SHANGHAI — If Jimmer Fredette were to stand on the balcony of his 19th floor apartment in Shanghai, he’d see a sprawling metropolis that evokes Gotham City, an unending tableau of apartment buildings and office towers stretching to the horizon. If the skies were clear, a rarity here, he might see the top of the world’s second-tallest building.
Standing out there on the balcony, where he keeps his washing machine and dries his clothes, he might ruminate on how far he’s come — from tiny Glens Falls, New York, to College Player of the Year, to NBA lottery pick to now, the best basketball player in a country of 1.3 billion.
But Jimmer Fredette is not standing on his balcony, and he’s not one to ruminate. It’s Christmas Eve, and he’s sitting in the soft amber glow of a fake Christmas tree, building a Nativity scene out of Legos.
This is his second season with the Shanghai Sharks, and yet his apartment does not seem lived in. It feels empty, lonely, a place he just crashes, so devoid of personal effects he could probably pack up in an hour and you’d never know he was here.
The art on the wall is generic, provided, hardly worth noticing, and the furniture looks like he assembled it after a quick trip to Ikea. The only thing that doesn’t seem transitory is the massive white leather couch that takes up most of the living room. It is here that Jimmer spends most of his time when he’s not playing basketball, watching TV. He doesn’t know what else to do in China. Sometimes he gets on the subway and gets off at random stops, walks around, but that gets old. And so he sits in this apartment and binge watches Netflix.
His daughter, Wesley, is almost a year old now. She was here in November, along with Whitney, Jimmer’s wife, a former BYU cheerleader. They’re back in Colorado, where Whitney grew up, away from the smog and the lonely apartment when Jimmer’s on the road. Wesley’s highchair is in the dining room, and her crib is still set up in the guest room, as if Whitney and Wesley might pop in unannounced. But they won’t, and Jimmer knows this. And yet, for some reason, he doesn’t fold up the highchair or the crib. Perhaps they are reminders of why he is here.
Sometimes he needs those reminders. Like when he’s in Shanxi, a gritty industrial city where the gray dust blows from the cement factories and the grime is so thick he could scribble his name on the windows of parked cars. Or when he was in Jilin, near the border of North Korea, and the bed looked so unkempt he didn’t even pull down the cover. He just slept on top, fully clothed.
He reminds himself of Wesley, of the sacrifices he’s making for his family, when he looks over a menu and puzzles over the selections: Boiled bullfrog. Cow’s brain. Live chicken head_._ “Rice,” he says in Chinese, smiling at the waitress.
Jimmer is unfailingly polite, and so he’d never say this to the waitress or anyone else in China, but the truth is, he eats to survive. If he were still in the NBA, he might have a personal chef, a nutritionist. But here, if the food looks recognizable, he eats it. Pizza. Hamburgers. Greasy french fries. In Shanghai, a city of Maseratis and a gleaming Versace store, he can eat well, but even here, the air carries a slight whiff of chemicals you can almost taste. It’s hard not to want to be somewhere else.
This isn’t how it was supposed to go. Not after those years at BYU, crowds rushing the Marriott Center floor, BYU co-eds showing up at 2 a.m. at Village Inn to catch a glimpse of him, old ladies tracking down his parents' number in New York to tell his dad they loved his son. They watched Jimmer, they told his dad, not basketball. They watched Jimmer, as if Jimmer was its own sport.
No, this isn’t how it was supposed to play out, not when SportsCenter led with his highlights on ESPN, not when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated twice his senior year, not when the president of the United States was gushing about his goose-bump inducing play during March Madness, and not when Kevin Durant, the NBA MVP, was tweeting that he, Jimmer Fredette, was the “best scorer in the world.”
Jimmer didn’t think he’d be the white Lebron James. He never thought he was the second coming of Larry Bird. His ambitions were much more modest. But he never imagined this either, being half a world away from home on Christmas Eve, building a Nativity set out of Legos he’s fishing from the box.
What does life look like when things don’t turn out as you’ve planned?
