In the tsunami of stories from the first week of the college basketball season, the long and winding road of the guard from Ohio University was not to be missed. Or maybe you didn’t notice the guy who put 31 points on top-10 Illinois and its All-American the other day?
He was the heart-broken teenager, who lost his mother to cancer, had no father in his life, and moved in with a friend.
The scrawny high school senior who averaged two points a game, and no college coach wanted, so he applied to attend as a regular student, planning to be a journalist.
The prep-schooler who spent time on the C team, and created his own highlight video for Twitter, hoping someone out there — anyone — would notice.
And now he’s the junior All-MAC guard from Ohio, who went eyeball-to-eyeball with Illinois’ vaunted Ayo Dosunmu, and very nearly beat the llini on their own court.
"A lot of things have had to go right," Jason Preston said of his journey. "Belief and faith, praying to God, and just believing in myself. It’s carried me a long way."
Or as Ohio coach Jeff Boals added, "His path isn’t the normal path, or what most people have gone through."
There Preston was the day after Thanksgiving, torching Illinois for 31 points, as the Illini barely escaped 77-75. He added six rebounds, eight assists and not a single turnover in 37 minutes against one of the Big Ten’s best. "I said after the game, the nation kind of saw what we knew," Boals mentioned. This after a breakout sophomore season, when Preston led Ohio in scoring, field-goal percentage and minutes played, and was second in the country in total assists. Some of that was against the big guys. He had 16 points and eight assists in the Villanova game, 21 points against Utah, 12 against Baylor. He’s an established Division I player; a 6-4 do-everything guard who is awfully hard to stop, and that included the No. 8 team in the nation last week.
But once upon a time . . .
Preston was a high school junior back in Orlando when cancer took his mother Judith. She was the one who helped inspire his passion for basketball, having her little boy sit with her when she watched her beloved Detroit Pistons. "I’d have a mini hoop inside the house and I’d always play on it, and my mom would always tell me to sit down and watch and learn from the NBA players," he said. Her words carry to this day, for he is an ardent fan of studying tape.
Those nights together in front of the TV were memories Preston cherished when his mother slipped away from him. All he could do afterward was live with the son of her best friend, and try to figure out what to do with his life.
"Before she passed away she was going through a lot. Every day wasn’t the best day for her. I guess it was reassuring she was in a better place and she didn’t have to go through that suffering. It wasn’t easy, but there were other people in the world — at least that’s what my mind said — that were having a whole lot more hardships in their lives and they had to deal with a whole lot more. So if I’m going to sit here and act like my life is the one that’s bad, that’d be a terrible mindset to have. I just had continued faith that everything happens for a reason."
Basketball was a nice escape in high school, but not terribly successful. He was barely 6-foot, barely 140 pounds, scoring one basket a game. What college coach would notice that? So Preston applied to in-town UCF as a regular student, aiming to major in journalism, having written stories for a website. About the Pistons, of course.
But then he caught on with an AAU team, played in a couple of tournaments, and not only his game but his confidence and dreams blasted off like a rocket from nearby Cape Canaveral. A prep school coach suggested Preston might want to take that route. That led him to the Believe Sports Academy in Tennessee. Believe. All things considered, it seemed like the perfectly named place for Jason Preston. "Most definitely," he says now.
He started on the B basketball team, was bumped to the A team but played little, then asked to play on the C team to be with friends. He found his way back to the A team, and one day on an eight-hour bus trip decided to take some of his highlights and put them together. A friend turned them into a Twitter post. "I wanted to give myself an opportunity to show people what I’ve been doing," he said. "I didn’t really have a lot of film in high school, so I wanted to at least have something."
Boals, who was at Stony Brook back then, finally got a look at that video last summer. "He was a skinny kid. I don’t think he took a jump shot in the whole video. But you could tell he had great vision and could see the court passing-wise."
Two schools saw enough to make offers, Longwood and Ohio. And now Preston's a Bobcat scoring 31 points against Illinois. An NBA prospect one day? "One hundred percent," Boals said. Some athletes take the fast lane, but Preston traveled the long way around, and there can’t be many other players in Division I who value the chance to play more than he.
"There’s an appreciation for everything," Boals said."Every meal, every article I send, every piece of gear he gets, he is always saying thank you. It’s kind of refreshing to see. He didn’t come up in AAU where you get everything. He wasn’t highly recruited and he’s always been grounded because of that. You can thank the way he was brought up and the experiences he went through to have that happen."
Boals can also see Judith's influence, going back to the days she taught her son the importance of studying the game.
"He’s always asking questions, he’s always wanting to get better, he’s always watching films, he's always asking me to send him clips after games and practices. That’s a separator for a lot of people. Probably two or three years ago when I was at Stony Brook, I asked my team how many guys watch college basketball on a nightly basis. There were probably seven hands out of 15 that went up. The NBA was even less. I think these kids nowadays, they have so many other things going on, they don’t watch basketball. I think that’s nationwide. Give him a lot of credit. He loves the game, he loves to compete and he’s always looking for an edge."
Said Preston, "I just really wanted to take advantage of every opportunity that I had."
He’s kept pictures from his younger days, as a reminder of where he’s been. "That little kid, small frame with big goals and big dreams . . . it’s crazy to see the evolution."
He also has a picture of the mother who once watched Pistons games with him.
"It’s right here in front of me. Definitely, there are times I’m talking to her. I hope she’s watching. I hope I’m making her proud."