On Feb. 1 in the locker room of Lawlor Events Center, Nevada junior A.J. West received a text from a friend around 3 p.m. – minutes before tipoff.
The message delivered the news that West’s mentor since he was 15 years old, Jermaine Brown, had passed away – the 34 year old had suffered a stroke five days prior.
West said that’s partially why he struggled in the first half against Air Force. Yet, in the five minutes of overtime, he played for his fallen coach by notching crucial rebounds, blocks and points to help propel the Wolf Pack to a 69-56 win.
“He’s part of the reason why I’m still playing basketball today,” West said.
The 6-foot-9 center and his father Allen West, Sr. both said Brown put West on the basketball scene.
“This is a guy that really helped put AJ on the map — put him into one of the premier high schools in the country,” Allen West, Sr. said.
However, Nevada might not have found him if it wasn’t for West’s drive that he said comes from his dad who played basketball for UC Santa Barbara.
West put together his own highlight reel and posted it on YouTube on Feb. 20, 2013. He knew that no one else was going to do it for him, so he went out on a limb and used his video editing skills to take matters into his own hands.
He sent it to every school.
“Coaches looked at his video like ‘this is the best highlight reel I’ve ever seen,’” said Allen West, Sr., a television and film producer. “It’s like a movie.”
The background music, Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard,” also matches how West identifies himself.
“I’m always reppin’ Brooklyn,” West said. “I’ll never say I’m from New York.”
His teammates have described him as having an “East Coast swag,” which is difficult for West to describe.
“We don’t take anything from anybody,” West said. “Where we are from speaks for itself: Brooklyn. You don’t even have to explain it.”
The 22-year-old West admits that his experience playing on the East Coast, from tournaments to street ball, has helped his game.
The video he made lists that he led the NJCCA in blocked shots with an average of 5.5. Joe Pope, an announcer from the NYC Dickman League, even gave him the nickname “Access Denied.”
Fortunately, Wolf Pack head coach David Carter and assistant coach Keith Brown saw the highlight reel. Several schools tried recruiting West, but Nevada stood out from the rest.
On March 12, 2013, Carter called West to tell him to watch the Pack play against Wyoming in the first round of the Mountain West Championship.
West watched the game from his dorm room at Monroe College and saw Nevada lose 85-81 in Las Vegas. Carter called soon after.
“He probably called me right after he got out of the locker room,” West said. “He was like, ‘Son, we need you.’”
That was the turning point for West.
“That really made me feel comfortable,” he said. “All the other schools, it was mostly just the assistants calling me, and to have coach call me right after they lost an important game, and say that they needed me, that made me feel really special. So I set up a visit, and the rest is history.”
However, it hasn’t been all glory for West and the Wolf Pack, as he wasn’t cleared to play until after the third appeal on Dec. 18. The NCAA was investigating how many prep-school games he had appeared in since he had attended two and there was a rule on how many of those games he could appear in and retain NCAA eligibility.
Nevada knew there was a possibility he would have to sit out, but it decided to take a risk on West.
With Nevada sitting third in the Mountain West Conference, West is averaging 8.5 points and 8.2 rebounds as the starting center, it looks like he was worth the gamble.
“He’s changing the game,” Pack senior Jerry Evans, Jr. said. “He’s giving us a good presence that we didn’t have last year. He plays very hard on both ends of the court.”
Evans added that West is especially aggressive on the boards and reminds him of another Dario Hunt.
Carter noted that West is playing the way he expected him too.
“Coming in mid-semester, you’re going to have ups and downs — you’re not going to play your best… I think he’s been playing what my expectations have been, we just need to get him to be more consistent day in and day out,” Carter said.
West struggled with consistency on Saturday against Air Force in what he described as being “a tale of two halves.”
Carter said he told West the same words before the game and at halftime to try to get him going. Carter attributed the inconsistent play to being a transfer.
“Sometimes it’s hard for guys’ first year in division I to get in a rhythm,” Carter said. “He played well the last five minutes. We have to get him to play well the first half, the second half. So what to say to him to get him motivated? I think it’s just him playing or getting involved mentally.”
This may have been true for other games where West has been inconsistent, but this one was different. West was coping with the sudden news of his mentor’s death.
Yet, he still posted a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds along with four blocks.
“A.J. is an incredibly mentally tough kid, and he’s really emotionally balanced,” said Allen West Sr. who was at Saturday’s game, visiting from Brooklyn. “I know that A.J. went really hard in the second half because of that. He’s playing for him.”
West’s signature seems to be blocking shots, which he’s able to do so well thanks to his long arms and pure instinct. He’ll never forget that Brown would leave him in the game, even when he struggled on offense, because of this talent.
“He knew I was going to block shots,” West said. “I’m going to block every shot that I can.”
The last time he saw his mentor was in the summer, and Brown’s final words to West were written on a Facebook post after Nevada’s 74-71 win over UNLV on Jan. 8: “Congrats bro. Stay hungry.”
Before every game, Brown always asked West if he was handing out invites to the block party.
“I got the invites with me,” West would answer back.
In just 11 games, West is averaging three blocks, and he’ll continue to pass out the invitations to the block party — forever keeping Brown in his memory.