By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2005
In one sense, the transition from J.R. Pinnock to Danilo Pinnock was a simple matter. After one preseason practice in late October, George Washington's starting guard approached the school's sports information director and said that henceforth, in news releases and box scores and television reports, he wanted to be known by his real first name, Danilo.
That was his father's name, and it was his 2-year-old son's name. It was the name under which he competed for the Panamanian national team last summer, and it was the name he wanted to use for his junior season.
In another sense, though, the process was more complex. The transition from J.R. to Danilo turned a player who was ineligible to play basketball his senior year of high school into the leading scorer for the No. 15 team in the nation. It turned an opinionated freshman who would occasionally melt down with frustration into a junior who coaches say is one of the emotional leaders of their team. It turned a teenager who would barricade himself in his bedroom to avoid his father into a 22-year-old who has taken on his father's name to make him proud.
And that transition has left coaches saying that they hardly recognize this Danilo Pinnock as the same person who arrived in Foggy Bottom 2 1/2 years ago.
"It's not even close," George Washington Coach Karl Hobbs said. "He's the fire of our team. My question for him is, 'Are you going to warm the house up or are you going to burn the house down? How are you going to use that fire?' And I'll tell you what, he probably has come as far as anyone in our program."
The origins of "J.R." were fairly straightforward. Pinnock's father had immigrated to the United States from Panama as a teenager, and his army career took the family to Texas, Seattle, Alaska, Alabama and Georgia, where no one seemed to be able to pronounce "dah-Neel-oh." Tired of being called Daniel and Danny and Dan, Pinnock became universally known as J.R., for "Junior."
The son had always been above average in both class work and athletics, but as a high schooler in suburban Atlanta he began feuding with teachers and then losing interest in school. His father went to look at his son's progress reports and saw 80s and 90s on tests, and nothing but zeros on homework assignments.
By the second semester of his senior year, Pinnock, who had also been a successful wide receiver on the football team, no longer had the grades to play sports, and so he paid even less attention.
"I'm not a rocket scientist, but I'm not slow," he said. "I just didn't have a purpose. . . . I was going, but there wasn't no point in me going. I wasn't doing nothing."
Around the same time, he and his father began arguing more, about his friends and his habits and his behavior. His father -- who retired after 21 years in the Army, earned two bachelor's degrees as an adult and is working on a master's in information resources management -- tried to persuade Pinnock to take school seriously and to think about his future. A few times, the disagreements prompted Pinnock to leave home and stay with friends; his American-born mother, Bootsie, would then persuade him to return.
"Now I can sit here and say it was my fault," Pinnock said. "It was just me being young and dumb."
Finally, with Pinnock unable to qualify for college, his father, AAU Coach Desmond Eastmond and mentor Kevin Wales helped Pinnock enroll at Coastal Christian, a prep powerhouse in Virginia Beach. During that year Pinnock made and then broke a verbal commitment to Wichita State, and his girlfriend became pregnant with their son. He thought about leaving school and getting a job, but was instead persuaded to go to college and wound up at George Washington He averaged 9.8 points as a freshman, was named to the Atlantic 10's all-rookie team and impressed coaches as an extraordinarily hard worker. Still, his emotions spilled over on the court, and if he missed several shots in a row or was removed from a game or corrected by a coach, he was likely to lose both his focus and his temper.
"We used to always say the best part and the worst part was the same thing: the emotion," assistant coach Darrell Brooks said. "When you play at such a high emotional level all the time you can teeter on going one way or the other. Now he doesn't teeter. You know which way he's going and it's going to be a positive way."
Pinnock took up to 2,000 jump shots during practice sessions last summer, going to the gymnasium three times a day and staying until 2 or 3 in the morning. He now averages 15.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. His long-range jump shot remains a work in progress, but his shooting percentage has gone up all three years at George Washington.
He still sometimes gets "the urge to try to make the highlight," but he's also developed a floater to go along with some of his jaw-dropping dunks. Coaches said he no longer loses his focus on the court, and he said he no longer loses his focus off it.
"I've came too far, too many people sacrificed too much for me to get this far, and now I have my own son to set a path for him to follow," he said. "I can't go back to doing the dumb stuff I was doing."
Part of the difference, Pinnock said, is that he wants to please Hobbs, who is both a coach and a friend. Part of the difference is that he now tries to set an example for his son, whom he calls his inspiration and motivation. The third Danilo Pinnock, known as "Tre," stays with Pinnock's parents in Georgia but has already been to three GW games this season and can identify most of the team's roster by name. (The 2-year old can already say "Pops," and "he tried to say 'Mensah-Bonsu,' but it don't quite flow right," the father reported.) And part of the difference, Pinnock said, is that he's now decided to follow his father's advice. The two still bicker occasionally -- the elder Pinnock, for example, does not approve of the younger Pinnock's baggy shorts. But they work out together, and they watch basketball together, and last June they spent about two weeks in Panama together, where J.R. gained dual citizenship to play for the country's basketball team.
After he returned from George Washington's summer exhibition trip to Australia, Pinnock immediately departed for the Dominican Republic, the site of last summer's world championships qualifying tournament. The 6-foot-5 guard missed all the team's practices and Panama's first game, against the United States. He spoke barely a word of Spanish, and his father arrived the next day, prepared to act as an interpreter.
But the players communicated on their own -- "a lot of sign language," the elder Pinnock said -- and the new addition immediately helped the team, which went on to earn a berth in the world championships for the first time since 1986. Pinnock was the team's youngest player and second-leading scorer, averaging 15.4 points against largely professional opposition.
"I don't think we could have won on a consistent basis until we got a kid like him," said Nolan Richardson, the former Arkansas coach who led the Panamanian team. "He could dunk on Superman. . . . I was telling him, at this pace and the way you work and pay attention, you have a chance to play at that next level, big time."
Which is becoming a popular opinion. St. Francis (Pa.) Coach Bobby Jones, who has seen Pinnock play two years in a row, called him "one of the most underrated players in the country at his position." Hobbs was even more emphatic, saying "There's no doubt in my mind he's going to play in the NBA."
Pinnock said he, Hobbs and his father will discuss the future after this season. As of now, he said, he plans to return to Foggy Bottom for one more season, to finally have a senior night and to get a sociology degree that his father could display on his mantle piece.
Indeed, impressing his father has become a priority for Pinnock, which is how J.R. finally became Danilo. Some of his father's Panamanian friends had Americanized their names; "Victoriano" became "Vic," "Alejandro became "Al" and "Ricardo" became "Rick." The elder Pinnock had never wanted to lose his heritage, and during the trip to the Dominican Republic, the son -- who had been considering the switch for weeks -- began using his real name.
"Doesn't that sound good?" the elder Danilo Pinnock asked. And the younger Danilo Pinnock, who still wears his Panamanian jersey during pregame shoot-arounds, agreed.
"I wanted to go by my name just to honor my father," he said. "Me having my son, seeing how prideful I am with him, I know my father has to feel the same way about me. And I gave my son the family name because I want him to carry out the legacy, carry that name to higher levels."
Colonials Note: George Washington's game at No. 21 North Carolina State on Dec. 30 will be broadcast by Comcast SportsNet on tape delay, at 11 p.m. on the 30th and noon on the 31st. The game was scheduled to be shown live at noon on the 31st; it was rescheduled this week to 7 p.m. on the 30th so it would not conflict with the Wolfpack's football bowl game.