PHILADELPHIA -- Among the enduring themes of March Madness is that Somebody has improbably arrived Here from Somewhere Else. From an urban ghetto. From a farm. From a distant foreign country. Rosters are filled with unlikely journeys to center stage of the sports world for an hour or a weekend or a fortnight.
This is one of those journeys.
The player is Jimmer Fredette, a 6-2, 195-pound sophomore who will start at guard for Brigham Young on Thursday at 12:30 against Texas A&M in the NCAA West Regional. Should the Cougars win that game -- and they have not won an NCAA tournament game since 1993, so this is no small matter -- they would probably meet No. 1 seed Connecticut on Saturday afternoon. (Presuming the Huskies dispense with No. 16 seed Chattanooga).
Fredette's basketball alone could develop a cult following should the Cougars survive the first round, or the first weekend, much the way it has in Provo, where some BYU fans have made him the most popular player on a team that went 25-7 and won the Mountain West Conference regular season title. Fredette looks -- and on occasion plays -- like a football player. (He was recruited by Penn State as a wide receiver out of high school). He is tough and passionate, which is not surprising if you know his bloodlines (more to come on that), a physical point guard who averages 16.2 points and 4.1 assists a game. He is fundamentally solid, yet he does not so much play a basketball game as wrestle it into submission. This is intended as a compliment.
His presence in Provo is more unorthodox than his game. Fredette is from Glens Falls, New York, a very small city at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, four hours dead north of New York City, roughly three hours dead south of the Canadian border. Five of the 14 players on BYU's tournament roster have roots in Utah, two others in Arizona, two in California, one in Oregon, another in the Bahamas by way of two junior colleges. One from Oklahoma, one from Oregon. Fredette was raised more than 1,000 miles from his nearest teammate.
That he plays for Brigham Young is the sum of a rare religious path, an older brother who would not let him be less than great and a zeal from somewhere deep in his DNA.
Start in a place even smaller than Glens Falls, an old railroad town called Whitehall, 30 minutes northeast, at the mouth of Lake Champlain. That's where Al Fredette and Kay Taft met.
Al Fredette played three sports at Whitehall High School at a time when the village of roughly 4,000 produced an uncommon number of stellar, small-town athletes. Fredette played basketball for a smart, tough, old-school coach named Bill Higgins on teams that regularly contended for -- and occasionally won -- sectional championships in the bygone years when New York hadn't figured out how to crown state champions. Fredette, who would go on to play college football, was under strict orders from Higgins: "Don't shoot. I don't even care if you don't touch the ball.''
His jobs were the dirty ones: Rebound, defend, dive on the floor. "I loved doing all of it,'' says Fredette, now a 58-year-old financial planner. I can attest to this, because during Fredette's career, I was an elementary school kid living in Whitehall and awaiting my turn to play for those same teams a few years later.
("I heard he was borderline nuts,'' Jimmer said to me Wednesday, a legend that I was happy to confirm).
Kay Taft's father was Clint Taft, a longtime coach and later athletic director at the high school. He had a barrel chest and McGwire-esque forearms from summers of steelworking, and the respect of every athlete in the village for more than four decades. His six children played games better than most.
At the age of 18, Al converted to the Mormon faith after his older brother had done the same thing. Kay has remained a Catholic, a separation that has endured throughout their marriage. They have three children; Jimmer is the youngest. All were given the option of choosing their own religion. "There were a few kids my age in the LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- Mormon) Ward,'' says Jimmer Fredette. "We had fun together.'' It was that simple. All three Fredette children were baptized in the Mormon faith and at the same time respected their mother's decision not to convert.
According to the Fredettes, their ward had roughly 500 members and three buildings in a huge geographic area covering thousands of square miles from just north the state capital of Albany to the middle of the Adirondacks. "Not like Utah, where there's a church about every three blocks,'' says Jimmer. "We used to drive around and pick up people who didn't have transportation to church.''
From the beginning, Fredette had his father's athletic drive. "Except a much, much higher skill level,'' says Al. Jimmer played not only for Glens Falls High School, but also for the City Rocks AAU team, with Penn State star Talor Battle. In the spring of his sophomore year in high school, Fredette played in an AAU tournament in Houston. His father approached a BYU coach in the stands and introduced himself as an "LDS guy.'' He told the coach that Jimmer would be attending the BYU camp that summer.
At the camp, BYU coaches watched Jimmer and soon inserted him into scrimmages with BYU players, who were working the camp as counselors. Recruitment commenced summarily. "It was two things,'' he says. "It was a chance to play basketball at a high level and maybe to contribute right away (he did), but also it was a chance to go where people believe in the same things that I do.''
It is possible that none of this would have happened in quite the same way if not for Fredette's brother, T.J., older by seven years. T.J. was also a good athlete, the point guard on very good high school teams while Jimmer was still in middle school. At the time when he finished high school, T.J. was prone to anxiety attacks and unprepared to go away to college. He played two years at a local junior college.
But he also taught basketball -- and toughness -- to his little brother. "Jimmer grew up playing with T.J. and T.J.'s friends,'' says Al. "I know that made him tougher.''
One summer afternoon when Jimmer was nine or 10 years old and T.J. was deep into high school, Al came home to find T.J. running Jimmer through a series of ballhandling drills on a slab of concrete behind the family home. "It had to be 95 degrees out,'' says Al. "I was worried, but T.J. just said, 'He'll be fine.' I said, 'OK, just make sure you give him some water.'''
There was a drill that T.J. called "The Gauntlet.'' He would turn off the lights in a long hallway at the church, leaving only a small sliver of light at the far end. Jimmer would dribble the length of the tunnel, unable to see the ball in the darkness. Sometimes T.J. would sneak down the hall and shove Jimmer, forcing him to be strong on his handle.
"He's a huge part of my basketball life,'' says Jimmer. "I owe a lot to him.'' (The same can be said for his uncle, Lee Taft, a personal trainer who has drilled Fredette for years, improving his quickness, strength and agility). Together T.J. and Jimmer played on teams that would scrimmage at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison 15 miles north of Glens Falls. Asked if it was intimidating, Fredette said, "The first time, it was.'' (Of course it makes Utah on the road seems a lot less so).
The NCAA tournament is full of geographic quirks that would baffle Magellan. Not least among them: BYU is playing in the Western Regional in Philadelphia. Fredette isn't complaining. His parents travel extensively to watch him play, but on Thursday his father, mother and brother will be among the 40 friends and family stepping up the Will Call window at the Wachovia Center.
Here Fredette ponders the numbers of supporters, sitting on a bench in a locker room in belly of an arena, closer to home than he has played in a very long time. "Of course if we win,'' he says. "I'm going to need more on Saturday.''