By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
They are as New York as the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, the two cornerstones of this year’s West Virginia University basketball team, seniors Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant.
They were born there and raised there — Jones in suburban Mount Vernon, which borders the Bronx, and Bryant not far from the Brooklyn Bridge itself — but from there on you can throw away the stereotypes of New Yorkers that everyone possesses.
There’s no “dese” and “does” with these two, no undying urge to cut you off in traffic or to beep the horn incessantly. They’ve even learned how to live without corned beef on rye and Nathan’s hot dogs.
This is their last year at West Virginia, both having stayed four years, experienced a run to the NCAA Final Four, played with the likes of Da’Sean Butler and Joe Mazzulla, and now are the only real links to the great past.
Their job with this season’s young team is to pass on experience as much as it is to pass the basketball. Winning today would be nice with this team, certainly something that Bob Huggins demands, but in reality they are here to establish a road map to future success.
Coming out of New York they know a few things that kids from other places just don’t know. They know how tough you have to be in life, be it basketball or business, and how you have to earn what you get.
“They play so much,” Huggins said of New York kids. “I think by and large they have to compete more because there are so many kids there who want to play. In a metropolitan area like that you have to earn more. In some places you get a kid who plays just because he’s big. You don’t get that as much in the city, maybe in suburban areas.”
Every neighborhood has blacktop court, a basket without a net or with a wire, a backboard that needs paint … and more kids than can play at once.
Winners stay on the court, and so you have to learn to win.
That is what makes Morgantown an attractive alternative and why they not only wound up coming here, but staying here.
“Life is a lot quicker (in New York), but I think that’s what they like here,” Huggins said. “They enjoy this lifestyle after the hustle and bustle, the hurry up and wait they’ve gone through their whole life. They like this lifestyle better.”
Both Jones and Bryant won over the local populace, for each is a good person as well as a good player.
Both have 1,000 points and no arrests.
Jones is quiet but has learned to assert himself this season as a leader, which is as important as his offensive rebounds, of which he has more than anyone who has ever played at WVU since the statistic was made official.
He has a solid background through his family out of a city that been a pipeline of talent to WVU beginning with Hall of Famer Lowes Moore and women’s player Taylor Palmer.
Jones’ older brother, Gerald, has been there for him throughout, spending time in Morgantown to be with him, train him and advise him.
“He’s been there for me my whole life, through the transition of picking schools, then moving here with me when I decided to come to West Virginia,” Jones recalled as the Mountaineers practiced for their summer European swing. “He’s like my role model and what I aspire to be when I get older.”
Jones has always been a quiet leader, but has made it his business to be outgoing, more vocal as he tries to impart upon his teammates the kind of approach he has taken.
“He wasn’t vocal when he got here,” Huggins said. “He’s gotten more vocal, and they see the way he works. We’ve got guys who have every way to get out of practice. They’re always off tying their shoes or they go to the bathroom the same time every day and think I don’t notice. I’m not that regular.”
Jones has grown in more than just his leadership skills. He was 215 pounds when he arrived in Morgantown but now stands 6-8 with a solid 260-pound frame. He had a brief flirtation with the NBA during the offseason but opted to return to school, a rather wise decision looking in life’s rear-view mirror. He now is etching himself into the record books along with the giants who have played in the school.
“When it’s all said and done, he’s had a Hall of Fame career,” Huggins said. “He’s going to be in the top 10 in scoring and in rebounding.”
And he may be No. 1 in likeability.
“You can’t imagine what a good guy he is and how he is to deal with every day. That’s not just people on the basketball staff; that’s everybody in the Coliseum,” Huggins said. “The faculty that has had him, everyone raves about what a good guy he is. He’s what everybody would want their son to be. You wish all of them were like him.”
Bryant is a different sort of cat. He has a smile that can light up a moonless night and a bubbling personality. He hasn’t met a person or a shot he doesn’t like, which makes his move this year from the point guard to the shooting guard position a step toward putting him into his natural habitat.
With Joe Mazzulla graduated, Bryant is the driving force on the team, at least until the freshman point guards Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds mature.
“Honestly, I’m going to do whatever my team needs me to do. That’s what I need to do. Sometimes I’ll go to the point, but most of the time I’ll be playing 2,” he said, wanting to emphasize that this season is all about team with him.
“I feel more comfortable at the point, but if I’m going to get some shots and help my team win some games, I will play the 2.”
He suffered through one of his worst games ever early in the season with a loss to Kent State but bounced back with 18 points against Alcorn State.
In many ways those games summed up his career, which has certainly been bittersweet. There have been tremendous highs and some of the lowest lows.
He was a key member of the Final Four team but missed the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four games with a broken foot.
“It was very disappointing that I was hurt because that is something you look forward to from when you were a little kid, playing in the Final Four,” Bryant said. “I finally got to be on the stage that I wanted to be on my whole life and I couldn’t even play because of my foot.”
He bounced back last year and had a decent season, setting the stage for him to move to the 2-guard spot and score some points this season, added on to the already 1,000-point career he has had.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.