The question triggered an unexpected wave of emotion that washed over Dave Boff as he struggled silently for several seconds to find his voice. What would it mean to the Roselle Catholic basketball coach to see Stony Brook’s Jameel Warney make it all the way to the NBA?
The knowledge of how impossibly far Warney has traveled as a person and an athlete, how much Warney’s family sacrificed and the effort Boff, his wife, Katie, and many teachers at the Union County, New Jersey, school poured into helping Warney realize his dream was overwhelming. In a quivering voice, Boff said, “It would be the proudest moment of my life. He’s just the greatest kid, and he’s worked so hard. To see where he is now is just crazy.”
Where Jameel Warney is now is in the midst of a 17-game winning streak that is the longest in Division I and chasing his third straight America East player of the year award. Along with fellow seniors Carson Puriefoy III and Rayshaun McGrew, Warney hopes to reach his third straight conference championship game with the goal of finally breaking through to earn Stony Brook’s first NCAA Tournament bid.
Now that he’s within 45 points of the 2,000-point plateau for his career, the 6-8, 260-pound power forward has attracted scouts from every team in the NBA and has a chance to hear his name called in the June 23 draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
How it all began
That scenario was unimaginable when a friend’s mother recruited Warney to join her son’s AAU team at the age of 11.
Warney already stood 5-10, but he was a painfully introverted kid who generally stayed home and played video games as a means of avoiding contact with the gang element that was pervasive in his neighborhood in Plainfield, New Jersey. Recently recalling his first practice, Warney said he quit halfway through the first set of suicide sprints.
“I really didn’t know that much basketball,” Warney said. “In the second game, a kid went up for a layup, and I tackled him.”
Not only did Warney lack skills, but he struggled to handle the demands of Jim Burke, who ran the New Jersey Hot Shots AAU age group program. He often was reluctant to practice, and there was a point when Burke kicked him off the team for more than a week after a disagreement.
Just when Warney was beginning to enjoy the game and show signs of progress, Burke died unexpectedly. They had known each other for only about six months, but Warney’s mother, Denise, said the tragic event hit her son hard.
“It affected me tremendously because he was someone who believed in me from the start,” Warney said. “I couldn’t make a layup, but I was still a superstar in his eyes. He was a no-nonsense coach, but he knew how to talk to me and bring the best out in me. It showed how there are a lot of great people in the world who can help you succeed in life.”
Guided by Burke’s successor, Mike Heller, Warney’s passion for the game became consuming, and a court set up by his stepfather, Thomas Bailey, behind the two-family home where he lived became a mecca for neighborhood kids. His mother was 6-2 and his natural father, James, was 6-5. Hoping to reach 7 feet, Warney worked to develop the passing skills that would set him apart from most big men.
Roselle Catholic’s Boff first saw Warney as an eighth-grader after Heller informed him that the family wanted to explore Catholic schools. “The first time I saw him, he wasn’t a great basketball player yet, but he had these amazing hands,” Boff said. “He caught everything anywhere near him. He also had tremendous footwork. I remember thinking, ‘This kid has the best hands and feet I’ve ever seen.’ ”
In time, Boff said, Warney developed into the best passer he ever coached with the exception of guard Isaiah Briscoe, who currently is a freshman star at Kentucky. But that development came with the steep price tag of tuition for Denise Warney that put a terrible strain on her income as an administrative aide working for an insurance company.
“It was rough for four years because you’re on a fixed income, but I was determined,” Warney’s mother said. “I lost a car [in a repossession], but I did what I had to do to make sure Jameel’s tuition was paid so that he could continue to go to Roselle Catholic. I took loans to pay for utilities and different bills. I cut back everything. We ate a lot of soup, lived life a little bit different so Jameel could have a better life.”
Those times when the power went out, Warney said, “I would stay at my best friend’s house for a few weeks until the bills got paid so I could do my homework. It showed how tough our family is and how close we are. I’m grateful they all sacrificed their dreams and priorities for me.”
Making big strides in school
As hard as he worked at basketball, that was the easy part for Warney, who struggled during his freshman year to adjust to the academic discipline required at Roselle Catholic, which is part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark school district. His mother credits Goff, who was a sixth-grade teacher at the time, with steering him in the right direction, and Warney added that former vice principal Patrick Hagan also played a major role in making him understand what it took to stay in school.
“Dave Boff saw a lot of good in Jameel,” Denise Warney said. “He let Jameel know there was help in the classroom and different programs that he could get into. He had Jameel over to his house studying in the summertime. He had to do all that before he played basketball.”
Warney was a chronic absentee in middle school and was allowed to graduate with a perilously low grade average, and it took time to change those bad habits at Roselle Catholic. “These people were sacrificing for me, and I had to sacrifice for them,” Warney said. “I had to pick it up my junior and senior year. I give credit to my coach’s wife for tutoring me.
