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November 9, 2005

Bayless equally impressive as a person

As has been his custom over the last 20 years or so, Arizona's Hall of Fame head coach, Lute Olson, continues to recruit not only America's best athletes but some of its best human beings as well.

Olson hopes to land another all-around special person this Friday when class of 2007 superstar guard Jerryd Bayless will choose between Arizona and Texas at a 12:30 p.m. press conference inside the gymnasium of Phoenix St. Mary's High School.

Bayless became a phenomenon nationally thanks to his skills on the basketball court, where he has established himself as one of the nation's premier scoring point guards. He boasts as much explosive athleticism as any high school player in America thanks to his Dwyane Wade-like game.

Yet, for as impressive as Bayless is on the court, he is equally as extraordinary away from the game when he can be himself with family, friends, teammates and even people he just met.

I had known about Bayless since he was scoring 30 points per game as an eighth grade dynamo at Ingleside Middle School but didn't meet him until the autumn of 2003 at the Arizona Preps Fall Showcase at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. Because of all the attention and hype he'd been getting at such a young age, I was sure he would have a monstrous ego and be at near-record levels of arrogance, too.

To my pleasant surprise, he turned out to be the polar opposite of what I expected. He was - and remains to this day - humble, polite, dignified, respectful, caring, selfless, charming and witty.

Basically, Jerryd Bayless is the exact kind of person people want to call their friend, the kind of guy parents hope their kids hang around with because of his positive nature and the good upbringing by his own parents.

"Jerryd is a class act," said former AAU coach David Grace, who remains close to Bayless now as head coach at South Mountain HS in Phoenix. "It comes from being around quality people and having good parents, along with having access to class guys like Frank Johnson of the Phoenix Suns, Channing Frye and the Fontenet family."

Earlier this spring, Bayless was in Tucson to watch the Arizona-Oregon State game at McKale Center. For a kid as busy as he is, taking the time to drive from Phoenix on a Sunday seems tiresome.

Instead of simply going from Phoenix to McKale Center and back, Bayless and his mother, Denise Bowman, got to town early in order to visit a friend who had recently suffered a stroke and was still laid up at Tucson Medical Center.

That person was me. I couldn't comprehend much of what was going on in my time at TMC, but imagine my surprise when one of the very first people I remember seeing wasn't my dad, my fiancée or my brothers.

It was Jerryd Bayless.

Later that day, a TMC physical therapist asked me two questions to evaluate my awareness. First, she asked if I knew where I was and I said, "Tucson."

Then she asked me if I knew what the date was and apparently I replied, "Jerryd Bayless!"

To this day, I still remain extremely grateful for the sacrifice Jerryd made just to come and see me, a guy who he knew only from phone conversations and post-game interviews.

"I know you would do the same for me," Bayless said, recalling the incident on Tuesday evening.

Bayless coming to see me said more about him as a person than anything I had seen him do with a ball in his hands, which is quite a lot considering I've probably watched him play over a hundred times in person over the years.

One thing I've noticed during my time covering basketball recruiting is how caught up in the rankings a lot of the kids are. And the further they are from graduating (i.e. freshmen and sophomores), the more fascination there is with where they are rated nationally.

Bayless, as a fierce competitor, wants to be No.1 in the 2007 class as badly as anyone, but he never became obsessed or singularly driven by that idea. He simply played so well that his game allowed his name to be mentioned among the select few candidates for the top spot in 2007.

And then he got his chance to play against the consensus No. 1 2007 prospect, O.J. Mayo, at the first game of the 2004 Big Time tournament in Las Vegas.

Bayless scored 39 points that morning while shooting 19-for-24 from the free-throw line thanks to his usual aggressive play - penetrating through the lane, to the hoop and drawing fouls. Mayo was equally impressive but the surprising part, to me, was how much each star player respected and praised the other afterwards.

After the game, the subject turned to who deserved to be ranked No. 1, and in most cases kids who had just finished playing wonderfully would have made a case for themselves by boasting about stats or certain moves they made during the game.

Most kids, but not these two.

"I'd say that we're a tie," said Bayless. "I'd give myself about a 7 out of 10 today. It wasn't my best game, that's for sure. I need to get more rebounds and always be running out on the break. That's what O.J. does so well. He is very, very, very, very good."

My favorite story about what an unselfish person Bayless is on the court comes from Anthony Ray, the President of the Arizona Magic AAU program. Ray gives a detailed account of the closing moments of a big game this past summer at the Rumble in the Bay event in California.

"One of our guys, Zane Johnson, was struggling for most of the game," Ray said. "It was a close game against the Portland team, (and) we were down two points with less than a minute to play. Jerryd missed a jumper, but we got the ball back with about 20 seconds to go.

"He ran the clock down, took his guy off the dribble and had a wide open shot that everyone knew he was going to take since he had missed the one earlier. But, instead, he kicked the ball out to Zane, who hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to win the game. Afterwards, both Zane and I were in tears because of what Jerryd did for him.

"Zane had been struggling and said he was considering not playing basketball anymore, but then that shot helped his confidence so much. And now he's a top 50 player in the country. That's what I love about Jerryd: his competitive spirit, drive and will to win. He just wants his team to win and realizes it takes the whole team to do that."

The foundation of every great person comes from having a solid family around him, and Jerryd Bayless is no exception.

"Jerryd is just a good kid," said best friend and AAU teammate Christian Polk, who will sign with ASU on Wednesday. "We both have great parents, so that helps a lot. Jerryd doesn't ever act like he's too 'big time' or too cool for anyone. When we go to the mall and kids come up to him and say, 'You're Jerryd Bayless. I love watching you play,' he always says 'thank you' and shakes their hand."

Bayless himself gives the credit for his success to his parents.

"I am a reflection of my mom in ways and my dad in ways," he said. "And, yes, they have made it easier for me to succeed."

On the court, Bayless is among the very best in the entire country. Off the court, he certainly isn't much different. Should he pick Arizona at his press conference, the biggest winners will be the people of Tucson, who will get to know him over his career as a Wildcat.

And, stroke victim or not, it will be perfectly acceptable for Arizona fans to answer, "Jerryd Bayless" if asked what day it is on Friday. Because it will be Jerryd Bayless Day.

Ben Hansen



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