This is the conclusion of a three-part series on former Lobo basketball star and NBA player J.R. Giddens, and his unique relationship with Paul Weir, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach.
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
COPYRIGHT ENCHANTMENT SPORTS ©
University of New Mexico men’s basketball head coach Paul Weir says former Lobo star J.R. Giddens has the makings of a future solid coach.
Giddens says Weir is already a great one — especially for the players.
In particular, the black players.
“Paul gets it,” Giddens told Enchantment Sports. “You can’t be sensitive in talking about racial issues, or any controversial issues.
“It’s not like in 2003, when I was in college. Coaches are getting more focused on the black athletes and the black culture. That’s how Paul is.
“African-American players need to be more comfortable on a team, with the coach relating to them and not just trying to get them on the team to use them to win games.”
Weir is starting his second season as UNM coach after leading New Mexico State to the NCAA Tournament in just one year. He said he not only encourages open dialogue with all of his players, he finds it a necessity in this day and age of such divisiveness.
Especially if you’re going to turn out great people and not just great players.
“From what I’ve come to learn about being an educator, or being in the field of what we’re in, is the best thing we can do is just talk about things,” says the 39-year-old Weir, who has three master’s degrees and is pursuing a doctorate at UNM.
“Whatever those touchy or sensitive topics happen to be, with regards to sexuality, with regards to race, with regards to religion, with regards to national anthems, with regards to whatever happens to come about, I kind of feel like it’s my job to have open and honest conversations with our guys about those topics.”
Weir has allowed the 33-year-old Giddens, a former NBA first-round draft pick and in his 13th year as a professional player, to spend time with and speak to the Lobos during the off-season.
The coach calls it a “win-win situation” for Giddens and the team.
Sure, Weir was aware of J.R. Giddens’ past. The good and the bad.
Weir was also aware of Giddens’ present, a stellar professional basketball player in Argentina and in his 13th year as a pro.
And this summer Weir became aware of Giddens’ passion for the game, and his dream of someday being a coach, as well.
Not just as a gifted player who once needed plenty of guidance, but as top-level coach who has plenty of guidance to give.
“I really think J.R. could be a very good coach,” Weir recently told Enchantment Sports. “He has a great understanding of the game, and he knows how to relate to players. He’s been through a lot of ups and downs and made mistakes. But he knows how to try and get that message through to help others not make the same mistakes.”
Giddens says his knowledge on the court is outstanding.
As is his knowledge of how to be part of society.
“He definitely has both,” says UNM guard JaQuan Lyle, who sat out last year after transferring from Ohio State. “We’ve seen all he’s gone through as a (first-round NBA draft) pick. He says he wishes how he could have done a lot of things differently, but ‘the present is the present and you can’t change the past.’
“He’s trying to guide us for the future so we don’t make the same mistakes. It really hits home when he talks to us.”
Lyle is one of a number highly touted transfers Weir has added to the program. He hopes to play professionally someday, just as Giddens has done.
But Giddens, who returned to UNM this summer to finish his degree in liberal arts before he heads back to play professionally in Argentina, knows there is much more to leaving New Mexico with dreams of playing pro ball.
“So does Paul — as well, if not better — than any coach I have ever been around,” Giddens says. “He really cares for these guys. When he lets me talk to them, I tell them ‘It’s no BS. He’s is trying to help you with your future. You have to realize the opportunity you have.’
“I told them about the coaching staff I was under and how they treated me, and that ‘Paul doesn’t treat you guys like that. He’s putting everyone of you in the position to win.’ One of my favorite things about Paul is he tells them in meetings, ‘I’m not just a coach trying to use black young athletes to get to my next job and to get to a bigger paycheck. I hope that I inspire you, that I motivate you during this process.’ He’ll give them each a book to read.”
Giddens transferred to UNM after two seasons at Kansas and played two seasons at UNM for Ritchie McKay, but sat one of those out — per NCAA rules — as a redshirt transfer. His final year was with newly hired Steve Alford and new assistant Craig Neal.
Giddens doesn’t say he was used as a black athlete but said he wasn’t prepared to hit the world as one either.
“That’s not a knock on coach Neal or coach Alford, but they weren’t doing that for me — not getting me ready as a person,” Giddens told Enchantment Sports.
“I told these guys, ‘Look, with the academic advisers and the coaches that you have, it’s not an ego contest. Paul is putting you guys in the position to win games and in life, and the ball’s in your court.