It looks like this: the Shanghai Sports Complex. It’s a squat concrete building that officially operates under the auspices of the local communist party. It sweats grime, under an ochre of smog. To find the morning shootaround, you walk through a labyrinth of halls, past the prepubescent girls with chalked-up hands working the pommel horse and rings, past the boys that look like twig-limbed fifth-graders pumping iron, destined for Olympic glory in track and field or powerlifting or whatever else the party might decide. You follow the sound of the basketballs bouncing, past the big iron door with the heavy chain and the padlock, and there, on a wooden court under a red communist banner stands Jimmer Fredette.
It’s January, the middle of the season, and the Shanghai Sharks are in bad shape. They’ll be lucky to make the playoffs. It’s also cold in here. The Chinese players are bundled up in thick winter parkas beneath the hoop, listening to their American coach, Brian Goorjian, running through plays for their next game. Jimmer is off to the side, his sweats tucked into his socks, his hood pulled over his head.
Jimmer is often described as happy-go-lucky. In interviews, he’s always smiling. People say he’s unassuming, humble. And all of this is true. But he’s also quiet and a bit guarded. When his wife met him at BYU he was so shy it was, “like talking to a brick wall,” she tells me. Then laughing, “It took me about six years to get him to open up.”
When I ask him to describe himself in one word he says “loyal.”
“I’m loyal to my family, to my faith and to basketball.”
Whitney scrunches up her face when she hears this.
“Loyal?” she laughs. “I mean you’re very loyal, but I’d say level headed. He never gets too high or low.”
Jackson Emery, his former BYU teammate and one of his closest friends, says the word to describe him is “passionate.”
And his family says he’s one of the most competitive people they’ve ever met.
Jimmer laughs at this. “It’s true. A lot of people say they’re competitive and they think that means they scream and yell when they lose. I’m not like that. I don’t scream and yell. I just win. At anything I do, I win.”
Jimmer once told a reporter his hobbies are chess, sudoku and “movies that make you think.” When I ask him about this, wondering what was the last movie that made him think, he laughs. “I said that? Wow. I haven’t played chess in years. A movie that made me think.” He pauses. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
There’s a video online of Jimmer dancing. He’s at the wedding of former BYU teammate Brandon Davies. Dressed in baggy khakis, a white dress shirt and a pink tie, Jimmer awkwardly bounces to the beat. He has no rhythm. He does not look cool. Watching the video, you get a sense of why Jimmer didn’t mesh with some of his teammates in the NBA, or why he spent nights on the road alone in his hotel room while they went to clubs and bars. (In the NBA he was often the odd man out. When he was a rookie, the Kings owners asked him to join the rest of the team and endorse their new line of vodka. Jimmer politely declined.)
But on the court, even here, even now, there’s an unmistakable swagger, a smoldering, quiet cool. It’s always been that way, since he was a chubby third-grader who could drill a corner 3.
When he takes warmup shots from beyond the arc, he doesn’t miss. “It’s just ftt, ftt, ftt,” Goorjian says, making the sound of a basketball going through the hoop and hitting nothing but net. “He could make 90 3s in a row.”
His teammates love him. His coach says he’s a breath of fresh air. “This place,” Goorjian says, “was a garbage pit.” He lists the NBA players who did a stint here in Shanghai, treating it like a prison sentence. They’d stand outside the gym and smoke. They’d refuse to go into games, show up drunk, stay out all night, skip practices, bring entourages with them that bullied the Chinese players, barging into their hotel rooms on the road and emptying their minibars of liquor so they could drink it all.
Not Jimmer. Jimmer has never missed a game. He never misses practice. He plays hard.
“You spend enough time here — I’m the longest-serving foreign coach in the Chinese league — and you get embarrassed of Americans, to be honest,” says Goorjian. “But Jimmer, I mean, it’s like is this guy for real? He’s like a Boy Scout. I’ve never heard him swear. I’ve never heard him talk bad about anyone. He’s polite to everyone. Signs every autograph. He’s in bed early. He’s like a 70-year-old man.”
Jimmer eats dinner with his teammates at their apartments, meeting their families. He encourages them on the court. “You keep taking that shot,” he’ll say. “That’s a good shot for you.”
