No Ordinary Joe

  • June 25, 2008 02:32 PM
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By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
June 25, 2008

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Joe Mazzulla remembers the time he wanted to listen to his CD player in the locker room and he didn’t have any batteries. He began asking around to see if his teammates had any spares.

  Joe Alexander is expected to be a lottery pick in Thursday night's NBA draft.
New York Times photo

Joe Alexander told him to wait a second. He walked outside into the Coliseum, went behind the bleachers and came back a few minutes later with two brand new Duracells for Mazzulla to use.

“He used to hide things in the Coliseum that he would use later,” Mazzulla chuckled.

No one has spent more time in the WVU Coliseum than Joe Alexander. The number of stories is growing since Alexander has been on the interview circuit in advance of Thursday night’s NBA draft in New York City.

One story his father, Steve, enjoys telling is Joe driving his car down the tunnel into the Coliseum and leaving his lights on so he could shoot late one night when the power was out.

Joe knew which doors he could pry open in order to get into the gym for a late workout. Mazzulla remembered an incredulous classmate once telling him about the time he looked out his window and saw Alexander shooting jump shots in a lightning storm.

“That’s Joe,” Mazzulla shrugged.

Yes, Alexander has slept on the couch in the locker room on occasion. Yes, he once rigged up the light switch in his room so that he could turn off the lights without getting out of bed. Apparently, Joe couldn’t get his hands on the Clapper in China, his father - an executive for Nestle Corporation - having moved his family there.

Yes, he once placed a mirror behind him so he could alternate between watching television and working on his computer without turning his head.

Yes, when he was young and living in Beijing he would catch some shut-eye on a park bench next to some outdoor basketball courts. Just like the Jeff Goldlbum character Seth Bundle in the movie The Fly, Joe simplified his wardrobe so he wouldn’t have to waste time worrying about what he was going to wear. He just narrowed it down to blacks and whites.

“Joe is such a resourceful guy,” Mazzulla said. “Joe is one of the most unique kids I have ever met in my life. He’s probably one of the smartest kids as well. If you put him out in the middle of nowhere by himself with nothing, he would somehow survive. That’s the type of person he is.”

Some have tried to describe Joe’s great work ethic. Sleeping on a park bench in China and shooting baskets in the pouring rain does not constitute great work ethic. That is a compulsion. We all knew kids like that growing up in school. They either wound up getting stuffed into lockers or turning into NBA lottery picks.

“I played in the CBA and there was nothing but peculiar guys there … and I wouldn’t call Joe peculiar,” said WVU assistant coach Erik Martin. “Everyone is different. If we really look at ourselves, all of us have some weird tendencies that nobody knows about. Having played overseas I was a mature adult and it was hard. As a kid, I’m sure it probably changed the way he grew up – he didn’t grow up the way we grew up.”

Alexander can be stubborn. Once West Virginia coach Bob Huggins spent an entire practice telling Alexander that he couldn’t guard Connecticut’s Jeff Adrien from behind. So the first time down the floor Alexander decided to test Huggins' theory and played behind Adrien, who got the ball, scored easily, and was fouled by Alexander for a three-point play.

Alexander jogged past Huggins, shrugged, and said, “My bad.”

Huggs didn’t see the humor in it.

“I do remember Joe starting the game playing behind Adrien,” Martin laughed. “That was one of the quirks with Joe. Sometimes it would take Joe a minute or two into the game to get going. Some guys are ready at the start and other guys need a minute or two to get going and Joe is one of those guys.”

Another time Mazzulla remembers Alexander having a one-on-four break against Duke. Instead of pulling it out and setting up the offense he took it to the basket and scored.

“Obviously the odds are against him that he was going to score but he just put his mind to it that he was going to score,” Mazzulla said.

Bob Huggins is a demanding coach, known for having little patience with screw-ups. But Mazzulla said it was former coach John Beilein that Alexander drove crazy. Beilein’s entire basketball mantra is based on IQ, jump shooting and precision.

Joe learned how to play basketball by playing video games. That just doesn’t translate to a guy like John Beilein. Two things could get John Beilein out of his chair: Joe Alexander and people calling his offense the Princeton offense.

“Everything had to be Beilein’s way,” Mazzulla recalled. “I remember one day he spent 20 minutes showing Joe the correct way to do a reverse lay-up. Joe just never got it. How does a kid who is a lottery pick not know how to do something as fundamental as a reverse lay-up?”

