Originally published at The Statesman.
As a young boy growing up in northern New Jersey, Jameel Warney would shoot baskets for hours with his step-dad on a hoop outside his Plainfield home. When he was nine years old, Warney asked his mother, Denise, for a trampoline.
“For what?” she asked.
“I want to dunk.”
Even during his elementary school years, it was apparent that for Warney, now a two-time defending America East Player of the Year, basketball was not merely a sport — it was an obsession.
“I can never get enough basketball,” the Stony Brook senior forward said. “I mean, I love playing the game, I love playing 2K [a basketball video game], I love watching basketball. When the NBA or college basketball is on, that’s my favorite time of the year.”
Sunrise to sunset, he breathes basketball. The sport has always been his only love, but he was not always as great at it as he is today.
In the summer following sixth grade, when Warney first played for Mike Heller, his longtime AAU coach on the New Jersey Hot Shots, he had already been playing in the yard for a few years. Warney liked the game and had size and strength that screamed potential. But he had never played organized basketball on a team before, and it showed.
“Jameel was maybe the worst basketball player I’d ever seen in my life,” Heller recalled. “He was lazy, not very talented. Just horrible. So bad.”
Such a description may have been appropriate at the time, but before long, it could not have been further from the truth.
Warney studied NBA stars Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, emulating their style of play. He watched basketball religiously and improved along the way. Before long, Warney had footwork as good as any big man in Union County. According to Heller, Warney was dominating the Amateur Athletic Union competition by eighth grade.
His mother and Heller decided it would be best for Warney to attend high school at Roselle Catholic, a 25-minute drive from his home. Warney’s mother was concerned about the education at the inner-city Plainfield High School and preferred a private school. Warney was hesitant at first, but decided it would be for the best.
“Coming from an inner-city, you see a certain kind of lifestyle that certain people are living,” Heller said. “You either choose that lifestyle or you choose to be better than that lifestyle. From day one, Jameel’s always chosen the better lifestyle.”
At Roselle Catholic, Warney was a four-year starter, ranking first in school history in career rebounds and blocked shots and ranking second in career points. Warney helped turn Roselle Catholic into one of the best basketball schools in the state of New Jersey. A seven-win team in Warney’s freshman season, the Lions won 18 games by his junior season.
“He helped us start it all. Before he got here, not too many people knew about Roselle Catholic,” the high school’s head coach Dave Boff said. “By the time he left, we were a top-10 team in the state.”
Warney averaged a double-double in his sophomore, junior and senior seasons of high school and was considered by EKB Scouting Service as the fifth-best recruit in New Jersey that year.
Former Stony Brook guard Bryan Dougher played a major role in bringing Warney to the Seawolves. The two had known each other for six years, having both played on the Hot Shots. Using the lure of a new arena and a strong academic university, Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell was able to secure a verbal commitment from Warney early in the process.
Bigger and better-known schools across the country like Iowa and Tennessee offered him scholarships to play basketball, but Warney kept his commitment to attend Stony Brook.
“His loyalty, from day one, has been something special,” Pikiell said. “His loyalty to his teammates, to his university, to his friends; it’s probably his strongest suit.”
Warney may have the national accolades now—leading the NCAA in total rebounds and double-doubles last season—but he has not forgotten where he came from. Warney shows deep loyalty toward his hometown. He trains with his high school team during the summer and he calls his mother after every game.
“Plainfield means everything to me,” Warney said. “I grew up there, I lived there all my life. It’s just something I can’t forget about.”
When the two-time America East Defensive Player of the Year leaves Stony Brook, he will be the first male in his family to graduate college.
This year, Warney has been under a microscope during almost every team practice, with NBA scouts present monitoring his every move. Pikiell said that every team has been in contact and either has or will visit this fall. The special attention doesn’t deter Warney from his number one goal this season—winning an America East title.
“When I first came here, I saw it as a challenge. I wanted to be on the first team to make it to the tournament,” Warney said. “With this as my last year, I’m so obsessed with winning now. I want to cut down that net.”
Pikiell noted that Warney has stepped up more than ever as a leader. Sophomores Tyrell Sturdivant and Jakub Petráš have taken strides under Warney’s mentorship.
“He’s got a really playful personality—I think he plays around the most on our team. The thing with him though, is that when he steps between the lines, it’s wartime.” Sturdivant said. “That’s one thing I really learn from him.”
Warney will be ready for one last war. One last battle. Throughout his childhood, he dreamed of being able to dunk. His senior season provides one last chance to complete the biggest slam dunk of all—leading Stony Brook to its first NCAA tournament berth.