For two long, cold New England winters at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., JaKarr Sampson and Mitch McGary helped each other not only grow into two of the nation's top basketball recruits but learn to cope with the disruptive behavior disorder that posed a threat to their futures.
As tight as Sampson is with McGary, he almost doesn't recognize the freshman forward who has emerged as the breakout player of the NCAA Tournament for Michigan on its way to tonight's championship game against Louisville at the Georgia Dome.
Oh, Sampson knew that the 6-10 McGary had potential. The summer before their second year at Brewster, Sampson said in a phone interview Sunday that McGary "blew up. He was like top four [recruit] in the nation. We said, 'Wow, this kid is going to be pretty good.' "
But like many freshmen, McGary struggled to adjust. He started only six regular-season games and averaged 7.4 points and 6.2 rebounds. But Michigan coach John Beilein moved McGary into the starting lineup for the tournament, and he has responded by averaging 16.0 points and 11.6 rebounds and shooting 69.8 percent from the field through five games.
"When the tournament started, I saw a whole different type of Mitch I hadn't seen before," Sampson said. "I was like, 'This is crazy.' His confidence level went up tremendously. He's got a gift to play this game."
That McGary does. Beilein saw the potential, too, but he knew McGary needed to harness it. "Sometimes your strength can be your weakness," Beilein said. "He tries to do so much. We have a saying: 'Let's be good before you're great.' In this tournament, he's made a good team a great team."
McGary said he was a high school sophomore when he first recognized his weakness. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and when his grades plunged during his junior year back home in Chesterton, Ind., he decided to do something about it.
"It was kind of scary," McGary said. "I was just a happy-go-lucky kid in class, but I'd be spacing off. I wasn't performing in the class because I couldn't focus as well. I finally went to Brewster. I realized if I can embrace it and control it, I should be all right."
McGary repeated his junior year at Brewster, where he met Sampson and Hooper. "JaKarr's my best friend, actually," McGary said. "Him and Max Hooper. We were in a triple room, and we had that tight bond right away. Max kind of grounded JaKarr and I. We were the crazy, loose ones who were happy and couldn't really care less. He helped us a little academically and made us chill out a little bit."
Sampson recalls McGary taking "chilling out" to the extreme when he took part in "Polar Bear Plunge" just before the campus lake froze up. "Mitch jumped into the cold lake," said Sampson, who stayed on the sidelines. "He had boxers on. New Hampshire is cold. He had to run back to the dorm with no towel or anything. It was crazy, but it was funny to watch."
Sampson said he has a similar behavior disorder that formed the basis of his close relationship with McGary. "Brewster helped us out a lot because it slowed everything down for us," Sampson said. "The teachers make sure you're getting your work done. They give you that extra time some people need. That helped out Mitch and me a lot."
Sometime before Monday night's battle with Louisville, McGary knows he'll receive a video from Sampson and Hooper rooting him on. "I talk to them every day," McGary said. "They're watching our games and are happy for me."
McGary's fans at St. John's know better than most just how far he has come to reach this moment.