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Running with Giants

The best high school basketball player in Citrus County believes the NBA is his destiny. His mom is sure of it, too.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published June 12, 2005


First of two parts

DAY ONE: THE DREAMER

The late bell has rung, but Jamaal Galloway saunters down the hallway to class.

"Jamaal walks sllooowwww," his friends complain. "It takes him three hours to get somewhere."

Hurrying isn't Jamaal's style, unless he's on a basketball court. He moves through the corridors of Citrus High with unassuming confidence, laughing and joking with his friends, not worrying too much whether he'll make it to his seat in time.

Each class change is full of greetings. He bumps an arm and shoulder with one guy. He gives a quick nod to another, the "S'up" implied.

A freshman in a miniskirt pulls him from the crowd, wanting someone to take their picture with her disposable camera. She snuggles next to him, leaning in for the freeze frame. He smiles politely, poses for the shot, then keeps walking.

Mr. Basketball, his classmates call him. Funny nickname for a kid who is only 5 feet 10, maybe 5-11 if he stretches his neck. But in small-town Inverness, where Publix closes at 9 p.m. and the new Wal-Mart Supercenter makes front-page news, Jamaal is nothing short of a celebrity.

He was named the St. Petersburg Times' Citrus/Hernando Player of the Year in 2003, all-area three years running and all-state as a junior, an honor given by Florida sports media. He made school history with 40 3-pointers his freshman year. Breakdown magazine ranked him among the top 15 players in Florida in his class.

"He's definitely going somewhere," says a girl who keeps stats for the basketball team. "Like, you're going to see him in the NBA."

That's a long shot. The average height of National Basketball Association players is 6-7. And Jamaal has traveled enough through Florida and the rest of the Southeast to have seen the endless stream of talented ballplayers salivating for a chance to play in the pros.

"I realize that I'm not the best kid in the world because it's only Citrus County," he says, no hint of bravado in his voice. "I've got a lot of work to do still."

Still, Jamaal dreams. He thinks he can beat the odds and make it to the NBA. Even a community that is mostly white, old and football worshiping has found faith in the young, black basketball standout.

But first, the kid, an 18-year-old who turns himself into a 7-foot-7 shooting guard with perfect stats when he's playing NBA Live 2003 on Xbox, needs to make it to college. His senior basketball season is about to begin, the weight of his future riding on it.

He wants to play Division I ball. So far, some respectable schools have sent flattering recruiting letters: Florida State, USF, even Harvard. He keeps the letters in his room, stashed in a Nike shoe box.

You can be part of the growing excitement around Florida State basketball. The form letter is dated July 3, 2003. Assistant coach Tony Sheals signed it. You bring something to our team that we need. . . . We will be watching you.

Recruiters from Florida Southern and Valdosta State have visited. But only one college, Armstrong Atlantic State University - a Division II school in Savannah, Ga. - has offered him an athletic scholarship.

Jamaal tells them all he plans to sign late. Three months of basketball games stretch before him. He's counting on his senior season to boost his image in the eyes of Division I recruiters. He must perform.

"I'll do whatever it takes," he says. "Anything could happen."

* * *

Jamaal's dream is the dream of millions.

In every corner of the country, young boys envision becoming the next Shaq or Kobe just as the generation before them daydreamed about being the next Bird or Jordan.

They play on dusty courts in middle America, on slices of pavement squeezed between high-rise apartments. Kids dribbling across the blacktop in Floral City Park see LeBron James trade his algebra book and gym class for his own brand of shoes and think, yeah, that could be me.

But reality is bleak. The odds of going pro in basketball are particularly daunting - tougher than football or baseball.

Of the 549,500 young men who play on high school basketball teams each year, the NCAA reports, about 157,000 are seniors.

Only 4,500 make it as freshmen on college teams.

Fewer than 45 college players get drafted into the NBA.

As Jamaal enters his senior year, Citrus County athletic directors can't remember sending any young man to a Division I school on a basketball scholarship in the last 25 years. No one from Citrus has ever made it to the NBA.

