If The Shoe Fits, Ware It

[h2]Long Beach State’s Senior Point Guard Casper Ware Jr. Continues to Dazzle Away from the National Spotlight.[/h2]

Last season, Long Beach State’s mercurial 5-foot-10 point guard Casper Ware Jr. became the first player in the history of the Big West Conference to capture its Defensive Player of the Year and overall Player of the Year honors. If anyone wondered how he’d top that historical distinction as a senior this year, the dynamic floor general seems to offer up an emphatic answer on a nightly basis.

On February 13th, he was named the conference Player of the Week yet again, an honor he’s claimed at least once a month since the season tipped in November. His 38-point performance against Pacific on February 9th, which included a 27-point second half scoring binge, is one of his latest credentials added to his already mind-boggling resume.

In addition to being the school’s all-time assist leader, Ware also has a chance to own the steals record as well. With Long Beach State’s dearth of national television appearances, along with not being ranked in the Top 20, Head Coach Dan Monson’s team may be an unknown commodity to many, but you can bet your bottom dollar that every high seed in the NCAA Tournament would prefer not to see them come March.

With Ware running the show and talented, long, active, fast, productive players all over the floor like senior guard Larry Anderson, senior forward T.J. Robinson, junior guard James Ennis and senior forward Eugene Phelps, all of whom have been the team’s top scorers in a game this year, Long Beach State could be poised for a deep postseason run.

The 49’ers, who remain undefeated in Big West play, will be far from intimidated against whomever they might face the remainder of the season, having already matched up against the likes North Carolina, San Diego State, Kansas, Xavier and Louisville prior to conference play.

How did Ware fare against such elite competition? How does 29 points, five assists and four rebounds against the Tar Heels sound? Or the 26 points and six assists against San Diego State? How about the 16 points and four steals against Kansas? Or what about 21 points in 28 minutes in their recent game on February 18th against a well-respected Creighton team?

With the national obsession created by the rags-to-riches story of the New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin, a product of Harvard, and to a lesser extent Miami Heat rookie Norris Cole, who starred at Cleveland State, general managers will further hone in on those talented players dominating away from the national spotlight who possess elite talent and leadership skills, players that have scraped and clawed with humility in relative obscurity, guys whose infectious hunger can permeate a team construct and elevate others around them.

In other words, if they’re really doing their job, every NBA scout should already know about Casper Ware, Jr., perhaps the best point guard in the country that most casual fans, outside of California, may have never heard of.

This summer, Baron Davis told them he had a surprise up his sleeve. Due to his persistent back injury and prolonged rehabilitation, the former UCLA All-American and NBA All-Star wouldn’t be able to play for the team coached by one of his mentors, Casper Ware Sr., at the venerable pro-am Drew League in South Central Los Angeles. Instead, he would send along one of his friends.

“Baron told my dad, me and my brother that he was going to send somebody to take his place,” says Casper Jr. “It ended up being LeBron.”

Moments after LeBron James showed up at the Leon H. Washington Park gym and asked league commissioner Dino Smiley for a jersey, the police were forced to shut the doors of the cozy venue, as the crowd pushed dangerously close to the fire marshal’s limit.

“[LeBron] told me, ‘Don’t stand around and just throw me the ball,’ said Casper Jr. “He said, ‘Play your game and don’t change for me. I’m good. I can get mine.’”

And while Lebron’s 33-point performance and rim-wrecking dunks made the social media rounds, an even greater story was taking place in South Central as Casper Jr. earned the eventual league MVP award, despite playing against NBA vets like Metta World Peace aka the artist formerly known as Ron Artest, Steve Blake, JaVale McGee, Brandon Jennings and James Harden, among many others.

Even King James seemed to be impressed with Ware. When Long Beach defeated then #9 ranked Pitt on the road on November 16th, with the point guard tallying 28 points and six assists, LeBron tweeted, “Watching Long Beach St vs. Pitt. Lil homie Casper Ware ballin! Casper Ware a problem out there!! And he got players around him to help as well! Ennis, Robinson, Anderson, etc.”

“You don’t go into [Pitt’s] Peterson Center expecting to win unless you have a floor general and leader who believes in himself and expects to get it done,” said Monson. “Casper’s thing is, ‘I am an elite point guard who’s going to take my guys into any elite setting and we’re not only going to play, but we’re going to win.”

Ware’s father, Casper Sr., burnished his own status as one of Los Angeles’ legendary players a generation prior through the crucible of those summer league games in steamy, humid, cramped gyms. The experience gained and skills developed help him become a three-time All-L.A. City performer at Fremont High School and junior college All-American.

“Playing in the Drew League, where all the top players played, as a young kid in high school, that’s what made my game elevate,” says Casper Sr.

Casper Jr. was nourished by the unique sounds of the game – the roar of excited crowds, shrieking whistles, thud of bouncing balls and sweeter than Kool-Aid sound of nets being tickled by perfect jumpers – since his earliest days in diapers.

“All of my children grew up at the Drew League, sitting, watching and shooting baskets during timeouts and at halftime,” says Casper Sr. “Basketball has always been inside of them.”

Casper Sr. would smile as his namesake would run in the house, crying that his uncle was outside cheating during the traditional family hoops games on Christmas, when Santa invariably delivered a new hoop every year. He remembered the intensity etched in Casper Jr.’s face and the determination he exhibited while participating, as a kid, in workouts that he conducted for local college players.

“He was willing to wake up at 6:00 am, run the bleachers, put those miles in during the offseason, shoot his jumpers and free throws when no one else was in the gym and all of the little things you have to do to be successful,” said Casper Sr.

“I realized early on that if I wanted to be good, I had to do things that other people weren’t willing to do,” said Casper Jr.