“I had an A in a class for the first time my senior year, and I was like, ‘Wow, I can do this.’ It continued to college, where I’m making good grades now.”
Of course, Warney’s development as a basketball player was thrilling. Boff said his presence became a magnet for other top players and helped him build the program into one of the top contenders in New Jersey and now nationally. He still tells the story of how, during his junior year, Warney had 20 points and 11 rebounds in a 2011 playoff loss to St. Patrick’s Catholic while going against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who went to Kentucky and was drafted No. 2 overall in 2012.
But Boff is most proud of how Warney developed into a “borderline honor roll student” who didn’t miss a day of school as a senior and became a peer leader who spoke at retreats for the incoming freshman class.
“Basketball-wise speaks for itself,” Boff said. “Student-wise, we still regard Jameel as the model for what we believe Roselle Catholic can do for somebody, but it was because he took advantage of all the things at his disposal in terms of growing as a student. He’s far and away the person people at our school are the most proud of because of where he came from and where he is now. It’s absolutely unbelievable.”
When Warney graduated and made it through the NCAA Clearinghouse to become eligible as a freshman at Stony Brook — where he is on track to graduate in May — his mother sent an email to Boff and asked him to share it with the Roselle Catholic faculty. “People still talk about the email from Denise and say, ‘That’s why everybody teaches is to get an email like that one,’ ” Boff said.
College coaches take notice
Many expected Warney to accept a scholarship to nearby Rider University, but Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell and assistant Jay Young were persistent. They had a connection through Bryan Dougher, who played for the New Jersey Hot Shots four years ahead of Warney. Dougher went on to set the Seawolves’ Division I career scoring record before Warney passed him this season.
During the summer before Warney’s senior season at Roselle Catholic, Pikiell attended an AAU game in which Warney totally outplayed an opposing 7-1 center named Adam Woodbury, who was targeted by Iowa. Suddenly, Iowa turned its attention to Warney, even suggesting to his mother that she might consider moving to Iowa City with him.
“Iowa jumped in, and it was tweeted,” Pikiell said. “At Jameel’s next game, there were probably 25 schools. Off of one game and one tweet.”
Boff recalled Villanova, Notre Dame and Tennessee showing strong interest, but unlike the majority of top prospects, Warney’s head wasn’t turned by attention from power-conference schools.
Describing his official visit to Stony Brook, Warney said, “I loved the campus and the community. I thought it was beautiful. I love Coach Young, and ‘Pikes’ is a great coach.
“I decided I love this place too much to not come here. When I called them and told them, you would think they’d won a million dollars because of all the excitement they had.”
Warney believed he would be better off playing right away and accelerating his development rather than coming off the bench or spending a redshirt year at a larger school. He won America East rookie of the year honors and was named player of the year the past two seasons plus defensive player of the year as a junior, when he also led Division I in double-doubles.
Known for his unselfish nature in the past, Warney has asserted himself more at the offensive end this season despite being double- and triple-teamed. Pikiell expects him to be invited to the NBA tryout camp in Portsmouth, Virginia. The big question is whether the 6-8 Warney can compete with taller low-post players, but Pikiell has a different perspective.
“People don’t realize he has the wingspan of a 7-footer,” Pikiell said. “He’s the best-passing big guy that’s been around in a long time. People tell me the 10 things he can’t do all the time. I say, ‘OK, let me give you the 20 that he can do.’ He’ll get tryouts and he’ll be in camps. When they guard him one-on- one, ‘OK, good luck.’
“The great part is that he embraces what he is. Some team is going to recognize that and really want that.”
For now, Warney is working on tuning out the NBA noise to focus on becoming part of the first Stony Brook team to reach the NCAA Tournament. Warney said the Seawolves have worked harder than ever to improve after losses to Albany in the past two America East title games, including a 51-50 heartbreaker last season.
“The two championship games that me and Tre [Puriefoy] have been in, we feel like we’ve learned a lot, and the underclassmen learned from last year’s game,” Warney said. “I feel like it’s going to pay off this year.”
No matter how things turn out for Stony Brook in March, the happiest ending for all who have nurtured Warney’s growth will come later when he plays professional basketball somewhere.
Even Boff has received calls about Warney from NBA teams. “I tell them, ‘Jameel is going to be the first guy there and the last guy to leave. You send him to a community event, you know he’s going to do a great job. He’s a guy that could play in the league for 12 years, never have an off-the-court issue and always show up to work and do what he’s supposed to do. He’d be a pro’s pro.’
“Even if he doesn’t play in the NBA, he’s still going to go overseas and make a ton of money. He’s going to be able to take care of his mom like he’s always wanted to do. It’s such a special story, and everybody hopes it has an amazing ending.”