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Running with Giants

The dream meets reality as a Citrus High basketball star struggles to reach academic standards - and acknowledges a lack of Division I suitors.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published June 13, 2005


photo
[Times photos: Stephen J. Coddington]
Algebra II proves to be a tougher opponent than any Jamaal Galloway will face on the court during his senior season. “Getting him to concentrate when he is pulled in so many directions is difficult,” says his teacher, Mrs. Davis.

Part one:
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. (June 12, 2005)
  photo
Jamaal Galloway surrounded by trophies.
Dee Galloway implores her son, Jamaal, to shoot during a Citrus High game. “Come on, Jamaal, do your thing!” she yells as Jamaal’s older brother, Steve, center, shouts encouragement. Steve also played basketball for the Hurricanes, but his basketball career ended at Citrus High. He hopes for more for his little brother.
 January is the cruelest month for Jamaal Galloway as the Hurricanes struggle, losing four in a row at one point. Against Central High on Jan. 13, Jamaal scores 17 but misses a late three that would have tied the score. Citrus loses 40-37, the team’s first loss at home in two seasons. “He’ll blame that moment on himself,” says his mom, Dee.

Dee Galloway teases her son, Jamaal, and his girlfriend, Liz Meek, over a game of bowling. Dee had not wanted her son to date in high school, worried that girls would distract him, but she likes Liz.

Second of two parts

Day 1 - Jamaal Galloway, one of the most gifted high school basketball players Citrus County has ever seen, begins his senior season with a quiet determination to make it to a big college and then into the ranks of the pros. His family is counting on him; his mother, who hopes to quit her job when her son strikes it rich, calls herself "an NBA-mom-in-training." On the court, Jamaal is undeniably dazzling. But is he good enough to carry the weight of his family's expectations?

DAY TWO: THE WAITING GAME

Jamaal Galloway sits at the kitchen table after basketball practice one evening, struggling through his algebra homework. It's January 2004, and second semester has brought linear equations and functions.

He won't miss this part of high school.

On the court, things come so naturally. He practices hard, he plays well - it's a bankable cause and effect. Not so with algebra.

He phones teammate Mike Brown, who has class notes Jamaal needs to copy. He gets a busy signal.

He dials again. Still busy.

Jamaal's math grade is sliding, but it's not for a lack of trying. His teacher at Citrus High, Mrs. Davis, can vouch that he consistently asks questions in class and always does his homework. He just doesn't always get it.

That doesn't seem to worry Jamaal. He is passing his other classes, and anyway, he expects basketball to be his ticket to college. Each week, the local newspapers buzz about his talent.

He calls Mike again. More annoying busy beeps.

Exasperated, Jamaal abandons his textbook. His girlfriend, Liz Meek, gave him Grand Theft Auto for Christmas. Time for a round, maybe two. There's always time for Xbox.

* * *

The recruiters have been calling. Not from big Division I schools like Florida State, where Liz applied early and was accepted. And not at the rapid-fire pace high school demigod and NBA star LeBron James must have experienced.

Still, they call.

One evening in January, as his mother, Dee, prepares baked chicken, broccoli and wild rice for dinner, the phone rings.

"Hello," she answers, pausing to determine who is on the other end.

Then: "This is Jamaal's mother."

Sensing his mom is on the verge of talking this mystery caller's ear off, Jamaal lunges for the phone.

These calls are important. By senior year, letters from college recruiters mean nothing. Hundreds of kids receive them after getting spotted at camps or tournaments, just as hundreds of kids hear from Ivy League schoolswhen they score well on the SAT. Only a select few make it to the next level.

Recruiters show serious interest by calling a player's high school coach and by coming to see a high school game. Usually before second semester of a player's senior year.

Jamaal, a shooting guard, has been focused for so long on his dream - making the NBA - that he hasn't quite zeroed in on the more immediate step, going to college. Local fans assume he will make it big, despite his 5-foot-10 stature.

With second semester of his senior year under way, however, reality is sinking in. The basketball season ends in March. The late signing period begins in April. Offers from Division I schools haven't materialized.

