Jamar Wilson: Basketball in the Bronx and beyond

The Jamar Wilson story is one that resembles his game style – it doesn’t matter how, just get it done.

From his early days as an only child living in the Bronx, to what he calls “getting out” and making something of his undeniable talent in college, Europe and now the NBL, the wily point guard has always taken that approach, and so far it couldn’t have worked any better.

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With a young family and a career in its prime right now, Wilson is preparing to enter his third season with the Cairns Taipans as they gear up for an assault on the playoffs during the 2013/14 campaign, after near-misses for two years running. Dean has a chat with Jamar over the phone about everything basketball – from where he’s been, how he’s made it to where he is now and what the future may hold.

What’s the feeling like down at Cairns after a pretty tough season last year? You obviously would’ve liked to make the playoffs. Is it fair to say it was a disappointing season by the club’s standards?

Oh without a doubt. It’s been even worse because both years, I guess, we’ve put ourselves in a position to at least make the final playoff spot, and it’s always come down to the last game or point margins in my first year so it’s one of those things that makes it even worse than that actually is.

Absolutely. What about your own season last year, how did you rate that?

I wouldn’t rate it one of my best seasons, definitely in comparison to my first season. Things flowed a lot easier last year, it was a bit tougher and teams knew what I was about and they knew that I was, you know, obviously a scorer and they tried to focus on me scoring and trying to get the ball out of my hands. By the end of the season I was pretty beat up from the way the league was played and the way the guys targeted me every night.

Fair enough. Looking forward, you guys have just signed fellow American Demetri McCamey. How is he settling in and what can we expect to see from him this season?

He’s an explosive player and he’s obviously played at, I believe, NBA level. He’s played in the D-League and he’s played in the Big 10, which is one of the best conferences in the US. He’s definitely a creator, and he makes my life, and everyone else’s lives, easier on the team because that’s another guy that can really handle the ball and make plays when we need it.

No doubt. So for the season ahead, you’ve got your Perths and New Zealands, who are probably the top two in the league, where do you guys realistically rate yourself to fit in?

Well I mean, we obviously just got back from Sydney where we pretty much lost the Blitz by two buzzer-beaters in the first and second quarters and we finished in second place out of all the teams. That being said, we’re not 100% with each other yet and so are the other teams.

So it’s a bit early to say, but guys have been putting in work over the off-season, putting on some muscle. We’ve got guys in some really great shape so I think we’re definitely closer to winning the championship this year. I mean our chemistry on the court is a lot better than last year because we know each other and we’ve been pushing each other and that’s been showing on the court this pre-season.

It absolutely has. Let’s just talk a little bit about yourself now. You grew up in the Bronx, which is obviously a neighbourhood that tends to bring the best out of everybody as you grow up. What was that like, and what kind of role did basketball play for you?

Well, New York is like a melting pot, if you know what I mean. Being born and raised in the Bronx, especially as an only child, I learnt early that whatever I gain I have to earn on my own and make sure that I keep it. In New York there’s a saying that if you get breakfast, someone else will eat it for you. It’s just one of those things where you have to wake up every day and make yourself better and pretty much get yourself out of the situation.

I was fortunate enough that I come from a family that played basketball and I was able to play, and being in the right place at the right time gave me the opportunity. From there I made it out of the Bronx, and my family made it out of the Bronx, and now my mum’s still there but she put me in a position where I’ve always been in private schools. That was a great thing because public schools in my time were one of the toughest things to go through because of the peer pressure. I went to an all-boys school and it was a bit out of my comfort zone at the time but I guess it made me worldly and it got me to where I am today.

And did you have any role models during that time when you were younger?

Yeah, I had my uncle, and I had a lot of role models. It’s weird though, but a lot of them were guys that were close to making it out at the time but never did, which is strange enough, because I didn’t really know anyone that made it out. So there were a lot of athletes which excelled at their sport, but got into a certain situation and unfortunately didn’t make it out. You know, maybe they ended up in jail or having to help their family, and they just never quite got over that edge. For the most part it was a lot of guys like that, but like I said my mum sent me to private school in Long Island and then I started going to college, and one of the guys there took to me and kind of turned into a father figure for me.

