Curtis Jerrells: The Heavy Lifter Behind Baylor's NCAA Run

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday. >> En Espanol | Read more Ken Rodriguez Articles

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Curtis Jerrells
D. Clarke Evans/Getty
In the madness that descended on Waco in March, one voice from Austin gave Baylor basketball a special lift. The voice of a former player and new Spur, Curtis Jerrells, urging the Bears to finish a run that could inspire an Easter sermon.

Once given up for dead, Baylor came alive. Once tarnished by a murder and a cover-up of NCAA sins, the Bears found redemption. They also made hoop history, advancing for the first time to the Elite Eight, with the help of a catalyst who did everything but suit up and knock down a game-winning shot.

In January, after Baylor upset No. 6 Texas in Austin, Jerrells climbed out of the stands, jumped onto the court and led the traditional post-game handshake line with the Longhorns – as if he’d played in the game. "He was ecstatic," recalls Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills.

In March, after Baylor began an improbable NCAA Tournament run, Jerrells called Mills just about every day. He spoke with players, offered encouragement, became the Bears’ biggest cheerleader.

In April, a week after Baylor’s quest for a Final Four berth had fallen short, Jerrells glowed with pride. "Those are my guys," he said before rattling off their accomplishments like a proud, big brother.

The connection between Jerrells and the Bears runs deep. Mills puts it this way: "I can honestly say we would not be in this position if Curtis Jerrells had not been a Baylor Bear in the class of 2005."

Baylor began recruiting Jerrells during the darkest period in its history. After one player, Patrick Dennehy, was killed. After a teammate, Carlton Dotson, confessed to the crime. After the coach, Dave Bliss, tried to portray Dennehy – inaccurately – as a drug dealer. After cheating was exposed, illicit payments were revealed and Bliss resigned in disgrace.

The unraveling scandal in 2003-04 prompted players to flee to other schools.. The same year, Baylor began pursuing Jerrells, a gifted point guard and highly regarded prospect from Austin’s Del Valle High. As a junior, Jerrells didn’t run from the new Baylor coaches. He asked them to pull up a chair.

"I didn’t follow college basketball," Jerrells says. "I didn’t fully understand what had happened at Baylor."

Friends filled in the details. Jerrells did his own research. His conclusion: Baylor had five scholarship players, a bunch of walk-ons and no one his equal at point guard. He could play as a freshman and help rebuild the program.

When Jerrells committed to Baylor, heads turned and jaws dropped. He did what?

"I just wanted to play," he says.

Curtis Jerrells
Baylor University Photography/Matthew Minard
That's precisely what new coach Scott Drew wanted. Get Jerrells on the court, give him the ball, surround him with new talent. But there would be more heartbreak. During his senior year, Jerrells lost his great grandmother, a woman he grew up with until he was 13. "We were very close," Jerrells says. "After school, we would sit on the front porch and talk about everything."

When he arrived in Waco in the fall of 2005, the NCAA killed Baylor's preseason schedule. The blow hit Jerrells so hard he contemplated leaving. "That was pretty tough," he says. "just figuring out if I wanted to stay."

Drew held onto Jerrells and the Bears completed their conference-only schedule at 4-13. Jerrells improved his game, his teammates grew with him, and in the spring of '08 Baylor bloomed, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years.

Along the way, Jerrells became a Baylor basketball historian. Yes, the kid who once professed ignorance about college hoops began digging into school archives. Suddenly, he became an expert on David Wesley and Vinnie Johnson, on every Baylor Bear who played in the NBA. "It was time to open my horizons and learn," he says. "You have to be a student of the game."

Jerrells completed his career in '09 as the third-leading scorer in Baylor history, made the All-Big 12 third team and led the Bears to the NIT finals. Two winning seasons in four years. A trip to the Big Dance. After a murder, player defections and NCAA sanctions, Baylor experienced a resurrection.

Credit strong coaching, good recruiting and fine player development. But also credit the leadership and spark Jerrells provided. "We inherited a mess and had to start over," Mills says, "and Curtis became the winningest player in Baylor history in 3 1/2 years."

Jerrells left a hero, went undrafted but remained in touch, especially with his replacement, Tweety Carter. Jerrells kept calling after he signed with the Spurs, after he got waived, after he began starring for San Antonio's Development League team, the Austin Toros. Then the Bears showed up to cheer at one of Jerrells' games in Austin.

The Spurs like what they see in Jerrells -- a strong work ethic, an ability to play both ends of the floor. The Bears like what they see, too. A kid who breathed life into a dying program. A proud alum who continues to provide a lift.