Dec. 13, 2010
By Matt Winter
SEATTLE - College is supposed to be a growing experience for each young person that steps on campus. It's an opportunity for people to gain knowledge about the world and learn values to help guide them through it. It's a place for people to find themselves away from home.
For Darnell Gant, it has been a journey since he arrived. Dealing with a change of scenery, adjusting to the college lifestyle, and competing on a Division I basketball team would be enough for anyone to handle. Unfortunately, Darnell has had to deal with much more.
The 6-foot-8 junior came to Montlake from Crenshaw, California, a top-100 recruit that averaged 22 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks as a senior in high school. However, Gant redshirted his freshman year not only to make room in a crowded frontcourt, but also to develop his skills that much more before he hit the floor the following year.
The year of training paid off, as Gant was a starter the following season as a redshirt freshman. The go-to-guy role he played in high school was gone, though, and instead he was asked to do the little things -- rebound, set screens, etc. He did this, and did it well, starting 34 of 35 games (all but senior night). However, his numbers were modest, averaging 3.1 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
"I was too anxious," Gant explains. "I did score a lot in high school, then I got here and it wasn't my role. So then when I got the ball I would try to prove it by going too fast and getting ahead of myself--going too fast for my own good."
Despite the lack of offensive production, which Coach Lorenzo Romar did not need while playing alongside Jon Brockman, Gant contributed in ways that don't show up in the box score. He continually was matched up with the other team's best player, most notably his three matchups with 2008-09 Pac 10 Player of the Year, Arizona State's James Harden. Gant's long frame combined with his guard-like athleticism make him a tough defender against guards, wings, and forwards alike.
"Whoever is the main guy on the other team that's playing my position, I'm going to match up with," he says with confidence.
"And I'm gonna do my best to shut him down," he boldly added, but has backed up this year against the likes of Kentucky's Terrence Jones, Michigan State's Draymond Green and Texas Tech's Brad Reese.
Gant's production as a sophomore diminished, starting just 11 games and playing inconsistent minutes off the bench. His struggles on the court, however, pale in comparison to the heartbreak he was experiencing off it.
Early on during the year, his cousin died. At the beginning of the season, he and a few other players got sick and had to miss time. Later on in the season, his grandfather, who raised him with his grandmother, was placed in the hospital after falling ill. Gant spent much of the season with divided focus, constantly concerned with what was going on back home. It wasn't until after the season that Earlie Hill, the man he calls dad, passed away.
Coach Romar stepped in as a support system, not only as a coach but as a friend. Romar had developed a relationship with Hill while recruiting Gant.
"When I was getting recruited, he and my father they got real close," says Gant, who uses father, dad, and grandfather interchangeably to describe Hill. "Especially because my grandfather was everywhere, so whenever Romar came to practices my dad was there, so my dad would go over there and talk to him, ask what I had to work on or what I had to do...I felt like when I got to college my dad always wanted to check with him, just because that's the kind of man he was."
Outside of basketball and Darnell, Romar and Hill shared a strong religious faith.
"Coach Romar is a Christian, my dad was a strong Christian." Gant says. "They talked about the Word and the Bible and everything, and they used to talk all the time. I never knew that until close to when he passed, then I was told everything after he passed about they talked all the time. I feel like he treats me like one of his own, because he and my grandfather had a real close relationship."
Moving on and using his grandfather's passing as motivation, Gant has started the 2010-11 season with newfound comfort and confidence on the floor.
"I'm just trying to stay aggressive on both ends," Gant says of his game, which is off to a great start. Through eight games (and eight starts) this season, he is averaging 7.3 points and 3.1 rebounds, while shooting 51% from the field and 70% (7-10) from three-point range.
"Just picking and choosing my spots on offense. I've been working on my offense enough to where I should be getting open shots and knocking them down. If people leave me open, I should make the shot. I'm out there trying to get offensive rebounds, crash boards, try to get easy points. If you make the game easy, then the game comes to you."
He attributes his success to patience and keeping focused on the team. Gant has received the Coaches Award at the end of the last two seasons for best attitude on the team. This season he has showed a maturity that will surely be needed this year if the Huskies want to make it past the Sweet 16.
"I here from a lot of people back home that I need to score more or I need to shoot the ball. I feel like if you listen to what a lot of people say, you're head gets messed up," says Gant. "I just look at like, when my time comes it'll come. When the moment is there for you to look good, you're going to look good if you deserve it, if you work hard enough.
"It's different situations for different people. Some people have to take advantage and go get it, and for some people it takes time. I'm one of those people where it takes time. Like I said, I'm trying to pick and choose my spots, use my grandfather as motivation, and just play my game and do what I love to do."