Sure thing. So on your college career at Albany, you had a pretty impressive career there. You scored the most points in the school’s history and became the first player in the school’s history to have your jersey retired. Tell us a little bit about your time at college.

Oh it was amazing. I mean it wasn’t at first, because as a freshman I came in and played over 30 minutes a game but we only won probably five or six games for the whole season, which was pretty tough. There was me and another freshman who formed a bit of an alliance then from day one, and we had elders on our team but we weren’t, I wouldn’t say, one of the most talented teams.

To have a 17 or 18 year old playing 30 minutes a game at that level says a lot, so we didn’t really have anyone to look up to besides our coaches and I think that taught us to mature pretty fast. So for me in my junior and sophomore year, I wouldn’t say I was running the team, but I knew what was going on and all the ins and outs, and in college they say that being on a team is like a family. We grew close-knit with each other and it extended onto the floor and we knew how to make each other better, and in my junior senior year we were one of the best teams in the country, so that was a good thing for us and for the school as well.

Absolutely. From there you graduated and there was talk of the NBA draft. Going into that draft were you expecting to get picked, or not really? Were you disappointed at all when you didn’t?

Well my agent was saying that if I was to be drafted it would be in the second round, and I did all the NBA camps and the NBA workouts and stuff like that. From day one I kind of figured, after my senior season, the buzz was that if I was to be on an NBA team it would be as a backup point guard. I got the feeling from day one that if I did get a call up, or get a job, it would be a fortunate kind of thing, because when you look at it being realistic I was 6’1” and at that time I was just a scorer. So to come into the NBA at 6’1” and just a scorer, I mean there are plenty of guys who can fill that role, and as a backup they’re looking for someone with some size who can bring something else to the table because obviously NBA teams have got franchise players and then there are guys there to pretty much play a role, and I think point guard is one of the toughest positions to be a scorer in.

Definitely. You went to Europe after that, playing in Belgium for a few years and Finland, before coming down under. What influenced you to come to Australia and sign with Cairns and how did it all come together?

Ok, well to tell you the truth I was in Belgium for three years and I loved it there. My girlfriend at the time, which is now my wife, is from Finland, and we both played in the same conference, and when I went to Belgium she played in Belgium as well. So it all worked out that way, and then after my third year I was kind of, I wouldn’t say over Belgium, but at the age of 25 or 26 I wanted to explore something different, so we decided to move back to her home country for a year. So we both played there, and it was a good experience because I was able to be around her family. I wouldn’t say the Finnish league is the toughest but we played in the international league, which is easily the toughest league I’ve ever played in. That was amazing, because we played against some of the top teams like CSKA Moscow and Lietuvos Rytas with Brad Newley, and there were some of the best players in the world.

So that was pretty cool, and I’ve always been attracted to the Australian lifestyle, and although I feel like I’m pretty worldly, I’ve always wanted to go somewhere where I’m not an outcast as well and I felt like coming down to Australia would make me feel like I’m at home. You know, I really love the beach and I love to surf, so I like to be pretty chill. I was close friends with Kevin Lisch as well, because we went on a tour together when we were in college and he was already playing down here.

So I spoke to him a few times, and I ended up calling my agent and saying I think it’s time to go down to Australia if you can find something, and he spoke to Aaron (Cairns Head Coach Aaron Fearne). Every year Aaron flies to the States and goes to camps and looks at guys, and we fly down to Atlanta so he can see where we’re at and see if we’re in shape and have us together for a week. I flew in for two days and met him, and he told me his philosophy, and you know the writing was on the wall. I wanted to be down here and for him to say he wouldn’t mind having me down here, it was good.