"There's a bunch of 5-10 shooting guards in the nation," says Larry Blustein, who runs the FloridaKids.us recruiting Web site. "Usually now they're like 6-6 and 6-7. LeBron is 6-8 and he's a guard. If you're 5-10, 5-11, you have to be able to do something extraordinary."

Over dinner at Applebee's, his parents refuse to let statistics dictate their son's potential. Both Army veterans who work in law enforcement, Lemar and Dee Galloway focus instead on anomalies like Allen Iverson. He's a star, and relatively short at 6 feet. If Iverson can thrive, why can't Jamaal?

"You have the heart of a 7-foot player," Dee tells her son.

"He's really at 6 feet now," she tells others, despite what the game program says.

* * *

The players spill into the gym. Swaggering upperclassmen spread out across the court, standing shoulder to shoulder with green freshmen for the first day of Citrus High basketball tryouts on this November evening.

It's an exciting but uncertain time. During the 2002-03 season, Citrus was undefeated at home and made it to the second round of state playoffs. But much of that team graduated. This year, the Hurricanes varsity team will have just two seniors. Jamaal is one of them. The other is Mike Brown, a 6-foot forward with corn rows and a shy smile.

Both guys tend to speak softly. But someone has to lead the warmup stretches. Jamaal stands in the middle of the court, ready for his first official duty as senior captain. He's wearing his Alicia Keys T-shirt for the occasion.

"Feet together," he calls out, barely loud enough for the guys in the far corners to hear. His body instinctively folds at the waist, his sculpted arms dangling loosely, his fingers hovering inches from the floor.

Jamaal has always been a leader by action, not words. But this year, he knows he has to step up and take charge. The role goes against his nature. He worries he'll have to fight back the urge to laugh out loud during serious moments. Jamaal isn't a serious moment kind of guy.

Jamaal's lengthening sideburns and the goatee cupping his square jaw hint at manhood. But there are pieces of youth Jamaal isn't ready to give up.

He's happiest sitting on his family's leather couch, his brown eyes transfixed on their big-screen TV, his fingers deftly manipulating Xbox control buttons. It's there, in the dream world of NBA Live 2003, that Jamaal can make his all-time favorite player, Penny Hardaway, his teammate.

"Ugh, Penny Hardaway, he old," friends knock.

"I don't care," Jamaal says.

He gets up early before school to squeeze in a quick game, or stays up past midnight maneuvering the animated athletes across the screen. The boyish passion amuses his friends, who rag him for staying in on weekend nights while they are out partying.

Jamaal doesn't mind.

"I'm going to be a kid forever," he says.

In his room, just steps away from the big-screen TV, a Major League Baseball spread blankets his twin bed. One wall is covered with laminated newspaper articles featuring Jamaal. Another has pictures of Reggie White, Jamaal's uncle and the former pro football player. Alicia Keys gazes sultrily from a poster hanging near the bed.

"That's my future wife," he says, smiling playfully. He put her in his family tree for a class assignment.

This coming from the kid who saw nothing wrong with waiting to get his driver's license until he was nearly 18, even though a Rodeo sat ready in his driveway and his mom had to drive him to basketball practices.

Jamaal doesn't mind being different. Early in his high school career, he sported a Jackson 5 Afro. Senior year, he opts for shiny black high tops that stick out in the nondescript world of high school basketball shoes. They are vintage Air Jordans, the same model worn by Michael Jordan one year after Jamaal was born. Perfect for a fan of old school.

He dates a girl named Liz Meek, a cheerleader with braces and a quick smile. They started flirting at the end of junior year, then spent the summer IMing and watching movies.

Her mom says Liz is the female version of Jamaal. She likes Hardaway and Xbox, too. She's soft-spoken and laid-back, although not quite as laid-back when it comes to schoolwork. Liz is an honor student. Jamaal maintains average grades.

