by Nicholas Piotrowicz
Americans love to love the underdog. It’s even part of our history as a country. From a young age, we learn in history classes about farmers with no training and inferior weapons defeating the mighty British in the Revolutionary War, and how the US became a great country through tremendous odds.
In no small part, the little guy is a big reason why America loves NCAA basketball. Every March, we fall in love with teams like Butler and Gonzaga and George Mason even though we didn’t know who they were and where they came from before the NCAA Tournament.
One of those little guys, Ohio University, is my alma mater. I wrote for SLAM 145 about Gary Trent, the best player in Ohio history, and why his jersey hadn’t been honored by the school, despite his overwhelming success, even in the NBA.
Well, no longer will the rafters at the Convocation Center be missing anything. The underdog’s underdog will finally receive the recognition he’s earned. Gary Trent Day on January 21 in Athens, OH, will honor the best Bobcat basketball player in history.
“In your life, there are many defining times,” Ohio athletics director Jim Schaus said. “[Trent] has certainly etched himself very boldly in the history of Ohio Athletics, so this is a time for him to be recognized.”
As I wrote in SLAM 145, the school wouldn’t budge on its policy that someone had to have an undergraduate degree to have his or her jersey honored. Trent didn’t have a degree because he left school a year early to enter the NBA Draft, where he was drafted 11th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks, who traded his rights to the Portland Trail Blazers.
That has changed, as has Trent’s life since last Winter. He graduated from the University of Phoenix on July 11 with a degree in business management. Four days later, he was offered and accepted a position to be an assistant to the principal and intervention specialist at a school near his Minneapolis home. Three days after that, his wife gave birth to a son, their third. And on July 26, his oldest son’s AAU team won its third straight national title.
“Everything just fell into place for me,” Trent said. “My career as far as basketball was over, and as a youngster, a lot of the things you think are important priorities really aren’t… Once I had to a chance to sit back and wind down and reflect on my life, chipping away at this school thing was a good opportunity.”
Gary even started a competition in the household—wholly unsurprising to anyone who has talked to him for more than 30 seconds—to see who among he, his wife, who was studying to get her M.B.A., and his son could attain the highest test scores.
“I was like, ‘If you don’t have a 97 or better, you don’t get to put your paper up here next to mine.’ It became some educational fun within the household,” Trent said.
In a way, the 17-year gap between Trent’s last game in Athens and the day his jersey is honored is a blessing. His playing days have concluded, allowing him to truly savor his career. His oldest son, 12, will be able to attend the ceremony, and he’ll even be old enough to understand just how much his dad meant to so many people at Ohio.
“I’m glad the school decided on this, man,” Trent said. “I finally untied their hands to be able to do something like this. Honestly, at this point and stage in my life, I’m glad that it’s happening now, not just for my children, but I can look back at it all and understand it more and appreciate it more.
“Had this moment came about when I was in the NBA, life was moving so fast and things were moving so quickly. I would’ve still appreciated it, but it’s almost like looking at old game footage. They sink in more and they mean more to you now.”
The athletics department is going all out for Trent. The scheduled the ceremony for Dad’s Weekend—normally the most crowded home game of the season—and will play Miami, its biggest rival.
Further, they’re making tickets available from $1. Schaus said Ohio badly wants to sell out the game.
“I’m very proud of him for that and very proud of what he accomplished for Ohio University. I’m excited for this to finally happen,” Schaus said. “He’s very deserving, and certainly respectful of the policy the institution had in this regard.”
The day will be a beautiful realization of a hopeless story. Trent will stand at halfcourt with his family as a green-and-white mass in the Convo goes bonkers for his No. 20 jersey hanging high.
As a freshmen in high school, Trent dropped out of school all together. He was dealing drugs on the streets of his Columbus, OH, neighborhood.
Like his dad—who served nearly seven years in jail for a drug conviction—and a half-dozen uncles, Trent’s entire world was engulfed in and dependent on crime at that point of his life.
Then he picked up a basketball before his sophomore year, and his world changed forever.
“Life for me, things I was involved in at that age were truly that bad. I graduated (high school) on Friday, went to a party on Saturday and my high school coach dropped me off at OU on Sunday in June. My coach told me, ‘I’m not leaving you up here this summer.’” Trent said. “Life was truly that bad for me at home, and in my personal life, and in my street life. It was a savior for me to move to Athens right after graduation.”
Larry Hunter, Trent’s coach at OU, knew he was getting a raw player in every way. One of the reasons he took Trent was that he thought he could help mold Trent as a person.
“He had some adjustments that most people don’t have to make. Gary, at a very young age, was a survivor,” Hunter said in a 2010 interview. “Even on the basketball court, when someone fouls you—and people did that because they didn’t think he could make free throws—his reaction was ‘I’m going to get you before you get me.’ That’s not how you react in a University environment.”
One person who drew the brunt of Trent’s hurt-or-get-hurt mentality in his first year was his teammate, Jeff Boals, who is now an assistant coach at Ohio State.
“Every day it was a battle. He would come at me every day and say, ‘If you do that one more time, I’ll kick your ass,’” Boals said. “I would just look at him and say, ‘Hey, do what you gotta do,’ hoping he wouldn’t swing. Gary’s come a long way since then, obviously.”
Boals’ ass remained un-kicked, and he, along with Hunter, remain close with Trent to this day.
“At that point in my life, Larry Hunter and OU saved my life,” Trent said. “I don’t think where ever else I could’ve went—the hands that were supporting me wouldn’t have held on like (Ohio.) More than likely, I probably would’ve been dead.”
Finally, the bond between Trent and his school will be apparent when one walks through Ohio’s basketball facilities. In addition to his jersey being honored, he’s eligible for Ohio’s Athletics Hall of Fame early next year.
Gary hopes to get into college coaching to give other kids the same opportunities he had. He might get a chance, too: Boals is one of the top assistants in the country.
“From being a high school dropout to making it to the NBA, if I was to go recruit a kid, there’s probably no situation he can tell me about that I can’t relate to or understand or haven’t been through,” Trent said. “That’s going to give me a distinct advantage over probably 90 percent of NCAA coaches.”
For all of the NCAA’s faults, the scandals, misdeeds, young athletes being taken advantage of, this one underdog and his school built the model relationship.
They’ll take the final step in January.
“You know, of all the things I do, being an athletic director, nothing is more rewarding or more of a reason why I enjoy being a part of it is when you can make a difference in somebody’s life,” Schaus said. “Many student athletes like Gary would have never gotten the opportunity to get an education or to meet the type of people they meet when they come to a school like Ohio University, to have those experiences help define them, not only athletically, but as an individual, as a person. It warms my heart that Gary Trent was one of those individuals where athletics made him a better person.”
As Trent notes, he came to college just to hoop.
In his case, though—and like all of the kids he aims to help—basketball is way more than a game with an inflated ball.
“Basketball saved my life,” Trent said. “All the fundamentals of basketball taught me the fundamentals of life. They coincide with one another.”