NBA

Jimmer not enjoying Cinderella ride

Marques Johnson on best, worst and most surprising rookies.
Marques Johnson on best, worst and most surprising rookies.
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Billy Witz

Billy Witz has contributed to The New York Times and covered a multitude of sporting events. A Tulane University grad, Witz has won Associated Press Sports Editor awards for investigative reporting, feature writing and game stories. He covered the Lakers' every move last season for FOX Sports West.

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SALT LAKE CITY

When the ball left the hands of Jimmer Fredette, the final seconds ticking away, a game was in the balance but the ending surely was not in doubt.

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There wasn’t a soul seated in Energy Solutions Arena who believed that Fredette’s 3-pointer from in front of the Utah Jazz bench would diverge from its preordained path to the bottom of the net. Not the young ladies wearing the “It’s Jimmer Time” T-shirts, the little boy holding the handmade “Hey, Jimmer, I’d love to meet you” sign, or the others who spent the night cheering or booing his every touch.

They were as certain as Brigham Young was when he poked his head out of a covered wagon, surveyed the desert at the edge of the Great Salt Lake and declared: This is the place.

This is how fairy tales end, and what about Jimmer Fredette’s life is not a fairy tale?

Raised in a small upstate New York town, he had the quirky nickname bestowed upon him by his mother — right out of Hoosiers, tweeted Steve Nash — and a story rooted in American self-determination. He signed a contract with his older brother that he would play in the NBA. He dribbled down darkened hallways at a nearby church, careful not to lose the ball or knock pictures of Jesus off the wall, and was taken to a nearby prison to play pickup games against inmates to toughen him up.

It was all a prelude to becoming a college basketball sensation who was in shooting range once he stepped foot in the frontcourt, and who had not only fans at BYU but also NBA players and even President Obama marveling at him.

So, when with 5.9 seconds left, Isaiah Thomas, another Sacramento Kings rookie, tossed the ball to Fredette, who had made his past three 3-pointers and freed himself by rubbing off a screen on an inbounds play, it was more than a smart basketball play.

It was manifest destiny. The Jazz were about to get Jimmered.

If Utah’s Earl Watson were watching the game, instead of playing in it, he would not have argued the point. He had become enthralled last year watching Fredette and appreciated his climb to the NBA, finding some common ground with his own.

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A scrappy point guard who entered the NBA lacking a jump shot and a manual on good decision making, Watson has forged an 11-year career as a trusted backup that is a testament to the power of positive thinking.

So, as Watson scrambled back toward Fredette, his team ahead by two points, there was no time to ruminate. He thought only about getting a hand in Fredette’s face — and perhaps a fingertip on his forearm — and not about providence.

“The oddest thing is when you get that feeling, they make it,” Watson said. “You can’t stop it. You can’t control it. So I didn’t get the feeling.”

Instead of finding its way through the rim, Fredette’s shot was far left and short, the ball hitting nothing except the floor and then bouncing out of bounds. Fredette held his arm up, indicating he was fouled, and pleaded his case to an official.

When Fredette showered and then met with about 20 reporters and cameramen outside the Kings’ locker room after the 96-93 loss, he dutifully and politely answered questions about the shot and the night — except one: was he fouled?

“I’m not going to answer anything about that,” Fredette said.

Tyreke Evans, who scored 31 for the Kings, spelled out what Fredette would not.

“He said the guy fouled him on the arm,” Evans said. “But if you’re a rookie, you’re not going to get that call.”

It was one of many realizations that were underscored Saturday night when Fredette’s past and present worlds intersected.

Here, in summation, is Fredette’s professional career: drafted by a team that is not sure where it will call home next year, sat through a five-month lockout, watched coach Paul Westphal get fired seven games into the season, walked into a locker room that new coach Keith Smart described as being like “Romper Room” (the Kings have the youngest team in the league and maturity issues to match), and lost more games in the first month of the season than he did in his past two years at BYU.

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“For the young guys, like Jimmer, it’s unsettling,” assistant coach Jim Eyen said. “But it’s been a good exercise in professionalism — you control what you can control. They’re getting a dose of this business.”

For one night, Fredette could step back into a comforting cocoon.

He spent Friday night with his fiancée, a BYU cheerleader, and his parents and brother accompanied him on the trip. When Fredette was the last Kings starter introduced — he was replacing the injured Marcus Thornton for the fourth consecutive game — the crowd roared. Each time Fredette touched the ball, cheers and boos reverberated from the roof of the arena, turning one of the NBA’s notoriously hostile arenas into a curiously welcoming environment.