The Chinese Basketball Association is not the second-best pro league in the world. That would be the EuroLeague. Nor is it the best way to get back to the NBA. That would be the EuroLeague or what is now called the G League (formerly the D League). But this is the second-highest-paying league, it has the shortest season, and that means an NBA team could sign Jimmer when the playoffs end here in March. And that’s why he is here: the money (about $2 million a year), the short season away from his family (four months), and the possibility of going back to the NBA.
Every team in the league gets two imports, or foreign players. The previous owner of the Sharks routinely signed big NBA stars who had washed out of the league, but none of them wanted to be here. When Goorjian came on as assistant coach he said that had to end. He wanted high character guys.
But when he said he wanted to sign Jimmer, he was met with skepticism. It’s the same skepticism that has followed Jimmer his entire career. He’s too short. He can’t play defense.
Trust me, Goorjian said, this guy can play. Or, as he put it to me: “He can flat-out ball. This guy is a killer. He’s an assassin. He can score in any league in the world.” Jimmer’s first game with the Sharks he scored 42 points. His second game, he scored 50. After one game, Goorjian said to another coach, “Man, Jimmer was really on fire tonight. What did he have, 40 points?”
The other coach just stared. Then he grinned.
“He had 73.”
One night, Jimmer heard the fans chanting his name. It had been a long time since that had happened. In the NBA, he rarely got on the court. Jimo! Jimo! He listened closer. Jimo Dashen, they chanted. He pulled aside the Shark’s full time translator. What did it mean?
“It means lonely.”
Jimmer didn’t like that.
“No, no,” the translator explained. “Not lonely like that. It means lonely god, or lonely master. You’re so far ahead of everyone else in the league, you’re lonely. Like a god.”
A shoe company in China called 361 signed him. They started making Lonely Master apparel. His Shanghai Sharks jersey sold out. Tech companies in the U.S., eager to break into the Chinese market, asked him to endorse their products. ESPN came out and did a documentary for its premier program, Outside the Lines.
And people started asking, if this guy could score 73 in the Chinese league, if he could break the record for most points scored in the D League All-Star game and be named MVP, why can’t he make an NBA roster?
It’s a question Jimmer can’t help but ask himself.
Do the math
The thing is, Jimmer Fredette was never destined for the NBA. There are roughly 546,428 kids who are good enough to make their high school teams, a feat that in much of America is becoming increasingly remarkable. About 18,000 of those kids will go on to play in college, and that includes places like Division III Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. Of the half-million kids who play high school ball every year, 1 percent will play Division I. And of that, only 1 percent will play in the pros.
The math says you have no chance. The math says it’s crazy for a chubby kid in a tiny town to dream of the NBA, which drafts 60 players a year from around the world. You can call Jimmer a bust, but first, understand where he came from. First, understand how audacious and remarkable it is you even know his name. First, hear this absolutely brutal scouting report from Goorjian, his coach on the Sharks:
“Within the NBA Jimmer is at the bottom of the gene pool. He has short arms, small hands, he’s not tall, he’s not quick, he’s not, like, strong. Everything he’s got comes from hard work. An insane amount of hard work.”
- Jimmer Fredette walks with his wife, Whitney, to Disneyland in Shanghai, China, on Jan 20, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Jimmer Fredette talks with his wife, Whitney, at their apartment in Shanghai, China, on Jan 21, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Jimmer Fredette shops for luggage at the market in Shanghai, China, on Jan 18, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Dolls for sale at the market in Shanghai, China, on Jan 18, 2018.
- Jimmer Fredette and his wife, Whitney, talk with media in Shanghai, China, on Jan 18, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Commuters ride the metro in Shanghai, China, on Jan 18, 2018.
- Shanghai Sharks fans watch the game in Shanghai, China, on Jan 19, 2018.
- A young Shanghai Sharks fan watches the game in Shanghai, China, on Jan 19, 2018.
- Shanghai Sharks fan cheer during the game in Shanghai, China, on Jan 19, 2018.
- Jimmer Fredette and his wife, Whitney, talk with media in Shanghai, China, on Jan 18, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Jimmer Fredette and his wife, Whitney, take photos with a fan during publicity in Shanghai, China, on Jan 18, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Jimmer Fredette and the Shanghai Sharks playa game in Shanghai, China, on Jan 19, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Shanghai Sharks perform during a game in Shanghai, China, on Jan 19, 2018.
