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Trying to get past his past

Now that he's a Celtic, Giddens vows troubles are behind him

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Baxter Holmes
Globe Correspondent / July 9, 2008

J.R. Giddens used to get asked about things other than his dark past, like basketball.

When this was true, it was in the small suburban town of Yukon, Okla., where he was first embraced by a community that was wowed by his talent and potential. His family would host block parties and sleepovers, and on the basketball court townspeople saw glimpses of what Giddens told everyone he would become: a star.

And back then, his character was never in question like it is today, tomorrow, and forever.

He is in the NBA now, his destiny having been achieved since he told his fifth-grade AAU coach he would play in the NBA one day and even have his own shoe.

The NBA champion Celtics took Giddens with the 30th pick in the draft June 26. Leading up to his selection, the NBA and the media asked him about an incident at an Oklahoma City Wal-Mart, getting stabbed at Kansas, and his suspensions at New Mexico. After the draft, it was the same. It will be that way for some time.

"After a while, it gets kind of old - people asking about your past. I've showed I'm a great teammate and I'm a great player," Giddens said.

Some former coaches say Giddens's character concerns and brushes with the law are largely because of his transfer from Yukon to what was then considered the worst academic and most gang-ravaged school in the state, John Marshall High School.

Wanting to win

Giddens played sparingly his first two seasons at Yukon because of small-town basketball etiquette: Sit on the bench as a freshman and sophomore, earn your time as a junior, and then start as a senior.

When he did play, it would be off the bench in the second half and he'd go on scoring barrages - sometimes finishing with 25 or more points - but it did not increase his playing time.

He wanted to play, to get noticed, and to win, which Yukon was not accustomed to doing. An administrator at the school said in her 26-year tenure, she didn't recall any basketball state championships.

"I needed to go to another school to play basketball," Giddens said. "I didn't exactly get a chance to start on the team at Yukon.

"I wanted to be somewhere where I could win a championship and be noticed for my talent."

Giddens went on to a two-year stay from 2001-03 at John Marshall, a high school in the northwestern quadrant of Oklahoma City, an area with a disproportionate amount of subsidized public housing compared with other parts of the city.

The lower class made up the majority of the area and likewise there was more crime in that area, said Howard Kurtz, who has taught criminology at Oklahoma City University for 30 years.

"Criminologists have been studying inner cities for decades," Kurtz said. "It's always been that way. I don't think it's a putdown of the lower class. There is just more crime in some parts of the city. It's a fact."

Kurtz, who lives in Yukon, knew the young Giddens. He was Giddens's AAU coach from fifth grade to eighth grade and is writing a book about the 1996 season when his team - the Oklahoma Magic - advanced to the national AAU tournament.

According to information compiled by Kurtz from the Justice Department, the FBI, and the State Department of Education, John Marshall's number of gang members is 28 times higher than the state's public school average. John Marshall's dropout rate is four times higher than the state average. In 2007, the school made the Department of Education's "dropout factory" list as an institution at which no more than 60 percent of incoming freshmen make it to their senior year.

"If you're in Yukon and you go to a party, you could end up going somewhere and tipping cows," Kurtz said. "If you're in the inner city and your buddy says, 'Hey, let's go to a party,' it could mean there are gangsters there. There could be cocaine."

Wes Clark, Giddens's first coach at John Marshall, said, "It's like going from Earth to Mars because not only is John Marshall an inner-city school, but it's one of the tougher schools in the inner city."

Giddens admitted there were gang elements, saying, "It was a part of everyday life."

"Just walking around is not the same at Yukon as it is at John Marshall," he said. "The kids are a lot more aggressive. You have a lot more pride there. People have more to prove.

"At Yukon, people would back down from me. At John Marshall and those neighborhoods, people would never back down, so I always had to hold my own and fight and fight no matter how hard somebody plays. When you don't have the luxury of having a lot of necessities in life, all you have is your pride."

Giddens always had that. Kurtz compared Giddens's childhood personality to that of the young Muhammad Ali. And Giddens said some of that John Marshall aggressive, pride-first mentality rubbed off on him.

"Definitely," he said. "We're all products of our environment."

During his senior year, Giddens, then 17, was arrested Dec. 19, 2002, and charged with four felonies in connection with a plot to steal nearly $4,000 in electronics from an Oklahoma City Wal-Mart. The charges were dropped after a diversion agreement in which Giddens paid restitution and performed community service.

John Martin was hired as basketball coach for Giddens's senior year and said that before he took the job, he was warned about Giddens.

But Martin said he never had any problems with Giddens. His star guard scored 22.1 points per game and averaged 10 rebounds. Giddens won McDonald's All-America honors, was named Oklahoma's Gatorade Player of the Year, and led his team to a state title.

"I've got two daughters and I would without a doubt have him take care of my girls if that opportunity presented itself," Martin said. "We're talking about a guy with a good heart. He's very competitive, but he's also somebody you really can rely on. He's had a couple obstacles and things that have tripped him up, but he's a good kid. He's still a kid."

After a successful season and a second-place finish to some player named LeBron James in the McDonald's All-America dunk contest, Giddens was ready to head to Lawrence, Kan., up James Naismith Drive to Allen Field House - the same place where 2008 Finals MVP Paul Pierce had been an All-American.

Giddens already had committed to Kansas and its then coach, Roy Williams, the summer before his senior year at John Marshall. Williams left to take the job at his alma mater, North Carolina, before Giddens arrived, but Giddens stayed largely because the new coach, Bill Self, also was an Oklahoman.

