The shot is long. The ball bounces straight up, plummets towards the hardwood, catches the front of the rim and ricochets up towards the rafters for a second time. Four thousand one hundred and nine pairs of eyes follow the ball.
It is perhaps the first time they have looked away from Stony Brook power forward Jameel Warney the entire game.
One-year prior, the Seawolves led rival Albany 50-48 in the America East championship game, forcing a wild, off the mark shot with five seconds remaining. Warney got his right hand on the ball but couldn’t control the rebound. The ball bounced out to the top of the key and into the hands of Albany guard Peter Hooley, who promptly drilled the game winning three.
It was the latest and most crushing in a long line of heartbreaks for Warney and the Seawolves.
Over the past six seasons, Stony Brook has played the role of Sisyphus, perennially pushing their boulder of hopes and dreams to the apex of the tiny America East Conference. Three times previously, the Seawolves have won the conference’s regular season title. Four times they’ve advanced all the way to the championship game. And each time, they’ve come crashing back down the mountain.
Warney arrived on Long Island in the summer of 2012 and was immediately anointed the savior of Stony Brook basketball.
“He’s the best big man that will ever play here, absolutely,” then Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell declared, before Warney had ever played a single minute of college ball.
Over the next four seasons, Warney went even further than Pikiell’s lofty prediction, becoming the greatest player in school history, and one of the greatest in the entire history of the America East Conference. Warney would win the 2013 conference Rookie of the Year, and then rattle off three straight seasons as both the conferences Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year – the first time in conference history that anyone had accomplished such a feat.
But he’d still never gotten them to the NCAA Tournament.
Now, Warney and Stony Brook have their best, last chance.
The previous 38 minutes and 48 seconds have seen the Seawolves and Catamounts engage in an all-time epic. For the first 25 minutes, Stony Brook did their best to dig their own grave and leap right in, as Vermont led by as many as 15. But Warney is relentless, simply refusing to lose as he pulls Stony Brook back from the dead. After scoring 18 points in the first half, somehow Warney elevates his game even higher, scoring 21 points in the second half, including a floater over two defenders to push the Seawolves up 73-70 with 2:01 left.
After Vermont countered to cut the lead back to one, Warney’s teammate, point guard Lucas Woodhouse slips a screen and fires up from the corner. The look is clean but shot is off.
The second bounce gives the ball just enough to get over the top of a leaping Vermont rebounders’ outstretched hand. With his defender hooking his left arm, Warney barely gets off of the ground. Surrounded by four grey Catamount jerseys, Warney wraps his massive right hand around the ball and flips it into the basket nearly flatfooted, for his 41st point of the game.
Stony Brook leads the University of Vermont 75-72.
Mark what was that? ESPN analyst Brooke Weisbrod asks from the T.V. booth in utter amazement.
Stony Brook holds on to the lead for the final 70 seconds of the game, winning 80-74. Warney finishes with a conference championship record-tying 43 points on 18-22 from the floor and 10 boards – five offensive, the cornerstone of his game. Not surprisingly, after collecting his third straight conference Player of the Year award, Warney adds the Most Outstanding Player of the championship to his trophy case.
It is the seminal moment of Warney’s collegiate career: He has literally single-handedly put Stony Brook basketball into the NCAA Tournament.
“He was a player that could just take over a game by himself,” says Peter Hooley who competed against Warney for four years at Albany. “I think everyone saw that in the Championship game last year. Not many players can stop him one on one in the low post. He can dominate a game in so many different areas.”
The game pushes Warney into the pantheon of America East legends, joining Reggie Lewis, Vin Baker, Malik Rose, Speedy Claxton and Taylor Coppenrath, the latter of whom Warney tied for the championship scoring record. But even Warney’s otherworldly performance doesn’t begin to tell his story.
Jameel Warney was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey. First settled by Quakers in the late 1600s, it was incorporated in 1869. In July of 1967, the Plainfield Riots (an offshoot of the Newark Riots) resulted in massive white-flight, forever changing the city’s landscape, as it has remained predominantly African American ever since.
Like many kids born in the 90s, Warney, a 6-foot-8-inch 260-pound battering ram with the feet of a ballerina, became enamored with the game of basketball during his youth. But unlike his peers, it wasn’t Allen Iverson’s crossover, Kobe Bryant’s calculated cool, or Michael Jordan leading the Looney Tunes to victory over the Monstars that prompted the love affair.
Instead, Warney, 22, points to three distinct reasons he was drawn to the game: The effective use of role players; plays diagrammed during timeouts; and different styles of coaching.
“I fell in love with the details of the game,” Warney says.
There’s something endearingly awkward about Warney, whose monotone delivery, distinct quirkiness, and dearth of ego seem more fitting in a Wes Anderson movie than in the showy locker rooms of the NBA.
“He’s a better person than basketball player and he’s an unbelievable basketball player,” says Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell, who coached Warney for his four years at Stony Brook.
Those close to Warney often describe him as being a “different” kind of guy. Spend some time with him and its easy to imagine him at eight sitting in front of the T.V., transfixed by how Phil Jackson was using complimentary pieces like Robert Horry off of the bench.
“The game can be beautiful in so many different ways. It makes me feel like a kid every time I talk about basketball, it’s just a great passion for me.”
The uniqueness of Warney’s personality was on full display after he carried Stony Brook to their first America East conference championship.
“After the game Mark Morrison DM’d me and said good job,” Warney said on national television, reflecting on the moment in the CBS T.V. studio. Referencing the West German-Born, British raised Hip-Hop and R&B singer who skyrocketed to prominence and plummeted into obscurity between 1996 and 1997. Warney was only two when Morrison’s mega-hit “Return of the Mack,” dropped, but often dedicates games to the singer on Twitter.