"She understands that basketball is my first priority," he says. "Not a lot of girls are like that."

His parents say Jamaal has daydreamed about getting recruited by Florida State since age 8 or 9. But when asked about where he hopes to play college ball, Jamaal doesn't give a direct answer.

"I don't really follow college basketball," he says. "I like the NBA."

His vagueness is telling. Jamaal has so long thought about going pro that he sometimes overlooks the steps he must take to get there. NBA scouts aren't exactly knocking down his door, yet he spends more time talking about the pros than he does about college. He doesn't have much of a backup plan if his basketball career falls through.

"Guess I'll have to do something with my major," he says. He's learning toward communications. "I hate to think about that, though."

He's certainly spent a lot of time thinking about his basketball goals. Jamaal focused on the sport for most of the summer before his senior year. Other kids worked cash registers and bused tables; he aspired to better his game.

Three-pointers have long been his specialty. When he launches the ball in a smooth crescent from beyond the 3-point arc, the basket usually sucks it in.

Smart teams, burned by Jamaal in the past, do whatever they can to keep him from shooting from the nether lands. Jamaal needs new shooting options to outmaneuver his opponents.

"Phase Two," he calls it.

Phase Two means driving to the basket instead of settling for jump shots. It means focusing less on shooting and more on drills. One drill requires him to play a one-on-one game without taking any jump shots.

Jamaal works on his game night and day. He arrives early for workouts; he stays late, long after other players have gone home. He wishes he had a key to the Citrus High gym.

"I'd play all night," he says.

Now he's ready to add a new shot. The shot that will take his game to another level.

The slam dunk.

It would be a crowd pleaser, he knows. But even more important, the dunk might accomplish something his jump shot and 3-pointers can't. Scoring emphatically over taller competitors, he just might be able to squash the perception that he's too short for the college scouts to take him seriously.

In the past, Jamaal has been hesitant to dunk during games. During his sophomore season, he tried it only one time. During his junior season, he made three. The move was too risky, he felt, too embarrassing if the ball didn't go in.

Over the past few months, playing in a summer league in Ocala, he put all his hesitation aside and worked out a routine for the shot. Just after half court, he would make a quick stutter-step to find his pace. A few long strides toward the net. A jump off the left foot. The ball cocked back in his hand to compensate for his inability to palm it. Then, in one fluid, forceful movement, he would stuff the ball over the rim.

In the stands, the fans loved it. Jamaal delighted in their surprise.

* * *

Jamaal's mother unwinds in her softly lit den, curled up in the corner of her leather couch after a workday that began before sunrise.

The evidence of her younger son's athletic success surrounds her. Ten trophies line the fireplace mantel, many of their faux gold plaques misspelling his name. "Jamal" or "Jammaal" Galloway has received multiple accolades: rookie of the year, free throw champion, most valuable player, coach's award. More trophies spill onto the kitchen counter.

Dee Galloway has seen strangers at basketball tournaments around the Southeast look warily at Jamaal. When he first steps on the court, all they see is a short kid from an unfamiliar town.

"Where is Citrus County?" they ask.

Jamaal was in the fourth grade when his family left Fort Stewart in Georgia and made a modest white stucco house with seafoam trim their home in Inverness.

One day, Dee says, people won't have to ask Jamaal where his hometown is.

"I always tease he's going to put Inverness on the map," she says.

Except she's not really teasing.

You could argue that the Galloways predetermined their son's love of basketball when they named him after Jamaal Wilkes, a former NBA player. Dee didn't know much about Wilkes' game; she just liked his name.

Even now, after years of carting Jamaal to practices and games all over the state, she admits knowing little about the mechanics of basketball.

"What quarter is it?" she'll ask during a game. "You think I'd know that by now."

Dee and Jamaal rib each other like brother and sister; respect each other like mother and son. She calls him her Boo.

When Dee served in the Army in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War, Jamaal watched the news closely, worried about his mother's safety. Each night he set a place for her at the family's dinner table.