- Jimmer Fredette laughs with a Fujian Sturgeon player prior to a game in Shanghai, China, on Jan 19, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Jimmer Fredette laughs with a trainer prior to a game in Shanghai, China, on Jan 19, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Jimmer Fredette signs autographs after a game in Shanghai, China, on Jan 19, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Jimmer Fredette lets a fan take a selfie after a game in Shanghai, China, on Jan 19, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Jimmer Fredette takes a photo with fans in Shanghai, China, on Jan 19, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Jimmer Fredette walks with his wife, Whitney, into Disneyland in Shanghai, China, on Jan 20, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Jimmer Fredette walks with his wife, Whitney, through the metro in Shanghai, China, on Jan 20, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Jimmer Fredette waits for the metro with his wife, Whitney, in Shanghai, China, on Jan 20, 2018. Fredette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Commuters ride the metro in Shanghai, China, on Jan 20, 2018.
- Jimmer Freddette and his wife, Whitney, look over his shoe collection at their apartment in Shanghai, China, on Jan 21, 2018. Freddette is a former BYU Cougar and now plays for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association.
Jimmer doesn’t buy this. He was born with gifts, he insists. “I’ve seen guys work as hard as I have and don’t have the shot I have,” he says. And if we’re talking Glens Falls (population 14,000) he’s right. He was born with gifts, extraordinary, God-given, once-a-generation gifts. He was rated the top wide receiver in the state of New York his junior year. He could hit a 3 at the age of 5.
But among NBA players, the very best athletes in the world, is he gifted? Is he fast like they are? Can he make up what Goorjian describes as poor defensive technique with athleticism (No, Goorjian says emphatically, no he cannot). When he stands next to LeBron James, what do you see?
“I know what people see,” Jimmer says. “A regular guy.” Call him an NBA bust, fine. Most people who lace ’em up will never get where he got. But make no mistake, there’s no way he got there without hard work.
Glens Falls is a blue-collar town, the sort of place where everyone knows each other and they all knew Jimmer, the third kid to Al and Kay, the rosy-cheeked, curly-haired, smiling kid with the squeaky high voice that looked like Chunk from “The Goonies.” Jimmer’s older brother TJ says the blue-collar ethic of Glens Falls, that “grind,” as he calls it, never left his brother. Al remembers how Jimmer would go down to the YMCA every day to play one on one against an older kid. And Jimmer would always lose. And this went on for years.
One day Jimmer came home exuberant. “Hey dad,” he said. “I beat him!”
“Good job,” Al said. “Now go back tomorrow and beat him again. And then find someone else to beat.”
TJ began devising drills for Jimmer. On a patch of concrete in their backyard, he’d make Jimmer dribble the ball in work gloves, pushing him, nudging him, trying to knock him off balance. They would go down to the LDS chapel, turn off all the lights and TJ would make Jimmer dribble down the hall in the dark, stationing his friends in church classrooms, instructing them to jump out when Jimmer dribbled by to try and steal the ball from him. When Jimmer was a senior, TJ took him to Mount MacGregor Correctional Facility to play against the inmates.
Despite all that, Jimmer only had a handful of offers to play D1 college ball, and only considered two. One was from Siena, a Catholic college an hour away in Albany, and the other was from BYU. Jimmer’s freshman year he barely got off the bench. It wasn’t until his junior year when he scored 49 points against Arizona in an upset that anyone got a glimpse of what was to come.
And yet, nothing could have prepared him for his senior year, when he averaged 29 points a game. He’d make reservations under a pseudonym to prevent servers from fighting over his table, but even then, there was nothing he could do to prevent the crush of fans from surrounding his table, asking for autographs on everything from a napkin to a wrench.
He was drafted to Sacramento 10th overall. His dad warned the team that they’d need security at the terminal, but no one listened, and when Jimmer arrived so many people showed up Jimmer was crushed against a wall. An overzealous fan, seeking an autograph, punched his agent in the face.
“I think, ironically, the whole Jimmermania thing backfired,” Al says. “There were people who didn’t want to see him succeed.”
