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BYU basketball: Jimmer Fredette's rise is no surprise to those who knew him

Published: Sunday, Feb. 27 2011 11:03 p.m. MST

BYU's Jimmer Fredette, left, is a possible player of the year and has the Cougars contending for a No. 1 seed.   (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) BYU's Jimmer Fredette, left, is a possible player of the year and has the Cougars contending for a No. 1 seed. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

PROVO — From the straight-to-YouTube 3-pointers to an endless reel of highlight shows to knockoff T-shirts, Jimmer Mania has spread across the country. But it is hard to pinpoint the moment when Brigham Young's Jimmer Fredette transformed from basketball star to national sensation, from fan favorite to cult hero, from boy next door to phenomenon.

For those who knew Jimmer before he became the Jimmer, the moment that best crystallizes his sun-kissed senior season came when Fredette effortlessly swished a shot from one step inside halfcourt in a game against Utah.

"That's the shot that tells you who he is because he doesn't even react," said Jim Hart, who coached Fredette in summer basketball with the Albany City Rocks. "He doesn't smile or pump a fist. He's more likely to pump his fist when someone else hits a shot; he knows that he's going to do it."

BYU's Jimmer Fredette is a possible player of the year and has the Cougars contending for a No. 1 seed. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) BYU's Jimmer Fredette is a possible player of the year and has the Cougars contending for a No. 1 seed. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

The 6-foot-2 Fredette, who leads the nation in scoring (27.2 points a game) and out-of-Provo-ZIP-code 3-pointers, finally got his shot on national television Saturday when No. 7 BYU traveled to San Diego to face No. 6 San Diego State, defeating the Aztecs 80-67. That CBS televised the game instead of a cable network is perhaps the ultimate testament to Jimmer Mania.

But for those who saw him growing up in Glens Falls, N.Y., the country is late hitching up to the bandwagon. Fredette lit up Albany-area elementary schools, hit 49 of 50 3-pointers in workouts and lit up convicts in prison games.

"Everyone else is surprised, but I knew he'd be a big-time scorer like that," said the Penn State senior Talor Battle, who is from Albany. "I always knew he had it in him."

Glens Falls is known more as a whistle-stop town for hoops stars during the New York state tournament than as an area that cultivates its own stars. Fredette fondly recalls daylong tournament binges, watching everyone from Kenny Anderson to Stephon Marbury and Julius Hodge to Sebastian Telfair, all while nursing $5 at the concession stand.

BYU's Jimmer Fredette, center, is a possible player of the year and has the Cougars contending for a No. 1 seed. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) BYU's Jimmer Fredette, center, is a possible player of the year and has the Cougars contending for a No. 1 seed. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

Fredette's path from Glens Falls came full circle this season when BYU played Vermont at the Civic Center, with fans filling the arena to the rafters. Jimmer's path to college stardom began on a concrete slab basketball court behind the family home. His brother, T.J., who molded and mentored Jimmer, recalled a home video where the 4-year-old Jimmer kicked the fence out of frustration after T.J. blocked his shot. But when T.J., who is seven years older, backed off to let him shoot, Jimmer called him back over to guard him closely.

"If he lost, he'd cry he was so mad, it would ruin his day and week," T.J. Fredette said. "It was an ultimate high to win and ultimate low to lose. That's unusual to see in a kid at such a young age."

Fredette's first buzz-worthy game came in eighth grade when he scored 51 points in a double-overtime loss to the Albany City Rocks. Fredette carried a team made up mostly of local teammates against a cast of Albany's best players.

BYU's Jimmer Fredette, left, is a possible player of the year and has the Cougars contending for a No. 1 seed. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) BYU's Jimmer Fredette, left, is a possible player of the year and has the Cougars contending for a No. 1 seed. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

"He looked like a little fat kid, and he was absolutely destroying an inner-city team," said Hart, the opposing coach, who eventually lured Fredette to his team.