Joe has always been a slow starter. As a junior in high school in Mount Airy, Md., he started the year coming off the bench. Then one game against Walkersville High he got a rare start and right after the opening tip off he threw down a vicious tomahawk dunk. The kid he was starting for turned to his teammate sitting next to him on the bench and said, “I guess I’m not starting anymore.”

Alexander had zero college offers after his senior year in high school. Even nearby Shepherd College took a pass on him. Alexander was invited to an all-star game where an assistant coach at Hargrave Military Academy saw him play. He told Alexander to come down and try out. Joe made the team and sat the bench playing behind Pitt forward Sam Young.

West Virginia was looking for players and Hargrave coach Kevin Keatts was about out of them. But Keatts called Mountaineer assistant coach Jeff Neubauer and told him to come down and watch Alexander play in open gym. Neubauer wasn’t that impressed. Afterward he sat down and talked to Alexander. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Alexander told him that he wanted to play in the NBA, his eyes never leaving Neubauer’s.

“He wasn’t even starting for his prep school team and I believed him,” Neubauer said.

Alexander played very little his freshman season and started his sophomore year playing well for Beilein until he hit a tough stretch. At the end of the season Alexander was still starting, but Beilein was giving him the early hook in favor of freshman Da’Sean Butler.

Beilein wanted his players to rest their bodies and be mentally fit for the post-season. Alexander did the exact opposite, sneaking into the weight room to get in some extra work. Alexander was always able to fix his problems by working harder.

His coach thought he should be resting. Beilein’s philosophy of weight training is different than most basketball coaches. He would always instruct his strength coaches to come up with exercises to make his players longer, if that was even possible.

When Huggins arrived last April he told Alexander he could lift as much weight as he wanted. The more weight Joe lifted the better. That was music to Alexander’s ears.

“In the NBA, Joe can work out anytime he wants now. They have bigger couches for him to go to sleep on in the locker room,” Martin said. “He’ll have as many muscle shakes as he wants. He has access to the weight room anytime he wants to go.”

One NBA executive compared Alexander to Tom Chambers. Martin said nobody he has played with, against, or seen compares to Alexander.

“And that’s a bonus,” Martin said.

Alexander has a dry sense of humor. When he came to West Virginia he couldn’t name half of the teams in the Top 25. The one team he did know a little bit about was Duke. He knew about its great basketball history and the tradition of the players slapping the floor before they got into their defensive stances.

During pre-game warm-ups before West Virginia’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against the Blue Devils Alexander dared Mazzulla to slap the floor just like the Duke players did.

Mazzulla never batted an eye. When Huggins put him into the game the first thing Mazzulla did was slap both hands down on the floor for everyone to see. Alexander said seeing that was the highlight of his college career.

“It was just a little thing between us and he didn’t think I would do it and I did it,” Mazzulla explained. “Obviously we were playing a great team with a lot of tradition and that’s something their players have always done and Joe is always coming up with unique and hysterical things to do and that was just one of them.”

  Coach Bob Huggins will be in New York with Alexander for the NBA draft scheduled to begin at 7 pm on ESPN.
AP photo

On Tuesday morning Joe rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. He did a television interview on ESPN and a live chat on ESPN.com later that afternoon. Thursday night he will be sitting in the green room waiting for his name to be called.

Mazzulla and his West Virginia buddies will be in Morgantown watching on TV.

“The funny thing is I can see Joe going out there in sweat pants and a t-shirt and just being himself,” Mazzulla joked. “His agent won’t let him do that but if it was up to Joe he would do it.”

Mazzulla then thought of another story.

“Joe used to go to the Rec Center and try to blend in by wearing shorts that were too small for him – just to be like everyone else.”

Does anyone even wear short shorts anymore? Didn't the hamstring huggers go out with the Eighties?

Martin knows the NBA lifestyle and he has no doubt that Alexander is capable of handling it.

“I told Joe when we sat down before he decided what he wanted to do: I said, ‘Joe when you get into the league just be yourself. Don’t be afraid to be yourself and don’t change just because someone is getting on you.

‘Don’t go out and buy a bunch of cars because everyone in the locker room is talking about cars. Just be you – that is what is going to make you the best pro you can be.’

“Who knows with Joe?” Martin added. “I could see him driving a Bentley or a Tahoe.”

Or perhaps even a pickup truck or one of those station wagons with the wood paneling on the sides. You know Joe is stubborn enough to do that.