BYU scoring machine Jimmer Fredette (and his unusual moniker) has captured the nation's imagination—but that's nothing compared to what he's done for his brother
This is an article from the Jan. 31, 2011 issue
His name is as versatile as his game. It's a noun: An Arizona fan praised the Wildcats' defense for not letting a big-time scorer "pull a Jimmer." It's a verb: YOU GOT JIMMERED! read a sign waved in the BYU student section. It's an adjective: "He was making some Jimmer Fredette threes!" gushed Syracuse's Scoop Jardine about the six bombs Cincinnati's Dion Dixon hit from beyond the arc. Jimmer has several definitions in the Urban Dictionary, including this: One who is in range as soon as he steps off the bus.
Things could not be going more Jimmerly (to introduce the adverb) of late for cherub-cheeked BYU senior Jimmer Fredette, 21, who has been roving the West like a gunslinger with a grudge. On Jan. 5, the 6'2" point guard blistered UNLV for 39 points in an 89--77 win, the Cougars' first at the Thomas & Mack Center since 2005. Six days later he walked into the raucous Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City and dropped 47 on bitter rival Utah—including a holy-cow, 40-foot buzzer-beater to cap a 32-point first half—in a 104--79 rout. And last Saturday he racked up 42 at Colorado State in a 94--85 Mountain West Conference victory that lifted No. 9 BYU to 19--1.
It's not just that Fredette leads the country in scoring, with 26.7 points per game through Sunday, while shooting 47.6% from the field, 41.0% from deep and 90.0% from the line. It's the way he scores that's making his final season one for the hoops lexicon. Facing the opposition's best defender (or, more often, defenders), he pulls up going right or going left. He shoots off the dribble, off the wrong foot, off balance, off the glass. He finishes in traffic with a dozen deft moves, including a funky scoop shot, originating from his waist, that he can make with either hand. "He gets shots off that you don't think can possibly go in because he doesn't elevate a ton and he's not super quick," says BYU senior guard Jackson Emery. "But he is super crafty. I don't know how he plans it out in his mind, but it's fascinating to watch."
Sometimes there appears to be no planning at all. With BYU up 22--7 against TCU on Jan. 18, Fredette was near half-court when he briefly turned to his bench, then took two casual dribbles and launched a 30-footer that snapped the net. The Marriott Center crowd went nuts.
"The best way to defend him," says TCU coach Jim Christian, "is to try to keep the ball out of his hands." Fredette's most dangerous weapon, adds Utes coach Jim Boylen, "is his swagger and confidence."
Not every player with the talent to score 40 will keep attacking the way Fredette does. "Pete Maravich was the greatest at that," says Villanova coach Jay Wright. "Players like Maravich and Jimmer, it's like they have stronger mental conditioning. They can keep going with that aggressive mentality for a longer period of time."
Swaggering, confident, aggressive. Sounds like an annoying ball hog, right? But that may be the true wizardry of Fredette: He is fiercely competitive while remaining unassuming and likable. Even Fredette's victims find him hard to resist. After Fredette scored 49 points at Arizona last season, Wildcats coach Sean Miller didn't shake his hand; he gave him a hug. Utah fans gave him an ovation as he left the court after his virtuoso performance earlier this month. "I told the staff in a meeting a couple years ago," says BYU coach Dave Rose, "that if Jimmer's personality stays the same and he keeps playing like he's playing, he's going to be a story like Steph Curry or Larry Bird, where everyone wants to see him play and wants to be around him."
Like Maravich, Bird and Curry, the star of Davidson's Cinderella run in the 2009 NCAA tournament, Fredette has achieved a rare, almost mythical, college basketball celebrity. It doesn't hurt that Jimmer's older brother, TJ, a rapper, has provided a sound track to his career, a song called Amazing, which can be found on YouTube accompanied by a video montage of Fredette as a kid and as a Cougar. "I listen to TJ all the time, and so do my friends," says Fredette, whose other preferred entertainments include chess, sudoku and "movies that make me think."
