For Jennings, The Beach is a perfect match
JAN 15, 2013 2:36p ET
But two years ago, Jennings’ passion boiled over.
Then a sophomore forward at West Virginia, Jennings came out of the locker room with his teammates for the second half of a home game against South Florida. Just a few minutes into play, he suddenly left the bench without giving word to any coaches or team officials. Jennings made an exit from the game and his exit from the team soon followed.
The Mountaineers eventually went on to win the game but Jennings didn’t win many over with the move. He was widely criticized by the media and fans, who revered head coach Bob Huggins, who described the player as irrelevant and selfish.
Huggins told the Charleston Daily Mail, “Yeah, it's unexcused, unexcusable, never to be seen again I guess … I understand you have to report it, and that's fine, but can we talk about the guys that play? Because he didn't play anyways and hasn't played.
“The truth of the matter is he's been a non-entity.”
Two years later, that statement is a non-entity as Jennings, now a center at Long Beach State, has wasted little time in asserting his presence in the Big West Conference.
Averaging 10.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, Jennings has been the big body in the paint the 49ers have been lacking during head coach Dan Monson’s tenure. He helped the 49ers endure a brutal nonconference schedule and showed he is still capable of putting up big numbers against big teams with 27 points against UCLA and 20 against a top-5 Syracuse team.
In Big West play, he’s helped the 49ers to a 4-1, first-place start. He was targeted from the first game of conference play, and quickly learned to power through the double-teams and make plays. He’s become the new fan favorite at the Walter Pyramid and he is finally playing the role that he felt he was always good enough to play.
But the Staten Island, N.Y., native had to put his past behind him and do some growing up to reach the point that he’s at now.
“It’s a maturity thing,” Jennings said. “I’ve come a long ways, I’ve really grown and coming out here it’s really shown me a lot about myself and about my game and everything. People always make mistakes and you just have to come back and show people the real person you are.”
The person who Jennings is now is a better basketball player and a better teammate. But it wasn’t an overnight change.
Monson has seen his share of big time players and dealt with big time attitudes at Gonzaga and Minnesota. But with Jennings, it was less of an attitude adjustment and more of a therapy session, as Jennings needed to learn to trust those around him, starting with his coaches.
“At this time last year, I didn’t really know if I could coach him,” Monson said. “And I didn’t really know what the problem was. It was that he didn’t trust me and that he didn’t respect what we were doing and we had to earn that from him.”
There was a sense of familiarity with the program for Jennings, as T.J. Robinson, his former teammate at St. Thomas Moore, was already a star for Long Beach State. Although Jennings wasn’t close with Robinson prior to coming to Long Beach, Robinson assured him that this team was on par with some major conference teams. Jennings also liked Monson’s style of aggressive scheduling, and felt that this could be his opportunity to show that he can still play at a high level.
During his visit, he was taken aback by how Monson grilled him. Monson refused to preen over him, instead telling him that he would be handed nothing and would work for everything.
Three weeks passed before the two spoke again.
“I just assumed he was going somewhere else, that somebody had told him what he wanted to hear,” Monson said.
So Monson decided to pick up the phone and call.
“He said, ‘You were telling me about a point guard in high school, what was his name again?’ And I told him about Mike Caffey, who would be the point guard after Casper (Ware), so he Googled him and watched clips of him on his phone.”
Jennings looked up the highlight reels of both Caffey and James Ennis. He was so impressed that it took only a few clips before he told Monson, “Oh my gosh coach, I want to come.”
“Usually, coaches just tell you what you want to hear and they tell you a bunch of stuff that make you (want to go) there,” Jennings said. “But he really just laid it out honestly and said that I had to work… He said, ‘This is your second chance.’”
Something clicked with Monson’s no-nonsense approach. Jennings came to Long Beach State and redshirted last season, watching from the bench as the 49ers won the Big West Championship and went dancing against New Mexico, all the while waiting for his turn to be part of the same March magic.
At times he resisted but eventually relented, letting his guard down when he realized he could trust those around him.
“I like loyalty, loyalty is a big thing to me,” he said.
Jennings insists that there was no fallout that stemmed from his incident at West Virginia. He describes his departure as an amicable split and still has immense respect for Huggins and the fans in Morgantown, even getting occasional tweets from West Virginia fans congratulating him on big games with his new team.
It’s simple with Jennings: he’s a basketball player. He loves the game more than anything else and when it was taken away from him, he realized that it was because of his own actions. Long Beach State has given Jennings the fresh start he was looking for.
“Basketball is what I love; I’ve been doing it since I was eight. And it feels refreshing to be out there playing the sport I love with a good team that’s up and coming,” Jennings said. “I just feel relieved, coming here to a system like this where they believe in me and want me to be a big part of it.”
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