Bryant fought weight, stabbing to be Santa Clara's board king
The under-recruited John Bryant's lost 90 pounds since coming to Santa Clara
His latest obstacle was a stabbing that gave him unwanted media attention
Bryant is the nation's second-leading rebounder, 0.4 boards behind Blake Griffin
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- John Bryant is no college basketball junkie, but lately he has been watching highlights on SportsCenter, to keep tabs on one statistic: how many rebounds Oklahoma's Blake Griffin has grabbed on a given night. Bryant, whom you may not have heard of, is a 6-foot-11 senior center at Santa Clara and also the NCAA's second-leading rebounder at 13.8 per game, just 0.4 behind Griffin. But while the 6-10 Griffin is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft, Bryant's name doesn't appear anywhere on mock-draft boards. This is not an injustice; it's a matter of them being dissimilar physical specimens. Griffin is an athletic freak who was a McDonald's All-American two years ago; Bryant is a trucker's son who, when he entered college four years ago, had the heft of a long-hauler who had made far too many pit-stops at McDonald's.
Current Broncos coach Kerry Keating, who was an assistant at UCLA from 2003-07, saw Bryant play in a summer tournament in high school and remembers him showing good hands and good feet, "but he was so overweight," Keating said, "that a lot of coaches weren't willing to waste a scholarship on him." No offers came from the Pac-10 or the Mountain West, and Bryant, a two-star recruit who grew up in the East Bay, signed with Santa Clara, arriving in 2005 at 365 pounds, 90 more than his current playing weight. "I'm sure," Keating says, "that there are a handful of assistants on the West Coast who see John now and say, 'I told my boss to take him!' But hindsight is always 20-20."
It would have required great foresight to predict Bryant would become not just the best center in the West Coast Conference, but the entire West Coast, as he is now, averaging 18.0 points and 2.6 blocks per game while also dominating the glass, grabbing a national-best 35.5 percent of available defensive boards. He has posted 11-straight double-doubles in WCC play, leading the Broncos (14-14, 6-5) to wins in six of their past seven league games. He has 21 double-doubles on the season (out of 28 games) and has hit the 20-20 mark on four occasions. He was named to the Naismith Award's Top 50 Finalists list at midseason. He's getting a bit of national recognition, or at least more than one usually gets on a non-Gonzaga team in the WCC. It's much more welcome than the attention he received in September, when his name scrolled across the ESPN ticker for something unrelated to basketball. It was the last kind of headline he wanted to be in, and the last kind of headline he could have predicted.
There are three scars on Bryant's lower back, thick reddish slats of tissue that stay hidden under his jersey, marking the spots where an attacker's knife went in. Bryant had been walking with friends away from an off-campus house party in the early hours of Sept. 27, when three men -- none of them Santa Clara students -- approached his group and began talking trash. Bryant said he told them "we don't want to deal with you," and started walking away, only to have one of the men charge him and punch him. "We started wrestling on the ground for a second, and his friend ran up from behind, and stabbed me," Bryant said. "I didn't even feel it because my adrenaline was pumping so hard."
Only when one of his friends saw the blood did Bryant realize he'd been wounded. One of the first policemen on the scene happened to be Travis Niesen, who was the Broncos' leading scorer when Bryant was a freshmen, and he rode with him to the hospital, where Keating and the rest of the coaching staff soon arrived. The knife, fortunately, had done no major damage; Bryant received 14 stitches and was released the next day. The attacker, who was 18, was eventually arrested for robbing four other Santa Clara students at knifepoint in October, and then confessed to assaulting Bryant.
The saying Bryant likes to use about the incident is, "It's not what happens to you, it's how you handle it," and all he allowed this to be, he said, was "a two-week speed bump." One week later, Bryant got the stitches removed and resumed workouts. After another week, he was back at practice for his senior season.
The most lasting, negative effect came from the press. Playing in a small conference, in the same hoops market as Stanford, Cal, and the Golden State Warriors, it's difficult to get much exposure -- unless, that is, you've been involved in a stabbing.
"Once the initial scare of the injury had passed," Keating said, "I think John was more ashamed about it than anything, because he realized what was going to happen next [in the news]."
