PROVO — For BYU’s Yoeli Childs, the wait is almost over. Soon, he’ll return from his nine-game suspension. 

The 6-foot-8, 225-pound senior forward has endured sitting out eight games imposed by the NCAA. He’ll be sidelined for just one more contest, Saturday’s home matchup with Montana Tech, then he’ll be unleashed. He’ll rejoin his team on the court — fittingly — at arch-rival Utah on Wednesday. 

Childs’ plight with the NCAA has prompted aggravated fans to create “Free Yoeli” signs in the Marriott Center student section and “Free Yoeli” hashtags on the Internet. 

For the last eight games, Childs could only watch as his undersized, undermanned team has faced challenges without him — including games where the Cougars desperately needed him.

Next week, Childs, who has tried to make the best of a frustrating situation, is poised to help a BYU team that has gone 5-3 in his absence. 

Who knows what the Cougars’ record could have been with him in the lineup. 

Since his suspension was announced in August, Childs has vowed that he would do everything in his power to support his teammates. Coach Mark Pope said Childs has helped his team tremendously during his suspension. 

“The first thing he’s done is he beats us up in scout team every day. He’s really good. You can’t actually get the experience you’re going to get against an opponent because you just don’t have that much talent on your scout team,” he said. “We got probably a top-20 player in the country on our scout team. To have Yoeli to go against every day in practice has been really special for us.” 

Childs has also been on the floor during pre-game warmups, encouraging his teammates and cheering them on during games.

Pope said that Childs has taken forward Kolby Lee “under his wing as a personal project” and has contributed to Lee’s development. 

“So he’s had a huge impact that way,” Pope said. “But I’m hopeful that he’s going to have an even bigger impact when he gets to put on a uniform.” 

His teammates are looking forward to playing with him. Finally. 

“Yoeli makes the game so easy. He opens up the floor. He’s just fun to play with. He’s a beast and he’s proven that at this level,” said senior guard Jake Toolson. “He makes my job easier and we’ll make each other better this season. It’s going to be a lot of fun.” 

The past nine months haven’t been especially fun for Childs, from declaring for the NBA draft in late March, to returning in late May, to learning of his suspension in August. 

“He’s a great kid. He’s a great ambassador for the school and the NCAA. That’s what so sad to me, is that he’s trying to do what’s right and return for another year. It’s something that you feel the NCAA should want as a product,” said Tim Davis, who coached Childs’ AAU team several years ago. “He’s a very driven kid. No matter what he does, I always tell people he’s going to be a special individual. He’s going to change a lot of people’s lives, whether it’s through basketball or being a convert to (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). There’s no path that he can’t take in life.”

Once he’s reinstated, Childs is expected to assault the BYU record book and go down as one of the all-time best to play for the Cougars. 

As BYU’s leading returning scorer and rebounder, he averaged 21.2 points and 9.7 rebounds while recording 17 double-doubles last season. Childs, a three-year starter, was an All-WCC first team selection a year ago and he has been named to the Wooden Watch List, representing the nation’s top players.

“He was an undersized center for the longest time. He was slow with heavy feet. People don’t see him that way anymore. He’s just relentless when it comes to working. His work ethic is off the chart,” Davis said. “He’s focused and driven on what he wants to become. That’s part of the reason why he came back to BYU.

“He’ll try to do something special at BYU and he felt that’s what he wanted to do. He felt that he could still improve in college. The new coaching staff has done a good job and they’re putting in a lot of time in the gym with him. It’s a good thing for him because he loves it. If you work hard for him, he’ll work hard for you.”

For now, Childs ranks 14th at BYU all-time in scoring (1,609 points), fifth in rebounds (882), fifth in blocks (142) and ninth in field goals made (626). He’ll continue to climb those charts over the next four months at the expense of opponents.

“The man’s a monster. He’s a great player and he’s been a great player in this conference for four years,” said Saint Mary’s guard Tanner Krebs. “You’ve got to bring it every night when you play against him because he’s going to bring it. You accept the challenge but you have to have a lot of respect for Yoeli and the way he plays and how much success he’s had.” 

The day after longtime coach Dave Rose announced his retirement in late March, Childs announced that he was leaving BYU and declaring for the NBA draft as a junior. It was a move that was expected from Childs, who is married, and has long wanted to pursue a professional career. At the time, BYU was searching for a new head coach after Rose’s retirement, meaning Childs didn’t have a head coach to advise him.

Later, Childs wasn’t invited to the NBA Draft Combine and some speculated that he should return to BYU for his senior year. 

Pope was hired to lead the Cougar basketball program in April and he started recruiting Childs in hopes that he’d come back for one more season. 

“It was fun for me, brutal for him,” Pope said of that period. “It’s one of the greatest parts of this job, getting to watch these young men work under pressure. It helps them and forces them to find out what’s deeply in their heart, what they really care about and what they really want. To watch Yoeli go through that process and figure out what he really cares about is really gratifying.”

Childs had lucrative offers from foreign teams that he could have taken, like former teammates like Eric Mika and Elijah Bryant did. 

