Unleashed: The Unique Grace of Darnell Gant
Feb. 22, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Amid all this talk of early entrants into the NBA, I present this:
A refreshing, reaffirming example of what can happen when a basketball player actually stays in college and gets his degree.
Darnell Gant had already crossed half court during a late dead ball at Alaska Airlines Arena on Saturday when his substitute entered the game. Coach Lorenzo Romar was allowing his senior captain one final ovation from the Huskies' crowd before Gant's home finale ended.
Gant jogged back across half court, his team's huge win over Arizona in hand. Then he stopped. Five, transformative years caught up to him in a singular thought.
He kissed his hand, then bent down to press that paw onto the center of the purple, block W at center court.
That love is mutual.
Huskies coaches, managers, teammates and fans alike adore Darnell Gant -- for reasons far beyond the basketball court.
"In college I wanted to be a part of something special. I wanted to win championships. I wanted to be a part of things like that since I didn't get to in high school. And I have," Gant says, with these final weeks of his Huskies career ticking by.
"I just always wanted to leave out of college with my name in the books some kind of way, that I did something positive."
And not just in basketball.
"In life, too," he said.
He's already guaranteed to do that, regardless of how the Huskies do next month in the Pac-12 or NCAA tournaments.
He isn't the top Dawg on this year's team. The 6-foot-8 forward may not hold the key to whether UW (19-8, 12-3 Pac-12) can beat Washington State, USC and UCLA consecutively on the road - beginning Saturday in Pullman - to win the conference's regular-season title.
Yet he is the reason why Romar coaches.
And he is the reason I'll take college basketball over NBA hoops any day of any year.
He epitomizes all the great that can come from maximizing an athletic scholarship.
"Darnell Gant is a great example of what college can do for you," Romar says, proudly. "And not just in the diploma itself.
"He has already graduated. The diploma is there. But there's another education you get in school, in terms of meeting deadlines, socially, growing up, meeting different people (from) different cultures - the whole college experience."
`I AM BLESSED'
He arrived at UW five years ago out of Crenshaw High School on the rough, south side of Los Angeles wide-eyed and somewhat daunted. Those who have known him since day one say he was initially tentative, unsure of even how to his own laundry.
On the basketball floor he was overlooked in 2007 because his high school team didn't win big.
Now? He's a man, equipped for the world.
He already has a UW drama degree. He acts in plays. He records his own music. He's wowed Romar and alumni alike with speeches at student-athlete events. He is making in-roads toward starting a television-acting career.
And, oh, yeah, he is perhaps weeks away from becoming the first Husky to play in four NCAA tournaments, the vocal leader on a team of ultra-talented stars yet less rah-rah guys such as Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross.
"Darnell has benefitted from college - immensely," Romar says. "That other guy was an adolescent, a young adolescent that was coming in here. Now, he's much more an adult. It's been great just to see him blossom over the five years that he's been in school. It's been a joy to see that."
Just as he did the final game of his redshirt-freshman season to then-senior Artem Wallace for the Huskies' home finale, Gant has selflessly yielded his starting job this season. He started the first 14 games before giving way when C.J. Wilcox started in early January in his hometown of Salt Lake City. Gant then stayed on the bench when Romar went with four guards for a time to get more offense - and when it became apparent Desmond Simmons' hustle and winning plays deserved a place in the starting lineup.
With Gant, it's always been about the team.
To be the first one to win four titles. Nobody's ever done it.
"I feel like I am blessed to have the opportunity I have, to be the first one to win four titles. Nobody's ever done it," he said.
"It's crazy how long I've been here. And it's almost all over."
Want to know want Gant is made of? Look at how he responded to going 0 for 9 on Jan. 19 against California. The last miss was a 3-pointer at the buzzer that fell short of sending the game to overtime in a loss that is keeping UW tied for first with Cal in the Pac-12 still today.
Minutes after that game, I found Gant soaking in an ice bath inside the Huskies' training room. He shrugged, held his head as high as I've ever seen it and said: "I didn't do my job coming through."
