Oh, brother, BYU survives
OKLAHOMA CITY – BYU won a first-round NCAA tournament game for the first time in 17 years Thursday, and if they really wanted to do things right, the Cougars would’ve invited T.J. Fredette to join them during the on-court celebration.
He didn’t make a basket, grab a rebound or don a uniform. Still, in a roundabout way, 27-year-old T.J. had as much to do with seventh-seeded BYU’s 99-92 double-overtime victory against 10th-seeded Florida as his younger brother Jimmer, who became the tournament’s opening-day hero by scoring 37 points.
“I owe him a lot,” said Jimmer Fredette, a 6-foot-2 junior guard. “I wouldn’t be here without him.”
Some players never experience the “tough love” style of coaching – and the ones that do usually have to wait until high school or college. T.J., though, began pushing Jimmer before he even entered kindergarten in the family’s hometown of Glens Falls, N.Y.
Fredette learned his ballhandling skills by running “the gauntlet,” a makeshift obstacle course T.J. set up in a long, dark hallway in the family’s church. T.J. would turn off the lights so it was almost pitch-black.
“The only light he could see was a little lamp at the end of the hall,” T.J. said, “so he’d have to keep his head up the whole time he was dribbling or he wouldn’t be able to see.
“I’d always be hiding in one of the rooms – he didn’t know which one – and I’d jump out and shove him. If he lost the ball, he had to start over.”
As Jimmer grew older, T.J. and other family members took him to a local prison to play in games against the inmates. Even though the contests were organized by a friend who worked at the prison, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more intimidating for the teen-aged Fredette.
Not that it showed.
“The first time I took him there, he scored 40,” T.J. said. “One of the refs was an inmate. The other was a guard and the prisoners were all circled around the court going crazy. I don’t think we ever felt like we were in danger because all the guards had guns, but it was pretty hostile”
T.J. was an accomplished player himself, having competed at the junior college level. Still, when it came to sports, he took as much satisfaction in seeing his younger brother flourish on the court as he did in his own athletic achievements.
Even at the age of 10, T.J. was pushing his 3-year-old brother. A video on T.J.’s Facebook page shows him knocking Jimmer to the pavement as he tries to drive and blocking Jimmer’s shots until he becomes so frustrated that he kicks the chain link fence by the family driveway.
Figuring he would cut Jimmer a break, T.J. puts his arms down and acts as he if’s ready to let Jimmer shoot over him or drive past him. At that point, Jimmer picks up his dribble and motions for T.J. to put his arms back into the air.
“At that point,” T.J. said, “he’s saying, ‘Guard me! Don’t take it easy on me!’ Even at that age, his competitive drive was unbelievable.”
Still, as much has T.J. believed in his brother, there were others who didn’t.
Syracuse passed on Fredette and instead chose to sign point guards Jonny Flynn and Scoop Jardine. A few other Big East schools inquired, but the word on the street was that Fredette was too slow or that he couldn’t defend well enough.
“Never did I think that, ever,” Fredette said. “I just tried to use that as motivation to get better. All I ever wanted to do was play [Division I basketball] and go to the NCAAs.”
Fredette finally earned that chance at BYU, and even the Cougars are surprised at how well he has performed. Fredette is averaging 22.1 points following Thursday’s victory. He has topped the 30-point barrier eight times this season and has scored more than 40 points on two occasions.
Before Thursday’s game, Florida coach Billy Donovan said Fredette scared him more than Kentucky’s John Wall, expected to be the No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, and South Carolina’s Devan Downey, a first-team All-SEC performer.
Earlier this season, in the waning seconds of a 49-point performance at Arizona, Fredette received some rather humorous instructions from the sideline from Wildcats coach Sean Miller.
“Just pass – no more shooting,” said Miller, who wrapped both arms around Fredette and hugged him after the game.
In some ways, all of it has been surreal for Fredette, who said he still gets chills when he watches replays of the Bryce Drew’s game-winning shot for Valparaiso in the first round of the 1998 NCAA tournament or the 3-pointer by Kansas’ Mario Chalmers that sparked the Jayhawks’ rally in the 2008 title game against Memphis.
“I always thought, ‘I wanna do that,’ ” Fredette said. “It’s something that you dream about. Fortunately, today I kind of had that chance.”
Ten of Fredette’s points against Florida came in the two overtimes. His 3-pointer with 1:22 left in the second overtime stretched BYU’s lead to 93-86, and the Gators never threatened again.
As the final seconds ticked away, Fredette heard Donovan yell at his team from the sideline. “No more fouls!” Donovan said. “No more fouls!”
At that point, Gators forward Chandler Parsons approached Fredette as he dribbled out the clock.
“All right, Jimmer,” he said. “You got it.”
Fredette danced about the hardwood and hugged his teammates and coach Dave Rose. Before he headed to midcourt, he looked behind the Cougars’ bench and, in a touching moment, pointed toward his brother.
“We worked so hard for him to get here,” T.J. said. “To see him succeed at this level … I’m not a real emotional person, but I almost want to cry.”
Before the game, Fredette had listened to a song that T.J., an aspiring rapper, had written about their relationship and his career. The song is titled “Amazing.”
Every time I knocked you down, it was always a test.
But you got back up, and I could see the dream was there for the taking.
You were only 5 years old, and it was truly amazing.
Impressive as his performance was, Fredette’s most telling moment Thursday occurred about an hour after the final horn had sounded. While his teammates prepared to head back to the hotel, Fredette found a seat in the Ford Center stands next to his brother and girlfriend, Whitney, as Saturday’s opponent, Kansas State, was in action. A victory over the Wildcats would catapult BYU into a Sweet 16 game that would be played in Salt Lake City – just 30 minutes from Provo.
“He’s scouting,” T.J. said as he motioned toward his brother. “He’s happy – but he’s not done yet.”