“This process to come back was wrenching on him. He’s a very thorough person,” Davis said. “It took him a lot of time to come to that decision. He’s grown a lot in the last year-and-a-half. I think some of that comes with age and some of that comes with being married and having to make decisions that don’t just involve you.” 

During the time that Childs was mulling his options his teammates were supportive. But they also made it known that they wanted him to return.

“I gave him his space a little bit to let him think about what was best for him and his family. But I definitely tried to get him to come back,” said senior guard TJ Haws. “During my freshman year, he said, ‘Man, it’s going to be cool to have four years of us playing together.’ I said, ‘Don’t forget you said that. We’ve got four years together.’ Once he came back, Yoeli was like, ‘That stuck with me. Let’s go get it this year.’”

In late May, after weighing, and agonizing over his options, Childs surprisingly decided to return to BYU, touching off a celebration in Cougar Nation. Suddenly, with Childs back, this team looked like it could contend for its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2015. 

Then in August, BYU announced that Childs was not in compliance with new rules instituted regarding players declaring early for the draft. He signed with an agent before filing the proper paperwork required by the NCAA.

BYU appealed Childs’ suspension but that was rejected by the NCAA.  

“When we finally got the feedback and I called him into the office and we had a conversation,” Pope said. “He broke down and was clearly devastated. We just talked and I asked him what he was feeling. He was devastated for the guys on this team. In his soul, he came back and turned down all that stuff to compete with these guys and make something extraordinary happen.”

“Initially, it was very painful. I was a little bit shocked. The coaching and the staff, none of us saw it coming. You just have to roll with it,” Childs said. “Bad things happen. Things that you don’t agree with happen. It’s what can you do with that. You can’t control what other people do and decisions other people make. All you can control is what you’re going to do.

“I’m looking forward to practicing as hard as I can every single day, cheering my team on, being the biggest cheerleader, being an extra coach on the sideline during those nine games and seeing what good’s going to come from it.” 

As Childs had talked with Pope about a possible return to the program, it became clear that there had been some misunderstandings about the new rules, and BYU worked with the NCAA to resolve the issue.

Childs had received money from his agent to help in his training but he paid that money back. 

“He paid it back in full. More than full. At the end of the day, the hardest thing about this is, Yoeli was honest and he had a lot of integrity,” Davis said. “The thing that is sad is that Yoeli was suspended for those nine games when there are people knowingly cheating and have cheated in the past who are suspended for six or seven games.

“The day he decided to stay, one of the teams from Korea flew in to BYU,” Davis added. “That’s how important he was to them. That’s what is so hard about this silly, ridiculous nine-game deal. The kid turns down a lot of money. A little paperwork mis-order with a new process and he gets a nine-game suspension. He could have taken a lot of money.”

Childs was forthright with BYU and the NCAA about his situation. 

“As soon as we found out that he was coming back, we had to unwind some of those things,” said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. “We made an appeal and he got reinstated and got his eligibility back. But I thought the penalty was egregious. We appealed the penalty and the NCAA denied it.”

Nationally, many expressed frustration with the NCAA and its ruling regarding Childs.

”What a deterrent by the NCAA for the line they’ve drawn in the sand,” said ESPN commentator Jay Bilas, “to keep the model student-athlete from playing because he had the audacity to apply for a job interview.”

But now his suspension is almost over and the Cougars are hoping for a big boost from him the rest of the season. 

When he returned to BYU last spring, he said one of his individual goals is to improve defensively and win the West Coast Conference defensive player of the year award. 

“I think you’ll see him play with a great urgency with a little bit bigger motor. Defensively, you’ll see him active, in more passing lanes and being aggressive on ball screens. You’ll see him more as a playmaker for the team. He might score a little less and have a few more assists. You’ll see more from him in the open court,” Davis said. “I think he’ll break the rebounding record this year even with the suspended games.

“If he averages nine rebounds a game I think he’ll break the record. I think he’ll be top 2 or 3 in blocks all-time at BYU. If he would have a whole season, he’d probably finish in the top 3 or 4 in scoring all-time. He’s loved BYU and they’ve been great to him. He’s glad he came back. I’m excited for him.”

Despite not having Childs for the first nine games, can the Cougars still do enough to make a strong case for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth? Tough non-conference games remain on the schedule and Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s await in WCC play. 

“You’ll see Yoeli do a few different things this year than he did last year,” Davis said. “The NCAA will say they were missing one of their best guys in the first nine games and here’s what they looked like after he came back.”

The way Childs sees it, everything he and his team have been through this season so far will benefit them in the end. Childs’ optimism of going to the NCAA Tournament when he decided to return to BYU hasn’t dimmed, even with his suspension. 

“In March, we’re going to look back and be like, ‘You know what, throughout all of the adversity, we did it.’ In March, when everything is coming down the line, we’ll look at each other as brothers and say, ‘We did something really hard and we made it happen,’” he said. “I refuse not to let this be a magical season. Nine games isn’t going to stop that. Nothing on this earth is going to stop that. Whether it’s injuries or challenges outside of basketball, nothing is going to stop this from being a magical season. I refuse to let it happen.”