Keating, who preaches to his players the importance of not allowing themselves to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, plans to use it as a lesson in next year's team meeting. "When we have nine freshmen and sophomores in the room," he said, "I'll tell them, 'John Bryant was the conference's No. 1 rebounder, No. 2 scorer, was the player of the week this many times, and yet you Google John Bryant and none of that comes up before the fact that he's recovering from a stabbing. You have to understand that's how the world works these days."
The story Bryant would rather have rank higher in his Google results is about his makeover -- how he managed to change from an oaf who could only handle playing 16.9 minutes as a freshman, into a (relatively) nimble 275-pounder who averages 30.6 minutes as a senior. When Keating arrived, in the spring of 2007, he told Bryant he needed to begin reshaping his body. He played his junior season at 305 pounds and averaged 18.0 points and 9.7 rebounds, but it was clear he could have produced more by playing lighter.
Keating decided the best thing to do was offer Bryant an ultimatum for his senior year: Weigh 275 pounds by Sept. 15, or be forced to redshirt. "I wanted him to think there was a chance he wouldn't have played this year if he didn't do it," Keating said. Bryant got the message, and underwent three-week cleansing process overseen by Brien Shamp, a nutritionist at the same San Carlos gym where Bryant's girlfriend, Kasey Monteith, works as a personal trainer. An overhaul of Bryant's diet, combined with workouts with Santa Clara trainer Joe Siara, who formerly worked with Florida's title teams, led Bryant to drop 30 pounds and hit the magical mark of 275.
This was the second Keating-imposed deadline Bryant had met: Entering the '07-08 season, Bryant was seemingly on his way to setting an unofficial record for most time elapsed between haircuts, having grown out a reddish Hobbit-mop from mid-December 2005 -- when he got his hair chopped to look presentable for a televised game against North Carolina -- to November 2007. The day after the Broncos lost a preseason scrimmage, Keating (who said he "couldn't stand" Bryant's hair) called Bryant and told him if he didn't cut it, he'd be suspended. Bryant bee-lined for a SuperCuts near campus and had the mop shorn down to more reasonable curls. For his senior year he took it a step further and went for the more businesslike, cropped style he currently sports. He is, after all, auditioning for the NBA as a player who, as Bryant describes himself, "has gone from just being the biggest guy on the court, early on, to someone that has moves, quickness and agility."
The stabbing -- and the two weeks he missed as a result -- had seemingly zero effect on Bryant's final campaign: He had double-doubles against UAB, UNLV, Stanford and UTEP, among others, in November and December, and has been dominant during WCC play. He succeeds by doing most of his work within eight feet of the basket, pouring in short hooks or layups, or getting to the foul line, where he makes 75.9 percent of his attempts. Pepperdine assistant Marty Wilson, who handled the scouting of Santa Clara for both games between the two teams this season, has been following Bryant ever since he attended a camp at Utah -- where Wilson previously coached -- during high school, and has been highly impressed by the evolution.
"[Bryant]'s undergone a metamorphosis," Wilson said. "He's still a big man, but he's slimmer and stronger, and he has great hands and a great feeling for the game. We wanted to make it tougher on him to catch the ball where he wanted to, and I thought we did a good job of it [in the second meeting, on Feb. 12], but he still got 25 and 12."
The game Wilson was referring to fell on a Thursday; the previous night, Griffin had pulled down only 10 boards against Baylor -- a small victory for Bryant. Keating thinks Bryant will get his shot in the NBA, after scouts evaluating postseason workouts warm up to his combination of size and rebounding ability in a draft lacking in true centers. "We were trying to look back [as a staff], the other day, and see how many guys who led the country in rebounding didn't get in the NBA or least have a cup of coffee or a chance," Keating said. It is, indeed, a nice title to own, and Louisiana Tech's Paul Millsap, who led the nation in boards from 2004-06, used it to climb out of anonymity and onto an NBA roster as a second-round draft steal.
But Griffin, the guy whose NBA future is guaranteed, doesn't seem ready to yield the top spot just yet. On Saturday, he pulled down 23 boards against Texas Tech, for his first 20-rebound game since November. Perhaps he was feeling the heat from Bryant. That is, if he's aware that Bryant is chasing him.