The Mid-American Conference, like any mid-major college basketball conference, is like your hometown. You know everybody who could play, when they were around and how they fit in your city’s history. Eastern Michigan had George Gervin and Earl Boykins. Miami had Ron Harper and Wally Szczerbiak. At Ohio, we had Gary Trent.
When I covered my first basketball game in 2008, I found that Gary’s number was not in the Convocation Center rafters. I didn’t think much of it. After browsing through a media guide, though, I was much more intrigued. Trent, the 11th pick of the ’95 Draft, is far-and-away the best player in Bobcat history. Even the Ohio team that upended Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament last March didn’t have a player anywhere near Gary’s caliber.
Now comes the strange part. When I started to ask why Trent was M.I.A. from the Convo, no one had a straight answer to give me. Many in the Ohio Athletic Department had no more idea than I did as to why their predecessors chose not to honor him. There was talk of Gary being a poor student, which he himself readily admits is true. There were also rumors about his interactions with girls on the weekends, but they were often as unbelievable as they were unproven. I was even told, “Good luck getting anybody to talk on record about Gary Trent.”
But any decent journalist knows that no story worth telling is one-sided. All those that are or were close to Gary, including his coach Larry Hunter and teammate Geno Ford, spoke first of his character, then of his basketball ability. Now living in Minnesota with his wife and two sons, Gary leads a pretty ordinary life—a testament to a journey that began in drug-infested projects.
I had just turned six when Gary was drafted. And when I get my degree from Ohio University in a few months, in the home of Bobcat basketball, there will still be no mention of the best player in school history. In 16 years, he’s gone from god to ghost. But where is the wrongdoing?
by Nick Piotrowicz
There was nothing unique about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ demeanor. They waited in the visiting locker room of the Staples Center and went through their normal pre-game routines. Kevin Garnett worked himself into a frenzy. Sam Cassell joked around. Flip Saunders talked to his guys. It wasn’t a pedestrian March game, though. It was Game 3 of the ’04 Western Conference Finals, and the series was tied 1-1.
Minnesota forward Gary Trent stood at his locker and pulled his jersey over his barrel chest. Trent would be called on to come off the bench and attempt to quell a talented and physical frontcourt featuring Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone. Just beyond the tunnel was a mesmerizing realization of hoop dreams: purple-and-gold, high stakes, the Laker Girls.
Trent appreciated it like very few could have. He grew up in a northeast Columbus, OH, neighborhood nicknamed “The Jungle.” Trent’s grandmother was convicted of murdering her son. His mother was convicted of aggravated drug trafficking. Five of Trent’s uncles did jail time. His father, Dexter, was convicted of possessing crack cocaine with conspiracy to distribute, and a federal court sentenced him to life in prison. (He ended up serving six and a half years.)
By age 13, Trent was a drug dealer himself, often making $300 in a day by selling crack on the same streets his father once had. At one point, he says, he had $12,000 cash in his pocket. He remembers diving under a car to elude a drive-by shooting. He saw one of his friends shot and killed. “From about eighth grade on, I raised myself,” Trent says today. “When you’re raising yourself, you’re going to make some irrational decisions… First and foremost, you’re a kid and you don’t have the life experience, and that’s where your parents kick in. But with me having no parents, I had to make those decisions by myself.”
Gary dropped out of high school briefly while under his aunt’s custody. His future, both academically and as a person, was worsening by the day. He re-enrolled in high school and, as a sophomore, took up basketball. The sport would change his life. “Growing up in a violent environment where love is minimal, it makes you become more aggressive,” Trent says. “I guess the basketball court was my release.”
Gary could ball, and it didn’t hurt when he grew to be 6-8 and could bench 400 pounds. Trent progressed rapidly for the Hamilton High Rangers, and Ohio University’s head coach at the time, Larry Hunter, began recruiting him.
“The only reason that we recruited him was because I had so much respect and confidence in his high school coach and superintendent of schools,” Hunter remembers. “They thought I would be as good for him as he was for us, and it turned out to be a great relationship.”
Trent had never met Hunter. He didn’t even know if he was black or white. He received letters and calls from Ohio U in Athens, but he didn’t know anything about the school, and he definitely had no idea where in his home state Athens was. “One night, I was talking to Coach Hunter on the phone,” Trent remembers, “and I asked him, ‘Is Ohio University Division I?’”
