The first time I saw the name Jimmer Fredette, I was certain it was a typo.
The BYU basketball program had signed a prolific scorer from upstate New York. But his name had to be Jim or Jimmy or something like that. Jimmer?
Who names their kid that?
Kay Fredette, that’s who. And Jimmer’s mom knew exactly what she was doing.
“He was full of energy right from the start, and it fit him,” she told me. “There was a method to my madness. I knew people would one day remember that name. They haven’t used his last name since he was a junior in high school.”
Naturally, the focus of the first feature story that I ever did on Fredette, when he was a little-known freshman was on his intriguing first name.
I remember interviewing him in the hallway, in the bowels of the Marriott Center, one night after a game. He was humble, polite, likeable, genuine. I could detect no pretense with him whatsoever. Of course, I was not prescient enough to detect future superstardom, either.
Over the years, I have interviewed hundreds of BYU athletes with similar attributes. I could tell he was special.
But who would have guessed that by the time he was a senior, he would lead the Cougars to their first Sweet 16 appearance in 30 years? That he would draw sellout crowds to the Marriott Center? That he would guide BYU to a top-10 ranking? That he would be the consensus national player of the year? That he would create such a national stir? That he would be a top-10 NBA draft pick?
What impressed me more about Jimmer than his uncanny shooting range was the way he conducted himself off the court, even at the height of his popularity. He couldn’t go anywhere without people staring at him, hounding him. He appeared on countless radio and TV shows.
Once, I took my then-7-year-old son to practice at the Marriott Center. He stood at concourse level, gawking at Jimmer while we reporters interviewed the superstar guard. Afterwards, Jimmer was posing for a photo when I heard my son’s voice calling out from 50 rows up: “Jimmer! Jimmer! Jimmer! Hey Jimmer!”
Jimmer glanced up and waved to my son. “Hey, what’s up?” he said.
For my son, that brief brush with greatness is one, I’m sure, he will remember forever.
What happened that winter reminded me of a time exactly 30 years earlier.
In 1981, I had season tickets to BYU basketball games with seats in the rafters of the Marriott Center — literally the top row. Fortunately, in those days, I had the eyes of an eagle.
My life revolved around BYU sports (come to think of it, because of my current job, not much has changed). In March that year, we were just a few months removed from BYU’s “Miracle Bowl” victory over Southern Methodist. And the 1980-81 Cougar basketball team had some miracles of its own in store.
However, I was 12 years old, which meant I had to jump through all sorts of hoops to watch BYU hoops. For instance, the night BYU opened up the ’81 NCAA Tournament against Princeton, I was supposed to attend a scouting activity. I think it was a demonstration on knot tying.
My philosophy on knot tying is,hey, if I can tie my shoes, I’m probably safe. I wasn’t planning to herd sheep or scale the Himalayas.
So, borrowing from the Scout Motto, “Be Prepared,” I resourcefully faked sick so I could stay home and watch the game on TV. Actually, I wasn’t faking. Had I not watched that game, I would have been physically ill. I had symptoms. The toughest part was continuing to act sick after the Cougars’ victory. It wasn’t easy.
A couple of days after BYU beat Princeton, the Cougars played favored UCLA on a Saturday afternoon. I woke up early to get all of my chores done (at that point, my parents really did think I was ill) so I could watch BYU demolish the Bruins. I watched the game with my homemade Danny Ainge sweatband on my forearm.
That season I had clandestinely taken some scissors to a pair of socks, cutting the top halves and discarding the bottom halves. I wore one proudly on my arm, just like Danny Ainge (a belated “sorry” to my mom). Had I marketed the Danny Ainge Sweatband idea, I would have made a killing.
BYU’s easy victory over UCLA sent the Cougars to the Sweet 16. The next week, when BYU played Notre Dame, I had another darn scout meeting. I sneaked away early by telling someone I was headed to the bathroom. What I didn’t say was that I was going to the bathroom at my house. When the game ended after Ainge’s coast-to-coast dash through the entire Fighting Irish five with a layup over the outstretched fingertips of Orlando Woolridge just before the final buzzer, I tore through the house screaming and shouting, which was followed by the screaming and shouting of my parents because I had awakened by younger siblings.
But, heck, I should have argued, how often does BYU go to the Elite 8?
Now for the saddest part of my story. There was a winter campout scheduled for Friday night, on the eve of the East Regional Finals, pitting BYU against Virginia and 7-foot-4 giant Ralph Sampson.
The winner would punch its ticket to the Final Four.
First, let me say I’ve never understood the purpose of a winter camp. You hike into the woods in the dark, pitch a tent on the frozen tundra, and throw a tinfoil-encased dinner on the fire, which either burns to a crisp or remains raw. So you basically starve. Then you climb into a frost-encrusted sleeping bag at 8 p.m. But you don’t sleep. You feel like you’re trapped inside the frozen foods section of the grocery store. Tell me, does that sound like fun?
The entire night, you’re praying that it’s morning. You imagine yourself contracting pneumonia or frostbite and having an appendage amputated. Any excursion during which you can see your breath for 14 consecutive hours should be deemed cruel and unusual punishment.
For me, the agony was intensified by the knowledge that BYU was playing on Saturday morning. What rankled me was the fact that my leaders and other scouts were oblivious to this. So I arose at dawn the next morning. I made a lot of noise while I rolled up my sleeping bag and folded my tent to try to wake everyone up in order to hasten our departure. I can imagine what the other scouts and leaders, including my dad, thought when they emerged, bleary-eyed, from their tents to see me and all of my gear leaning up against the Suburban.