"Honestly, I feel like I am going to bounce back," Gant, UW's only scholarship senior playing this season, told me that night, dripping wet and cold. "And I feel like our team is going to bounce back."
Less than 48 hours later, Gant made seven of 11 shots for 17 points - one off his career high -- in a home rout of Stanford. Against UCLA Feb. 2 he scored 12 points and tied his season high with two steals.
And Washington has won seven of eight games since. UW is perhaps three more wins over the next 10 days from its second outright conference title in more than a half century.
"That was huge, because with what was at stake and the type of game that he had (against Cal) he could have easily kept his head down and not recovered for another couple week," Romar said. "Then - not even 48 hours later - he plays one of the best games of his career."
When the regular season ends March 4, Gant could also become the only Husky to win four conference titles.
"Yeah, I think about it all the time," he says.
"I'm in a good position. It's a good opportunity for me, especially individually. In high school, we didn't win a lot. We always had talented teams but underdog teams. We didn't win city championships. ... I wasn't accustomed to winning. Every time we played big teams we'd lose."
He also was like many college freshmen, unaccustomed to what it took to play at this level.
Romar still remembers one of Gant's first practices at UW. The coach asked his freshman of he would be able to run the mile inside the team's allotted time limit in its annual, preseason conditioning test.
"Aw, coach, with what we did in high school, I can do anything when it comes to conditioning," Gant confidently told Romar.
"He had a rough conditioning period," Romar said.
"Right then, that was more of a wake-up call than the first day of practice, (of) how much work was going to be involved at this level."
Romar just chuckles when asked to compare the skinny, wide-eyed forward from then to the matured, well-rounded man Gant is today.
"He came in with a great heart. He's going to leave with a great heart. But he's just matured so much."
PIANO, PLAYS - AND TV?
I got to know Gant better in September 2010, weeks before his junior season. He had started 45 games over his first two seasons at UW, averaging almost as many rebounds as points.
He shot pool with a young patient on the team's annual preseason visit to Seattle Children's Hospital. Then while other teammates were drawing and playing board games with the children, Gant sneaked off to commandeer the room's tiny piano.
He wowed the recuperating kids, their parents, the hospital's staff, and his teammates by playing a fun rendition of the theme to the cartoon "Inspector Gadget."
He went on to start 11 times last season and average seven rebounds per game in the Pac-10 tournament. He had a career-high 10 boards in the conference semifinal victory over Oregon. He started the NCAA tournament-opening win over Georgia, then tied his career best with two 3-point baskets in the narrow loss to North Carolina in the third round that ended Washington's season.
Two months later, Gant acted in UW's production of a Midsummer Night's Dream.
"He played the role usually called Robin Starveling. In our version his character's name was Darnell," said Sarah Nash Gates, the executive director of UW's School of Drama.
The captain of your Huskies basketball team was also an integral member of the drama department's group of comic characters known as "The Mechanicals."
You would never know he is an accomplished and sometimes fierce performer and competitor.
"From his demeanor you would never know he is an accomplished and sometimes fierce performer and competitor on the basketball court," Gates said.
Last June, Gant graduated with a degree in drama. He did that by stacking up on course work outside the Huskies' previous basketball seasons.
"His team schedule has made participation in school productions challenging. He took several courses in the summer," Gates said.
He began taking graduate courses this fall then entered this season somewhat awed by the responsibility of being one of the team's scholarship seniors, with Scott Suggs. Then Suggs broke his foot in preseason practice. That left Gant as the team's "Grandpa," a term junior point guard Abdul Gaddy uses for him - though not to his face.
Just add it to all else Gant can do.
He grew up playing the drums before age 10, the piano when he turned 10 and then the organ and drums at his family's church in Los Angeles.
This past fall he was a national nominee for the Lowe's Senior Class Award recognizing student-athletes' accomplishments in the community, in the classroom, in the terms of character, and in competition.
"I've felt like since college started I wanted everything to be a plus in my life," Gant said. "I've got a whole lot of different things that can go my way. I feel like I am a talented person. I can do many different things, and I feel like I have a lot going for me."
The full Gant was on display in early December during the Huskies' week in New York.