Gary Trent would become the best player in Ohio University history-by far. He won Mid-American Conference Player of the Year three consecutive times. He was named an All-American in ’95. He is first in school history with a career 22.7-ppg scoring average. He holds the single-season record for field goals made (309), field goal percentage (65.1 percent) and free-throws made (210). He ranks third in all-time points scored (2,108), third in rebounds (1,050) and third in field goals made (796)-and he only spent three years in Athens (which, by the way, is about 90 minutes southeast of Columbus).
After his junior season, Trent entered the ’95 NBA Draft and was selected 11th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks, who traded him to the Portland Trail Blazers. Trent would go on to play nine seasons in the pros, again establishing himself as the most prolific Bobcat ever: in his NBA career, he scored 3,200 more points than any other Ohio alum.
Reporter Rob Demovsky, who now works for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, covered Ohio basketball during Trent’s college career for The Athens Messenger. Every day, Demovsky saw Trent’s ability. “Not only was he the dominant player in the MAC, he was dominant on a national level,” Demovsky says. “He told me once, ‘What I want to do is dunk on somebody and break their hand.’ His game was all about power, and no one could stop him. He was literally unstoppable.”
“Who are you?”
It wasn’t the first time Trent heard disrespect, but this time, it carried a lot more weight. After averaging a near double-double and winning MAC Freshman of the Year, Trent was invited to a Boston Celtics college evaluation camp at Brandeis University. He became the target of one of college basketball’s best players, UConn’s Donyell Marshall. All camp, Marshall trash-talked the player he didn’t believe belonged.
“When they introduced me, [Marshall] was standing around in a circle in a bunch of people, he was like, ‘Who do you go to?’” Trent said. “He was really trying to clown me because I went to a small school and I got an NBA invite.”
In December of the following season, Trent got his revenge. The Bobcats pounded Marshall’s 14th-ranked Connecticut Huskies in the Big Island Invitational in Hawaii. “When I saw him in Hawaii and we beat them, it was such a great feeling… He sat there and talked about my school, said, ‘Was you Division I?’ and all these negative things. Then we beat their ass,” Trent recalls.
Later in the year, Ohio rattled off 13 consecutive wins, including a thrashing of Bowling Green in which Trent had 46 points. Riding Trent’s 25.4 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, Ohio won the MAC and earned its first trip to the Big Dance in a decade.
Expectations were soaring for the ’94-95 season. The Bobcats only fanned the fires of expectation by winning the pre-season NIT. The Bobcats pounded Ohio State and Virginia on the road, then toppled George Washington and New Mexico St. at Madison Square Garden. In the NIT Championship Game, Trent scored 33 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and made all 12 of his field goals. Five days later, the Bobcats went to hallowed Rupp Arena and nearly upended the third-ranked Kentucky Wildcats. Then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said later that Trent “would be a force on any team in America. He’s got great talent.”
The rage in Athens and in the national media was on. With Trent-now known by even casual fans as the “Shaq of the MAC”-came success, and with success came fans. Busloads of them. In ’94-95 the Bobcats set a Convocation Center attendance record that still stands.
“Barely any students came in previous years, and the ones who did sat on their hands and didn’t say a word,” Demovsky recalls. “It was loud [with Trent]. It was a big-time college basketball environment, better than anything I’d seen at any MAC school, that’s for sure.”
Former OU point guard Geno Ford recalls hundreds of Bobcat fans traveling to road games, a rarity in the MAC. Everywhere they went, people wanted to see Ohio play. “Make no mistake, they were there to see Gary Trent. He was the only reason to really go,” Ford says, laughing. “He was a guy that teams constantly double-teamed, and it made no difference. He’d find a way to get 25 points and 15 rebounds.”
With Trent doing the heavy lifting, this no-name school from a small conference was suddenly ranked in the top 15 in the country. “In reality, Gary thrust the university on the national scene,” Ford says. “All of a sudden Ohio University was on national TV beating people, and Gary was the reason for all that.”
Larry Hunter’s dogged loyalty meant everything to a 17-year-old Trent. “I was in a tough situation at home, I was in a tough situation academically,” Trent says. “And [Hunter] said, ‘If you become a Prop 48 (the NCAA’s stipulation that high school students with low grades or test scores cannot play sports as freshmen), we’re still going to take you, we’re still going to work with you and we’re still going to make you prosper into somebody and make you a better person.’ He gave me his word on that and I said, You know what? I’ll come to OU.”
Most top-tier basketball schools ignored Trent. Ohio State is in Columbus; the Buckeyes didn’t make a serious push. The University of Cincinnati is less than two hours away, and Bob Huggins was known for taking chances on kids from less-than-ideal backgrounds. “Cincinnati came to my school, saw my transcripts and walked out,” Trent says. “I never got another letter or phone from them.”
