Fredette’s role: Rock star
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series looking at the player, coach and team facing the most pressure in the NCAA tournament.
He’s yet to play an NBA game, but when BYU star Jimmer Fredette showed up to watch the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City earlier this year, he was clearly more popular than the millionaire athletes on the court.
Autographs, handshakes, people asking him to pose for pictures. Fredette was absolutely mobbed during what was supposed to be a relaxing night away from BYU’s campus. When he headed for the exit at EnergySolutions Arena shortly before the final horn, the Cougars guard was flanked by two security guards.
“They were worried he wouldn’t get to his car OK,” said Fredette’s older brother, T.J. “It was crazy. It was like he had rock star status.”
In some ways it may be bigger than that.
Fredette is college basketball’s top player. But for the last four months, he’s also been the sport’s most visible face. No athlete has generated as much national buzz lately as Fredette, whose 40- and 50-point outbursts helped generate interest during a 2010-11 regular season that was otherwise defined by mediocrity, parity and a lack of star power.
“It’s been a little overwhelming at times,” T.J. Fredette said, “but I think he enjoys certain parts of it. He likes that people recognize him as one of the top players in the nation. Obviously that’s a great compliment. He’s relishing it, embracing it.”
A senior, Fredette has his own nickname (“The Jimmer”) and his own dance, and he’s been featured prominently in publications such as Sports Illustrated and USA Today. Suddenly, the player from Glens Falls, N.Y., who most colleges overlooked, leads the nation in scoring and is being hailed as a potential lottery pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
Sometimes it feels as if the whole country has Jimmermania. Day by day, the bandwagon keeps growing for a player who averages a national-best 27.9 points.
“We’ll take anyone right now,” Fredette said. “Anyone that wants to join, come on in.”
Fredette may want to be careful what he wishes for. The more the hoopla builds, the more it becomes clear: When the NCAA tournament begins later this week, no player in college basketball will have as much pressure on his shoulders as Fredette.
Not that he’s feeling it.
“Jimmer has a unique ability,” T.J. Fredette said. “When he steps on the court, it’s almost like a performer stepping onto a stage. You might have had some butterflies before. But as soon as you hear the music and see the crowd, you’re completely focused on what you’re doing.
“Jimmer has the ability to step on the court and not think of anything else. He just lives in the moment and plays. It’s a gift.”
Stephen Curry had that gift, too. Perhaps more than anyone, Curry and his family can relate to the situation Fredette finds himself in as the NCAA tournament’s opening round draws closer. It was only three years ago when Curry captured the nation’s attention while starring for Davidson in the 2008 tournament.
Curry scored 128 points in four games as Davidson marched to the Elite Eight, where it fell to eventual national champion Kansas. Curry’s younger brother, Seth – who now plays at Duke – said he’ll never forget watching from the stands as Stephen captured the nation’s attention.
“Every game,” Seth said, “people were keying on him and trying to stop him. But they couldn’t do it. It just shows you how competitive he was and how much he wanted it.”
With the entire nation infatuated with her son, Curry’s mother, Sonya, said she worried that Stephen may become a bit overwhelmed during one of the most important weeks of his life. She and her husband, Dell, asked Davidson’s media relations staff to limit Stephen’s interviews, and there was more than one parent-to-son phone call during those few weeks, just to make sure everything was OK.
“We compared it to being a blue-collar worker,” Sonya said. “Don’t get fancy. Don’t get caught up in the hoopla. You’ve got all the tools. Just go out and use the skills God gave you.”
Still, Sonya admitted the attention could be a little overwhelming at times. Not just for Stephen, but for her, as well. Television cameras made a habit of showing her face on television multiple times each game.
“It’s a little bit awkward, even now,” Sonya said. “I used to be really nervous about what I looked like. Finally, I said I’m going to be a nervous wreck if I worry about all of that.”
“I remember being worn out mentally, physically and spiritually when the tournament was all over,” she said. “It was like, ‘Now what do we do?’”
While the attention heaped on Stephen Curry – who now plays for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors – was intense, it’s nothing like the type of spotlight Fredette has been forced to perform under all season.
When Fredette returned to New York for a game in his home state, television cameras from local news stations hovered around his childhood home all day. T.J. Fredette said local newspapers featured 10-12 pages of Fredette-related articles and sports bars flew BYU flags for a day, which is ironic considering alcohol – or heck, even caffeine – isn’t allowed on the Cougars’ campus.
“It was Jimmer 24-7,” said T.J., an inspiring rap artist.
The most memorable moment, T.J. said, occurred when Fredette scored 43 points against previously unbeaten San Diego State on Jan. 26 in Provo.
“The fans rushing the court is the moment that really stands out,” T.J. said. “It was like he was the king of the world for that night.
“There were all these people saying, ‘Yeah, he’s had good games – but they were against Colorado State and Utah. Let’s see how he does against a good team.’ There was so much pressure on him that night, but he responded.”
Just as he has all season.
“I definitely feel like there’s a target on my back,” Fredette said. “Every team is game-planning to do something to try to slow me down and make some of my other teammates makes plays. We’ve been able to do a good job with that, though. We’re making plays as a team.”
Fredette may have outdone himself with a 52-point effort in last week’s Mountain West Conference tournament victory over New Mexico.
“It takes a lot for him to impress me, to shock me, because I know what he’s capable of,” T.J. said. “But when he had 52 I was like, ‘You even shocked me tonight.’”
Fredette knows that things will only get tougher from here. The suspension of forward Brandon Davies for violating the school’s honor code could potentially put even more pressure on Fredette, whose team went from a potential No. 1 seed to a No. 3 seed in just two weeks.
If the Cougars are going to make the Final Four like so many people have hoped, Fredette will have to put them on his back and carry them through the tournament much like Larry Bird did with Indiana State in 1979. The Sycamores had never been to the NCAA tournament before Bird led them to the championship game, where they lost 75-64 to Michigan State and Magic Johnson.
Fredette is hoping the final few weeks of his amateur career will be similar to Bird’s, who averaged 30.3 points over three collegiate seasons.
“You’ve got to put it all out there,” Fredette said. “There’s no tomorrow. If you don’t play as hard as you can, you’re going to regret it for a long time.”
Those close to Fredette are confident he’ll end his career on a high note. BYU, the No. 3 seed in the Southeast region, takes on 14th-seeded Wofford on Thursday in Denver.
“He loves the big stage,” T.J. said, “and it doesn’t get any bigger than this.”
Coming Tuesday: The heat is on Texas coach Rick Barnes.
Staff writer Derek Samson contributed to this story.