'I belong in the NBA'
As often happens with athletes, numbers define Brandon Ewing's life.
1,014: The number of miles from Julian High School to Laramie, Wyo., where he played college basketball.
18.5: How many points Ewing averaged this past season for the Wyoming Cowboys, tops in the Mountain West Conference for the third straight season.
5: Assists Ewing averaged per game, which also led the MWC.
1: How many players have accomplished that feat in the 10-year history of the league.
35: The percentage of college-bound Chicago Public Schools students who graduate in a six-year period, according to a 2006 study by the University of Chicago. Only 58 percent of African-American college basketball players graduate in six years, according to a recent study by Richard Lapchick and his Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
4: How many years it took Ewing to graduate from Wyoming.
65: How many guards NBA draft expert Chad Ford has in his top 100 players in the draft. Ewing is not among them.
0: How many minutes the experts expect Ewing to average this year in the NBA, just slightly down from the 38.3 he averaged his senior year at Wyoming.
The NBA is holding its annual pre-draft camp in Chicago this weekend, but Ewing wasn't among the 50 or so players invited to participate in drills and workouts, nor was he listed in any of the mock drafts. However, his best hopes lie in the second round, where the already-inaccurate mock drafts are even less credible.
Despite his star turn for the Cowboys, who didn't play in an NCAA or NIT game in his career, the undersized, under-the-radar guard is almost an afterthought as the June 25 NBA draft nears. He has his share of workouts lined up, but he has to outplay bigger names, outlast bigger bodies.
Far from the Ricky Rubios and Jonny Flynns of the first round, Ewing is listed behind fellow Chicago products like Gonzaga's Jeremy Pargo, former Arkansas guard Patrick Beverley and Marquette's Jerel McNeal. Unfortunately for these guys, this draft is being touted as weak overall but relatively strong for point guards. Ewing isn't sweating it.
"When I knew someone going, I'd look at the mock drafts," Ewing said a week ago in a long phone conversation from San Mateo, Calif., where he's been readying for his NBA workouts. "Now that I'm in it, I don't pay attention. I think I can be the steal of the draft. I look at past players who snuck in the first or second rounds, and I believe I can be one of those players."
Ewing isn't overstating his promise. He scored 13 points and added six assists at the Portsmouth Invitational pre-draft camp in April before straining a quad muscle. He recently worked out with lottery prospect Jrue Holliday for the Sacramento Kings and has mid-June dates with the New Jersey Nets and his hometown Bulls.
Even if he gets drafted in the second round, the 22-year-old is far from a guarantee to stick on a roster. He's a skinny, wishful 6-2, a tweener guard. For every Chris Duhon who winds up making millions as a second-round pick, there are five Dee Browns.
Most likely, Ewing will end up in Europe next season, and he could thrive there. His agent, Marc Fleisher, and his Chicago-based marketing representative, Keith Kreiter of Edge Sports International, both specialize in European players and Americans playing in Europe.
"My Plan A and B is to play in the NBA," Ewing said. "I definitely believe I can play in the NBA, from watching games and knowing my talent. I know for a fact I can play in the NBA and help a team. Otherwise, I'll play overseas and wait for an NBA team to call me over."
Ewing is a basketball nut. He loves to watch NBA games and pick apart the point guards. He likes to watch smaller guards such as Aaron Brooks and Rajon Rondo. He compares himself to mid-major NBA talents such as Courtney Lee and Rodney Stuckey. He worships the superstar points such as Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups. And then there's Derrick Rose, Ewing's friend and rival.
When Ewing was a sophomore, he was entrusted with a very important job: recruit the best eighth-grader in the city to Julian, a successful basketball program and a hard-knock school.
It didn't work out. Rose was ticketed to city power Simeon, Julian's biggest rival, and wound up winning two state titles en route to a one-year point guard fellowship at Memphis and, well, you know the rest.
"I like to say, Derrick was always the No. 1 pick," Ewing said.
Still, in his senior year, Ewing did beat Rose twice (although both wins were rescinded because of former DePaul forward Mac Koshwal's ineligibility), before Simeon knocked the Jaguars out of the Public League tournament.
"We had some battles," Ewing said.
But while Rose is the face of their hometown team, Ewing had to make do with being the man in Laramie, and a recognizable face in places such as Fort Collins, Colo., where fans of the Mountain West Network got used to seeing this firebug light up the likes of Colorado State and UNLV.
"Even in Denver, I get people asking to take my picture with their cell phone," he said proudly.
Ewing's coach the past two seasons was Heath Schroyer, who took the Cowboys from a 12-18 record his first season to 19-14 in 2008-09. Schroyer, just 37, said he was always impressed by Ewing's work ethic and his ability to score in bunches.
"The best thing about Brandon is his competitiveness," Schroyer said. "I think Brandon needs to keep getting better at his game. But it wouldn't surprise me a few years down the road to see him achieve all of his goals."
After backing up Sean Dockery to start his high school career, Ewing became a second-tier star in Chicago, a notch below guys such as Jon Scheyer, Bobby Frasor, Sherron Collins and McNeal. So it makes sense he didn't end up at Louisville or Marquette, two schools that picked other guards over him. But Wyoming?
"I always get that question first," he said, laughing. "That first year, it was rough coming from a big city like Chicago, where there's always something to do. Laramie's a small town, but once I got used to it, it became my home away from home."
Ewing liked DePaul, but when coach Dave Leitao bolted for Virginia, he scratched it off the list. That left Wyoming, where fellow Chicagoan Jason Straight went in 2001 out of Dunbar High. When Ewing visited, he felt wanted.
The adjustment was tough, but not bad enough that he seriously considered leaving. His mother, Sharon Patrice, said she was glad he got away from Chicago, and she made sure she got to Laramie to visit.
"He's not an inner-city kid, per se, but it was still a change," she said.
Ewing spent the first three years living on what he termed a "South Side diet."
"The first couple of years, I lived on candy and McDonald's," he said. "By my sophomore year, I expanded to Burger King and Wendy's. But by my senior year, I tried to change and eat healthier."
Ewing said he tried to broaden his horizons at the school, mixing it up with students from around the world. Soon the die-hard rap fan even expanded his musical tastes.
"I'm not saying I listen to country," he said carefully. "But I've ran across a couple Garth Brooks records."
During that collegiate career that was all but ignored in his hometown, Ewing dealt with a coaching change, an on-court fracas and a lot of mediocre basketball. He never got to make his name on a national stage.
Still, he graduated on time as a first-team All-MWC player.
"I don't regret anything," he said. "Wyoming made me a more mature person."
This time of year can be bittersweet for the dreamers. Some can't adjust and fade into obscurity. Others chase the dream until the dream starts chasing them. Faded Chicago legend Ronnie Fields finished another year in the CBA, playing for the Minot Skyrockets. College stars become trivia questions, bar bets, Wikipedia searches.
I don't think you have to worry about Ewing. He'll get a shot to prove he belongs in the league, and if he doesn't make it, he'll earn a living in Europe, see the world one gym at a time.
Numbers might define Ewing's life, but he's not letting the 60 draft slots decide his future.
"Nothing determines my future," he said. "I belong in the NBA."