Teammates froze him out. They wouldn’t pass him the ball, or if they did it was at the end of the shot clock and he’d have to heave up a bad shot. And then two weeks into the season, the coach who had drafted him, Paul Westphal, was fired.
As Al sees it, from then on, Jimmer never got a fair shake in the NBA. “Jimmer is a volume shooter,” Goorjian says. “He’s a guy who needs the ball in his hands a lot, who creates off the dribble, and suddenly in the NBA he was asked to play a role he had never played. There was no team that was going to build an offense around him, set a bunch of screens for him and let him shoot like 20 times. No, it was, ‘Go get in the corner and shoot 3s.’”
As Jimmer’s rookie year progressed, he played less and less. Some games he didn’t play at all. Or he’d play a few minutes, shoot an air ball, and get yanked.
“It’s hard to play with any kind of confidence when you feel like if you miss one shot, if you make one mistake, you’re getting pulled,” Jimmer says. “And it wasn’t just in my head. Oftentimes, if I did make one mistake, I’d get pulled. And that’s tough because basketball is a game of mistakes.”
For the first time in his life, Jimmer was questioning himself.
When do you give up on a dream? And when do you turn the page and make the best with what life has given you?
It’s a question Jimmer started asking a few years ago, after playing for his fourth NBA team in as many years. When reporters asked what it was like to play for the Westchester Knicks instead of the New York Knicks, he’d smile and talk about hard work and persistence. But inside, he was hurting.
“He was low,” his dad, Al says.
“I know for a fact he was extremely depressed,” says his brother TJ.
“Depressed?” Jimmer says when I ask him. “That’s a pretty strong word. I’d say I got frustrated, but not depressed.”
The first time TJ saw it was in Sacramento, Jimmer’s rookie year. One night after a long road trip he came home to the apartment the brothers shared. It was about 3 a.m. and TJ was watching TV. Jimmer threw down his bag.
“He’d always been this cheerful, happy kid, and I could just see on his face that he was kinda beat down at that moment,” TJ says. “It just broke my heart.”
“I remember telling him, ‘Jimmer, I know you’re struggling, I know you’re going through some hard times. Anything I can do, anything the family can do to help, please let me know.’”
Jimmer nodded. The road wasn’t easy. He was engaged to Whitney at the time, but she was in Provo, finishing up her senior year, and so he sometimes felt lonely and isolated.
“It’s gonna be OK,” Jimmer told TJ. “I’m going to get through this.”
Some nights in Sacramento TJ would walk by Jimmer’s room and through the crack of his bedroom door see him on his knees in prayer.
“I think that was one of the first times in his life where he had to almost confront the quote-unquote darkness,” says his sister Lindsay Peterson, the oldest of the three Fredette kids. “It was one of the first times where he realized that just because you work hard and have talent doesn’t necessarily mean everything is going to work out.”
It took a while for Jimmer to realize that, Lindsay says. At first, not knowing what else to do, he just worked harder, showing up even earlier to practice, staying later than everyone else. And yet, nothing changed.
“Sometimes the communication wasn’t great,” says his BYU teammate Jackson Emery, who checked in with Jimmer every couple weeks via texts and calls. “I’m the type of person where if something isn’t going right, I’m going to ask the coach what’s going on, what I can do better, and that’s not Jimmer. He sort of waits for the coach to tell him, and that’s not how the NBA works.”
Before he’d started playing in the NBA, LDS Church Apostle M. Russell Ballard arranged to meet with Jimmer and his family. He told Jimmer he was proud of him as an ambassador for the LDS faith and that if Jimmer ever needed support, he should call him. One particularly tough day, Jimmer decided he’d do that. He got out of practice and noticed he had a voice mail. It was from Elder Ballard. “Hey Jimmer, just checking in,” the apostle said. “I had never reached out to him before that,” Jimmer recalls, “and the fact that he had already left me a voicemail, I felt like he was inspired to call me.”
When Jimmer called, Elder Ballard didn’t have much to say about basketball. Instead, he encouraged Jimmer to read The Book of Mormon every day.
“Basketball didn’t get any better, basketball stayed the same,” Whitney says. “But what changed is how Jimmer took it. He started to have a different perspective.”