It also doesn't hurt that BYU's scant TV exposure gives Fredette's exploits the whiff of fable. If you live outside the Mountain West region or are otherwise occupied on Feb. 26, the date of BYU's one nationally televised game, at San Diego State on CBS, you may have to wait for March Madness to see Fredette in full. Yet what has been a loss for college basketball fans nationwide has been a boon to the bars and restaurants of Glens Falls, N.Y., Fredette's hometown. So many people crowd into the DirectTV-equipped establishments on Cougars game nights that city council members have joked about giving Fredette this year's economic-development award.
Fredette appreciates his fans, but it's his skeptics who bring out the best in him. Of his 14 career games of 30 or more points, 13 have been away from Provo. (That includes his sensational performance during the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, when he dropped 37 on Florida in a 99--92 double-overtime win at Oklahoma City.) Fredette welcomes hostility, embraces dismissal, relishes doubt. "Honestly, I feel more comfortable on the road," he says. "I take the heckling as a compliment." And the sudden hush that falls over a crowd when he hits a big three? "That's my favorite sound."
It was TJ who told him that being able to score when things were against him was what made a good player great. It was TJ who spent a good part of his childhood instilling in Jimmer the value of hard work, persistence and unshakable focus, never imagining how this investment in his little brother's future would help save his own.
Jimmer has heard the doubts his whole life: He was too slow, too short, too chubby, too white to play at the next level, whether it was the Albany City Rocks AAU team or Division I. Even his Mormon faith, which he and his two siblings chose as kids when given the option by their parents, Kay, a Catholic, and Al, a Mormon convert, was evidence of some perceived lack. "People wondered, How tough can he really be?" says Al. Though his 2,404 points at Glens Falls High rank sixth in state history, Fredette was overlooked by the basketball powers. His choice came down to Siena and BYU, the alma mater of his sister, Lindsay.
Jimmer's most steadfast supporter was TJ, who recognized a prodigy in his chunky little brother. "He was the most determined, competitive four-year-old I had ever seen," says TJ, who is seven years older. Playing with TJ and TJ's friends on the family's backyard court, Jimmer developed range—at five he could drain a three—and an arsenal of head fakes, scoop shots and floaters to get around the long limbs. "He willed himself to find ways to win, even if he was physically outmatched," says TJ. "From the time he was 10, I was telling everybody he was going to make the NBA."
At eight Jimmer graduated to pickup ball with Al and TJ against adults at Crandall Park, then Hoop It Up tournaments, then trips to Hartford and New York City for no-foul games on the blacktop "that toughened him up," says Al. Jimmer's development was a family affair: Al, a financial adviser, helped coach his AAU teams while Kay—a substitute teacher who coined the nickname Jimmer at birth (his real name is James)—put no restrictions on bouncing the ball in the house and even built him a small dribbling studio in the basement with a linoleum floor and mirrors on the wall. Kay's brother, Lee Taft, a personal trainer who now runs his eponymous Speed Academy in Indianapolis, started him on running drills when he was five. "I wouldn't be where I am today without him," says Fredette, who still works out with Taft. "He's the reason I move as well as I do."
But TJ, a point guard on the Glens Falls High team, was his best friend and greatest inspiration. "I wanted to be like him at such a young age that I think it helped me with my development," says Fredette. Jimmer excelled at other sports—at 12 he could crush a baseball 350 feet, and as a junior at Glens Falls High he was an all-state receiver—but practicing those sports bored him. Practicing basketball was fun. TJ made it fun.
TJ helped Jimmer hone his free throw form by pretending every shot had a game on the line. "He'd make so many in a row that I had to make stuff up," TJ says. "O.K., now you're playing at the Olympics. Now you make this shot, and you feed all the people in the world."
TJ made up one drill he called the Gauntlet, for which Jimmer, TJ and his ever-obliging friends would gather in a dark, narrow hallway at the Latter Day Saints church in nearby Queensbury. The only light was at the end of the hall, so Jimmer had to keep his head up as he dribbled forward, practicing his crossover and spin moves as the older boys randomly popped out of doorways to try to rattle him.
