Jan. 11, 2008
Staff writer for The Fayetteville Observer
One of the first things Jamel Austin learned upon his arrival at Fayetteville State is that, unlike his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y., you can't just run out in the middle of the night and find a good slice of pizza.
So when some was provided as a postgame meal following Tuesday's loss to Virginia Union, the senior guard made sure to grab a whole pie before leaving the Broncos' locker room.
"You've got to make sure you have some in your room," he said on his way out, with a Yankees hat on his head and a pizza box in his hands. "It's one of the adjustments you learn to make."
Austin should know better than most when it comes to the virtues of adaptability.
Even at his young age, he's already been forced to adjust on the fly more times than he cares to remember.
He's gone from the spotlight of starting a championship game at Madison Square Garden to the depths of obscurity while playing before a handful of friends and family in a dark junior college gym.
He's lost a trusted friend and mentor in the worst way imaginable only to emerge as an example for others to follow.
He's evolved from a street-smart kid into a confident, mature adult.
That Austin has grown into a complete player considered by most to be the best on his team should come as no surprise. He's always had that kind of ability.
What brings his coach at FSU to the verge of tears is the way he has harnessed his once over-the-top intensity to hurdle all obstacles and become just as successful off the court.
"Mel has come a long way, maybe farther than anyone I've had as a coach," said Sam Hanger, his eyes misting with emotion. "There were a lot of questions about him when he first got here and he still has his moments.
"But he's grown up a lot. He's become as good a person as he is a basketball player. He's made me proud."
That's saying something, considering the disappointment Austin had set himself up to become upon his graduation from high school.
He was a good enough player to help Robeson High get to the New York City Public School finals his senior year -- a game that was played at Madison Square Garden against a team led by future NBA draft choice Sebastian Telfair.
But because he was lax in the classroom, he stood little chance of playing at a Division I school.
"Jamel is a good student, but I guess he just got caught up in the 'hood," said Gene Carroll, Austin's junior college coach and the man who steered him to Hanger at FSU.
"When you hang around a lot of low achievers, you tend to take on that type of character, too. He was fighting to get out of that. He just didn't have anybody to help him."
The loss of a mentor
Austin's task became even more difficult when the one man who did show an interest in him, former assistant high school coach Lawrence Major, committed suicide after being implicated in a sexual assault case.
The news sent Austin into a funk that led him to leave the team at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts and sit out an entire year of competition.
He seriously considered giving up on basketball until he met up with Carroll, who got his career back on track at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Even then, things didn't come easily.
Although Austin was able to regain his form by averaging 24.5 points per game and earning All-Region XV recognition, he also gained a reputation as a hot head -- often clashing with his own teammates at practice because he felt they weren't taking the game seriously as he was.
It was an attitude that led Carroll to throw him out of practice at least once a week.
"Yeah, I would get annoyed when he would tell the team the same thing over and over and over," Austin said with an embarrassed smile. "But I always used to apologize to him afterward. One thing my mother always taught me was to learn from my mistakes.
"Besides, there's no sense in getting thrown out of practice, because it hurts both me and the team as far as getting better."
True to his word, Austin has toned down his act enough so that he's made it through every practice he's started at FSU.
Not that he hasn't tried to push Hanger to the limits of his patience.
"He's still wired," Broncos teammate Phillippe Harris said. "When he's on the court, he's pretty much wide open."
Hanger, an old Brooklyn kid himself, swears that in his 15 years of coaching, Austin is the first player "from my old neighborhood to survive me."
As well as the coach and his on-the-floor leader have come to understand one another, they would never have been brought together if not for a quirk of fate and some impeccable timing.
Meant to be
It happened two days before school began in August 2006.
That afternoon, Hanger was going through some paperwork when he realized that he still had enough scholarship money left to bring in one more player for the coming season.
In desperate need of a guard who could handle the ball and shoot, he immediately began to get his hopes up.
But his excitement quickly faded when he realized how difficult it would be to find a good player at such a late date.
As it turned out, Hanger didn't have to look very far. Like a gift from above sent by his old New York buddy Carroll, Austin fell into FSU's lap later that same day.
"This is a true story," Hanger said. "I was in my car driving back from the credit union on Raeford Road and as soon as I started thinking about how I could afford another player, I get a call from Gene wanting to know if I had a spot for Mel."
Hanger was already familiar with Austin from having recruited him the previous year.
But he thought he missed out on the 6-foot-3 combo guard when Austin signed with Metro State in Colorado.
What Hanger didn't know was that the well-traveled New Yorker was short a few credits to be eligible at an NCAA school.
By the time Austin corrected the problem by taking summer classes at Manhattan, his scholarship in Colorado had already been given to someone else.
That left him desperate enough that he agreed to come to Fayetteville, even though Hanger could only offer him a half scholarship.
It was a decision he quickly began to regret, first for the lack of things to do here compared to New York, then because his new coach made him start at the bottom and work his way into the starting lineup.
Frustrated after being relegated to the third string early in preseason practice, he called Carroll hoping to find a sympathetic ear.
Instead, he got a lecture.
"Coach Carroll told me to shut up and play," Austin recalled. "He said that if I played hard and did everything I was told, Coach Hanger would give me my chance."
Once the opportunity came, Austin didn't waste it.
He started 27 of 28 games for the Broncos, averaging 8.6 points and finishing third on the team with 56 assists.
Now on full scholarship, he's been even better this season.
Using his explosive first step to the basket and improving on his touch by adding some arch to his unorthodox throwing motion, Austin has been FSU's offensive catalyst.
His 13.1 ppg average would be even better if not for an ankle injury that has slowed him since returning from the Christmas break.
But while his statistics have been down, his effort has never wavered.
"I made Mel prove himself when he first got here," Hanger said. "He had to prove himself to me. He had to prove himself to the team. And he did that."
Austin is the first to admit that the thought of playing professionally has crossed his mind.
But as much as he'd relish the opportunity to continue his career and help his family out financially, he said he's even more determined to make his mother Josephine proud by receiving his degree in mass communications.
It's an accomplishment he said will prove that anything -- with the exception of finding a good slice of pizza after midnight in Fayetteville -- is possible.
"It's been a long road," he said. "But like my tattoo says, `In God I trust.' I just put it all on Him.
"Sometimes these things just take time. If I kept working hard and stayed positive, I knew my time would come."
Staff writer Brett Friedlander can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3513.