On the night of March 25, 2015, Trey Freeman sank a 30-foot buzzer beater that stole America’s hearts, dashed Murray State’s dreams, and sent Old Dominion to the NIT semifinals. But the real story about that shot begins a few days before.
During practice the previous Saturday, the 6-2 Freeman, then a junior, had landed awkwardly upon a teammate’s foot. As his teammates shifted to the other end of the court, to allow the trainer to attend to him, he feared he’d broken something. Later, he could barely put enough weight on the joint to hobble across the street to get back to his room. He feared his season was over, and he broke down.
It was revealed to be a sprained ankle. Old Dominion’s next game was on Monday, against Illinois State in the NIT. Luckily, Freeman’s family lives a 30-minute drive from the Norfolk, VA, campus. This had been a big reason why Freeman decided to transfer to Old Dominion in 2013. His mother had become very sick, and after playing his first two seasons at Campbell University, in North Carolina, Freeman wanted to be closer to home.
Now, Freeman phoned his mom about his dodgy ankle, and she came up to campus, a rehabilitation concoction in tow. “She did this thing with vinegar, and she wrapped it up in a brown paper bag, and put it on my foot. It took out a lot of the stiffness and pain,” says Freeman. He woke up the next day, and made another phone call, this time to his head coach, Jeff Jones. “I told him I wasn’t finished,” says Freeman. “I’d be ready to help.”
Freeman tested his ankle the day of the Illinois State game, but it was no-go. He had a cast on for that game, but after watching his teammates book a matchup with the Racers in the next round, he settled upon an ultimatum. There was no way he was missing Wednesday’s game. So, his mom drove back up and re-produced the same ankle treatment.
On Wednesday, Freeman remained a game-time decision until several hours before tip-off. After the pre-game meal, he went through a workout under the watchful eyes of a trainer and an assistant coach. He felt good, and he told Jones he was ready to go. He started, played 36 minutes, and hit ‘that’ shot, the crowning jewel upon a 25-point performance. “Take that last shot away, and he still had a terrific game,” Jones says. (Freeman also chipped in 4 assists.) “And he wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent.”
“My ankle was bothering me, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been,” says Freeman. “All I could think of was how good it felt in comparison to the initial pain. The rest was adrenaline, feeding off the moment, blocking everything out. I’ve been in worse things. This didn’t seem like much at all.”
Six days later, in the NIT semis at Madison Square Garden, Freeman started and played 33 minutes against Stanford, but the Murray State game had sapped him. He finished 6-24 from the floor in a 70-61 loss. After the season, it took about eight weeks for his ankle to fully heal.
Performing at a high level, far from full fitness. Freeman’s childhood hero would’ve approved. Freeman hails from Virginia Beach, VA, and like most of his friends at the turn of the century, he couldn’t get enough of this hard-charging, undersized Sixers scoring guard who happened to be from Hampton. The 2001 NBA Finals were a high point, Freeman watching AI help steal Game 1 from the Lakers on the Staples Center court. Then, the banter and jawing with Kobe at the end of Game 2.
“My brothers are huge Kobe fans, and I was the only one in my family rooting for AI, and it stuck with me,” Freeman says. And Kobe? “I respect him, and I realize how great he is, but I wasn’t a big fan.”
Growing up, Freeman played baseball and football in addition to basketball, but he only began to seriously pursue hoops in high school. There began the forging of a game that was an amalgamation of his favorite influences. Scoring: bits of Iverson and McGrady. But Freeman grew captivated by point guards. The way they dictated the pace of play, had the game wound ‘round their fingers.
“I used to watch Chris Paul a whole lot—I really liked the way he got teammates involved, and made them better,” Freeman says. “Deron Williams with the Jazz, but also Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Steph Marbury. I liked the athletic point guards.”
Freeman starred at Kellam High, and was three times named team MVP. Midway through his junior season, with the help of an older brother, he revamped his jump shot. He’d had a little hitch in it, which had affected his range. Freeman can still recall that first game with the new shot. He felt off, and he reverted a few times to his old habits. He asked his other older brother after: Notice anything different?
The answer? “No.” But Freeman kept working on his form, and through constant repetition and video analysis, the he smoothed out the kinks.