His father was ready to replicate his own experiences by placing Casper Jr. on a team in the Drew League to match up against elite college and pro players when he was heading into his sophomore year at Gahr High School.

“I was really nervous at first, knowing all of the great players who played in that league,” said Casper Jr. “But that gave me all the confidence in the world. I went back to high school thinking, ‘I’ve played against way bigger, stronger and better players than this.’ I felt like I had an advantage over every kid I faced in high school.”

Yet, despite an exceptional prep career, Ware was not considered an elite recruit. An occasional letter trickled in from schools like Santa Clara and Montana, but few programs were ready to offer a firm commitment, with the exception of one.

“No big schools were really looking at me,” said Ware. “Long Beach State was the only school who approached me like they really wanted me.”

On the recruiting trail shortly after being hired by Long Beach, Monson was intent on rebuilding the program with a freshman nucleus that could develop and grow together. And he felt that Ware was the foundation of that blueprint.

“He was the guy I wanted,” said Monson. “”We felt like he could come in right away and make an impact. And we were right.”

While some players might’ve waited to make a commitment, hoping bigger schools came into the recruiting fold, Ware committed to the 49’ers after his first unofficial visit.

“Coach Monson told me how tough our schedule would be every year, how I’d get a chance to prove myself against the big schools and I already knew what he was all about and what he accomplished while coaching at Gonzaga.,” said Casper Jr. “So that sealed the deal for me. And I didn’t want to leave my family. They’re such a big part of my life and the fact that they’d be close by made all the difference.”

Ware went on to set Long Beach State’s freshman assist record while averaging nine points a game. But when he first stepped foot on campus, he was painfully shy, barely speaking above a whisper during practices.

“I tell people, as much as you’ve seen him progress as a player, I’ve seen it as a person and a student,” said Monson. “He was so shy that you could barely hear him call a play on the first day of practice. I’ve had a lot of kids improve from year to year, but I’ve never had anyone improve as consistently as Casper. Every year, her gets better and better because he works so hard on his game during the offseason.”

With Ware at the helm, the team, which had only won six games during the prior season, won 15 games during his freshman year.

Against Clemson as a sophomore, he collected 20 points and 10 assists and finished the year averaging 12 points while leading the conference in steals and assists, leading the 49’ers to an overall record of 17-16. Last year, he averaged 17 points, four assists and three rebounds and was a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, annually given to the nation’s top point guard as Long Beach advanced to the NIT with a 22-12 record.

Before the start of this season, Monson instructed all of his players to write down their individual goals for the season. When the coach looked at Casper’s, it read simply, “To defend my Defensive Player of the Year award.”

“That meant more to him than being the league MVP,” said Monson. “He knows how much his defense means to our team. He’s very disruptive and as good an on-ball defender as there is in the country.”

“My motivation this year was to stop the guards that I face,” said Casper Jr. “I pride myself on defense. That’s what my game is based on.”

Outside of his elite skills as a scorer, distributor and defender, Monson is even more impressed with the intangible facets of Ware’s game.

“As a coach, you can live with teams that don’t win if they compete and fight and you knew it meant as much to them as it does you do,” said Monson. “With Casper, I’ve never left a game where I felt like he didn’t want it as much as me or wasn’t as ready as me.”

After a recent game, Monson walked into a 7:00 am practice to find that Casper Jr. and his father had already been on the court for several hours, working on free throws.

“Casper said he didn’t shoot free throws as well as he’d wanted to in the previous game and when I walked by his dad, he said, ‘You’re not going to be good at something unless you work at it,’” said Monson. “As a coach, you want to take credit for guys who improve, for guys who have great character, but it always comes back to the parents, and Casper has incredible parents.”

“When I see him playing well against those top notch NBA players during the summer and the elite college players during the season, I’m so proud of him because of all the hard work that I know he’s put in,” says Casper Sr. “But I’m also proud of how humble he is and the fact that he really cares about other people.”

Casper Sr.’s friend Mark Wade, the former UNLV point guard in the late ‘80s who set the NCAA Tournament’s assist record with 18 against Indiana in the 1987 Final Four, was visiting his mother in the hospital recently and found out that the elderly woman in the same room was a basketball fan. When the woman mentioned that she was an alumnus of Long Beach State, Wade told her that his friend’s son was the starting point guard.

“Casper Ware?,” the woman asked Wade, the light in her eyes brightening. “My daughters have told me all about him,” she said excitedly.

Wade mentioned the conversation to Casper Jr. in passing soon thereafter, mentioning that the woman did not have long to live. Unbeknownst to his parents or Wade, Casper was soon at the hospital, making a new friend.

“I told my brother to go up there with me so we could spend some time with her,” said Casper Jr.

When the brothers walked in, the woman assumed they were there to see someone else, until Casper told her who he was, saying, “We came to see you.” The woman sat up, smiling from ear to ear.

“I didn’t know anything about that until Mark told me,” said Casper Sr. “That means a lot to me and my wife, knowing we raised a person who would do something like that.”

“My goals are simply to be the best person I can be and to be in a place down the road where I feel like I made it,” said Casper Jr. “I’m just happy about my life and where I’ve landed.”

In a few weeks, there might be a lot of people in Long Beach happy about there the 49’ers land.

“I haven’t played in the NCAA Tournament yet,” said Casper Jr. “As a college basketball player, that’s what you think about. That’s what you play for during the regular season. That is a huge motivation for us this year. It’s not about individual goals. Every game, no matter how good I might play, if we don’t get the win, then I didn’t do my job.”

Alejandro Danois, Bounce Magazine’s Senior Editor and a Contributing Writer with Dime Magazine, is also a freelance sports and entertainment writer whose work has been published by the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Sporting News, among others.