"There's a world outside of Citrus County," says Larry Blustein, who runs the FloridaKids.us recruiting Web site. "He's the best in this room, or he's the best in (the) conference, but how is he going to translate against a 6-7 kid?"

On the phone tonight is a recruiter from North Florida, a Division II school. Not what he had been hoping for, but it's something. Jamaal retreats to a familiar spot, pushing aside his Xbox controls on the cream leather couch in the living room, to discuss his basketball future.

In a low mumble, Jamaal answers the recruiter's questions. His responses are brief, the bits of information about his season and standardized test scores barely audible.

"Um-hmm."

"Yes, sir."

When he hangs up after just a few minutes, his face shows no expression. He has homework to do, and he's hungry.

But Dee abandons the dinner fixings. She would rather talk about her plans for when Jamaal makes it to the pros. She plans on being right beside him.

"I'm his Jerry Maguire," she says, referring to the quintessential sports agent movie. "I'll make sure he stays safe."

She rattles off the hypothetical duties: Handling interview requests from major media. Getting appropriate exposure. Managing clothing deals. Starring as herself when Jamaal gets casts in a commercial that calls for the player and his mother.

"On those soup commercials, no one's playing mama" except me, she says.

Jamaal interrupts. "Mommmmm . . ."

"What?" Dee says. "Let me be a mom."

* * *

The first half of January, the Hurricanes struggle. They lose four games in a row, including one in overtime. Their record is a disappointing 5-8.

Coming off last season's 26-3 record and second-round playoff appearance, the shaky record is tough to swallow.

Of course, this is a different team. Of the 13 players, only four have played varsity ball before. Only six stand 6 feet or taller.

Coach Jimmy Thomas worries that Jamaal is carrying the burden of the team's performance. At practice, he reminds his player to relax.

Then things start looking up. The Hurricanes hammer Lecanto High 75-53. Three days later, they beat Crystal River High. The wins against the hometown rivals help restore their pride. Jamaal scores a game-high 29 points against Lecanto, 10 against Crystal River.

A week later, Dee is in the stands for a Friday night home game against Leesburg. Her eyes follow Jamaal around the court, but her mind is elsewhere.

She's listening carefully to the advice of Mercedia White, a local woman whose daughter, Joy Porter, was recruited from Citrus High to play Division I basketball at Florida Atlantic in the early 1990s.

"We're talking about "mother' things," White says. The things that high school ball doesn't necessarily prepare a child for. She speaks of the recruiting process like a weathered veteran. College coaches will put on a good show. Jamaal will have to trust his instincts and sign with a program he feels is genuine. If it turns out to be a bad choice, there is no shame in transferring after two years, White says.

"That happens all the time in the NCAA," she says.

There's more.

"Watch out for the women," White warns.

"Oh, I already do that," Dee replies with knowing nods. She didn't want Jamaal to date in high school, worried that girls would distract him. She likes Liz but still gets on Jamaal about talking on the phone too late at night.

These informal lessons are timely. In a week, the Galloways will travel to Savannah for Jamaal's first recruiting trip.

Armstrong Atlantic State University, a 6,000-student Division II school that is part of the Georgia university system, is trying to lure Jamaal with a full scholarship. Head coach Jeff Burkhamer likes Jamaal's shooting skills and his attitude on the court.

Only four players in the NBA came from Division II schools. No one from Armstrong has made it to the pros.

* * *

Finally, on Feb. 7, Jamaal gets his turn to do some scouting.

He rides with Thomas, his coach, for the five-hour drive to Savannah. Dee, his father, Lemar, and his brother, Steve, follow in their rented SUV.

The day goes well. Dee is impressed with the coach and the team. The players seem to have a tight bond. She likes the campus and the gym, which are only 10 minutes from the church the Galloways attended when the family lived on a military base in Georgia years ago.

The school broadcasts all of its home games on the Internet. It's not exactly prime time, but Dee rationalizes that she still would be able to watch her son play when she couldn't make it in person.

The Pirates play that afternoon and win. Dee sees talent on the team.