Trent shot a mind-blowing 81 percent from the field his senior year in high school, a record that still stands. He had verbally committed to Ohio, but plenty of suitors surfaced besides the Bobcats. “I was getting letters from Loyola Marymount, Pac-10 schools, and it seemed appealing to me. I’m like, I never see Ohio U on TV. I want to play on TV,” Trent recalls. “When it came down to it and I thought about it, Hunter was the only one that was there for me when he said [if] I’m a Prop 48, he’ll still take me… I had the opportunity to sign with other places, but I felt like I told him I was going to come there and I like to stand up on my word.”
“OU was one of the greatest things to happen to me in my life. At that point and time when OU happened to me, it was the greatest thing that happened to me in my life.”
Look in the Convocation Center rafters today, and Trent’s name and number aren’t there. He’s also absent from the Kermit Blosser Ohio Athletics Hall of Fame. You can spend all day in OU’s athletic facilities and have no idea that Gary Trent ever went to college in Athens, OH.
“If it’s based solely on basketball, what Gary did there-his jersey should be retired and there should be a bronze statue out in front of the place,” Ford says matter-of-factly. “You don’t get conference Player of the Year three times in three years (Trent is the only three-time winner in MAC history) and not be immortalized within the confines of what you can do.”
Many believe the school won’t honor Trent because he didn’t graduate; however, Walter Luckett left after three years in Athens (Luckett later got his degree), and his stats hold up like a paper bag in the rain against Trent’s. Luckett’s jersey was retired in ’07 as part of a “Legends Night” honoring 100 years of Ohio basketball.
Others believe that Trent’s behavior is the reason Ohio hasn’t honored him. He was arrested for domestic violence charges in January 1997. While playing for the Dallas Mavericks in ’00, Trent was suspended one game for walking into the Golden State Warriors’ locker room to confront guard Vonteego Cummings. Trent also didn’t take his academics very seriously at Ohio U. “I’m 35 now. That’s half my life ago. If you’re looking at things at 35 the same way you were at 17 with anything in life, you haven’t grown as a person,” Trent, who is now 36, said last summer. “I’ve grown in a lot of ways and, as a grown man now, I can tell you I didn’t value [academics] like I should have.”
Hunter stressed how Trent always learned from his mistakes, on-court and off, which is one thing about him that hasn’t changed. Now living near Minneapolis, Trent is working toward getting the degree that he didn’t get from Ohio. “ACC and Big Ten schools, they’re used to players leaving early,” Trent says. “Nobody’s ever done that in the MAC, so I don’t think Ohio University was prepared for that type of situation. I wish my degree could say ‘Ohio University,’ but the odds are looking real slim.”
As it turns out, Trent can never belong to the Ohio Hall of Fame because his diploma won’t be from OU-online classes are what Trent needs, and the school doesn’t offer a full program. As a husband, father of two and coach of his son’s AAU team, Trent can’t uproot and move to southeastern Ohio.
During the ’07 season, Ohio, under former Director of Athletics Kirby Hocutt, established eight criteria to have one’s jersey honored by the school. Trent immediately meets seven; his one transgression in the eyes of the school is that he did not graduate.
“Our understanding is Gary Trent has not received his bachelor’s degree. His candidacy would be off the table until that would occur,” Associate Athletic Director for External Operations Dan Hauser says. “We understand… how people leave college and aspire to those dreams and want to go ahead and start their professional career. We wanted to create a system that allowed student athletes to do that but didn’t totally limit their capability to graduate and be honored.”
Hauser acknowledged that Trent would have a good candidacy, but the committee that approves honoring jerseys doesn’t actively look for past Bobcats to recognize.
North Carolina retired Michael Jordan’s jersey without a degree. Kansas honored Paul Pierce and Drew Gooden, both of whom left early to go to the NBA. Locally, Ohio State retired Jim Jackson’s number-and he left early. In the MAC, Kent State retired the numbers of two players who left early.
Trent went from being a high school dropout to playing in the NBA. He’s a success story, the one who made something from nothing. On his way, Ohio University made him a better person, and he made Ohio University a better place. Hasn’t Trent already proven worthy of Ohio’s praise, degree or not?
“I would love to have my jersey retired and be in the Hall of Fame. I would love to see it happen, but if they don’t do it, I don’t take it personal. I wouldn’t understand it,” Trent says. “I’m just going to pursue my degree and do the best I can do, and it’s in Ohio
University’s hands after that.”