“‘If you drop it, just know that it’s on you and you’re going to have to live with all the decisions you made in your life, off the court, on the court, in the classroom.'”
Any Lobo fan who ever watched Giddens during his college days knows the flashy shooting guard could dish a no-look assist as well as just about any player in Lobo history.
But they might find it hard to believe he can also assist others in being role models on and off the court.
Giddens said he knows there are doubters, “and there should be. It’s up to me to show everybody that I grew up. I’m now a man.”
Giddens blames nobody but himself for his mistakes and antics of the past and said that is the main message he is trying to drive home with the Lobos — especially those who hail from a similar background.
“What I want them to understand is that as an 18- or 20-year-old, you’re still a kid and have a lot of maturing to do,” Giddens said. “You get better in time, but the mistakes you make can stay with you.
“I understand how hard it can be for young guys, especially for a young black athlete. But you have to own up to everything you do. You have to do the right things. It can be the difference between being a million-dollar player and just going the wrong way in life.”
Some 10-plus years ago, Giddens appeared to have an awakening.
He no longer wanted to be that brash Oklahoma City high school All-American who had been arrested for shoplifting.
He no longer wanted to be known as the 6-foot-5, 3-point shooting slam dunk sensation who had been stabbed during a bar fight during his two years at the University of Kansas.
He no longer wanted to be that marvelous basketball talent who seemed to spend as much time being suspended by coach Ritchie McKay during practice as he spent time dominating the session while attending them.
In the summer of 2007, Justin Ray Giddens didn’t have many choices.
He was approaching his final season of college eligibility, and newly hired Lobo coach Steve Alford made it clear that he wasn’t going to put up with any of Giddens’ shenanigans.
Alford even suspended Giddens from the team’s four-game exhibition trip to the Bahamas that spring and made it appear to the 6-foot-5 high-flying shooting guard that he was basically finished at UNM.
“I felt like I hit rock bottom,” Giddens said.
Giddens wasn’t going anywhere. He started getting his academics in line and worked to prove to Alford, Neal and the Lobos that he could be a great teammate.
Alford hardly looked Giddens’ way much of the time during fall practice or shortly after the season started, unless it was to chide him.
But Giddens kept busting his tail in the classroom and on the court.
And Alford needed him to win games.
The Lobos finished 24-9 that season and a 11-5 in conference play after finishing last in the league the year before. They didn’t last long in postseason, losing their first game of the NIT to Cal, but Giddens sure did.
Giddens averaged 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists and was named Mountain West Co-Player of the Year that 2007-08 season. He was invited to, then won, a slam-dunk contest on ESPN in conjunction with Final Four activities, and not long after, he was drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics.
He was traded to the New York Knicks in 2009 and played just 38 games in The League. But he hasn’t stopped playing professionally since, and “I actually had my best season ever last year for Ferro Carril Oeste Basquet (in Buenos Aires, Argentina).”
Lobo fans, disillusioned by McKay’s five seasons at the helm previous to Alford’s hiring, put the latter on a throne for turning around the fiery Giddens around.
Giddens, however, says there was much more to it.
“My life definitely did start to change when I was at UNM,” Giddens says. “But there were a number of defining moments. Some of it was help from the coaches, but there were others who helped even more. And honestly, more than anything else, I was maturing and becoming a man. Life is a growing process. When you’re young, a lot of times you just don’t get it.
“I haven’t had any blemishes since then. I’ve been livin’ life the right way for the 13 years I’ve been a pro.”
Those years have included playing for 15 teams in 11 countries.
That is a whole lot of hoop. And a whole lot of worldly knowledge.
“He knows so much about basketball and about life,” Lyle told Enchantment Sports. “He always talks about how to handle yourself off the court, and what you have to do. He says how important it is keeping a smile on your face, to doing things the right way and being a good person. He stresses how we’re doing something that we love, and we need to appreciate it.”
There are benefits to having Giddens deal with the present Lobos, and maybe future ones as well.
“It helps a lot having a guy of his stature around the program,” said Lobo assistant coach Brandon Mason, a former New Mexico State star and former pro player. “When you’re recruiting against the Pac-12, Big 12 and those schools, we can say, “Guess what? You can come here, play here and become a first-round draft pick.
“To see someone coming back to be around the program is such a positive.”
Life isn’t a sensitive subject
Giddens says that Weir is the biggest positive for the Lobo basketball team, and again because of much more than knowing how to run a box-and-one or a motion offense.