“That’s crazy the way he gets that recognition,” said Alec Burks, the Jazz rookie guard. “I thought Jay-Z or someone had walked up, but it was just Jimmer.”

Darren Thayne and his wife, Sharisa, brought their two teenage sons, who were sporting Fredette’s No. 32 BYU jerseys. But they had a decision to make: see Jimmer or watch BYU playing 21st-ranked St. Mary’s at the same time.

“This is the one we wanted,” Thayne said.

Tanner Overstreet, 16, had another decision to make: what to wear?

“He said, ‘Hey, Dad, do I wear my Jazz jersey (Gordon Hayward’s No. 20) or my Jimmer jersey (Kings No. 7)?’” said Tim Overstreet, his father. “I set him straight.”

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Tim Overstreet bought Jazz season tickets, almost all of which he is selling, so he could have prime seats, a few rows behind the visitors’ bench, for the Kings’ two visits to Salt Lake City.

“People see him as genuine — just a nice guy,” said Overstreet, who wore a blue-and-white “Fredette About It” T-shirt. “I think people want to relate to that, especially in today’s NBA, where a lot of players are viewed as selfish and not very nice people.”

It is an image Fredette wants to promote, not unlike Tim Tebow, though without being wrapped in religion — overtly, anyway. Deseret Book, the publishing arm of the Mormon Church, will release a DVD this week, “The Making of Jimmer,” which will include family video clips.

I asked Fredette what point he was trying to get out with the DVD.

“The fact that it doesn’t matter where you came from, or what you look like or who you are; if you work as hard as you can and do things the right way, you can be whatever you want to be,” Fredette said. “It doesn’t have to be just a basketball player — it can be a doctor, lawyer, astronaut; it doesn’t matter. But if you work hard enough and you set your mind to it and you do the right things, like I’ve tried to do in my life, you can accomplish those things, so I want kids to be able to take that away.”

It is a message that is easy for those with a more liberal interpretation of the Book of Mormon to find sanctimonious, “do the right things” being code for living the Mormon way. (The booing likely came from University of Utah fans.) BYU is unabashed about using its athletic teams as a recruiting tool for the Church.

Colts receiver Austin Collie, who attended Saturday’s game, caused a stir (and the wrath of Ute fans) when after catching a last-second touchdown pass in BYU’s win over Utah in 2007, he proclaimed in a postgame radio interview: “Obviously, if you do what’s right on and off the field, I think the Lord steps in and plays a part in it. Magic happens.”

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It is easy, then, to imagine the hysteria here last June, when the Jazz had the Nos. 3 and 12 picks in the NBA draft. Scott Renshaw, a writer for the Salt Lake City Weekly, observed that Fredette’s workout with the Jazz was covered with the same fervor as the Elizabeth Smart trial.

Jazz general manager Kevin O’Connor said Fredette was listed among the top 10 players on his draft board and the organization was not immune to the buzz Fredette was creating, especially for a franchise that had traded away its star, Deron Williams, and lost 21 of its past 29 games.

“[Marketing] comes into consideration, if it’s 50-50 when you’re comparing him to another guy,” said O’Connor, who drafted center Enes Kantor third and Burks 12th. “But I don’t think it’s fair to Jimmer in this respect: I think he was good enough to be drafted where he was [10th] and I think he was good enough to be drafted where we were [12th]. I don’t think anybody said you should draft him at three.”

Asked if Fredette was done a favor by not being drafted by the Jazz, O’Connor said: “I honestly believe, after interviewing him and seeing what he was made of, that he would have handled this very easily and very smoothly.”

As it is, Fredette has had plenty thrown at him. The first time he stepped on the court this season, he found himself matched up against Kobe Bryant. Fredette has had to find a conscience in his shot selection and has steadily been gaining confidence — his quick-fire release was on display Saturday night and he has made 15 of his past 25 3-pointers.

But he also is finding himself. Against the Jazz, he stumbled clumsily and dribbled the ball out of bounds, had two jumpers blocked and threw up a wild shot on a drive to the basket, getting knocked to the court without a whistle that likely would have come in college.

Then there was the final shot, after which Smart was asked if the moment might have been too big for Fredette.

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“I wouldn’t know,” said the coach, who coolly sank the game-winning shot for Indiana in the 1987 national championship game. “You’re in the NBA now, so we can’t spoon feed you.”

True, but for one night, Fredette could at least be comforted by an audience’s embrace. It was fleeting, though, another reminder of how different his world is now.

When he walked off the court, head down, Fredette stopped to reach down and pick off a few pieces of celebratory confetti that clung to his shoes. It was another sign that the party is over.

Tagged: Kings, Jazz, Earl Watson

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