Enchantment Sports Saturday Night Special
Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series on former Lobo basketball star and NBA player J.R. Giddens, and his unique relationship with Paul Weir and the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team.
FRIDAY: Giddens’ past is past, his present is with Paul Weir and his future is bright
TONIGHT: There is no room for sensitivity in big-time basketball – in Kansas or New Mexico
SUNDAY: Giddens, Weir, coaching, the black athlete and becoming a man
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
Copyright Enchantment Sports
Oh yeah, there was controversy.
During much of J.R. Giddens’ topsy-turvy basketball days at the University of New Mexico, there was controversy.
During much of his life, in fact, to that point.
“There’s no denying that,” Giddens told Enchantment Sports. “There were a lot of mistakes; my mistakes.
“I’m not going to shy away from that. I’m not going to shy away from some of the mistakes a lot of young athletes make, and especially things we have to deal with as black-athletes that can lead to mistakes.
“It can be tough to deal with everything as a black athlete, and that needs to be talked about,” said Giddens, who still plays professional basketball and has a goal of being a college coach. “It can’t be a sensitive topic. In the world of big-time sports, we need discussion – we can’t be afraid to address sensitive topics.”
To fully understand where the 33-year-old Giddens is coming from, you need to understand where he came from.
When Justin Ray Giddens announced his departure from the University of Kansas for the University of New Mexico in the summer of 2005, it shocked many in college basketball circles.
Yep,. That Kansas. Rock Chalk Jayhawk Kansas. Coaches Roy Williams and Bill Self and one of the most storied programs in hoop history.
Sure enough. That UNM. Coach Ritchie McKay and a program that had never sniffed Final Fours or Elite Eights, and never been to the Sweet 16 since it was so named.
Granted, McKay had just taken the Lobos to the first round of the NCAA Tournament in the 2004-2005 season behind senior transfers Danny Granger, Alfred Neal and Troy DeVries. But they were all gone and the Lobos were rebuilding again.
And Giddens? He was a prep all-American, ranked the 17th best high school player in the country by ESPN.com as a senior.
OK, so what on earth was the deal with the kid from OKC?
“It was like, ‘Surprise,’” the Oklahoma City native told Enchantment Sports with that trademark charismatic smile. “It wasn’t working out in Kansas, and I thought New Mexico would be a great place to get a fresh start.”
It was, indeed.
A fresh start in basketball. And a fresh start to more controversy.
Being Self aware
Giddens, an incredibly athletic 6-foot-5 shooting guard, entered Kansas with the type of hype only reserved for high-flying, slam-dunking, 3-point drilling stars heading to a school like – well – Kansas.
He was given a scholarship by then-coach Roy Williams, but Williams soon left to take over at North Carolina.
Giddens remained at KU, and soon showed the hype was justified.
As a freshman under Self, Giddens averaged 11.3 points a game, led the team with 74 3-pointers and was named honorable mention all-Big 12.
As a sophomore in 2004-05, his scoring decreased a little to 10.1 points a game, but his relationship with coach Self decreased a lot.
Both Giddens and Self announced they were parting by “mutual decision.”
Giddens headed to New Mexico, then had one season to sit out per NCAA rules.
He was joined in Albuquerque that summer by transfer Aaron Johnson, who led the Big Ten in rebounding as a junior at Penn State. Johnson also had to sit out one year and had one season of eligibility remaining.
Giddens and Johnson billed themselves Superman and Batman, and Lobo fans champed at the bit for 2006-07, when they would both be eligible.
But Superman and Batman were more like Laurel and Hardy, at times, during that transfer year. There were issues off the court, scuffles with teammates on it and Muhammad Ali-like bravado all the while.
It wasn’t shocking. Giddens and Johnson came to UNM with some baggage. Giddens had been stabbed after allegedly starting a fight outside a bar in Lawrence, Kan.
Johnson had been in a brawl with Penn State teammates at his on-campus apartment. Police were called to the scene, but no arrests were made.
However, Johnson was arrested during his redshirt season at UNM in September of 2005 and charged with four felony counts of battery on an Albuquerque police officer.
McKay dismissed him from the team – but only for that redshirt season. Johnson was back for 2006-07, a decision McKay, now the head coach at Liberty, would later regret.
It wasn’t just that Johnson turned out to be one of the most overrated players to ever come to the school – he had a vertical jump that looked like a phone book could cause him problems and a shot as flat as some internet loons think the Earth is. But it was the dissension he and his father, Howard Johnson from Philadelphia, that became Lobo lore.
The unreal world of Lobo basketball
It didn’t help that the entire silly 06-07 season, and many Lobo antics, were carried into the locker room and into public.