Over the next few years Jimmer bounced around from one team to another: from the Kings to the Bulls to the Pelicans to the Knicks. One night in New Orleans playing for the Pelicans Jimmer came home in tears, his wife, Whitney recalls. “He just didn’t know what to do differently. He couldn’t figure out how to get on the floor.” The lowest point, though, was in San Antonio, his last NBA team.
“He finally felt like he was with a team that would fit his talents,” Whitney says. “And they cut him after two weeks. He felt like he didn’t even have a chance to prove himself.”
When Jimmer was cut from San Antonio in 2015, the pundits on ESPN declared him a bust, gleeful in their schadenfreude. “He never should have been drafted,” the killjoy Skip Bayless said, and his co-host nodded smugly. Bayless pointed out that in four years Jimmer had played in 229 games and only three times had he scored over 20 points.
“We thought his momentum at BYU would just continue. And then year one didn’t pan out, year two didn’t pan out. Things slowly got worse,” Whitney says. “At first it was really hard because he had set such high expectations for his career and he literally didn’t meet any of them.”
Only a small handful of people can relate to the level of fame Jimmer achieved at BYU, and the expectations that followed him from that point. One of those people is Steve Young, the former BYU quarterback and Super Bowl MVP. Like Jimmer, Young’s career didn’t go exactly how he hoped, at least at first. He started his career in the USFL instead of the NFL, went 2-14 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and spent years on the bench behind Joe Montana.
“There’s a difference between a dream and a plan,” Young says. “There’s nothing wrong with having a dream, but the danger is attaching your happiness to it, because life doesn’t always go according to plan.”
For years Jimmer had been “resisting what was happening,” his sister Lindsay says.
He began what she calls a reconciliation process. Maybe Jimmer would never start on an NBA team, or even come off the bench in a sixth man role. Maybe he’d never sign a $100 million contract. But he didn’t get into basketball for money or fame. Maybe he couldn’t make tens of millions of dollars, but he could still make millions overseas. And most importantly, he could play basketball professionally, which had been the dream all along.
“He had to re-evaluate his dream,” Lindsay says. “And he had to come to peace with the fact that there are some things you can’t control. If you don’t do that, you might miss some opportunities that are placed in front of you.”
Like playing in China.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in Shanghai, and Jimmer is on the move through the subterranean bowels of the city’s subway system. All season long, he’s had a documentary film crew following his every move. Today, they’re here with him, and so is his wife, Whitney, who has flown in from Colorado to spend the week with Jimmer. We’re all going to Disneyland.
Even though it’s been years since Whitney picked up a pompom to pump up the Marriott Center crowd, she still has the pixie-like frame of a cheerleader and the vibrating energy of a Tinkerbell. She is in many ways Jimmer’s opposite: gregarious where he is reserved, extravagant where he is understated. Jimmer, for example, doesn’t seem like he cares much what he puts on, and most of the clothes he does wear (sweatpants and hoodies, every day it seems) have been given to him. While Whitney often goes out in sweats and wears no make up (even today, with a film crew in tow), she also likes to get dressed up, and knows labels and designers that elicit a blank stare from her husband. At Sharks games, sitting courtside with her Louis Vuitton bag, you can’t help but notice the way she turns heads.
This afternoon, though, Jimmer is the one turning heads. As we walk through the subway station, people stop and stare. They whisper and smile. If this were Provo nine years ago, they wouldn’t be so polite. They’d rush him and demand an autograph. Jimmermania has infected Shanghai, but it’s not quite at a fever pitch. Not yet anyway.
How crazy could things get? Consider this: While Jimmer was still trying to make it in the NBA, a two-time NBA All Star named Stephon Marbury came to play in China and won three titles in Beijing. He now has a statue in front of the stadium. And a movie about him. And an opera. And now they’re building a museum.
Jimmer wouldn’t want any of that — the attention at BYU was so overwhelming he rarely left his apartment — but there are business opportunities in China he wouldn’t have had in the NBA. On my first day in Shanghai I attend a reception at a swanky private club to launch a new language app Jimmer is endorsing, and it’s hard to imagine this, or a shoe deal, if he were riding the bench in, say, Milwaukee. And that’s partly what drew Jimmer here. China is mad for basketball, and with an emerging middle class of 300 million people his earning potential extends far beyond his $2 million a year salary.