On Tuesday, he was standing among his quiet teammates before their first game at Madison Square Garden that week against Marquette. Gant's headphones were blaring gospel music through the otherwise quiet freight elevator that was taking the Huskies from the street level of Manhattan to the fifth-level locker room and court at "The World's Most Famous Arena."
I looked around expecting someone to tell Gant to turn down the volume, to maintain the intense pregame mood. No one did. Some smiled at their captain. By now they know music helps make this man.
"Music. Music. Anything music," he says when I asked him for the favorite of his many off-court pursuits. "Writing raps. Writing songs. Making music. I just love it. I really have a passion for both. I work hard on the basketball court, on and off. And I work hard with my music. I am trying to really expand it."
Beyond drums, the piano and organ, he also dabbles in base guitar. He wants to learn more of that.
About an hour after getting motivated by the gospel tunes inside that freight elevator at the Garden, Gant sank six of nine shots for 14 points against Marquette. He also had four assists, two rebounds and a steal in 28 minutes in a last-second loss to then-undefeated Golden Eagles.
The next night, Gant led the Huskies on what he called the highlight of his New York trip. He was on the edge of his seat inside the historic Shubert Theater on Broadway as the players were guests at the Tony Award-winning musical "Memphis."
By the end of the rousing show, Gant was standing, cheering, dancing, and clapping rhythmically. His teammates followed his lead from the back row of the main floor.
Minutes later while meeting the actors backstage, Gant excitedly told them, "You guys were killin'!"
Gant was still jazzed over what he'd seen while he stood outside the theater in a driving rain waiting for the team bus to take the Huskies back to their Manhattan hotel.
"That was FILTHY!" he said, as excited as a boy on Christmas. "It was amazing! That was one of the best plays I've ever seen, and it was my first musical."
I asked if he could, as a performer himself, appreciate how much "Memphis" co-stars Adam Pascal (Huey) and Montego Glover (Felicia) and the rest of the cast put into their thrilling performance.
"Oh, man," Gant gushed.
"I was thinking about my little play I was in. There were so many lines to remember. The work you put in. All the rehearsals. I can only imagine with a play like this how much work it takes. To know your lines. To go whether you are upstage or downstage. The dance moves. ...
"Then again, it's Broadway."
Yet this would-be actor says he doesn't want to be on stage.
"I want to be in television," he said. "I feel like I've got the characteristics and charisma to do TV, and movies. I think I could be good enough to be movies, get an acting coach. I think I could surprise people.
I think I could surprise people.
"I am a character, man. I've got the type of personality where I am a goofy guy, and people like me. I'm not saying that to be cocky or anything. It's just, I'm a people person. I like to make people laugh. I like people to enjoy my company. That's come with me a long way, ever since I was young. And now that I am doing this acting thing, it's helping out a lot."
Gant met a Southern California television producer this summer the way college kids meet many these days -- on Twitter.
"I've told her a couple times, `When basketball is over for me, if you've got a couple parts or anything that needs to be filled, just holler for me,'" he said. "She says she's got me on her list, so ...
"I found out she was Emmy-nominated, and I told her I just graduated from UW with a degree in fine arts. She kind of liked that, and we just rolled with it. She started talking to me about the shows she has done. She told me if anything comes up she'd keep me in mind. So that may work out.
"At lot of things in life work out on their own. Things in life tend to work themselves out."
Gant is like all seniors at this highest level of college basketball, especially ones that have won championships: He wants to play professionally. He is seeking a coveted invitation to the annual Portsmouth Invitational showcase for NBA scouts prior to the league's summer draft.
"And then, (it's) just trying to work my way into some camps, just do my best," he said. "If I don't get picked up by an NBA team then hopefully I'll have some chances to go overseas. I do want to continue to play basketball at another level."
"I just want to play basketball, and I want to make money for my family. I want to help out my family."
Judging by all he's done for and with his extended Huskies family during five, remarkable years in Seattle, the Gants are already enriched.
"I'm a fairly good kid," he said, sounding more proud than brash. "I've got things other than basketball going for me.
"But if I can make them all work out, that'd be the best."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.