"But I don't see anybody who shoots like Jamaal," she says. Again, she rationalizes. At a Division II school, Jamaal might have more opportunity to shine.

"Jamaal doesn't want to get lost in the crowd," she says.

Jamaal likes the school well enough, but holds out hope that a bigger program will come knocking. He toys with the idea of going to prep school for a year, just like NBA star Tracy McGrady did.

Most athletes who go that route do so because of academic ineligibility. Until this semester, that wasn't an issue for Jamaal. Now, he's having a hard time hanging on to his C in algebra. His other problem is height, or lack of it. He figures a year between high school and college might give him the edge he needs.

Still, he hasn't given up hope on wooing recruiters.

With the help of a classmate, Jamaal spends a dozen mornings before school putting together a highlight video. He uses footage his dad has been shooting at games all season. With Jay-Z and Kanye West rapping in the background, the tape shows Jamaal passing, shooting, dribbling and dunking.

On really cool dunks, the tape does an instant replay. On really, really cool dunks, it replays twice.

It sounds like a good idea. Naive, but earnest. Problem is, no one sends out a bad highlight tape. Coaches only get a true feel for a player's ability if they watch him in person for an entire game.

But Recruiting 101 isn't part of the high school curriculum. Jamaal arranges for a family friend to send the tape to several Division I schools - South Florida, Central Florida and Davidson College in North Carolina.

Then he waits for a bite.

* * *

An Algebra II test looms, and Jamaal needs extra help from his math teacher, Mrs. Davis. Lately, he has spent more mornings making his highlight tape than showing up for tutoring.

It's only 7:20 a.m. when he and his teammate Mike stroll into the classroom, but two other students are already there, hovered over their textbooks and graphic calculators.

Mrs. Davis greets the new arrivals.

"I have not seen you guys here in the morning in quite a while," she teases.

"It's my fault," answers Jamaal, smiling.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Davis hands back their graded quizzes. Jamaal's smile disappears. He lost seven points for subtracting in a problem that called for addition.

Numbers. More and more, they represent the highs and lows of Jamaal's life.

On the court, numbers bring him glory. The intensity doesn't translate to the classroom. There, numbers bring angst.

Now, he sits in his math classroom and tries to even the score. But it may be too late.

* * *

Two nights later, Dee is in the stands at Central High in Brooksville. She is quieter than usual, her nerves in knots over tonight's stakes. If Citrus wins, the Hurricanes play in the district tournament final and are guaranteed a spot in the regional playoffs.

A white-haired man in a red sweater vest is taking notes a few rows up. Dee heard he's an FSU scout.

Citrus faces East Ridge for the third time this season. After losing to the Hurricanes earlier this month, East Ridge is back with a vengeance. They hit threes repeatedly, and their stifling defense makes it hard for Citrus to get past half court.

But Jamaal isn't defeated. He sinks his share of 3-pointers, including the one that gives Citrus a 56-54 lead near the end of the fourth quarter.

"Yes! Oh, my God, he's having a good game," Dee mutters.

With 40 seconds to go, the score is tied at 58. A Citrus player gets fouled. Then an East Ridge player is fouled. A timeout is called. Then another.

Six seconds are on the clock. The crowd can barely breathe.

Just 1 second remains when Jamaal lobs a Hail Mary shot down the court. He misses. The game goes into a 4-minute overtime.

East Ridge players are guarding Jamaal closely. All the momentum the Hurricanes had built late in the second half dissipates. Their opponent inches ahead.

In the final minute, with the Hurricanes trailing 68-63, Jamaal misses a 3-pointer.

Then another.

A timeout is called. Jamaal rests his hands on top of his head, his square jaw locked in disappointment. As he turns back to the court, his gaze shifts to the scoreboard clock: 1.7 seconds.

Time has run out. Even in basketball, 1.7 seconds isn't long enough to turn this game around.

East Ridge wins 71-63. For Jamaal, the night marks the end of a four-year, 1,871-point career, including a game-high 25 points tonight. But the milestone means little right now.

