Commentary

Kent State takes a chance on Evans

Originally Published: January 7, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The last thing Tyree Evans wants to do is be late for class.

No, scratch that.

The last thing Tyree Evans wants to do is anything that even borders the edges of the gray area of wrong.

One little mistake -- it could be jaywalking for goodness' sake -- will dredge it all up again. His past, the one that he cannot escape, the one that always follows the comma after his name -- Tyree Evans, who once was charged with statutory rape and later with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute -- is like a volcano simmering below the surface, always threatening to blow if Evans doesn't walk the straight and narrow.

[+] EnlargeTyree Evans
Kent State AthleticsEvans is averaging 16.6 ppg and shooting 47 percent from the 3-point line for Kent State.

So every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, Evans walks over to the MAC Center on the Kent State campus in Ohio and shoots free throws. He doesn't really need the practice. He's a career 80-plus-percent free throw shooter.

But if Evans is in the gym, it means he's awake. And if he's awake, it means he can't be late for his 7:45 a.m. class. And if he's in class, it means no one can say he doesn't deserve a second chance.

"I want to change what people say about me," Evans said earlier this week as the Flashes prepared for their game at Temple. "If I play basketball, if I do the right things off the court, people can start talking about that and forget everything else."

Forget is probably a strong word, and Evans isn't naive enough to believe everything will ever be forgotten. Clean slates are hard to come by, particularly for people who venture into any portion of the spotlight.

Kent State, at least, is giving Evans an opportunity to pen a new chapter in his biography. The Mid-American Conference school decided to do what Cincinnati, Kansas State and Maryland all passed on. Kent State administrators agreed to throw out a life preserver and see whether Evans was willing to hang on.

They set conditions. He is a walk-on this season, paying his own way, and he wasn't permitted to play the first semester. The school wanted Evans to prove he was capable of being both a good student and a good citizen.

With a 3.4 grade point average in his hip pocket and nothing so much as a hard sneeze to draw attention to him, Evans is five games into his Division I career. He leads the Golden Flashes in scoring, averaging 16.6 points per game. Since Evans has joined the team, Kent State has won three of five.

"We haven't changed him or saved him at Kent State," coach Geno Ford said. "He came in and has been fantastic. Public opinion is what it is. The day I was hired, I was the most loved guy in town. We lost one game, and I was the biggest idiot.

"I don't care what people say. They're going to have their opinions, but I know what kind of mindset Tyree is in. I didn't know him five years ago, but I know today he's as quality a kid as we have in our program."

Five years ago, Evans railroaded his own promising career. It's all there, in court records and criminal complaints, black-and-white evidence of the past Evans can't escape.

The Richmond, Va., native finished his senior season of high school with 884 points, third behind only Moses Malone and Allen Iverson in Virginia prep hoops history. A highly sought-after recruit, he signed with Cincinnati and headed to prep school for a year to get his academics in order.

And then everything unraveled amid two serious charges. In June 2005, he and four teammates at The Winchendon School in Massachusetts were charged with statutory rape of a 15-year-old student. Two months later, Evans was pulled over in Virginia and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

The statutory rape charge was dropped eventually, and Evans pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. The drug charge later was reduced to a misdemeanor, as well, but it didn't matter. The damage was done

Cincinnati rescinded its scholarship offer. Bob Huggins, the coach who recruited Evans to Cincy, couldn't persuade his new administration at Kansas State to admit him, so Evans -- once considered a top-20 shooting guard -- headed to junior college.

In hopes of burying his skeletons for good, Evans doesn't care to talk about the particulars of either arrest. Without making excuses, he will say only that he wasn't a bad kid, just a kid who made bad decisions.

"I was careless," he said. "I never thought about what I was doing. I wasn't a follower, I just sort of ran side-by-side. If someone said let's go here, I'd go. I didn't think about what might happen or what was going on. I didn't think at all."

Bobby Steinburg, once Evans' head coach at Motlow State Community College and now an assistant at Kent State, grew up in Richmond. He has known Evans since he was a kid and, more, knows the world Evans grew up in. He describes the Southside neighborhood that Evans called home as as bad as, if not worse than, any you'd find in a city 10 times the size of Richmond.

Evans was raised by a single mother. His father spent much of his life in jail, Steinburg said, and his older brother, Ronte, served 60 months as well.

"When you're 6 and 7 years old and the cops pull up next door and the guy leaves in handcuffs, that's what you know," Steinburg said. "I don't want to say people aren't smart enough to know right and wrong, but there's also something to be said about being a product of your environment. Tyree will never use that as a crutch. He'll never say things happened because he had it tough, but negativity breeds in certain parts of the city."

There was no "aha" moment for Evans, no day when he decided he would turn his life around. A two-week stint in jail as part of his plea agreement for the marijuana arrest had an impact -- "That will never happen again," he said. "Never. It was the worst. It wasn't so much scary as it was depressing." -- but the realization that he had to change was gradual, Evans said.

