able to actually provide food, provide a home for everybody to come and provide a lot of different presents and different things,” Tyrese says. “I couldn’t have done anything about it, but I felt like it was my fault because it’s your house. Your family is relying on you to bring them to a safe place. It’s freezing outside, they’re outside in no shoes. It was a sad time.”

This year, the Maxey family is back in Jersey to celebrate Christmas together. Tyrese has a new home and is once again surrounded by his loving parents, sisters, uncle and nieces, who made it out safely that night. After a challenging year, Maxey is now a breakout star with the Sixers, an offensive force and a key part of the team’s hopes for an NBA championship. Maxey is working his way back to basketball after suffering a foot injury that sidelined him for weeks. But the 22-year-old star’s spirit remains high and ready for any challenge that comes his way — because he and his family are living proof they can make it through anything together.

THE MAXEY FAMILY stands inside a conference room at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia the morning after last year’s fire. It’s Christmas Day, and they’re all dressed head to toe in Sixers gear because their clothes were lost in the blaze. Each family member goes around sharing what they’re most thankful for. This year, it’s their lives.

They lost their phones, luggage and possessions in the fire but somehow, most of the presents under the tree were saved. The sight of gifts, with the smell of smoke and a little water damage, coupled with the hospitality of the hotel staff, overwhelmed the Maxeys.

But tears ran down Tyrese’s face for a different reason. The gifts purchased for his nieces, the Baby Alive dolls and a porcelain teacup set, were the only presents destroyed in the fire. He realized the twins, who were 7 at the time, didn’t have any presents to open Christmas morning.

“I’m never crying. I’m always happy,” Tyrese says. “But to see my twin nieces sitting there crying because they think they were bad, or they don’t know what happened, crying because they have no gifts — it hurt me.”

Maxey had so much weighing on his mind at that moment. He needed to secure temporary housing. His house was still standing but it suffered a significant amount of damage — he wouldn’t be able to resume living there. “I know my mama told me not to worry about it, but it’s impossible for you not to worry about all the things,” he says.

Meanwhile, about 48 hours later, it was time for Tyrese to return to the Sixers and travel to Washington to face the Wizards, kicking off a three-game road trip.

Matisse Thybulle, one of the first teammates to check on Tyrese, tried to lift his spirits by cracking jokes. Tyrese showed up to practice wearing the oversized clothes the Sixers gifted him. “Hey man, why you got your big brother’s clothes on?” Thybulle said.

Tyrese appreciated this. “He was just trying to make me laugh,” he says. “Just having guys like that to really look out for me, I really appreciate it.”

Back on the court, Tyrese was the same as always — the team’s spark plug. He dropped 13 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists in the 117-96 victory over the Wizards. “I have yet to see him without a smile on his face, that situation included,” Thybulle says. “He was obviously not happy about it, but he didn’t wear it with any type of anger or sadness.”

WHEN TYRESE WAS a newborn, growing up in Garland, Texas, his father, Tyrone, bought him a teddy bear that played the popular “Charge” fanfare typically heard at sporting events. Every morning before work, Tyrone squeezed the bear’s paw to see his son smile when the organ’s chords played. Tyrese had the full run of his house as soon as he could walk. He was a ball of energy, always finding reasons to take off running. Tyrone eventually taught Tyrese how to dribble before playing in his first game at just 4 years old. A few years later, in first grade, Tyrese tried his hand at another sport: football.

But Tyrese wasn’t a fan of how physical football was. Denyse thought playing running back would help toughen him up — but he hated it. Every car ride to practice started with tears. But he stuck with it, switched to quarterback, and eventually fell in love with the sport. Still, his father knew he needed to stick with one sport if he truly wanted to excel, so Tyrese chose basketball and asked his father, who had played at South Plains College and Washington State and was coaching at the high school level, to train him. And so when Tyrese hit second grade, Tyrone took over his son’s training schedule. He knew Tyrese idolized Dwyane Wade, so he asked if he wanted to play like the Miami Heat legend — and Tyrese was ready to put the work in.

“From that moment on, I trained him all the way until he was 19 years old,” Tyrone says. Every summer, they logged two-hour training sessions three days a week. On weekends, Tyrese played for two AAU teams, where he blossomed into a fierce competitor. His family loved watching him try out new acrobatic moves on the court, but they often became unwilling perimeter defenders when he practiced his moves at home.

“He’d run through the house for years, practicing on me, or on one of his grandmothers, or practicing on his sisters, who don’t seem to like it very much,” Denyse says. “But it is fun — he does practice those moves on his family quite often.”

As a young basketball player, Tyrese first showed off his ability to handle adversity. In the first quarter of his elementary school championship game, Tyrese began favoring his left pinky finger. His parents wondered if he was OK but Tyrese never complained or exited the game. In another title game, he showed off the moves he practiced daily, dropping 46 points, but the effort wasn’t enough. His team lost the game and Tyrese felt like he didn’t do enough to get the W — so he cried.

“What’s special about Tyrese is he scored 46 points and he wasn’t excited,” Tyrone says. “I love that spirit about my son. If he can score two points and we win, he’s happy. Forty-six points, we lose, he’s unhappy, crying. That’s what kind of kid he is.”

Tyrese displayed the same scoring prowess and mental toughness in his lone season at the University of Kentucky — where he averaged 14 points under John Calipari. The Sixers chose him as the 21st overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, and he showed flashes as a rookie, but it wasn’t until Ben Simmons demanded a trade and sat out that the Sixers truly knew what he could do.

In the 2021-22 season, as the team’s starting point guard, Tyrese’s scoring jumped from 8 points a game to 17.5. His assists increased from 2 per game to 4.3. In his playoff debut as a starter, Tyrese scored 38 points against the Toronto Raptors. The Sixers were eliminated in the second round but Tyrese averaged 20.8 points. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers has called him one of the most impressive players he has ever coached and Daryl Morey, the team’s president, believes Tyrese is the “absolute key” to the team’s chances of winning the franchise its third NBA championship.

