Thursday, March 16, 2017

Washington makes good on second chance with NCAA Tournament redux

Jordan Washington celebrates second MAAC championship win at Iona, bringing a once-uncertain career full circle as he leads Gaels back to NCAA Tournament. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Every so often, Jordan Washington hears the reminders of his past, how he nearly disposed of his once-in-a-lifetime chance to use his gift to better himself.

Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart.

The name of the department store chain, uttered in a singsong chant by opposing fans, is a haunting flashback to his 2014 arrest for shoplifting DVD movies from the retail superpower.

The transgression cost him the opportunity to play high-major college basketball, as Arizona State; to whom the 6-foot-8 power forward had given a verbal commitment, quickly distanced themselves from the Queens native, forcing him to go back to the drawing board at Iowa's Indian Hills Community College, a longtime junior college powerhouse.

It was Indian Hills where Washington arrived in 2013, unable to be cleared at the Division I level due to academic issues that diminished a stellar career at Pathways College Prep School in St. Albans, a short bus ride from his South Jamaica home. While at Pathways, Washington won a pair of PSAL B Division championships, gaining valuable credibility on the recruiting trail to supplement his intense desire to win, no matter the cost.

With desire to succeed comes a test of character to prove oneself worthy, and Washington endured that in droves, finding a way to shine in the face of long odds as he helped lead Indian Hills to 63 wins and two national tournaments in his two-year tenure. But his mental mistake, or so it seemed, tarnished his reputation as a fierce and fearless competitor, leading those at the highest level to deem him too high a risk to consider taking on.

Enter Iona College.

Iona's recent success has been driven by transfers from various walks of basketball life eager to capitalize on their chance at redemption, and the Gaels' willingness to offer a clean slate; coupled with the run-and-gun offensive stylings that have made the New Rochelle program a favorite of both players and fans alike, makes them an attractive display on the Division I display stand.

Michael Glover, Momo Jones, David Laury and Isaiah Williams are just some of the many success stories that head coach Tim Cluess and associate head coach Jared Grasso have found on the wire, cast off by other schools and looking to return close to home for the chance to not only salvage their careers, but enhance them in the process. And for Cluess, a lifelong winner with a Midas touch at every stop on his road, the prospect of not only improving his team; but also granting a new lease on life at the same time, is one that he has made central to his philosophies both on and off the court.

"I wholeheartedly believe in giving guys second chances," Cluess said after Iona concluded their regular season against Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season champion Monmouth on February 26. "I think some of the people who need second chances are often overlooked in life, and not just on the basketball court. Those are the people who probable need someone to believe in them and try to mentor them more than the person who's doing everything right."

"The person who's doing everything right probably has a good family or support structure behind them that can help them if they cross the wrong path," he continued. "There's a lot of other young men and women who don't have that, and if we as coaches can find someone who we think is worth investing that time with, that we think down deep is trying to do the right thing and has a chance to be a good person, if we can help them through basketball, I think that's what we're here for."

Cluess and Grasso saw exactly that in Washington, a hunger to make good for himself at the root of all the hoopla surrounding his past. And with Laury having graduated in 2015, the need for a dominant rim protector and imposing paint presence became more glaring. Washington filled that void and then some, displaying an innate ability to score and rebound while wearing his heart on his sleeve en route to leading the Gaels to their second MAAC championship under Cluess last season, taking down the Monmouth team whose fans made him the object of their barbs in an epic conference title game to conclude a series of three hardwood wars that began in the aftermath of the first encounter, when Washington and Monmouth's Chris Brady were involved in a fracas stemming from the postgame handshake line. For the then-junior, it was the first of several measures of vindication that he recounted shortly before this year's conference tournament began.

"Me, as a person, I'm just happy that Coach Cluess gave me another chance," a humble Washington recollected, his soft-spoken nature conspicuous in this rumination. "Obviously, you've seen how I got in trouble when I committed to Arizona State. I'm just happy that Grasso, Brock (assistant coach Brock Erickson) and the rest of them gave me another chance."

As Washington's reprieve paid dividends in his improved performance, culminating in a team-leading 17.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game to accompany a 55 percent field goal rate that was also tops on the Iona roster, his conditioning produced a payoff as well. Heralding the fact that Cluess and his staff helped him slim down from over 300 pounds to a more svelte 235, he speaks of his transformation into an interior force with a smile, citing a renewed commitment to bettering himself as the chief motivator behind his accolades. But there is also an emotional attachment to this gentle giant, one that is perhaps his largest impetus to keep fighting, to reach ever deeper: His grandmother, June, who played a large role in raising him.

"I'm doing this for my grandma," he admitted following the Gaels' repeat as MAAC champions on March 6, defeating Siena on their home floor in Albany to cut down the nets for a second straight season. "When I'm at the free throw line, I say her name three times and I take three dribbles. She wanted to see me play before she leaves this earth, and she helped raise me since I was little. That's why I'm doing it for her."

An emotional Jordan Washington embraces Rickey McGill following Iona's MAAC championship repeat against Siena. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Grandma's boy, reclamation project, call him whatever you choose. As Iona returns to the NCAA Tournament stage Friday, where the Gaels will take the floor in Sacramento against nationally-ranked Oregon, the hat Jordan Washington dons is that of a survivor, one who is not done fighting the good fight; and ultimately, one who appreciates being given the lifeline that he has parlayed into atoning for his errors, conquering his prior wrongdoing.

"If I didn't have another chance," he said, "I wouldn't be here right now."

He is here, he is not done, and to paraphrase the hit musical "Hamilton," he is not throwing away his shot.

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