McKay had given access to KOB-TV cameras for a goofy attempt at a “reality show.” The series made MTV’s “The Real World” look like, well, the real world.
It was eye-rolling, with more overacting than an old Star Trek episode.
“That was crazy,” Giddens said. “I think it was more than we needed at the time – plus people were being so fake on camera.”
The talent was certainly real. Leaping sensation Tony Danridge, sharp-shooting Chad Toppert and big man Daniel Faris made for a potent bunch.
And there was no denying that Johnson could rebound. He was adept at wedging his 6-foot-6, 255-pound frame (he was listed as 6-9) into the paint to pull down boards.
Johnson averaged 6.3 points and 7.3 rebounds a game that season – much of his scoring being on put-backs – and the ball rarely came back out when it was in his hands.
Giddens showed flashes of brilliance most of the season, but flashes of that temperament most of the time as well.
He averaged 15.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.
He also probably averaged about two suspensions from practice per week – which was about the same number during both his redshirt season with the Lobos.
“J.R. and I used to butt heads a lot,” McKay said with a little chuckle this week. “I used to have to suspend him on and off the court. But what I saw in J.R. was a very passionate young man. He had great confidence and big dreams and really, really worked hard, like Danny Granger.”
The Lobos were an enigma that 2006-07 season.
There were outstanding games, like the upset of then ninth-ranked Wichita State in a December tournament in Las Vegas, and a 70-68 heartbreaking loss at Texas Tech in the game that made the Red Raiders’ Bobby Knight the winningest NCAA coach in history.
But the losses, like 70-49 at home to Brigham Young, were mind-boggling.
“I learned a lot that year, to say the least,” Faris, who current plays professionally in Lebanon, said with a laugh. It’s safe to say that by the end of the season, Aaron and coach weren’t on the best of terms.. It was a crazy year.”
The Lobos ended the season 15-17, 4-12 in the Mountain West Conference and losers of the league play-in game in Las Vegas.
After that season-ending loss in the city of cards and dice, came the moment where the house-of-card Lobos had one final dicey display of dysfunction. Howard Johnson burst into the Lobo locker room, which was open to the media but not the public, and got into a screaming match with UNM assistant Brad Soucie, and the two had to be separated.
“That incident pretty much summed up the whole season,” Faris said.
Johnson was a senior, so he was gone.
McKay, who had been fired about three weeks earlier but allowed to finish the season, was also gone.
Giddens, however, still had his senior season ahead of him, and was determined to use the crazy year as motivation for 2007-08, regardless of who was named coach.
That coach, of course, ended up being Steve Alford. He and assistant Craig Neal were hired away from Iowa.
However, it became apparent from the start that Alford wanted nothing to do with Giddens. The new coach even suspended Giddens from New Mexico’s springtime exhibition trip in the Bahamas.
“He wanted me out,” Giddens says of Alford. “I wanted out. But I had nowhere to go.
“It was hell.”
One Helluva Season
But Giddens didn’t leave. And early in the season, it also became apparent that the Lobos would struggle without him.
Giddens’ role in Alford’s offense soon increased dramatically, as did his stats and his maturity.
Giddens averaged 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds 3.2 assists a game. He was sensational during league play and was named Mountain West Conference Co-Player of the Year.
Come spring of 2008, less than a year removed from nearly leaving the program as a junior, Giddens was now leaving for the NBA.
He was a first-round selection by the Boston Celtics, becoming an instant millionaire.
Giddens was traded to the New York Knicks in 2009, and his career lasted just 38 games.
But he has had a 13-year professional career, and has played all over the world.
This year he returns to play in the Liga Nacional de Basquet (LBN), the top level of the Argentine basketball league system.
Those college issues are in the past. And Giddens, who has been at UNM finishing his degree this summer, hopes to play a couple of more years and go into coaching.
“When I was at New Mexico, I started to mature. I started to grow up,” Giddens said. “I don’t want to say I feel like I was being used as an athlete; Alford and Neal did a lot for me and they helped me get drafted.
“But I don’t think a lot of college coaches are taking time to help you develop personally, the way (current Lobo coach) Paul Weir does. He really understands what it means to help players develop into men. That’s why I respect him so much and want to model myself after him.”
Giddens said there were a number of moments that helped him grow, and many came during his college days. He says he would like nothing more than to help other college athletes avoid similar issues to what he had.
“I made so many mistakes as a young man, but I learned from them,” he says. “I was a young man in high school in college. Now, I’m a man. It’s a growing process, and I know I can help others with their process of becoming men.”
SUNDAY NIGHT: J.R. Giddens has always been a guy who tells it like it is. He says that his up-and-down career will make him a solid coach. And he owes much of what he’s learned from spending the past summer with Paul Weir.