On the ride home, no one says much. Jamaal stretches out in the back seat of the yellow school bus, which slowly travels the country roads leading back to Inverness. It's a cloudy, starless night, and few headlights pass to illuminate the route. Plenty of time to think.

* * *

Basketball season is over.

But springtime brings the thrill of two all-star games in Ocala and Daytona Beach. Players from across the state are chosen to play. Jamaal is the only Citrus County player named to the teams, and the honors give him more face time with college scouts. Florida sports writers also name him an all-state player for the second year in a row.

He hangs on to the hope that recruiters will call him with scholarship offers after seeing him play. Yet during spring break, he again considers a yearlong prep school.

"As long as I'm playing basketball," he says. "I just want to put myself in the best opportunity to play after college."

In a role reversal, Dee is coming to terms with reality. Armstrong wants Jamaal, and she thinks the school is a good match. If she is disappointed that the school isn't Division I, she never shows it.

Jamaal's homemade highlight tape garners a few calls from college programs, but the recruiters don't say what Jamaal wants to hear. USF has just finished its signing period and doesn't have any scholarships left. The other schools say they already have enough guards.

They need big men.

In a game where vertical prowess matters, Jamaal comes up short. And height isn't his only problem.

* * *

What starts as trouble with a few algebra homework assignments quickly spirals into a more daunting concern.

Jamaal misses some Algebra II classes because of track meets. Then the class has a substitute for a few days who can't answer his questions. He fails a final, barely pulling a C for the third quarter.

As graduation draws closer, the C drops to a D.

"Getting him to concentrate when he is pulled in so many directions is difficult," his teacher says.

Again, Recruiting 101 would come in handy. Grades don't matter as much for the country's elite high school basketball players. But for a kid with marginal skills, grades can make or break his chances of getting into a college program.

Mrs. Davis calls the Galloway home periodically to update his parents on his progress. She tells them when Jamaal doesn't come in for extra help.

One afternoon, Jamaal is sitting in his living room when the phone rings. He checks the caller ID. It's Mrs. Davis.

"I don't want to answer it," Jamaal says.

* * *

Jamaal knows he needs to pull the grade up. But a different score weighs more heavily on his mind.

The coaches from Armstrong Atlantic called. They told Jamaal his ACT score is a point short of the NCAA minimum. They are, gambling on the hope that he will raise his score. But they won't wait forever.

Jamaal has taken the standardized test twice. He took the SAT too, but didn't get a high enough score on that one either.

It's frustrating, because his GPA is a respectable 3.0. But rules are rules. Jamaal signs up to take the ACT again. The test date isn't until June, which means he will graduate without knowing where the next school year will take him.

* * *

One point. One life-altering point.

For most students, a perfect score on the ACT is a 36. Schools take a student's scores from four sections - English, math, reading and science - and average them for a composite score. The national average in 2004 was 20.9.

But things work a little differently for athletes. The NCAA uses a "sum score," which means the scores from each section are added instead of averaged. The best score from each section can be used. An athlete needs a 68 to be eligible for a Division II school.

So far, Jamaal has a 67.

"This is the home stretch," Dee tells her son. "Buckle down, and get it done."

Jamaal has 17 days after graduation to prepare for the test. Distractions are everywhere, and he indulges them. The all-night, post-graduation festivities. Hanging out with friends in Tampa. Playing ball with the guys to stay in shape. Spending time with Liz. Coaching 9- and 10-year-old boys in the Junior Hurricane summer basketball league, where he sees kids who remind him of his younger self.

Even when it becomes clear that his ACT score will decide his fate, Jamaal spends more time exercising his jump shot than his test-taking skills. He's not exactly apathetic. He just believes, however misguided, that everything will work out.

Coach Thomas, however, tries to explain the situation.

"You need to approach the test like you do basketball," he tells Jamaal, pulling him aside in the school parking lot. "Like it's the most important thing to you. Leave your basketball alone and go get your test."

* * *

Early the morning of June 12 - a Saturday - Jamaal returns to school.

