GLENS FALLS, N.Y. — Jimmer Fredette is going back to where it all started. Back to where he signed the basketball contract with his brother. Back to where he learned to dribble a basketball in a dark church hallway. Back to where he toughened his game in prison yards. Back to T.J., his older brother-mentor-coach, and the warm embrace of Glens Falls.
Fredette, BYU's preseason All-America guard, is going home, and he's taking his teammates with him. The 21st-ranked Cougars will play Vermont in, of all places, Glens Falls, N.Y. (pop. 14,000). The nearest college basketball team is Sienna, 40 minutes away, but Glens Falls is Fredette's hometown, and that's reason enough to bring two college basketball teams to the 5,700-seat Civic Center for a game on Dec. 8. Ticket sales have been so brisk that they've resorted to selling standing-room-only tickets — 400 to date.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for residents of the area who have followed Jimmer since his days as a high school player," says Ed Bartholomew, the town's director of economic development and the man charged with organizing the game. "He's a very popular figure here. To have him come back home with a Top 20 team and as a preseason All-American, following a Sports Illustrated story about him and his team, there is tremendous enthusiasm for the game."
Last September more than 300 people camped outside the Civic Center just to buy tickets for the game, which is being billed as the "Hometown Classic." One of the campers was Fredette's father, Al, who spent the night outdoors because he wasn't sure he would have enough tickets to accommodate a couple of neighbor ladies who requested them.
"It's the talk of the town," says T.J. Fredette, Jimmer's brother. "There have been newspaper articles almost on a weekly basis since the game was announced. The kids all look up to Jimmer. They're always calling to see how he is doing, and when he comes home they want to be around him. People go to bars to watch the BYU's games or watch them online. Whatever it takes."
Trying to make good on a recruiting promise to Fredette to play a game in the East, BYU searched for an opponent and a venue for their star's senior season. "It was hard to get a game," says BYU coach Dave Rose. "We looked at a 300-mile radius. We looked at New York — Madison Square Garden, St. John's. We looked at Syracuse. We contacted Buffalo. Then the mayor of Glens Falls got wind of it. He helped us set it up there and find a team."
Among those in attendance at Wednesday's game will be more than a dozen NBA scouts and representatives, including BYU alum and Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge. Fredette is arguably the best BYU basketball player since Ainge, who was named the nation's Player of the Year in 1981. Fredette announced his arrival on the national basketball scene a year ago when he scored a BYU-record 49 points against Arizona. For the next month his performance suffered from a bout with mono, but in March he scored 45 points against TCU and 37 points in a double-overtime win over Florida in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He averaged 22 points and nearly 5 assists a game as a junior.
Following the season, Fredette tested his prospects for the NBA Draft. He worked out for four NBA teams in one week — Oklahoma City, Boston, New Jersey, New York — and consulted with several NBA execs, but especially Ainge.
"I talked to him many times," says Fredette. "He had gone through the process. He explained the advantages of staying in school and leaving. But one thing he said is that he loved his senior year, and not knowing where I would be picked it might not be worth giving up my senior year."
Fredette returned for his senior season armed with an NCAA-sanctioned, seven-figure insurance policy against a career-ending injury, the premium of which will be based on where he is taken in the draft.
He was able to measure himself against some of the NBA's top players in Las Vegas last summer as one of 20 collegians chosen to play on the USA Men's Select Team. The team practiced and played against the USA national team, which was stocked with NBA stars — including Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Chauncey Billups, and Kevin Durant — and went on to win the world championships.
"They all knew who I was before I met them," says Fredette. "It was, 'Hey, Jimmer, how are you doing?' It made me feel like I belong."
One day Fredette was carrying his laundry in the hall of the team headquarters when Billups pulled up next to him. "Hey, Jimmer, I love your game," he said. "I watched you a lot throughout your college career. You remind me of myself when I played. Keep working hard and you're going to be here with us next year."
That's been the plan all along. Fredette is not the first boy to have NBA dreams, but he might be one of the few who followed a plan and regimen that was prepared for him by a doting older brother and then worked at it with a maturity beyond his years.