“I want to stress how important it is to know how to work with the black athlete,” Giddens again says. “Coaches are getting more used to black athletes, and letting them dress the way they want to dress and accept their culture.
“I know there have to be rules, but Paul lets these guys be themselves. He has a free-flowing offense, which everyone wants to play, and off the court he’s trying to develop them into young, black men.
“When he said that in the team meeting, I was hoping nobody would take offense by that. It’s a sensitive subject, but he’s like, ‘Guys, I’m here to help you. I’m here to develop your minds into better students and better young men.
“He’s not, ‘Hey, you guys just run, jump and get me on to my next job.’ He teaches the facts of life and how they’ve got to take ownership.
“When I compare the ’80s and ’90s and 2000s, I tell them, ‘You have it better than we had it back then.’ Hip-hop was more just for black people back then, but now hip-hop is a culture. It doesn’t matter. You have a Hispanic kid or a white kid, and they want to wear their hat to the side, now more people understand that’s a style. Back then, it was so segregated, and people didn’t understand it was a culture.
“The way we naturally are as black athletes is more accepted now. If we go to a dinner or gala, of course you take off your hat. But when you’re just going around on campus or whatever, you should be able to turn your hat any way, because that’s just the style. It doesn’t mean you’re a gang member or anything if you turn your hat a certain way. Now there’s a lot of social media teaching how to deal with minorities, and it’s just better than when I was in school.
“Paul understands the black culture so well, and isn’t afraid to talk about it.”
Weir says his players are open to come to him anytime with any subject or issue that’s bothering them.
“We talk about everything,” Weir said. “We talk as a team and talk individually. Hopefully, some of those things can also remain private among ourselves, where we can have productive talks as fellow teammates, and eventually fellow citizens or whatever else we want to be.
“So we openly talk about race. I am honest with who I am and what I know about something. Those are conversations I’ve had with J.R., with staff members or groups of people that J.R.’s had around him. It’s the way I’ve decided to broach these topics, and I’m thankful that J.R. feels the way he does.
“I’m not expert on it. I don’t know how to always appropriately handle things, but I just try to do the best that I can.”
The past is the past — but a great way to learn
Certainly, J.R. Giddens has regrets. But he’s worked to use the mistakes he’s made to become learning moments for himself and positives for others.
Still, there is something, he says, that gnaws away at him endlessly.
“It hurts me, that I never learned how to be a team leader when I was a senior,” he says, shaking his head. “I never stop thinking about that.
“I used to just kill it physically in practice and the weight room. I did everything I could to be better physically. But I tell (ex-Lobo teammates) Darren Prentice and Daniel Faris all the time, ‘I am sorry. I let you guys down as a leader. I should have been better for you.'”
Faris, who graduated in 2009 and has played professionally in Lebanon since, said “J.R. and I didn’t get along great when he first came to UNM. As time went on we grew much closer and developed a lifelong friendship.
“He has grown so much as a person since he first came to New Mexico. J.R. was our most talented player but not our best leader by a long shot. When he called me this summer to apologize for not being a better leader I was surprised. I think fatherhood and getting
older have been great for J.R. He’s always been a fun guy to be around, but now I think he’s got his priorities lined up better. He knows how thankful I am for his friendship and I’m excited for him to be UNM coach someday!”
Giddens, who has a 16-month old son, Justin Ray Giddens, in the Dominican, said “I could probably play three to five good years, but I just want to play for a year or two and get into coaching. But if someone offers me a coaching job, I’ll retire right now and take it. I want to spend as much time as possible with my son.”
Prentice says that because of Giddens and Weir, he has also returned to UNM to finish his degree — which he will do in December.
Prentice was a boys and girls coach at Harrison Middle School in Albuquerque and hopes to be a high school coach soon. He said Giddens is definitely on the right path to getting on the sidelines in the collegiate ranks.
And that Giddens has nothing to apologize for when it comes to that former lack of leadership.
“J.R. tells me that a lot, that he’s sorry for not being a better team leader,” Prentice says. “I tell him, ‘You’re too hard on yourself. The past is past. You learned so much from it.
“I don’t know; I guess J.R. could have been a better leader. But I know one thing. He could never be a better friend.”
Mark Smith has been in New Mexico sports journalism for four decades and is the editor-in-chief of Enchantment Sports. He was the New Mexico Lobo basketball beat writer for 15 seasons at the Albuquerque Journal and later an associate sports editor. Contact him at enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.