Dee and her husband went straight from high school to the military. Now they work long hours for modest pay. She wants more for Jamaal, and for herself.

During a job performance review, Dee's boss asks about her career goals. She smiles.

"I'm an NBA-mom-in-training."

She prays she has prepared her son for the journey ahead. For guidance, Dee turns to the Bible and Christian books. She pulls out one of her favorites. It's called Running with the Giants, a devotional inspired by the lives of leaders in the Old Testament.

She asked Jamaal to read it. The title echoes the message she often repeats to her son, wanting to reassure him that his height, or lack of it, won't hinder his success on the court. He has game, she says. He has heart. He has speed.

"Don't fear the giants in the land," she tells him.

* * *

Jamaal's in class in early October when he gets called to the front office. His coach, who is also an assistant principal, wants to see him.

At first Jimmy Thomas is all basketball coach. He gives Jamaal some more recruiting letters to add to his collection. The early signing period is one month away. A handful of schools are showing interest in Jamaal. No Division I schools have made offers.

Jamaal figures that's all the coach wants with him.

Then, the unexpected question.

"Where'd you eat lunch today?" Thomas asks, switching suddenly to his administrator role.

Busted. The answer is Jamaal sneaked off campus, like he does whenever he gets the chance, and went to Burger King down the road from the school.

Because this is the first time he has been caught, Jamaal will get a first offender's punishment: trash pickup duty after the next junior varsity football game.

This isn't a kid the coach worries about misbehaving.

Thomas has coached hundreds of young athletes over the years. Jamaal is among the most humble. He puts the team before himself, always.

His talent only raises his stature in the coach's eyes.

"He's the best shooter I've seen," Thomas says another afternoon in his office. "He just shoots the devil out of the ball."

If Jamaal were taller, Thomas thinks he would be among the top prospects in Florida. Jamaal's height, however, puts him in "no-man's land." Which explains why Division II schools are the only ones showing any genuine interest in him.

"If he could do everything the exact way that he does it and he was 6-3 or 6-5, he would be at UF or Carolina or something like that," says Brionne Gillion, who, as CEO of the Breakdown recruiting magazine, has watched Jamaal play since he was in eighth grade.

Not in the business of crushing dreams, Thomas hesitates to discount Jamaal's chances of playing in the NBA. Still, he thinks Division II probably would be the best place for the young man. Better to get playing time than to sit on the bench. Thomas tries to put the future into perspective, counseling Jamaal to do what he did as a college football standout at Tennessee: Take a full ride to school, play ball, get a solid education, choose a career.

The Galloways got an intimate view of the riches athletics can bring through their relationship with Reggie White, who married Lemar's sister. But the veteran coach hopes Jamaal's parents are careful with their expectations.

"His uncle went really big," Thomas says. "But he was also a really big guy."

* * *

Early December brings the season's first game. Citrus vs. Hernando High.

Outside, the temperatures are finally cooling off. Inside, sweat and concession stand popcorn greet the fans to the Citrus High gym, a.k.a. Hurricane Country.

Jamaal gets off to a rocking start.

In the first quarter, the team's starting point guard brings the ball down the court. He passes to Mike Brown, who swings the ball out to Jamaal in 3-point land.

Jamaal goes for a three, but a Hernando High player blocks him, knocking the ball from his hands. Or so the defender thinks. As his opponent flies by, Jamaal steals the ball back, dribbles it once to regain control and shoots before the defender can recover. He sinks it.

The Citrus Crazies, die-hard student sports enthusiasts decked out in black and gold T-shirts, chant for their star, "J-Mizzle." From her cheerleading post, Liz snaps pictures of Jamaal with her digital camera in between cheers.

"Miss Dee" - that's what all the kids call her - sits in her fixed post in the right corner of the bleachers, across the court from the Hurricanes' bench. Steve, Jamaal's brother, joins her. Years ago, he played on this court for the varsity team. Now 25, he lives at home and is working toward a computer and electronic technology degree at Withlacoochee Technical Institute.