The shot began to feel smooth at full speed. In the regional playoffs that season, Freeman dropped 26 points.
That summer, he played for Boo Williams’ AAU B Team. That helped him earn his lone scholarship offer, to Campbell. In his first year in Buies Creek, NC, Freeman battled homesickness, but he fought through, in large part by making a sanctuary of the gym.
He knew a lot of great players back home hadn’t gotten the same chance. It would be a disservice not to give his all here. “Basketball is basketball, regardless of where you go,” says Campbell. “The gym was my comfort zone.”
Asked to describe Freeman’s style, Jones refrains from “unique,” but he does attest to its rarity. That hitch in the shot forced Freeman to develop a mid-range game, something he still uses to dangerous effect.
“He’s so strong and balanced, and he has that high release on his shot,” Jones says. “And that mid-range game makes him special. Not a lot of kids in college can do that.”
Last season, for the Monarchs, Freeman posted 16.9 points, and went 44 percent from the field, 35 percent from three.
When Freeman is asked what sets him apart as a player, he pauses for a moment in reflection.
“If people tell me I can’t do something, it motivates me. I head to the gym. If I don’t do a drill right, or if I don’t make enough shots in the allotted time, I’ll come back in the gym. That’s what my brother always taught me. You can do anything, if just keep pushing. Nothing worthwhile was built in one day. You’re not supposed to be good at something the first time. It takes time. So, in games, if things aren’t going my way, I think of all the hours I’ve put in, and that allows me to be tough. If I miss a shot, I won’t second-guess myself. I stay aggressive.”
In high school, Freeman’s head coach honed his star’s competitive edge. During scrimmages, he’d pit Freeman against the other four starters, and see how far he’d go to win. Freeman’s two older brothers, Adrian and Aric, would beat up on him in one-on-one, forcing him to play physically. His dad instilled a sense of pride in working hard.
“If I was doing a warm-up run, he’d get mad if I didn’t give it my all,” says Freeman. “He told me that as long as I go all out, that’s the best I can do. Some guys, they won’t go all out, so that’s why I end up first.”
Jones has enjoyed working with a player filled with Kobe’s competitive edge. But what sets Freeman apart is the way he showcases that drive.
“A lot of times, when people talk about ultra-competitive players, they’re kind of quiet, withdrawn, angry or very serious,” says Jones. “Trey just loves playing. He’s smiling, talking to teammates, having a great time. Yet he’s so competitive. This summer, our strength coach had the team playing sand volleyball with a heavy ball—Trey’s trying to win that. The other day, our baseball coach threw batting practice, so our guys could play home run derby. Trey wanted to win that. You see him smiling while he does it, and that attitude rubs off.”
A standard day this summer has entailed a morning workout before class (Freeman is pursuing a master’s degree in sport management), then a lift session after lunch. He’ll shoot for a bit after lifting, then take a break before returning to the gym for a night workout around 8 or 9 o’clock. His brother Adrian drives up to rebound for him. Sometimes, they’ll stay until Freeman hits 1,000 shots.
Jones has talked to his senior guard about taking the next step in his ability to run point. Navigating on-ball screens at the top of the key, figuring out when to distribute to teammates. Once more, Freeman cues up footage of Chris Paul and Deron Williams, masters of that motion. Jones has talked to him about finishing his drives—going up off one foot, shielding his body against bigs. Another wrinkle to his already formidable offensive arsenal.
“If you ask him where he’s the happiest, it would be out there on the floor,” says Jones. “Doesn’t matter whether it’s a game, or 10 or 11 o’clock at night and he’s shooting on the gun in the practice gym alone. He just loves being in there. He’ll bring me the printout of his workouts, tell me, ‘Hey coach, I just got 1,500 shots up, and I hit 71 percent.’ He’s always competing, even against a machine. That makes him pretty unique.”
When Jones speaks to SLAM, it’s a Thursday morning, during a break of team camp. Freeman is one of the counselors that week, and his ebullient self is perfect for this type of setting. Who better to instill a passion for the game, and the steadfast dedication required to reaching the highest levels?
A quick question to Jones, about the upcoming season. The response: “It’ll be interesting.”
Same goes for watching one of college basketball’s foremost technicians.
Image courtesy of Old Dominion Athletics