Battle recalled hitting the winning shot that day after Fredette fouled out, and it started a friendly rivalry and strong friendship. If Fredette saw that Battle scored 40, he wanted 41. If Battle saw that Fredette's Glens Falls High School team won by 15, he wanted his Bishop Maginn High School team to win by 16. Hart said that within the tight-knit Albany basketball circles, Battle and Fredette became the area's version of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Local folks would argue for hours over who was better.

"I think it raised both of our games to the next level," Fredette said. "It made us what we are today."

T.J. Fredette also organized workouts that took place at the Latter-day Saints church in Queensbury, N.Y., where their father had a key to the gym. T.J. Fredette ran Jimmer through a drill known as the Gantlet, where he would dribble down a dark hallway, trying to avoid knocking over pictures of Jesus hanging on the wall. Once Jimmer mastered handling the ball in the dark, T.J. had friends jump out of doorways to prepare him for the unexpected.

"He's a creative, creative kid," Jimmer said of T.J., an aspiring rapper. "Some of the things he made me do, that's a little weird looking back on it. But it helped."

After Jimmer turned 18, T.J. Fredette took him to the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility in Wilton to play pick-up games against inmates. John Montgomery, the recreational director at the medium-security prison, said those inmates committed crimes ranging from drunken driving to manslaughter.

Fredette recalled the inmates betting cigarettes on the games and said he could hear them changing their bets as he started hitting shots. "It made us more mentally tough," Fredette said.

Fredette has not played at Mount McGregor since high school, but some of those inmates who competed against him hooted and hollered when he scored 37 points in an NCAA tournament first-round game against Florida last year.

"They hadn't heard of him when he came in, but they're really enjoying it now," said Montgomery, who has worked at Mount McGregor for 19 years.

While Fredette's Mormon faith is part of the reason he chose BYU, it was also his best offer. He grew up rooting for Syracuse and North Carolina, and just about every recruiter on the East Coast spied him playing for the high-profile City Rocks. But offers came only from BYU, Utah, Siena, Fordham and Massachusetts.

"I think everyone in the Northeast fell into the same trap," said Steve DeMeo, an assistant at Hofstra who scouted Fredette while at Providence. "I think basketball coaches are guilty of stereotyping, and to get past that you have to watch the kid play a lot of times."

BYU assistant Dave Rice said it took two possessions for the Cougars' staff members to realize they needed to recruit Fredette seriously when he came to camp there as a sophomore. The Cougars made Fredette their top recruiting priority. Even coach Dave Rose flew to watch Fredette play football his junior season on a rain-soaked night. Rose also recalls nervously spying the gym during the July recruiting period to be sure that no powerhouses swooped in and stole him. Still, the BYU staff could not envision him as anything beyond an all-league player.

"Can you project that a guy is someday going to become the face of college basketball his senior year?" Rice said. "It's hard to predict that."

Both Rose and Rice played on pantheon teams in college. Rice won a national title at Nevada-Las Vegas in 1990, and Rose was part of the Phi Slama Jama team at Houston that lost to North Carolina State in the 1983 national title game.

The Mountain West Conference lacks an ESPN contract, which reduces the program's visibility, Rose said. Still, BYU is headed to its fifth straight NCAA tournament despite the fact that on Selection Sunday, Rose said, every year "people don't know a lot about our team."

He added, "As far as national exposure is concerned, the TV contract with the Mountain has made that more of a challenge." (BYU will join the West Coast Conference next season.)

Fredette did not immediately show signs that he would be a surefire NBA first-round pick. He arrived on campus weighing 210 pounds and was unable to run a six-minute mile. Though he did not start a game as a freshman, he now laughs when recalling that he "almost died" at his first conditioning session at BYU.

Fredette is now a chiseled 195 pounds with the broad shoulders of a strong safety and a vertical jump of 36 inches, and he can run a 5:36 mile. The BYU strength coach Justin McClure teases Fredette for his runner's watch and running tights, but said there was a simple reason Fredette has improved: "His work ethic is amazing."

So is his remarkable story. From Glens Falls, N.Y., to the mountains of Utah to a rare national television game. As his legend grows, Fredette seems to keep outrunning expectations.

"I don't think anyone predicted he'd be this good," Hart said. "At the same time, I wouldn't have doubted anything that he could do."

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