March 14, 2011
When BYU opens NCAA tournament play against 14th-seeded Wofford on Thursday in Denver, some of Jimmer Fredette's most ardent supporters won't be in the stands at the Pepsi Center or watching from home in Provo.
Instead, they'll be huddled around TVs in the housing barracks at a medium-security prison in Wilton, N.Y.
Each time Fredette plays a nationally televised game, inmates at Mount McGregor Correctional Facility gather in the TV lounge in their respective housing units to cheer for the senior guard. Their connection with Fredette dates back to spring 2007 when the Glens Falls, N.Y., native and his older brother joined a civilian team that played a handful of basketball games at the prison against the inmates.
"The inmates vote on what they want to watch on TV each week, and of course, they want to watch Jimmer," Mount McGregor recreational director John Montgomery said. "If BYU's on our local television, every dorm will have the game on. Every inmate will want to watch. They do have that connection to him. They think, 'God, he was up here playing against us.'"
That Jimmermania has reached even the prison system should come as no surprise considering the following Fredette has built. Each long-range 3-pointer or 40-point scoring barrage has drawn more attention to the unassuming Fredette, elevating him from all-conference guard, to national player of the year favorite, to crossover star in a matter of months.
Fredette is especially flattered the inmates at Mount McGregor still follow him considering he hasn't been back since the summer after his senior year of high school. His older brother T.J. still occasionally plays basketball at the prison, often getting peppered with questions about Fredette from the guards and inmates.
"They all ask about me, how I'm doing and how the season is going," Fredette said. "I guess we've made some relationships in there and people know about BYU basketball in there. We have those guys on our side, which is good."
Fredette's older brother first became interested in playing against the inmates when a mutual friend of his and Montgomery suggested it. The experience was positive enough that he encouraged his younger brother to come with him when his senior season at Glens Falls High School ended in spring 2007.
From the gun-toting guards, to the barbed wire fences, to the pages of liability paperwork he had to sign before entering, Fredette vividly remembers everything about his initial visit to Mount McGregor. Most of all, however, he recalls his anxiety walking through the door to the gym and seeing the bleachers packed with inmates clad in prison garb.
If sign-toting, hate-spewing Mountain West student sections thought they could intimidate Fredette the past four years, they should have considered the taunts and catcalls he endured that day from the all-inmate crowd. Considering that inmates at Mount McGregor committed crimes ranging from drunken driving to drug trafficking to manslaughter, they were probably a tad more menacing than a few hundred college kids dressed as Mormon missionaries at San Diego State.
"It was intimidating for sure," Fredette said. "They packed the bleachers, they were rowdy and they said whatever they wanted to you. They would bet cigarettes or whatever they had on the outcome of the game. Most of the time they didn't want you to win because they had friends on the other team."
Asked what the worst taunts he heard that day were, Fredette laughed and said, "Nothing I can say in an interview, that's for sure. Nothing that was PG-13."
The few inmates who bet on Fredette's team won a lot of packs of smokes each time he came to Mount McGregor. Fredette won every game he played there, scoring at least 30 points in each one and showcasing his trademark deep 3-point range and smooth offensive game.
At some point during his handful of visits to Mount McGregor, Fredette earned the respect of the inmates on the court and in the stands.
"Inmates are like regular fans," Montgomery said. "They like great moves and great plays. At first they were rooting for their inmate friends, but as Jimmer started slowly popping 21 footers and 24 footers, soon the jeers turned to cheers."
Many of the inmates who played or watched Fredette in 2007 have since been released from prison or transferred to another facility, but the few dozen who do remain continue to pass down stories of his exploits to newcomers. Printouts and newspaper clippings of stories about Fredette also adorn bulletin boards at the prison, giving inmates the opportunity to catch up on the latest news about the BYU star.
Fredette said his experience at Mount McGregor was very positive. Not only did he appreciate the chance to help the inmates relieve stress and build camaraderie, he also acknowledged the experience helped him become a better player on the road because he learned to block out hostile crowds or channel their taunts to drive him to become better.
"Obviously there are a lot more people in big arenas in college, but what they say to you doesn't bother you because I heard pretty much everything in those prisons," Fredette said. "I think that helped me get better at blocking the crowd out and just focusing on the game."
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