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Steve Aschburner

Ohio University fans cheer for Gary Trent during his jersey retirement ceremony.
Courtesy of Joel Hawksley

Trent leans on rough background to encourage others

Posted Jan 26 2012 3:02PM

When Gary Trent was a kid, childhood ended fast. He had grown up in a section of Columbus, Ohio, referred to as "The Jungle." Both his parents, and several other relatives, served jail time for drug possession or trafficking offenses. His father Dexter did nearly seven years of a life sentence from a federal drug bust. As a teenager, Trent was on his way too for a time, allegedly stuffing his pockets with cash from crack sales on street corners.

"From about eighth grade on, I raised myself," Trent told SLAM magazine's Nicholas Piotrowicz for a January 2011 story. "When you're raising yourself, you're going to make some irrational decisions." Eventually, after briefly dropping out of high school, Trent turned to basketball, caught the eye and concern of a good coach, and channeled some of the demons onto the court.

When Trent was ready for college, he got few sniffs in or out of state because of his background and his grades. Even Bob Huggins, famous for recruiting hard cases, passed after a glimpse at Trent's transcript. Larry Hunter at Ohio University was the only one willing to take a chance or seemed to care. And even then, Trent's high school coach, Randy Cotner, delivered him to Athens, Ohio, just two days after graduation, desperate to get Trent off the Columbus streets.

Gary Trent, once dubbed the 'Shaq of the MAC', was a three-time MAC Player of the Year.
Courtesy of Ohio University athletics

When Gary Trent made it to the NBA in 1995 -- to the Portland "Jail Blazers" in their training-wheel days -- he came in with a chip on his shoulder, the result of his upbringing (an aunt had custody of him for a time) and enflamed by the disrespect he felt toward his days at OU. Being "The Shaq of the MAC," a man among boys who dominated all three college seasons and boosted the Bobcats to a national profile, was one thing; going up against taller, nearly as strong NBA players supposedly was another.

Trent daydreamed of dunking so hard on someone that he would break their hand. He once instructed NBA teammates -- how serious the conversation was remains in question -- on the smartest body part to administer a beating (above the hairline, where bruises and welts are harder to spot). While with Dallas in January 2000, Trent earned a suspension and a $10,000 fine by barging into the Golden State locker room to go after Warriors guard Vonteego Cummings. In 1997, he was arrested on a domestic violence charge accused of assaulting his girlfriend.

Question: If you ran a college basketball program, would you retire the jersey number of a guy like that?

Bigger question: If you ran an elementary school, would you put that sort of guy in charge of counseling and disciplining young children?

The answers to both questions: Yes and yes.

Gary Trent, these days, is a testament to the ability of a man or woman to change, to grow, to be starkly different at age 37 from the person he was at 17 or 27. And to the powers of love, faith and moments of nurturing and direction at critical times by key people.

This is an NBA bad boy gone good. Or, since we're all works in progress, a heckuva lot better than who he was, what he was, where he was.

At halftime of Ohio's 69-65 victory over rival Miami (Ohio) last weekend, more than 13,000 people at the school's Convocation Center in Athens saw Trent's No. 20 jersey finally, officially, retired. Then he, his wife Natalia and their three sons returned home to Apple Valley, Minn., with Trent due back on the job as an assistant principal and "cultural intervention specialist" at Dayton's Bluff Elementary in east St. Paul.

What does a "cultural intervention specialist" do? Keeps kids from going off the rails the way Trent did at their age. Sometimes scaring them straight.

"With my life, as far as my background and my upbringing, I fit perfectly for these kids," Trent said last week in a telephone interview. "What we're trying to do is prevent them from going astray. And if they are astray, we're trying to get them back within arm's distance of making sure they've still got a chance on life.

Gary Trent is one of eight Ohio University basketball players to have played in the NBA.
David Sherman /NBAE/Getty Images

"These kids see no light at the end of the tunnel. They don't see any positivity in their lives. A lot of them have single parents. So everything is negative: 'I don't care' or 'So what?' I'm just trying to get them to understand, don't throw your life away today because of what you cannot see down the road. Because I was in this exact same situation."

Trent pushed away over time, getting help here and there while his personality matured little by little. He had a scowl on the court and bulled his way in the low post with broad shoulders that made up horizontally for what his 6-foot-8 frame handicapped vertically. He was headstrong, a challenge to his coaches and a physical threat to his opponents, but in 1-on-1 conversations, Trent could be thoughtful and inquisitive, almost surprisingly so.

