The Valdosta State basketball team is on a tear right now. The Blazers jumped seven spots this week, landing at No. 14 behind a 18-2 record. Their last loss came on December 12, the same game Justin McBride made his season debut.
McBride is redefining the role of big man in DII basketball. Literally. The Division I transfer stands at 6-foot-11 and 350 pounds, dwarfing most of the competition. The next closest in height on his own roster is 6-foot-7 Jimmy Kodet.
“Height-wise, we’ve had a couple guys that weren’t too far off, like 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10," McBride told NCAA.com of his DII basketball competition to date. "But weight-wise, it’s been a bit of difference. There’s not a lot of 350 pound basketball players in the country period. It’s been like that my whole life.”
From elementary school to DII, McBride has simply been the big man.
“I’ve been bigger than everybody my whole life," McBride said. "I was talking to coach [Mike Helfer] on the way to Alabama. He asked me how tall I was when I was ten. I told him I was about 5’9”, 5’10”. It’s always just been like that. I remember sleeping through middle school and waking up one day and being like, 'whoa, I’m 6’9"'.”
It’s been a longggggg time coming pic.twitter.com/6IyI89FiQ1— Justin McBride (@Wow_BigJ33) January 8, 2018
It shouldn't come as a surprise as to which former NBA-er McBride has modeled his game. After all, he fits the mold almost perfectly.
“Definitely Shaq," McBride said of Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal. "He’s my favorite player of all time. He changed the game and he was the most dominant player to ever play basketball I feel like.”
It's pretty much always been basketball for McBride. He took a stab at other sports, but at the end of the day, his home is on the hardwood.
“I played everything when I was younger," McBride said. "I played football. One year, my freshman year of high school. It was a deal me and my brother had. He was a senior and I was a freshman, and he told me if I played football with him, he would play basketball with me. So I played football that one year with him, and I solemnly swore that I would never again play football in my life.
“I think it was the lack of structure for that team to be honest, but it just wasn’t enjoyable. God blessed me with some abilities, so I was able to be pretty decent at it. It just wasn’t my fit. I got the opportunity to play basketball and I fell in love with it.”
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McBride's collegiate career began at UCF, where he played for head coach Donnie Jones. That's also where he met Tacko Fall. Fall, of course, is the Knights' center that stands at 7-foot-6 and 295 pounds. That's over 14 feet and 600 pounds of muscle blocking up the lane for little guards trying to attack.
“That was probably the craziest experience of my life," McBride said. "I had the unique opportunity to host him when he came to UCF. We clicked, he’s been like a little brother to me. But when we would play together it was just crazy. I have never seen anybody with his height. But it’s not just his height or length, he moves better than a lot of people give him credit for. I remember in practice I shot a free throw and I promise you, he was under the rim and he still blocked it. When he actually stretches out he covers the whole thing.”
The Knights made a coaching change after McBride's junior season. A new style of ball wasn't in the cards for McBride so he searched out a new program. After checking out a few DI schools, his path led him to Valdosta, Ga.
“It’s the atmosphere," McBride said of Valdosta State. "If you ever get a chance, you got to come experience a game. It’s different. We play fast, we all get along, it’s a different culture than I’ve ever felt playing collegiate basketball. It made it an easy decision.
“I wanted to downsize and compete for a championship. That’s been extremely realistic for us. It’s cool to be on a team to get an opportunity to play, but play good and win and do all of that stuff, too.”
Downsizing doesn't seem like an option for the guy who wears size 17s. He roams the paint, looking for the monster dunk or big-time swat. When it comes down to it, there's little debate in what he loves to do best.
“I got to go with a dunk. Blocking shots is cool, but there’s just something about hanging on the rim.”
The Blazers are 11-1 since McBride joined the team, amid an 11-game winning streak on their Alabama road trip. He's playing 12.7 minutes a night in a reserve role, dropping 7.1 points, grabbing 5.8 rebounds, and averaging a block per game. He can score -- with a 20-point performance on January 9 -- and he can board -- with three nine-rebound outings thus far -- in limited minutes. And he's relishing the role.
“It’s a blessing to be able to play basketball," McBride said. "Sometimes you lose sight of that privilege and you kind of take it as a right. That’s not the case. Anytime you’re not able to play, and then you get the opportunity to play again, you realize very quickly that this is definitely a privilege. So at any capacity being able to lace them up and get on the court again is amazing.”
While Beau Justice gets a lot of attention, making his case for Gulf South Conference player of the year, it's impossible for McBride to go unnoticed. He is part of a Blazer's team that sits atop the GSC, one game ahead of West Florida in the standings. They are deep, as Justice leads a group of five players who score in double-digits, with McBride providing plenty of fire power off the bench.
“I feel like our potential and our ceiling is non-existent," McBride said. "We could really do whatever what we decide to do, it’s just a matter of us putting our mind to it. I’m just happy to be a part of this team and to experience it. You go through all preseason, you work hard, then you actually get the opportunity to play, and how we’re hooping, we’re having fun, we’re playing basketball and it’s working.”