Didn’t they know that this was the biggest day in BYU basketball history — at least in my lifetime? A chance to go to the NCAA Tournament Final Four for the first time ever? Are you kidding me? Danny Ainge against Ralph Sampson? The little Western Athletic Conference vs. the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference? Everyone at that camp was acting like they were on vacation. I felt like shouting, “What’s wrong with you people?”
Hours later came a formality called breakfast. Everyone, but me, felt compelled to eat for some reason. I certainly wasn’t hungry. My stomach was in square knots. The last thing I needed was a 13-year-old scout with a runny nose and head lice fixing food for my consumption.
My eyes were transfixed on my watch, knowing tipoff was not far away. But we were far away from civilization. While cleaning up the breakfast mess, I calmly tried to explain, with undertones of frantic, the exigency of the situation. My leaders smiled courteously but didn’t respond.
By the time we climbed into the Suburban, reeking of campfire smoke and raspberry Pop Tarts, I begged my dad, who was driving, to turn on KSL radio. The game was about to start, and I was going to miss tipoff. Woe was me. I removed my coat and the twelve layers of sweaters and shirts so my lucky sweatband could be exposed.
But because of all of the noise in the car on the way home, I could barely hear Paul James’ call of the game. By the time I threw my sleeping bag onto the lawn and raced into the house, the damage had been done. BYU was trailing Virginia, and the game was nearly over. The Run of ’81 had come to a bitter conclusion. Maybe it was a good thing I wasn’t able to watch that game, although a piece of me believed that had I been watching, the Cougars would have won somehow.
When I was 12, I wasn’t worried too much about homework, the political landscape or social issues. But I began to notice such things. A little more than one week after BYU’s loss to Virginia, Indiana defeated North Carolina for the 1981 NCAA Tournament championship. Earlier that day, John Hinckley had attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. The NCAA decided to postpone the game in honor of the fallen commander-in-chief. But from his hospital bed, President Reagan said something like, “Well, you go ahead and play this basketball game despite the fact that some nut has shot me with a gun.”
I’m paraphrasing here. Anyway, I decided that Ronald Reagan was my kind of president.
I’ll never forget the winter of 1981. I remember having more fun that a 12-year-old seventh-grader should be allowed to have.
Too bad they don’t award merit badges for being a sick college basketball fan.
Exactly three decades later, BYU produced another consensus All-America in Fredette.
And his senior year was the craziest winter I’ve experienced.
I knew Jimmer was poised for a big season, but I never could have imagined how big.
Just before the season tipped off, I had the opportunity for a one-on-one, 20-minute interview with Fredette. Little did I know at the time, but that would be the only one for me that season because of all of the attention he would receive.
My first game I covered on the road was at UNLV, a place BYU hadn’t won in years. Not only did the Cougars win, but they did so convincingly. The following week, BYU played at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City against Utah. Jimmer scored 32 points in the first half, punctuated by a 40-foot shot at the buzzer just before intermission. He finished with 49 points and from that point on, Jimmermania swept the country. Jimmer was ubiquitous on ESPN. Jimmer’s name was used as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective — pretty much any part of speech imaginable. Even the President of the United States, Barack Obama, knew his name.
When forward Brandon Davies was suspended for violation of the Honor Code just days after BYU ascended to No. 3 in the rankings and appeared to be on the cusp of a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, the Cougars lost at home to New Mexico. It wasn’t even close. BYU was reeling from the horrible news of having to play without Davies. Toward the end of the game, Fredette sat at the end of the bench, his head down, staring at the floor. The Cougars had gone from the highest highs to the lowest lows.
But Fredette would avenge that loss to the Lobos the following week at the Mountain West Conference Tournament in Las Vegas. He scored a school-record 52 points and set the school’s all-time scoring record, surpassing Ainge, who was there at the Thomas & Mack Center. In a town known for entertainment, the Jimmer Show reigned supreme.
The Cougars ended up as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since — 1981.
One of my favorite Jimmer stories has to do with him being an ambassador for the Church. In his hometown of Glens Falls, N.Y., stores would sell BYU paraphernalia. Fans, wearing blue, packed sports bars to watch him play on TV.
“BYU’s probably the favorite college in Glens Falls, and the whole area, whereas before, I don’t think anyone knew where it was,” said his brother, TJ. “If you ask people what their favorite team to watch is, you’re going to get BYU nine out of 10 times.”
Because of Jimmer, when missionaries knocked on a door in Glens Falls, they are usually greeted enthusiastically.
“Then the missionaries will say, ‘By the way, we’re from the same church as Jimmer,” says Al Fredette, Jimmer’s dad, who served as mission leader in his ward. “People laugh and it really breaks the ice. Jimmer has brought a lot of recognition for the Church.”
Al joined the Church when he was 18, but his wife, Kay, is Catholic. She attends LDS sacrament meetings with the family and is supportive of her husband and three children, who were all baptized members of the Church.
In high school, Jimmer was known for two things — being a Mormon and being a basketball player.
“Everyone knew I was affiliated with both. That was a good thing,” Jimmer said. “It helps people recognize what I’m all about and what our church is about … Even if they didn’t know the doctrine or know anything about the Church, hopefully they could at least see that our family was a good example of how people should live.”
They say a player like Danny Ainge and Jimmer Fredette comes around only once in a generation. In many ways, they were parallel season separated by 30 years. I was happy to witness the phenomenon created by both players, who brought plenty of favorable attention to BYU and the LDS Church.
It may be 30 years before we see anything like it again.