by David Cassilo / @dcassilo
Jimmer Fredette is not a very good golfer. Last July, at the American Century Championship, a celebrity golf tournament near Lake Tahoe, Fredette finished dead last—in a field that included Charles Barkley.
But regardless of his score, when he’s out West, Jimmermania is still in full swing. Fans follow him with signs and swarm him for autographs. He’s the Michael Jordan of the Mountain Time Zone. Speaking of Jordan, the six-time World Champion was present at the aforementioned golf tourney. Fredette, a Jordan admirer like most basketball players, was all set to meet his idol.
MJ was surely well aware of the accomplishments of the newest Sacramento King; after all, the 6-2 guard from Brigham Young was college basketball’s must-see show last season. Fredette averaged 28.9 points per game during his senior year, on his way to being named National Player of the Year.
Never the fastest, tallest, strongest or most athletic player on the floor, the average-sized Fredette captured America’s imagination with his otherworldly range and electrifying scoring ability.
But on that July day in Lake Tahoe, most important of all was that Fredette had enough street cred to go up to Jordan and introduce himself. So what did Air Jordan say to Thin Air Fredette?
“I wasn’t able to talk to him because they had started the lockout,” Fredette says.
Welcome to the life of an NBA rookie during the lockout.
Before there was a lockout and before there was a golf outing and before there was Jimmermania, there was a basketball court in the backyard of the Fredette home in Glens Falls, NY.
At the time, Jimmer Fredette was far from a household name; he was still just trying to earn his household chops as a 4-year-old against his 11-year-old brother, TJ, on that court. Things did not go well.
“He would block me every time,” Jimmer says. “I would kick the fence and yell and scream to make sure he knew that I was upset.”
The younger Fredette wanted to win, needed to win. And as he got older, he altered the way he played to make sure he ended games less frequently with screams and fence kicking. As the shortest kid on the floor going against his brother and his friends, Fredette avoided rejection by sticking with long jumpers and scoop shots.
“It was almost like a mother that would lift up a car to save her child,” TJ says. “He wanted to win so bad that he would do things he shouldn’t even be able to do physically.”
But even that wasn’t enough to make up for the height and age gap at times. So one day Jimmer’s father, Al, came outside and drew a line on the court. His accompanying instructions: No one blocks Jimmer when he’s behind this line. The intention was to stop the blocked shots. The result was the unlimited range that now has him in the NBA.
“That was basically the only way I could get my shot off,” Jimmer says. “I knew I could shoot it from the outside, and I think since I was able to do that, it increased my range.”
That ability to hit a jumper made him a local sensation from an early age. When he was about 7 years old, he would show up at Glens Falls High School JV games and shoot around during halftime. “I’d see this short, pudgy little kid out on the court shooting three-pointers, and the crowd would cheer for him already,” says Tony Hammel, who would eventually become Fredette’s varsity basketball coach.
Glens Falls only has about 14,000 people, so it didn’t take long for word to get out about the “short, pudgy little kid” who can shoot. By the time he left for BYU, almost every resident had his or her own Jimmer story.
“One day I had my tennis racket and I was hitting balls against the tennis backboard in the local park when a bunch of kids came running around and Jimmer was one of them,” says Joe DeSantis, owner of Carl R’s, one of the small town’s local restaurants.
When he saw Jimmer and his friends, DeSantis remembers saying to them, “I bet none of you kids can hit a tennis ball off this backboard 20 times.”
One by one the kids tried until it was Jimmer’s turn. He choked way up on the throat of the racket and then stood really close to the backboard, tapping the ball 20 times in a row.
“I thought, That’s a talented kid,” DeSantis says.
Fredette was a phenomenon. He was the town’s hero. And even now that he’s all grown up and playing his ball out West, it’s still a Glens Falls ritual to watch their boy on the court.
“It’s almost like Super Bowl Sunday when you go to the bar and watch him play a game,” Hammel says.
In Jimmer’s senior season at Brigham Young University, Glens Falls got to host the Super Bowl. On December 8, 2010, BYU traveled to Fredette’s hometown to play Vermont.
The game was at the Glens Falls Civic Center, an arena that holds 4,806 fans. On that night, there were 6,300 people in the building. Lined up three-deep along the railing, the crowd gave Jimmer a two-minute standing ovation when his name was announced.
“It was very emotional because all of those people I grew up with and grew up loving,” Fredette says.
The hometown hero treated fans to 26 points, an 86-58 victory and a final chance to cheer on the kid who was going to make it.
“It just brings goosebumps even right now when I’m talking about it,” Hammel says.