Lemar sits in the back row of the stands at center court, from where he will videotape every game he attends.

All the things that make Jamaal fun to watch find their way onto the court this opening night. Jamaal is mentally prepared. He works hard but makes the exertion look effortless. He's steady and unfrantic.

He looks for the right moment to pass, sending the ball to a teammate with a sure release. When he sees a good shot, he takes it. He is methodical yet quick, making each possession count.

"He has confidence in his shot," Lecanto coach Chris Nichols tells a Times reporter. "And that makes him very, very dangerous."

To a point, that is. As he had promised, Jamaal let the November signing period pass without committing to a school. Now comes the burden of setting himself apart from the myriad competitors this season.

If the opener is a harbinger of things to come, his prospects look good. In the end, Citrus smothers Hernando 66-48. Jamaal scores 21 points, including three 3-pointers.

But the highlight of the evening comes in the second quarter, when Jamaal grabs a loose ball. He races down the court, makes his stutter-step, then accelerates toward the net.

No one is guarding him. The dunk is his to seize. He leaps into the air, both of his arms cranking the ball over his head. Before it goes in and before the fans erupt, it's just him and the ball and momentum.

For an instant, he is flying.

* * *

That night, Dee is on her feet the entire game.

In the weeks that follow, as the season moves forward, she and her husband are in the stands for almost every game.

"This . . . is . . . it," Dee says. Her voice lingers on each word. The finality of this season, and what it means for the future, is not lost on her.

The Hurricanes play okay. They win three in a row, then lose three in a row a couple of weeks later.

Dee doesn't worry much about the team's record. Florida State is interested in Jamaal, she says. The school sent him a questionnaire to fill out about himself. She cried when he wrote Dee was his mentor.

And some scouts at the holiday Kingdom of the Sun tournament in Ocala leave their cards for Jamaal after seeing him play. Teams from around the state and country are there, and Jamaal wins the 3-point contest with 45 3-pointers in three minutes.

"Please tell him he's got fans in Atlanta," says a woman sitting next to Dee in the bleachers.

Dee soaks in the attention. She remembers how she felt during her military days, when her parents back in Mississippi would ask her to wear her uniform to church so everyone could see it. People got so excited when she came home.

Now it's Jamaal's turn. And perhaps hers, too. She believes he is going somewhere. And if Jamaal goes somewhere, she and her family will go with him. Dee already has plans to quit her job when Jamaal makes it to the NBA.

So much for roping in expectations.

* * *

Jamaal will tell you he knows the odds are against him for making it to the NBA. He'll say that playing professionally overseas may be as far as he'll get. He channels his daydreams into the Xbox set and puts on a practical face when Dee's imagination runs wild.

But sometimes, Jamaal the Dreamer trumps Jamaal the Realist.

One night he wakes Dee from her sleep, beckoning her to their living room.

"Mom, I want you to see something," he says.

MTV Cribs is re-airing the episode on Shaq's mansion. Jamaal wants his mom to watch it for herself. He wants her to see the built-in fish tanks, the remote control toilets, the elevator. The enormous, round master bed adorned with the Superman symbol.

The dreamer in Dee is unleashed. It's the best house she's ever seen.

They sit together, their faces bathed in the glow of the TV screen.

- Colleen Jenkins is a reporter in Pasco County. She can be reached at 727 869-6236 or cjenkins@sptimes.com

HOW THIS STORY WAS REPORTED With the permission of Jamaal and his family, staff reporter Colleen Jenkins and staff photographer Stephen J. Coddington shadowed them on and off during most of 2003 and 2004. They attended basketball games, went to school and hung out at the Galloways' home.

Jenkins witnessed most of the events described in these stories. Aside from Jamaal and his family, she also interviewed coaches, friends and teachers at length to provide more context.

By necessity, a few moments have been reconstructed. Whenever possible, details provided by one person's memory were checked against other people's recollections.