By the time Jimmer was 18 and old enough to join TJ and his friends in games against inmates at two prisons, nothing fazed him. In his first trip into the Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility, where the prisoners on the court were aggressive, the ones in the crowd were loud and guards lined the perimeter, Jimmer scored 40 points. "The prisoners went crazy," says TJ. "They loved him."
TJ once had dreams of his own basketball stardom. But unlike Jimmer, he couldn't focus—on athletics or in school. From the time he was 11 he suffered debilitating panic attacks, terrifying him and his parents and often landing him in the hospital. "It was a claustrophobic feeling, like having a heart attack," he says.
By the time he finished his playing career, at Adirondack Community College in Queensbury, N.Y., in 2002, TJ had learned to cope with his condition. Then when he was 24, he suffered another neurological blow. In the summer of 2006 he had surgery for a torn left ACL. The knee healed, but the headaches, dizziness, dropping blood pressure, blurry vision and balance problems that plagued him immediately after the surgery didn't go away. "I'd sit on the couch and feel like I was falling," he says.
After Jimmer left for his freshman year at Provo, TJ's condition got worse. He and his parents eventually found a neurologist who diagnosed damage to TJ's vestibular system—which governs balance and spatial orientation—perhaps related to the anesthesia for the ACL surgery. He learned exercises to help rehab the damage, but things got worse before they got better. TJ spent the better part of a year on his parents' couch, so sick and depressed that "I feared he would do something crazy to end the agony," Kay wrote in an e-mail.
There was one light in the darkness: Jimmer. "The only thing that kept me going was his games; they were everything to me," says TJ. Says Kay, "I don't know what would have happened if TJ didn't have that to hold on to. Jimmer was saving TJ's life, and he didn't even realize it."
Almost a continent away, Jimmer had little idea what his brother was going through. He didn't know the agonizing effort it took for TJ to show up in Provo for BYU's matchup with sixth-ranked Wake Forest during Jimmer's sophomore year. After suffering through the long flight, TJ sat through the game, keeping his head down during timeouts to fend off the dizziness. "But when the game was on, I was so engaged I didn't feel anything else," he says. BYU lost 94--87, but Jimmer had a breakout game, delivering 23 points and nine assists against a team that included future lottery pick Jeff Teague. His legend was launched.
That game was a turning point for TJ, too. Within a few months his daily rehab started to have a positive effect, and the darkness that had enveloped him for nearly three years began to recede. "I'll probably always have problems with the dizziness, but at least I'm able to live a normal life now," says TJ.
"Even today I probably don't know half of what TJ went through," says Jimmer. "I am so happy that my playing helped him. Obviously he has helped me a lot in my life, so to return the favor feels great."
For TJ the payback keeps coming. His rap career, which he started as a hobby in high school, is finally starting to take off, in part because of the exposure Jimmer's success has provided. But Jimmer remains his favorite entertainment. "I get so much joy out of his success," he says.
TJ, who still lives in Glens Falls but travels frequently to Utah along with Kay and Al, fully expects that success to continue deep into March. Though Fredette takes 34.8% of the Cougars' shots, BYU is hardly a one-man team. When TCU double- and triple-teamed Fredette all night, holding him to 21 points on 6-for-16 shooting, the four other Cougars starters finished in double figures. And for all his shot-making abilities, Fredette also leads BYU in assists, averaging 4.4 through Sunday. "When it's time to get that win, he makes all kinds of plays besides putting the ball in the basket," says BYU junior swingman Charles Abouo.
Yet his suitability for the NBA remains a hotly debated question. "From what I hear, there is a group of teams that really believe in Jimmer," says Rose. "One of those teams is going to pick him. Then a lot of people will see what he's really capable of doing."
Doubters abound, but that has never fazed Fredette. "I've never worried when people have said, 'You can't do it,' but it does fuel me," he says. In other words, Jimmermania may just be getting started.
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