A relative late bloomer, Warney didn’t start playing basketball until the fifth grade – and only then after flunking out of baseball, wrestling and football.
“I was terrible at every sport I tried,” he says, “and I was terrible at basketball when I started.”
But Warney was also relentless after finding his passion, working himself into a star. At Roselle Catholic, Warney developed into an immovable offensive juggernaut. During his senior year he averaged 17 points, 13.5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3.5 blocks a game, graduating as the schools all-time leading scorer.
For a time, Warney was lightly recruited, flying under the radar of high-level Division I schools.
“What I remember most is how much I loved him every time I saw him play,” Pikiell says. “Every time I went back I saw something new in him. I really remember how crazy it got in the end, when schools started figuring him out a little bit. It was like three schools really recruiting him hard. We were at every game.”
After a monster AAU performance against a highly regarded team from Iowa, Warney went viral.
“There was a tweet that went out when he played an AAU team from Iowa. The very next night Iowa offered him a scholarship. At the very next game there were 45 schools there because of that tweet,” says Pikiell.
Warney ultimately chose Stony Brook, an unknown program from a mid-major conference, because of the coaching staff that had always believed in him.
“He’s a different kid, very loyal,” Pikiell says. “He played at one high school, on one AAU team, and went to one college. He’s unique in that way. I’m thankful that he had stayed [at Stony Brook) for the whole time, in this day in age that’s really rare and that’s what makes him special, and that’s why he’s going to make it in that NBA.”
“I don’t believe in transferring,” Warney says. “I believe that you should stick it out no matter what. It’s like the real world, when things go wrong you cant just change things up…I love Stony Brook, I wanted to win a championship there.”
Five days after pushing the Seawolves past Vermont and into the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, 13-seed Stony Brook faced off against fourth-seeded Kentucky. The Seawolves were promptly dispatched, 85-57.
Despite the lopsided loss, Warney proved he belonged on the same court as the game’s best, pouring in, 23 points and ripping down 15 rebounds, virtually guaranteeing an opportunity with an NBA team.
“It was great competition, a lot of NBA talent on that Kentucky team,” Warney says. “For me to know I had the confidence to play against people like that. It was a real confidence booster for me.”
With a little over seven minutes left in the game, down by 32 points, Warney made a play analogous to his entire career at Stony Brook: Sprinting the length of the floor behind a fast break, he elevated over the longer, leaner and more athletic Wildcats, snatching a missed lay-up and slamming it home.
“I learned how to be a leader [at Stony Brook], how to come ready to play everyday,” Warney says. “I learned how to bring effort even though there was some days when you don’t want to play.”
After the Kentucky game, Wildcats coach John Calipari was effusive in his praise of Warney, saying “I will tell you that the respect we had for him: We never played him one-on-one. Think about that. The guys that have watched me coach know that very rarely do we do that — like, we just don’t play that way. So we did today. I said this kid could go for 40 against us, so let’s not let him get going… and he still got 23 points. He still got 23.”
Coming into the 2016 Las Vegas Summer League, Warney was an NBA long shot. A back-to-the-basket mauler, who would have had no problem fitting in to the NBA game of the 80s or 90s – his skill set goes overlooked in today’s jump-shooting and slashing game.
But then the opening tip went up and Warney did what he’s always done: Work. Despite only averaging 16.5 minutes per game, in six summer league contests with the Mavericks, Warney led the team in field goal percentage, offensive rebounding and blocks per game.
Short by NBA power forward standards, and often considered slow-footed, Warney knows rebounding is his ticket to the NBA.
“I’m not oblivious to what I can’t do,” he says. “I know who I am. I’ve gotten better every year. I know I’m a good post player, but my greatest strength is offensive rebounding. Its hard in the NBA game to get post up touches so you have to go to your greatest strength.”
Of the 87 offensive rebounds collected by the Mavs at summer league, Warney snagged 27 of them. The importance of Warney’s assault on the glass is magnified when you consider that of his 27 field goal attempts, only three came on true post up opportunities.
“I talked to the GMs that had watched him play out in Vegas and they all raved about his rebounding, “Pikiell says. “The funny part is the best things he does in basketball are score in the low post and pass. So I said to all of them, you guys all like that part of him because it’s the only thing you saw. No one threw him the ball in the post and he’s the best passer as a big guy I’ve ever been around. The good part is you like the thing he does third best.”
Warney played himself into a training camp invitation from the Mavs in Vegas. But a high-ankle sprain coupled with a roster replete with frontcourt bodies made the opening day roster a near-impossibility.
“It was a battle in training camp, when you are an unknown from a mid-major, even though I had a great summer league. The ankle sprain made it more of a long shot to make the team,” he says.
In 27 minutes spread out over three games, Warney averaged four points and three rebounds a game.
The Mavs released Warney on Oct. 16.
Still, Warney raves about the experience.
“It was really special to be out there for a few weeks – to be around Rick Carlisle, a legend in Dirk Nowitizki,” Warney says. “It was a confidence booster for me. I know what I need to work on. I know I can play at that level.”
When I talked to Warney in July, he said he was looking to head to South Korea – where Americans make $20,000-$30,000 per month or more, after taxes — if the NBA fell through. Instead, Warney will be suiting up this season for the Texas Legends of the D-League, where contracts max out at $26,000 per year, before taxes.
“I know how good coach Bob MacKinnon is for the Texas Legends,” says Warney, who believes he is only a few offensive rebounds away from breaking through to the NBA.
Warney’s sense of loyalty, which has been at the forefront of every stop along his basketball journey, once again appears to be the engine powering his decision.
“[MacKinnon and I] talked: he can help me get to where I want to be. He has a plan for me. I really feel like I’m close. I just gotta polish some of my skills,” says Warney, adding, “With his belief, I believe I can make it there (to the NBA) sooner than later.”