CLEVELAND — Standing 6 feet 9 inches tall, John Hugley IV is a force.
And still, his mom calls him “Little John.”
Hugley plays forward at Brush High School, and just verbally committed to the University of Pittsburgh men’s basketball team.
It comes after months and years of offers and interest from top colleges and universities across the country.
And it comes nearly a decade after his dad, John Hugley III, was sent away to prison, sentenced to 15 years for robbery.
“Me and my dad were real close. I went everywhere with him, he took me everywhere,” Little John said. “When I was in the gym he was in the gym, when I was in the field, he was on the field right next to me.”
After Big John went to prison at Lorain Correctional Institution, Little John began to spiral.
“When he first went away, I used to get in trouble a lot. Because I was just missing him,” he said.
His mom, Marquette Washington, saw the changes.
“His behavior changed tremendously. Just started doing things he had no business doing. It was hard on him, he was so used to his dad being around,” Washington said.
And from inside the prison walls, Big John saw the changes, too.
“It’s like when a man leaves his kids and his family, the family goes through withdrawals just like someone that is on drugs,” he said. “And it can be detrimental and it was almost detrimental to my son.”
So he committed to being the best dad he could be, despite being locked in a jail cell.
“I never allowed these walls or these fences to stop me from being a father,” Big John said.
Though he has never seen his son play, he receives photos and videos of every game, talks through every play.
“I’m his biggest fan, me and his mom," Big John said.
So Big John prayed to God that He would put people in Little John’s life to support him, to guide him. John and Marquette’s families and their fathers stepped up.
So did Coach Chet Mason.
“He’s like a big brother you know? He tells me stuff besides basketball, like life, my grades,” Little John said.
For Coach Chet, it’s a bond made stronger through sport.
“I was that kid before, so it’s easy for me,” Chet said. “I was raised by my mother. And my mother was strong just like John’s mother is strong.”
“You know, John, he wouldn’t understand now, his talent,” Chet added. “Because it’s bigger than basketball. He doesn’t understand his talent is what's going to bring his family together.”
Little John wears a #23 jersey, in honor of his favorite player of all time - LeBron James.
And for his family, John Hugley IV is a force to behold -- on the court, and off.
"He’s thriving," Big John said. "Despite the fact that his dad’s not there. He’s thriving."