Elliot Walden needed a name for his horse. The president and CEO of Winstar Farm in Kentucky, Walden was looking for a name that would suggest that his horse was a winner.
Pat Hammel, the wife of Fredette’s high school coach, worked for Bill Mott, a Hall of Fame horse trainer and one of Walden’s clients. She had an easy solution for Walden: Why not name it after Jimmer?
“She pitched the idea to me, and I thought it was a great idea,” Walden says. “His success and the way he carries himself are two characteristics we try to emulate here at Winstar, so we thought it would be a good fit.”
The horse, now a 2-year-old who will run his first race in 2012, was named Jimmer. It’s just the latest example of how the guard from upstate New York has become a national hero.
Fredette has seen it all. He says people have named babies, birds, cats, dogs and license plates after him. Despite his success at BYU, he doesn’t think that has much to do with the phenomenon.
“It’s just kind of funny to see how people have really taken interest in the name Jimmer,” says Fredette, whose birth name is James. “Even if they don’t like me as a player, they probably like the name.”
The name is unique to everyone who meets him for the first time. Even his future coach at BYU, Dave Rose, had to double check with Fredette on his name when they first met at the college’s camp for high schoolers. “He introduced himself to me as Jimmer,” Rose says. “I said, What do you want us to call you? And he says, ‘Jimmer.’”
For his first two-and-a-half seasons in Provo, UT, the name Jimmer was just a regional sensation. Thirteen games into his junior year, Fredette was averaging 19.5 ppg, strong numbers, but nothing to catch the nation’s attention.
But then Fredette and the Cougars took a December 28 trip to Tucson. By the time they returned, everything would be different.
“The night he got 49 his junior year at the McKale Center in Arizona, that discussion in the locker room with our coaches and the next day in the coaches’ meeting, everything changed,” Rose says. “We said, Let’s make sure we take advantage of this guy while we have him.”
The McKale Center opened in 1973 and the Arizona Wildcats had won a National Title and been to 28 NCAA Tournaments since, but no player had ever scored more points there in a single game than the visiting Fredette.
America, meet Jimmer.
Upon first encounter, it didn’t take long for the country to fall in love with him. Here was a player who looked like most of the gym rats at the YMCA but with a shooting touch that would make even Reggie Miller pause. Jimmer’s ability to go for 40 points almost any night from almost any spot on the court was even surprising to the man himself.
“I don’t think about it necessarily on the floor, but when I look at it afterward, I’m like, ‘Wow, why did I shoot that shot or how did I make that shot?’” Fredette says.
After that Arizona outburst came the horse names and the nightly Jimmer watch and the incessant requests for pictures and autographs—even from the rivals. “It’s amazing how many other schools in our state’s fans, I don’t know if they were cheering for Jimmer, but they did follow him,” Rose says.
But it wasn’t just the state of Utah. “Jimmer” was as common a term to college basketball fans across the country as “rebound” and “dribble.” He was getting compliments from Dirk Nowitzki and Aaron Rodgers, traveling the awards circuit across the country and coming to terms with the fact his free time was gone.
But what really connected Jimmer with his new following was how he went from small-town sensation to America’s golden boy with the smoothness of one of his jumpers.
“People just want Jimmer’s time, and it amazes me how he obliges everyone,” Rose says. “We all kind of say, ‘Hey Jimmer, we can get you out this way or go around this way.’ He’ll say, ‘No, no, no. If you give me five minutes, I’ll get through this.’”
It’s late October now, and Jimmer Fredette finally has his free time again. But he’d give it back in an instant to get on the court. The nothingness feels strange to him. He’s not used to having time to himself.
“It’s definitely different,” Fredette says. “I was on the go for so long and doing so many different things and suddenly everything stopped, and then I’m like, What do I do now?”
With a delayed start to his NBA career, all he could do is wait. He passed the time by hanging around the BYU campus, working out and spending time with his fiancé—his college girlfriend whom he proposed to in August.
But even planning a wedding can’t compare to the everyday circus that was his college career. “She keeps me updated, but I don’t really do much of the work,” Fredette says. “If she needs a hand in anything, obviously I help her out.”
And he had plenty of time to hear everything you doubters have said. How he can’t play in the NBA. How he’s a one-dimensional player who can only shoot. He heard it, and when the NBA season starts, he’s ready to garner a new following—NBA fans.
“I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been doubted my whole career, and being able to have to prove myself again is something I’m really excited about and looking forward to,” Fredette says. “Hopefully I’ll be able to play well and change a lot of people’s opinion.”