He first time Jamie Feick played barnball, back in rural Bellville, Ohio, he was no older than eight, just a fern among the forest of legs and torsos formed by his six uncles. The uncles would gather in the barn on their mother Dorothy Bunfill's dairy farm, where the rusty hoop was 8�, maybe nine feet off the ground, and the packed-dirt floor was askew. One of them, usually John Rhea, would start the rough-housing. A push. A shove. Then, bedlam.
Barnball isn't for the weak-hearted. "Half basketball," says Rhea "and a big ol' half of football." Bodies slam into wood. Elbows slam into ribs. Heads slam into heads. There are no fouls. There are scraped knees, bloody scalps and, always, at least one of what is referred to in Bellville as "a good knocker under the chin."
Pretty boys who rely on frilly crossovers and spins to reach the hoop don't belong, while kids are easy targets. "The thing I remember most is the beating I would take," says Feick. "They would just pound me." He pauses. "I loooooved it."
The games weren't just opportunities for Feick, now a forward-center for the New Jersey Nets, to add to his collection of scabs and scars. They were also an escape from realities a youngster shouldn't have to face. "What he's done is show others that, even if you have a traumatic background, you can survive," says Nets coach Don Casey. "What Jamie has gone through best explains who Jamie Feick is."
Explaining who Feick is, on the surface, is easy. He's a 25-year-old, 6'8", 255-pound, oft-waived, oft-ignored, five-team NBA journeyman who has no business pulling down 9.9 rebounds per game, an average that through Saturday was the seventh best in the NBA. Tendinitis has limited his minutes in the past month, but Feick has proved himself as a player who can come off the bench and make a difference. On Jan. 20, in a 122-120 win over the Detroit Pistons, Feick got a career-high 25 rebounds, including the game-clincher off a Lindsey Hunter miss just before the buzzer. "He's one of the best rebounders for his size I've ever seen," says former teammate Michael Cage, who twice led the league in boards. "He has the relentlessness all the great ones need."
He's also a decent jump shooter, a good passer and a mean pick-setter. Off the court Feick is shy, often aloof. He speaks softly, with a gentle twang. He has brown eyes and a neatly groomed goatee that gives his face more mystery than menace.
But that's all surface. It's not who Feick is.
He learned of the murders from a friend last August. The crime was a double homicide that month, which is still being investigated by the Richland County ( Ohio) sheriff's office. According to reports, two men were fatally stabbed in a house near Bellville, and when Feick learned of the death of one of the men, the 43-year-old owner of the house, he cried and cried.
This was Jamie Feick's father. Perhaps.
There is another man, one Feick would rather not name, a construction worker in central Ohio. He and Jamie have spent a good deal of time together these past few years—hunting, fishing. They talk often, and in the summer, when Feick isn't lifting weights or tending to his eight-acre farm about 10 miles from Bellville, he can often be found hanging out with the man.