"Not many people knew it, but I knew Gary Trent had a soft spot, a good heart," said Bob Goedderz, the former Minneapolis cop who herds Timberwolves players as the team's longtime head of security. "I never had many issues to deal with because of Gary."

Trent spent the final three seasons of his NBA career in Minnesota, after three with Dallas, a partial year in Toronto and those first 2 seasons with Portland. He had stints in Greece and Italy after all that, but played his final NBA game nearly eight years ago at age 29. Trent's 506 appearances in the league (8.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 19.5 mpg) nearly match the 525, combined, by the other eight OU products who reached the NBA, the most elite of whom -- Dave Jamerson, Frank Baumholtz -- have their numbers hoisted in Athens.

Trent left school after his junior season and ranks third there both in points (2,108) and rebounds (1,050). He was voted the MAC's Player of the Year after all three seasons. And he claims to be one of "only 17 people in NCAA history" to top 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in just three years. "So you've got Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Gary Trent in that class," he said, with a laugh.

That missing fourth year, and the degree credits to go with it, posed a hurdle for Trent, both to any jersey ceremony (a bachelor's degree is an OU requirement for such consideration) and to some career options. Trent had gone through several NBA programs for retired players, learning coaching, front office and even broadcasting skills. He thought about taking the AAU coaching of his son Gary Jr.'s team to another level. Finally, after a number of false starts, at a Twin Cities community college and online programs through the University of Phoenix, Trent completed a business management degree in 2010.

Last summer, a friend told him about the position at Dayton's Bluff. He surely had the street cred to grab the kids' attention.

"There are a few kids who look me up on the Internet and -- it's a bad thing, in a sense -- but it makes me feel good when they don't want to talk to nobody else, don't want to talk to teachers, they just want to talk to me," Trent said.

After completing a business management degree in 2010, Gary Trent met the school's requirements to have his jersey retired.
Courtesy of Joel Hawksley

"Sometimes they just need to come to the office and vent about what they're struggling with. When there's kids in trouble two or three days in a room, you'll call home and find out there's some divorce going on or Dad just went to jail -- there's just so much drama going on. A lot of times, kids run up and just want to hug you."

Dayton's Bluff, a public school with about 420 students from kindergarten to sixth grade, draws from a low-income area. Having a behavorial specialist in general, and Trent in particular, has been "a blessing" for Principal Steve Flucas, whose workload precludes the sort of individual time and follow-up the former player has been able to give.

"There have been so many unintended positives since Gary joined us," Flucas said. "He has a gift for connecting with kids. But he has helped so much in connecting with fathers, because many of them had their own 'hoop dreams.' We never have to worry about getting a call back when Gary leaves them a voicemail."

Flucas said that Trent was one of seven candidates for the position, all of whom were vetted thoroughly. Any reservations about Trent's rough past, as a youngster right into his NBA years? "I didn't because I could see he had a good heart," the principal said. "But we had that conversation."

Trent said that his days, unfortunately, are filled at Dayton's Bluff. The kids are young but the troubles start early.

"I'm sure some of them are going to end up in jail," Trent said. "Some of these kids are going to end up on drugs. Some of these kids are going to wind up with teenage pregnancies. But because these kids are still young, we still have an opportunity to reach them and change their lives.

"If you decide to stab somebody with a pencil or get in a fight or steal something from the store, if you go to jail or get put in one of those 'gladiator' behavior schools, you get so sucked into that environment that you might never be able to come back to normality."

A role model to the kids, Trent might be equally good for some of his NBA peers (how's that for a sentence many doubted would ever be written?) Many players search for ways to spend their post-playing days. Some get or stay active in their communities. Few dig in elbows-deep quite like Trent has, maybe in part because they aren't sure how to start.

"I call it the Al-Qaeda syndrome," Trent said. "You remember how those guys in the planes just learned how to fly but didn't learn how to land? All through elementary school, high school, college, everybody tells [an athlete], 'Do your best, you can go to the pros! Do your best, you can be great!' They build you up, build you up.

"But what about the guy who doesn't make the pros after he gave it his all. What about the guy who goes to the pros and has a short career or gets injured? What do you do about this guy emotionally or mentally or societal-wise? They teach you how to fly but they never teach you how to land."

Gary Trent seems to have landed quite nicely, his college jersey in the rafters, his feet firmly planted.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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