By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008
Around 5:30 one morning when JaVale McGee was a sophomore in high school, his mother, Pamela McGee, woke him from a sound sleep and trudged him out into Michigan's bitterly cold winter darkness to run a mile in a pair of heavy boots.
At the time, McGee was on the junior varsity basketball team at Detroit Country Day School, an exclusive high school with high academic standards, a reputation for athletic excellence and a high tuition. Pamela, an all-American at Southern California who also played in the WNBA, was an assistant coach for the boys' varsity team.
When Pamela had poked her head into the junior varsity practice the day before, she was not pleased to see JaVale merely going through the motions. The next morning, he was jogging through the snow.
"It's expensive to go to Country Day," Pamela McGee said recently. "My mom was a teenage mother and worked in a factory so her children could go to college and get an education. So, when JaVale had the opportunity to go to Country Day and I went to that practice and saw that he wasn't working hard, that he was just loafing around practice wasting time, I was like: 'No. This is not going to happen.' That was unacceptable. I told him: 'If you aren't going to work hard, we're going to do this every morning.' He got the message and I've never had to do that since."
Today, JaVale is a 7-foot, 237-pound center preparing for his rookie season with the Washington Wizards, who selected him with the 18th pick in the June 26 draft. He is the first son of a WNBA player to be drafted by an NBA team.
The combat boots McGee wore that frigid morning were replaced long ago with a fresh pair of basketball shoes, and he'll put in most of his hard work on the plush practice court at Verizon Center. But the lessons McGee picked up from his mother have stuck with him.
"The main thing is that if I'm going to realize my potential, I know I'm going to have to work hard every day to get better," McGee said after averaging 8.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while playing for the Wizards' summer league team in Las Vegas earlier this month. "This is my dream. I've been given an opportunity to play in the NBA so now I have to take advantage."
McGee, an early entry candidate after playing two seasons at the University of Nevada, has reached this point thanks to a combination of good genes, his own hard work and his mother's persistence.
His father, George Montgomery, played at Illinois and was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1985 but never played in the NBA. McGee and Montgomery did not marry and he has had only a minor role in his son's life.
JaVale was raised exclusively by Pamela, whose basketball résumé includes teaming up with her twin sister, Paula, to help USC win consecutive national championships in the mid-1980s before embarking on a playing and coaching career that encompassed stops in Spain, Italy, France and Brazil and stints with the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs and Los Angeles Sparks.
Nine months after giving birth to JaVale in 1988, Pamela signed a contract to play for a team in Palermo, Spain, on the condition that the team provide a nanny for her son and allow him to attend all practices and games.
"I've been around basketball ever since I could remember," said JaVale, who weighed 11 pounds, 11 ounces at birth and was 6-6 at age 11. "It's always been a part of my life."
Pamela also coached JaVale in AAU basketball one summer. He attended three different high schools: Country Day, Providence Christian in Freemont, Mich., and finally, Hales Franciscan in Chicago.
After JaVale earned second-team all state honors at Hales Franciscan, he chose to attend Nevada only after Coach Mark Fox convinced Pamela that the Reno campus was a good fit for her son.
Pamela initially rebuffed Fox's e-mail requests for a visit, but he was persistent and she eventually relented. When Fox showed up wearing a suit and tie instead of the conventional college coach's wardrobe of a warmup suit and sneakers, she was impressed.
"One thing about Pamela was, you knew that she understood the process because she's played and she's coached," Fox said. "So, it was not a typical recruitment. She was very informed and knew exactly what JaVale needed in terms of finding a school and a program that would fit him. He was this big talented kid with every physical tool you could want in a player but he was still developing. He just needed time."
As a freshman, McGee played behind all-American forward-center Nick Fazekas and averaged a modest 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds in 10 minutes per game. His best efforts came in practice where he worked on his game, developed his body and did everything he could to learn from Fazekas, who was taken by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the 2007 draft.
Then, after working hard on his game during the summer of between his freshman and sophomore year, McGee averaged 14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks last season while gaining the attention of NBA scouts.
When the McGees held a news conference to announce JaVale's decision to turn pro, Pamela spoke at length while the more reserved JaVale offered shorter answers. "At first, JaVale is very quiet and reserved but once he gets to know you and becomes comfortable, his personality comes out," said Fox. "He's got a great sense of humor, but it takes time for it to come out."
The Wizards, who already had two veteran centers on the roster in Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas, plus another young 7-footer in Oleksiy Pecherov, tracked McGee throughout the season and happily selected him with the 18th pick when he dropped that far.
"He's an athletic 7-footer with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and he's still developing," said Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld. "Those kinds of players are very rare, so when you have an opportunity to take a guy like that, it's a wise investment. He's going to take time, we know that. But he has the kinds of tools you look for in a big man."
McGee was one of several raw but talented forwards and centers selected in the middle of the draft's first round. He was taken by the Wizards immediately after 7-footers Marreese Speights (Philadelphia) and Roy Hibbert (Indiana) and right ahead of power forward J.J. Hickson (Cleveland). It may take several seasons before anyone knows which team landed the best NBA player.
McGee, who will turn 21 in January, displayed flashes of ability during summer league -- he exhibited solid post moves, natural shot-blocking skills and played with energy -- but he lacked strength and needs to learn the fundamentals of defensive positioning and rebounding.
As McGee adjusts to NBA life, the woman who has been so involved in getting him to this point is stepping back. Pamela, now 45, will continue to live in her home town of Flint, Mich., where she works for a non-profit agency that reunites mothers who have lost legal custody of their children. (McGee lost a custody fight over JaVale's younger sister, Imani, who lives with McGee's ex-husband Kevin Stafford).
She is entrusting lifelong friend Rory Jones to mentor her son in Washington.
The 29-year-old Jones also grew up in Flint, where he was coached by Pamela as a young basketball player and has been JaVale's personal trainer since JaVale was 11. Jones, who played college basketball at Toledo, lives with JaVale in an apartment near Verizon Center and labels himself a "trainer-cousin-security man-hey-don't-screw-up guy."
"My job is to make sure that JaVale doesn't have to worry about anything other than basketball," Jones said. "I'm here to help him learn how to live on his own and how to adjust to this new life. There is going to be so much thrown at him that he hasn't experienced before, I'm just going to be here to help him through it."
Pamela will make regular trips to Washington to visit and attend games but says she is otherwise ready to loosen the reins.
"Rory has been there all along and he'll be there to help JaVale through this transition, but as far as my role is concerned, I can be a mom now," Pamela said. "He has to find his own way now. I want him to be who he is outside of me, outside of being Pamela McGee's son. I've done my job. It's time for me to be JaVale McGee's mom."