"

I want to change what people say about me. If I play basketball, if I do the right things off the court, people can start talking about that and forget everything else.

" -- Kent State forward Tyree Evans

It didn't take immediately. A falling-out with the coach at Butler Community College sent Evans packing after one season. He landed at Motlow with Steinburg, and the coach admitted he was worried at first. The school is in the small town of Tullahoma in south-central Tennessee, and Steinburg worried if Evans would be accepted.

But Evans, he said, was a model citizen. Never missed a meeting. Never came late to practice or class.

A reported dust-up between Evans and a teammate, Steinburg said, was misconstrued.

"He got in one of our player's faces because he wasn't taking charges," Steinburg said. "He was taking ownership, and the other guy took it personally."

Still an intriguing talent despite his baggage, Evans was courted by a number of schools after averaging 21 points and connecting on 44 percent of his 3-pointers at Motlow. He zeroed in on Maryland, committing to the school in April 2008.

Then it all happened again. Word spread about Evans' past. Gary Williams spoke in defense of Evans. Athletic director Debbie Yow said she supported Williams, but also said she had not been aware Evans had been incarcerated.

The furor continued on message boards and in chat rooms, where people questioned whether Williams was making a desperate move. Evans felt like a pawn in a power struggle and, worse, felt as though he'd be walking onto campus wearing a neon scarlet letter.

In May, he asked to be released from his scholarship.

With the school year nearing and opportunities drying up, Evans looked to Kent State. Ford had recruited him in the spring but backed off when Evans made his Maryland commitment. With Steinburg on staff -- he was hired by Ford in June -- the fit was even easier.

"People here accepted me for me," Evans said. "I didn't think that was going to happen at Maryland."

Cynics will argue that of course the Golden Flashes wanted Evans. If the Big East, Big 12 and ACC all wanted him, why wouldn't the MAC school? Truth is, Kent State didn't need to take a risk. The Flashes have posted 10 consecutive 20-win seasons and returned MAC Player of the Year Al Fisher and honorable mention all-league player Chris Singletary.

[+] EnlargeTyree Evans
Kent State AthleticsAs Kent State's leading scorer, Evans is attempting to write a new chapter in his ever-changing life story.

But they took Evans anyway. Steinburg certainly lobbied hard for Evans, but Evans also had the good fortune of landing in an athletic department led by an unusual man.

College athletic directors are rarely risk takers. The fear of bad public relations is too great as they try to straddle the often-blurred line between money-making athletics and academics.

But Laing Kennedy is cut from a different cloth. Kennedy allowed Ford to hire Rob Senderoff despite the potential NCAA sanctions the assistant coach might face stemming from his involvement in the Kelvin Sampson mess at Indiana. And when the NCAA penalized Senderoff, making it impossible for him to recruit, Kennedy stuck with him.

Kennedy did his due diligence on Evans, then asked to meet him personally. He found the 23-year-old to be articulate and engaging and, more important, up-front about his mistakes and his desire to start over.

Confident in Ford, a four-year assistant to former Kent coach Jim Christian before taking over this season, and going with his own gut, Kennedy took the leap on Evans. His only stipulation was that Evans have a sort of probationary semester before formally joining the team.

"We took some heat, and I knew we would," Kennedy said. "But at the same time, in sitting down and talking with Tyree, he was very clear where he wants to be in his life. He told me he wants to go between the lines. That carries the day more than anything. I told Geno this young man deserves an opportunity. He deserves some support and a break."

In Kennedy, Evans found a man not only willing to risk his own reputation but willing to take it a step further. Kennedy calls himself Evans' biggest fan. The two talk regularly, and the AD was tickled when Evans took time during a practice to help Kennedy's grandson with his jump shot.

It's not surprising, then, that whenever Evans sees his athletic director in the gym, he races across the court to offer a hug.

"It means, it means a lot," Evans said quietly. "I really appreciate it."

Winning over Kennedy, his teammates and the coaching staff has been easy. Evans was a contented cheerleader in the semester he sat out, actively involved in games and practices, coming in for extra film study and meetings so as not to upset the team chemistry when he became eligible.

Winning over the rest of the world is the hard part.

The easiest way, Evans knows, is to make no news or noise, save for the 40 minutes he's on a basketball court. So the same kid who never thought a decision through now painstakingly considers the ramifications of every move. He won't attend campus parties, limiting himself to infrequent appearances at over-21 clubs where he said, "There aren't as many knuckleheads."

On the court, he is the picture of sportsmanship. Against Temple on Monday, Evans never once pouted or screamed. Whistled for a foul, he turned and ran back the other way. Caught in an end-of-the-half scrum with Dionte Christmas, he offered his hand to help Christmas up.

He knows that for some people, it won't be enough. But he also knows that, as much as he'd like to, he can't change his past.

He can only go forward.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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