Set apart early
James Taft "Jimmer" Fredette, 21, is the youngest and tallest (6-2) of Al and Kay's three children — Lindsay is 30 and Timothy James "T.J." 28. Kay provided the nicknames that would follow the boys into adulthood. "She called me 'Jimmer' as a baby and liked it," says Jimmer. "She wanted it to be unique. It's been a good name."
If the name didn't set Jimmer apart, his religion did. The Fredettes were among the few Mormons in town. Al, a financial planner, is an LDS convert, and Kay is not a member, although she attends church meetings.
"I was the only Mormon in my school," Jimmer says. "But I was able to get involved with good friends through basketball."
They are an athletic family, with aunts and uncles who played collegiate sports. T.J. himself played two years of basketball for Adirondack Community College and loves the game. Jimmer, always precocious and big for his age, began playing organized basketball at four in a league for older kids.
His close connection with his older brother hastened his athletic development. Most older brothers are reluctant to let their little brothers tag along, especially with a seven-year age difference. But T.J. invited and encouraged Jimmer to hang out with his friends and to play in their pickup games, beginning at 7.
"I just loved being an older brother and Jimmer was the coolest kid," says T.J. "He was just fun and funny, and he listened. It made everything better having him around. My friends loved him like a little brother, too. He was just part of the group and no one ever questioned it. If we had an outsider who came in and asked, 'Why is your little brother here?' we'd end that quick."
The pickup games against the older, bigger kids produced a side benefit for Jimmer: It forced him to become not just a shooter, but a scorer — a player who found a way to dribble to shots and get them off over, under and around bigger opponents. At first the little guy was allowed to shoot unchallenged from outside, but that ended quickly when it became apparent he could drain those shots. He had to create scoring opportunities, and in the process he adapted to the physicality of scrapping with taller, heavier opponents near the basket.
These skills were evident by the time Rose signed Fredette at BYU. "We didn't know when we recruited him if he was a point guard or a two," says the coach. "We discovered he's much better with the ball in his hands. He can get to the rim with both hands and shoot threes off transition and sets. He is a special offensive player. He can score and create offense for himself and others."
T.J. saw potential and determination in Jimmer, and the two of them committed themselves to working toward an NBA career. T.J. made Jimmer his personal project, creating a series of unique drills to hone his brother's game.
They performed one drill on a small slab of concrete in the back yard. It required Jimmer to dribble the ball on the cement while wearing ski gloves — "It makes it harder to feel the ball and dribble," says Jimmer — and keep it away from his older brother even while the latter was trying to knock him off the concrete and steal the ball.
"T.J. is very creative," says Jimmer. "He created a lot of drills to improve my game."
They performed a variety of drills at the local Mormon church (Al was given a key to the building). One of the drills, which they called "the gauntlet," required Jimmer to dribble the ball down one of the church's dark, narrow hallways toward the foyer, where a single lamp provided the only light.
"It made me work on ball control without looking at the ball," says Jimmer. "I had to keep my head up to see the light, and I had to keep the ball close to my body. I'd dribble between my legs, behind my back, crossover, spin, everything."
How did such a drill ever occur to T.J.? "One day in church I was walking down the hallway and thinking, 'How can I challenge Jimmer? He's mastered all the drills.' Then someone turned the light off, and it hit me. It was almost pitch black. All I could see was the light ahead in the foyer. And the hallway was narrow so he had to keep ball close to his body."
In another favorite drill, performed in the church gym, T.J. required Jimmer to dribble into the lane and go up for a shot while his brother pushed and struck him. T.J. demanded that Jimmer finish the shot and make five of them before they quit.
"It was about body control and getting into bigger guys," says Jimmer. "I do that today, and I'm able to finish. I'm not intimidated going into big guys. I can penetrate and finish at the rim. It doesn't matter how the shot looks. It might be awkward, but I'm able to get it off."
The Fredettes finished off these practice sessions — which they did two or three days a week — with a free-throw drill. They made a game out of it — one free throw to win or lose the region championship, one free throw for the state championship, one free throw for the national championship, then the world championship. T.J. did his best to distract his brother as he shot, throwing a ball up as his brother shot, hitting him with a ball just as the shot was leaving his hand, throwing a ball near his face.
"T.J. was a huge part of my success," says Jimmer. "He saw that I loved the game, and he loved having me around for some reason. It was great. We got along great. It was a big part of my growth."
