By Tom Gillispie
WINSTON-SALEM — Juan Wheat was grinning ear-to-ear. Sure, he and his Yale teammates had just lost to Wake Forest 73-61 Wednesday night, and a nervous-looking Wheat had played maybe a half-minute at the end.
But standing in front of the visitors’ locker room, Wheat was happy.
His high-school coach, Bernie Poole, members of the 71st High School basketball team and others from Fayetteville, N.C., were there for Wheat, and he was touched.
“The whole team came to watch me play, and that meant a lot, not so much that I didn’t get to play much, but that they came,” said Wheat, a former 71st standout and now a freshman on the veteran Bulldogs roster.
After Wheat talked to his former Falcon teammates, he added, “I thanked them for coming. It was great to see them.”
Wheat, 18, is a work in progress, and it’ll be a while before he eases into the lineup. Perhaps the hardest lesson is patience. At 71st, he was the leader as the Falcons reached the North Carolina Class 4-A title games in two of the last three years. But in Division 1-A, he’s another promising freshman.
“It’s tough,” Wheat said of the transition. “You have to learn to pay your dues. A lot of stuff that worked in high school doesn’t work in college. They recognize things in college that you could get away with before.”
While most of the Bulldogs were collecting around Coach James Jones just before the second half started on Wednesday, Wheat and a teammate snuck in a few extra practice shots. Wheat showed a nice stroke and hit most of them.
Yale has started the 2002-2003 season 0-2 with road losses to Oklahoma State and Wake Forest, but Jones figures games against those tough programs will make the team better in league play. The Bulldogs have an upbeat program, as they are coming off a 21-11 season, a co-Ivy League championship with Princeton and Penn, plus the first postseason victory in the school’s 107-year basketball history (a win over Rutgers in the NIT).
Still, Jones eventually will need to add a Wheat-like player to a lineup that has just one athlete, Edwin Draughton, who had much luck against Wake Forest.
“Juan’s a great athlete,” Jones said. “He works hard, studies hard, but he has to learn the offense and the defense. We got into things fairly quickly this year, since we have a veteran team. The offense and defense were already in, and he has to learn them.
“But he’ll be fine. He’s so athletic, he’ll bring so much to the program.”
Wheat said he’s added 15 pounds to his 6-6 frame -- he’s listed at 230 -- and he’s gotten stronger. Still, college is hard enough for a freshman; going to Yale, of all places, makes it tougher.
“The hardest thing so far has been the academics,” said Wheat, who had a 4.0 grade-point average and was the president of the student government at 71st. “Academics are first for me; athletics are second.”
Wheat, who intends to major in economics, said his non-athletic, non-academic education has begun with the basics. He’s learning to do laundry, to eat without being told, to fend for himself without his parents, Juan and Mona, there to do it for him.
He said he’s made “a ton of friends” and he’s seen several celebrities, including actress Julia Roberts.
“I’ll definitely get exposed to the world at Yale,” he said, smiling.
Wednesday night was likely the lone opportunity that the 71st High School contingent could see Wheat play college ball, since New Haven is far away, and the Bulldogs rarely venture into the South.
As Wheat spoke to his former Falcon teammates, Poole showed his obvious pride in his former player.
“We appreciate what he did for us while he was there,” said Poole, Wheat’s four-year coach. “We don’t cut someone off just because they’re gone.”
He said he’s glad Wheat chose Yale.
“It’s a great move,” Poole said. “I wish I could have gone there.”
Wheat’s playing time in somewhere in the future. Wheat said he’ll lift weights, eat correctly, learn the system and take the playing time as it comes.
“Once he gets the academics in line and learns the coach’s (basketball) system, he’ll be fine,” Poole said.
But Poole said he’s not worried how much basketball Wheat plays.
“I hope he plays four years of basketball,” Poole said, “but, most of all, I hope he gets his degree. I know that’s his ultimate goal.
“We’re behind him all the way. He’s a great person, a great individual.”
More blog entries by Tom Gillispie
• Advice for be and would-be novelists
Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie
Entries from The Dog Blog
Blog entries from The Auto Racing Journal
(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)