So it was kind of like a perfect fit. Obviously you said the European league is one of the toughest in the world and has some of the best players in the world. How do you rate the NBL, how does it stack up to Europe and is there a big difference in the style of the game?

The last two years I’ve been here, it’s been --I wouldn’t say a bash-- but it’s been very physical compared to Europe. I would say Europe is very skilled, and that's not to say that it’s not skilled here, but I think it’s more of a physical, up and down kind of league. You know, they let fouls go and by the end of the season, if you’re one of the key players in the team you’re pretty much ripped up because guys are coming after you every night.

Now though, with the reffing it’s more of an offensive kind of league, where it’s focused on scoring points, so it’s becoming pretty different. This year there’s a lot imports that are very skilled offensively, and there are a lot of players in the league who are skilled offensively, so I think it’s going to be a different kind of basketball this year and it’ll be more similar to Europe.

About that talent, over the last few years the talent that is coming here from overseas has really improved, especially in your position at point guard, and it’s obviously great for your game to be able to compete against these guys night after night. Is the competition something you thrive on?

Oh, for sure, I mean the good and bad thing about being a point guard is when you’re winning, you look really good and when you’re losing you look really bad, so it’s the easiest position for someone to point the finger at. With that being said --and I wouldn’t say it’s the toughest position-- but when you look at the rosters, the point guard position is without a doubt one of the toughest positions. It’s very competitive, and if you want to be the best that you can be you always want to push your boundaries and maximise your potential by playing against the toughest people you can play against. So I would say by playing down here I’ve played against some very good point guards, some with NBA experience, guys with athleticism, some big guys and short guys, and it’s a lot different from Europe. I look forward to it every night, and you can’t really take a night off.

No doubt about that. Who’s the toughest opponent you’ve come up against so far while you’ve been here, and what makes them so tough to play against?

Good question. Ah, I would definitely say the times I played against Patty (Mills). I mean, obviously he has the NBA experience and it does help for him to be well-known, so to guard him is pretty tough because you know what’s going to happen and what he’s going to do, but he’s a very skilled player. With that being said, you have your Adris Deleons, your Gary Ervins, who is a guy I know growing up and who I played against, and you’ve got your Cedric Jacksons, and obviously they’re tough as well. It’s pretty hard to gauge because I can’t think of anyone who has really crushed me, but at the same time every night I’m playing against a point guard who is pretty much going to really try and do their thing.

Fair enough. You’re considered by people who watch the game as a really smart and skilful player, rather than a really explosive one. Do you agree with that or do you see yourself as a different type of player?

Well, as I get older I wouldn’t mind being seen as a skilful player. I wouldn’t say that says too much about me but for someone to acknowledge that’s a good thing because I do study the game, but I think that I’m pretty explosive as well. I mean, I would say it’s pretty hard in this league to be seen as a point guard who is, not so much dominant, but pretty consistent and not pretty explosive, because most of the point guards in this league are pretty explosive. I’m not that big so it has to be something I’m doing to be getting around these guys and finishing up on the rim pretty strong.

That’s absolutely true. So you’re 29 now, have you considered how long you’ll be sticking around for?

Ah, this is my last season on my contract coming up.

Are you planning on trying to stay in Australia, or are you going to possibly head back overseas?

We’ll see, I mean this season we feel like we’ve got almost all the puzzles in place to win the championship. I just had my little bub six weeks ago, so I’m feeling happy on that and I guess life is here right now. I’m just really trying to focus on the season and trying to do whatever we can to win because obviously these past couple of seasons have been disappointing with the results and not really finishing where we wanted to. Now to have all the marbles in place I think we can do some damage, so that’s pretty much the real focus right now.

Sure thing, and congratulations on your baby by the way.

Thank you, cheers.

Well that’s all I’ve got for you today, so thanks for taking some time out and having a chat with us, and best of luck for the season ahead.

Oh not a problem, all the best.

Thank you to Jamar Wilson (@JayDubbs5) and the Cairns Taipans (@CairnsTaipans) for their co-operation and commitment to this interview.