"I saw an NBA future, probably when he was in seventh or eighth grade," says T.J. "He always played at a level that was so much higher than other kids his age. I saw his competitiveness and desire to win, and I saw his God-given gifts, his hand-eye coordination and his strength. Every piece of the puzzle was there."
Team Jimmer also included Al, who went to the gym with his son, as well, and their maternal uncle, Lee Taff, a professional personal trainer who augmented Fredette's development with weight training and various agility drills.
Perhaps the finishing touch on Jimmer's basketball education was, of all things, prison competition. When Jimmer turned 18, T.J. arranged three pickup game against inmates at the Mount McGregor and Great Meadow correctional facilities.
As T.J. describes it, "I knew it would be good for him. It's intimidating. Three hundred inmates watch. They go crazy, and they're right on top of you, screaming at you. You walk in through the yard and the inmates are lined up in this huge building looking out their cell windows screaming at you and pounding on the windows. After that, you can't be afraid of anything. They were big strong guys and they wanted to win. They were very physical, but not dirty."
By the time he enrolled at Glens Falls High School, Jimmer was a star-in-the-making. He broke into the school's starting lineup as a freshman and went on to become the sixth highest scorer in New York history, with 2,404 points. He was named first-team all-state as a junior and senior. He averaged 28.8 points per game in his senior season, leading his team to the state finals. He was also an all-state wide receiver as a junior, but gave up the sport after signing early with BYU.
Remarkably (especially in hindsight), BYU was the only big school to offer Fredette a scholarship. "I was the white kid from a small town who played in the small-school competition and didn't get exposure in the big city," says Fredette.
Rose was tipped off about Fredette and began watching him play as a sophomore. That summer Fredette flew to Provo to participate in Rose's camp. After that, Rose was convinced Fredette was a player worth pursuing. BYU coaches watched him play football and basketball and then offered him a scholarship as a junior.
"We were fortunate to get him," says Rose.
Following Jimmer's junior season, T.J. worried that the attention and pressure that came with success might have taken its toll on his brother. "I wanted to find out if he was still enjoying it and still had the same dream," says T.J.
So he wrote a contract and took it to one of their practice sessions at the church. He asked his brother about his feelings for the game. When Jimmer assured him that he still loved basketball and was still committed to their NBA dream, T.J. placed the contract on the table. It read: "I, James Fredette, am going to do everything I can to reach my ultimate goal of reaching the NBA." Then they both signed it.
Rose, among others, believes Fredette has what it takes to succeed at the next level if the right team drafts him. "I watched him play this summer with the USA team against the NBA players, and he was very comfortable on the floor," Rose says. "He was able to score in those games very similarly to what he does at this (college) level. He could score deep, although he couldn't go quite as deep because of their size. But he could pull up at 4 feet or 12 feet or 23 feet and score."
The next few months will tell if Jimmer's dream — and his brother's dream for him — is realized. T.J., an unemployed, self-described "broke artist," is a budding rapper who has cut four CDs and recently signed with a manager. One of his songs, called "Amazing," tells his brother's basketball story (you can hear and watch it performed on tjfredette.com). The song begins, "It's been about 21 years, but back when you were younger
I did everything I could as an older brother / to get you to understand that you were given a gift so with each other we would muster up a plan to succeed with one another ..."
All the long hours that Jimmer spent in the church gym, performing all those drills with T.J. and his Uncle Lee and Al, seem likely to be rewarded. In a few months, Jimmer probably will be chosen high in the NBA and sign a rich NBA contract. Jimmer shakes his head thinking about it all.
"It's weird," he says. "I never had that kind of money. I'm a young kid. To be thinking about making that kind of money is surreal. I got my first car only last year. I walked everywhere the first two years here."
"He's a good kid and very humble," says T.J. "That's one of my jobs — to make sure he stays humble."
Jimmer and T.J. talk and text several times a week, and their favorite subject of course is basketball. "He knows my game better than anyone," says Jimmer. "He still gives me pointers — things I need to work on."
No one will be happier than T.J. if his little brother is able to fulfill his dreams for him. "I always wanted to play big-time basketball," he says. "Seeing Jimmer do it is almost like doing it myself."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company