On the way to Citrus High, he stops at McDonald's for a sausage McGriddle and a Mountain Dew. Power food.

He isn't freaking out. There are no lucky socks. No special shoes. No rub of his Penny Hardaway doll's head.

He just takes the test.

- - -

Everything is at a standstill until Jamaal gets his test score. He has to wait 10 days, according to the ACT Web site.

That's 10 days too many for a guy tired of waiting. So just minutes after midnight on June 22, the date the scores are to be posted, Jamaal and Liz anxiously pop open her laptop. They are disappointed; the scores aren't up yet. Jamaal leaves Liz's house without his answer.

Later that morning, Liz calls. She is at her computer, calculator in hand. Jamaal needs to have performed better on just one section of the test to get the score he needs. He recites his best scores from past tests, and Liz punches them into her calculator. Then she adds in his new high score.

68.

"You got the score you needed!" she says.

Jamaal doesn't say much. He's quietly thrilled, but the true test remains ahead.

"I'll be more relieved when I actually sign," he says.

He sends his transcripts to the Armstrong coach - again - and waits.

* * *

Summer's end is dangerously close, and still, Jamaal is in limbo.

"You know it's almost August, right?" friends ask him.

"I know, I know," he says. "I'm just waiting for them."

Then, Burkhamer, the Armstrong coach, has more unwelcome news: Jamaal's test scores meet NCAA requirements but fall short of Armstrong's admission standards.

The coach asks admissions officials to review his young recruit's GPA and transcripts.

* * *

A few weeks pass, and Jamaal doesn't hear from the school.

For Dee, the wait is nerve-racking, though she won't admit to the anxiety until much later. She doesn't understand the minutiae of the recruiting process but has faith God will work things out for her son. She tells Jamaal to make his prayers more specific, just in case.

Feeling stress he's rarely known, Jamaal decides he needs a backup plan. He talks to the basketball coach at West Florida in Pensacola, who sounds interested until he realizes Jamaal's 2.7 core GPA narrowly misses the school's admission requirements.

The search continues. The West Florida coach puts Jamaal in touch with a coaching friend at a junior college in Oklahoma. They talk seriously about Jamaal attending for a year.

Jamaal mulls the option. It's not his ideal choice. But it may become his only choice.

After years of dreaming about the NBA, all Jamaal wants is a school, any school. He needs a paper to sign.

* * *

July 22. Jamaal is sitting on the living room couch, playing Xbox, when the doorbell rings.

He's the only one home, and he's been expecting this visitor. He opens the door. It's a FedEx delivery man.

The stranger is holding a package for Jamaal, who takes it to the living room and calmly removes the contents. At last, the offer from Armstrong.

The stress of the previous months instantly lifts. He has a scholarship. He has a promise of a new dorm apartment and a monthly food stipend. More importantly, he has a basketball team - the Pirates - to call his own.

"That's the part I've been waiting for," Jamaal says. "Because nothing's official before you sign."

No more waiting. He signs the paperwork, slides it through the fax machine and dials Armstrong's number.

- - -

* * *

One year later, so much has changed. And yet, so much hasn't.

Jamaal, now 19, is 12 pounds heavier, not a single inch taller. A point guard now, he started most games on the bench. At .420, he hit the highest percentage of 3-pointers on the team.

His Armstrong teammates call him Beep-Beep, because he hustles like Road Runner. His coach gave him the team's Pirate award, because he was the most fun player to be around.

He finished the school year with a 2.6 GPA. He loved his art and computer classes. World politics and world civilization bored him.

He still dates Liz. And he's still his mother's Boo. Dee was in the stands for Armstrong's first home game. She missed her son terribly while he was away. She tried not to call too much. Or cry too much.

Back home for the summer, Jamaal wants to get a job at Finish Line. For the shoe discount.

The NBA playoffs are on, and Jamaal is glued to the TV. His heart is with the Miami Heat.

His dreams are elsewhere. A new graphic design program is in the works at Armstrong, and Jamaal plans to enroll. After all, he has a future to think about.

- 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.

[Last modified June 11, 2005, 08:37:23]


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