And yet, once again, things aren’t going according to plan. To get to Marbury-like fame, the Sharks, and Jimmer specifically, need to win championships. That’s the blueprint. The problem is the Sharks lost a key player in the off-season and here in January are hovering around .500. In the CBA standings, they sit below the Lions, the Ducks, the Flying Tigers, the Dinosaurs, the Leopards, the Dragons, another team called the Lions, another team called the Tigers and another team called the Lions. To make the playoffs, Jimmer’s coach tells me, the Sharks will have to win most of their remaining games. Today is a welcome break from that grind.
We get off the subway and head in the direction of the pinkish Disney castle. More whispers, more smiles, a few fans stop and ask for selfies, and of course, Jimmer obliges, let’s them take as many selfies as they want. It’s drizzly, but that does little to dampen his mood.
“This is the happiest place on Earth!” he says.
He and Whitney split from the entourage and disappear on a ride called Tron. They emerge several hours later, at dusk. Jimmer has reserved us a table at Cheesecake Factory. Crowded into a booth, in the soft glow of some lighting fixtures that make us feel like we’re in Scottsdale rather than Shanghai, Jimmer, for once, is in the mood to ruminate.
He talks about that game against San Diego State his senior year when he outplayed future NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. “I get goose bumps thinking about it,” he says with a grin. He talks about the three-quarter shot he hit a few nights ago at the end of the third quarter that left Sharks fans in the stands slack-jawed and giddy. “I just looked up at the clock and thought, why not?”
Surely it must eat at him not being in the NBA, knowing how competitive he is, knowing that he once hit six 3-pointers playing for the Kings at Madison Square Garden.
It once did, he said. When he was playing in the D League he couldn’t bring himself to watch NBA games. But now, here in China? He watches as much of the NBA as he can. He’s at peace with how life has turned out, he says.
“My goal was to make the NBA, and I did that. I guess I should’ve set a higher goal,” he says, smiling. He would go back, he says, but it would have to be the right offer. “I’m not going back for a 10-day contract. Or to sit the bench.”
In a perfect world, here at Disneyland, we’d end on a Disney-like moment, with Jimmer saying something about how the life he’s living now is better than anything he ever dreamed. He has a shoe deal after all, a Lonely Master clothing line, and Chinese fans walking around in Shanghai wearing his BYU jersey.
And yet, to say this is not just different, but better than what Jimmer dreamed wouldn’t be true. On the road, he sleeps on beds as hard as the floor and plays in cities so polluted his hands get black from dribbling the basketball. He spends nearly half the year away from home. It kills him, he says, to miss out on moments with his daughter. Moments, he points out, he can never get back.
Which brings us back to the original question: What does it look like when things don’t turn out as you’ve planned?
It looks like this: a tidy apartment in Shanghai, behind a heavy wood door and a marble entryway; a BYU windbreaker hanging from a hook near the kitchen; pairs of your signature shoe lined up against the wall. It looks in some ways better than what you imagined, in other ways not quite what you pictured, and for most of us, that's how life goes.
It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon, a few hours before tipoff for another Sharks game. We stand out on the balcony under the gray sky and Jimmer points in the direction of the second-tallest building in the world. He shows me his tiny washing machine and the Nativity set he built out of Legos. The Christmas tree is still up. He doesn’t know if he’ll take it down.
I ask Jimmer how he sees his story. Is it the story of chasing your dreams and never giving up? Or is it the story of pursuing a goal until you can’t anymore, and then making the best of your new reality?
“I’d say a little bit of both,” he says. “I never gave up. I still haven’t given up. If the NBA calls, I’m ready to go back. And the thing is, I’ve regained my swagger here. I’ve proven I can play. And I’m playing as good as I ever have.”
We talk for a little while longer, and then Jimmer politely glances at the time.
He has a game to play. Postscript: The Shanghai Sharks defied the odds and made the playoffs, but were eliminated by the Beijing Ducks on March 10.