“Tyrese’s ability as a young player to come in with Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tobias Harris and find your place within that group, I couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around how he was able to do that,” Thybulle says. “That’s really hard because you’re trying to fit in with them and still complement them as players. To have as much success as he’s had doing that is really impressive.”

This season, he has averaged 22.9 points across 15 games. He was having one of his best games of the season Nov. 18 against the Milwaukee Bucks, making light work of one of the league’s best defenses. Tyrese racked up 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting before stepping on Jevon Carter’s foot while driving to the basket in the second quarter. An MRI revealed that he fractured his left foot, an injury that has sidelined him for weeks.

“Tyrese is going to smile through it,” Denyse says. “Even when he got injured this year, I said, ‘It could have been worse, so let’s focus on the positive and let’s get back to the plan.'”

Meanwhile, the Sixers are trying to do everything they can to fill Tyrese’s role until he’s healthy enough to return. “I think that says a lot about him as a player,” Thybulle says. “If it takes a team to try and fill this void of one person, it’s pretty impressive.”

OFF THE COURT, Tyrese keeps his family close.

Shortly after the 2020 NBA draft, he approached his uncle Brandon with a proposal: live with him and help out with the day-to-day side of his life. Tyrese knew basketball but managing life as a 19-year-old professional player seemed overwhelming. They now live together and have been inseparable ever since.

Tyrese is also very close to his sisters Keiara, 31; Talia, 28; and Denasia, 16. They say Tyrese hasn’t changed since becoming a rising star in the NBA. He’s still the same overly positive, outgoing, energetic person he’s always been.

“He’s fun! He’s annoying, very annoying,” Denasia says with a laugh. “I love him. He’s probably the best brother in the world. But he has a very bright personality — he’s very happy. Whatever he’s going through is probably very hard to notice… I’m sure everybody wants to have him as a brother.”

Keiara knows when her little brother visits the family in Texas, he’s bringing energy. Denyse always gives the family the same warning: “Tyrese is coming. Everybody, make sure you’ve got energy because he’s going to want to play games. He’s going to want us to all be here 24/7.”

When his parents and siblings aren’t around, Tyrese enjoys spending time with his dog, napping, playing his PlayStation 5, watching movies, and of course, basketball. It’s something he always did with his family, but Tyrone believes his son watches more to study and perfect his craft. And when he’s not around family, there’s one thing he does constantly and consistently.

“Call his mama,” Tyrone laughs. The family jokes about the number of times Tyrese calls, but he knows he can’t go a day without checking in on his loved ones.

“I call my mom maybe six, seven times a day,” Tyrese says. “I call my sisters when I’m bored. I call my dad all the time. And my uncle lives with me, so I talk to him all day, every day. Those are the people that I lean on. I lean on the Lord and I lean on them.”

TYRESE HAS NEVER successfully wrapped a present before — but Denyse teaches him how to do it the right way as they sit inside the living room of his new home. It’s one year after the fire, and Tyrese is getting the supplies needed for the task: scissors, tape and wrapping paper. Tyrese locks in as if he’s watching game film. Denyse puts the finishing touches on a present and that’s one gift down.

“You have to be very efficient with the paper because I don’t want to use too much,” she tells him. “I got a lot of gifts to wrap.”

Tyrese moved into his new home at the beginning of the season. Strings of white lights are wrapped around four columns that greet you outside, along with wreaths placed on each door. Inside, his tree stands tall in the corner of his living room. Gifts are neatly wrapped in various shades of greens, reds and gold beneath the tree.

Tyrese and Tyrone sit and watch as Denyse moves on to the next gifts. These are for the twins. Last Christmas, Tyrese was heartbroken because the young girls didn’t have gifts to unwrap. This year, he’s excited to give them matching Tyrese Maxey jerseys. They’re the only two family members who don’t have one.

The Maxey family cherishes these moments. So Tyrese tries to extend the spirit of giving beyond his loved ones. Growing up, Tyrese attended his grandmother’s weekly trips to deliver food to people who were unable to leave their homes. Now, he has helped organize several charitable events of his own and received the NBA’s community assist award for November.

Three days after injuring his foot, Tyrese hosted a turkey drive in Philadelphia, handing out free Thanksgiving meals to 300 families. The meals included a frozen turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing mix and collard greens, among other food items. “I wanted them to be able to touch me and I wanted to be able to be accessible to them and show them that I really care, because it really means something to me,” Tyrese told local media.

Earlier this month, his foundation held its second-annual toy drive. More than 7,500 toys have been collected and will be sent to organizations in Philadelphia and Dallas. Tyrese has always been a giver but going through the experience of the fire inspired him to do more charitable work this year.

“I think seeing all the help that we received as a family last year to help him get back on his feet, it meant even more to him to be able to hand someone a box full of all kinds of amazing fixings for Thanksgiving,” Denyse says. “His clothing, shoes, furniture and cars were destroyed in the fire, but it didn’t destroy who he is as a person.”

The official cause of last year’s fire remains undetermined, according to Joseph Hales Jr., the chief fire marshal of Camden County. Investigators couldn’t narrow down the cause to one outcome.

This Christmas Eve, the Maxeys are looking forward to celebrating the same way they always do: by playing games, singing songs and laughing until their stomachs hurt. On Christmas morning, the family’s longstanding tradition will continue. And this year, there will be plenty of reasons to be thankful.

“We’re going to try to have a great Christmas,” Tyrese says. “It’s going to be great. We’re blessed at the end of the day — we’re all blessed to be here.”

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