Giddens had a good freshman season for the Jayhawks. He was named to the Big 12 All-Freshman team and averaged 25.9 minutes in 33 games, scoring 11.3 points and grabbing 3.6 rebounds. He also led the team with 74 3-point field goals. His numbers were similar during his sophomore season, but Giddens's career at Kansas soon ended following what happened at the Moon Bar in Lawrence May 19, 2005.

"That's not true"

The media had it wrong, Giddens said. He didn't start the fight. He said he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

But he was at the Moon Bar to celebrate the owner's birthday. Giddens said Jeremiah Creswell entered the bar and punched him. Creswell was escorted outside, where he waited.

Accounts from Creswell and witnesses have differed from what Giddens said happened, but what is certain is that a fight ensued in the parking lot and Giddens was stabbed in the leg by Creswell.

Giddens denied that he approached Creswell and repeatedly yelled, "You got a problem?" and "Do you know who I am?" as was reported by Creswell and another witness in a May 27, 2005, article in the Kansas City Star.

"That's not true," Giddens said. "People don't look at the situation together because I'm an athlete, and I feel like people try to spin the story negative towards me."

(Creswell was charged with two counts of aggravated assault a few weeks later when he threatened his mother and uncle with a steak knife.)

The fight virtually ended Giddens's career at Kansas. His relationship with Self soured.

"Coach Self was very disappointed in him," said Jeremy Case, Giddens's roommate both years at Kansas.

At the news conference when Self announced Giddens's transfer, the coach made mention of the negative attention the event brought the program, but he said it didn't affect the decision to part ways.

"J.R. and I have both taken enough time to remove the emotion of the decision and come to the conclusion that a fresh start for both parties would be best," Self said.

Those words - "fresh start" - are the first two Giddens says when asked why he left the traditional powerhouse in Lawrence.

That he chose the University of New Mexico was surprising to many, but it made sense to Giddens. The school was coming off a 26-7 season under then-head coach Ritchie McKay and was led by forward Danny Granger, a future first-round draft pick by the Indiana Pacers.

Giddens would have problems at New Mexico, though.

After sitting out the 2005-06 season because of NCAA transfer rules, he was suspended by the Mountain West Conference Feb. 2, 2007, for his involvement in a fight during a game against Wyoming. Shortly thereafter, he was suspended for the first time by McKay because "he felt my attitude wasn't what it needed to be," Giddens said.

Giddens was suspended twice under McKay for attitude-related issues. And, as at John Marshall, he had a new coach for his senior season: Steve Alford.

New level of trust

The New Mexico team left on May 25, 2007, for a week-long exhibition tour in the Bahamas, and Alford approached Giddens, who was behind in his schoolwork, about going on the trip.

"We've got to think about whether you should go on this trip or not because academically, you're not in very good shape to be eligible for the season," Alford recalled.

"Coach, I'm not going on the Bahamas trip," Giddens told Alford. "I've got too much work to do academically."

That, Alford said, was the first impression he got of Giddens.

There was a vast difference in Giddens from his arrival at New Mexico to his senior year when Alford arrived. There were no reported incidents. Giddens was praised for his community service at the Boys & Girls Clubs in Albuquerque. He became a better player, too, and shared Mountain West Conference Player of the Year honors while scoring 16.3 points per game and averaging 8.8 rebounds - both team highs.

With Giddens as the star, the Lobos advanced to the first round of the National Invitation Tournament and were defeated at California, 68-66, even though Giddens scored 26 points and had 13 rebounds and 6 assists.

Giddens said the difference in his senior year was not only the realization that the next step was the NBA, as well as his own maturation, but that his coaches "gave me a chance to be me."

Alford sat Giddens early in games if he wasn't playing team ball. "If you weren't doing something in the team offense, he wasn't going to play you," Giddens said.

There was a connection with Alford, who had played four years at Indiana University under Bobby Knight from 1984-87, won a national championship in '87, and played four years in the NBA.

"What he saw in me was someone who lived the dream he wanted to live," Alford said. "I said, 'If your dream is to get where I've been, then you've got to understand how hard it is. Just because people back in Oklahoma told you were destined to be an NBA player, that doesn't mean it's going to happen.' "

Clark said Alford may have saved Giddens's career.

Scars remain

Giddens's father, Charles, accompanied him to Boston when Giddens was introduced to the media at the team's practice facility in Waltham July 1. Also present was Giddens's AAU coach from his sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school, Albert Johnson, whom Giddens calls "Chipmunk."

Johnson said there was a lot of animosity toward Giddens back at John Marshall. Players didn't respect his athleticism. They constantly challenged a player with a 42-inch vertical leap and an 83-inch wingspan.

"There are still guys in OKC who didn't play ball at John Marshall, who didn't play ball in college, who think they're better than him - today!" Johnson said.

A lot has changed for Giddens in five years of college with three coaches in three systems. He has gained 30 pounds of muscle since leaving John Marshall (going from 185 pounds to 215) and he has more than 30 YouTube videos displaying his athleticism ("J.R., in my opinion, is the most athletic kid in the draft," Alford said.).

Case, who, unlike Giddens, stayed at Kansas for four years, said Giddens changed after he was stabbed.

"After that, he left Kansas, but before he left, he seemed more down-to-earth, like, 'Dang, I could've lost my career right there,' " Case said. "It was kind of a rude awakening for him, a blessing in disguise."

The scar Giddens carries reminds him what he has to lose.

"It makes me think of how to make better decisions, of when I see a fool - to go the other way because a lot of people aren't blessed to be in the situation I'm in," he said.

"We all have scars that we remember."

J.R. Giddens does. They remind him of his past. He just wishes others would forget.

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