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The apple — or perhaps basketball — doesn’t fall far from this tree

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Greg St. Jean comes from a basketball family. The son of Garry St. Jean, former general manager of the Golden State Warriors, He grew up around basketball and has loved the game as long as he can remember. Like other kids, St. Jean played many sports, but he knew that basketball was his true passion.

Greg St. Jean
Photo is Courtesy of Wesleyan Athletics

“When other kids talked about toys and video games, I talked about NBA trivia and famous playoff series,” he said. “This can all be attributed to having a father who eats, sleeps, and dreams about basketball.” St. Jean was able to meet and hang out with many of the best basketball players in the nation, an opportunity that few get to experience, but many fantasize about.

He grew up in Danville, Calif. and attended De La Salle High School, a private, all boys’ Catholic school in Concord.. St. Jean knew he wanted to play college basketball and had his sights set on Williams College, a so-called “Little Ivy” Division III school in Williamstown, Mass. He and his father agreed that De La Salle High School would put him in the best position to make his goal a reality.

St. Jean applied early decision and practically ended his recruiting. Yet, due to a low score in the critical reading section of the SAT, (he got a 590, but needed at least a 600), Williams wait listed him until late spring. He did not want to risk being denied and instead decided to do a post graduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He knew he could benefit from an extra year, which would allow him to mature physically and improve his standardized test scores. In doing so, St. Jean re-opened his recruitment and decided to aim for Division 1, specifically the Ivy League.

At 6-4, St. Jean is capable of playing all three perimeter positions but is most comfortable as a shooting guard or small forward.

NewEnglandRecruitingReport.com described St. Jean as “tremendously intelligent and crafty, he can play several different positions on the floor thanks to his ability to handle and pass the ball.”

Unfortunately, St. Jean was unable to play during the summer or fall due to  stress fractures in his back area and then missed the first half of the season at Exeter due to a hip fracture. After he recovered from these set- backs, most Ivy League coaches began to lose interest and pegged St. Jean as “injury plagued.”  This narrowed his choices down to a few schools in the Northeast so St. Jean re-focused on Williams, which was his first choice but he also was in contact with several other schools within the same conference, the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC).

Wesleyan University’s newly-hired Head Coach Joe Reilly of showed the most interest in St. Jean, who in turn, began to take more interest in Wesleyan, largely because of Reilly’s impressive resume. A former player in the NESCAC at Trinity College, Reilly had coached for 11 years at Bates, a small college in Maine, and was 2005-2006 NESCAC coach of the year. After countless phone calls and conversations, St. Jean found himself gravitating toward Middletown, Connecticut instead of Williamstown, Massachusetts.

“I felt a connection with him and believed in his vision. And most importantly, he didn’t write me off. He believed that I had more to give despite the injuries,”  the athlete said.

St. Jean officially committed to Wesleyan University before kick off on Super Sunday in 2009 and applied early decision round two. Recalling that night St. Jean said “ I can distinctly remember talking to Coach Reilly during half time and loved hearing him say ‘I’m fired up that you are going to be a Cardinal! Let’s win a NESCAC Championship together.’”

Winning a NESCAC championship is exactly what St. Jean wanted to do.. He didn’t care that the Cardinals were 7-17 the year before. He didn’t care that he was part of first year head coach Reilly’s first recruiting class. He didn’t care that Wesleyan’s roster would be made up primarily of freshman. St. Jean expected to come in and help lead the team to an NESCAC championship.

Instead Wesleyan went 11-15 in the 2009-2010 season, St. Jean’s freshman year, but this did not discourage him.

The young team rallied around St. Jean’s strong personality.

“Greg is the hardest worker I have ever met. He pushes us every day in practice, and makes sure we stay in line off the court,” said teammate Mike Callaghan.

St. Jean is not just a basketball player but also a scholar, studying neurobiology. He hasn’t allowed anything to get in the way of accomplishing his goals despite suffering several injuries. He has never touched an alcoholic beverage in his life, but he is by no means a stiff.

“ On Saturday nights St. Jean is the life of the party, singing, clowning around like the rest of us. He doesn’t care or give his friends a hard time for drinking, and you could never tell that he wasn’t unless you knew,” said Wesleyan’s point guard Sasha Brown. “It’s a testament to his will power that he can refrain from drinking in the college environment.”

Despite Wesleyan’s lack luster record  his freshman season, St. Jean did not change his expectations. “It’s championship or bust,” he said.

Coming into the 2010-2011 season, his coaches, teammates and St. Jean, himself, knew he was destined for a breakout sophomore year. He had had a fantastic freshman spring and said he  “finally felt comfortable on the court again.”  But preparing for the season, he suffered an abdominal injury that required surgery, forcing him to miss most of the preseason. He recovered in time for the team’s first formal practice, but that very day, broke his wrist.

“Sitting out was awful, but I was there every day supporting my teammates. I couldn’t lead on the court, but I felt obligated to lead from the sidelines,” St. Jean said. He displayed a tremendous amount of emotion on the bench, typically standing up, yelling and screaming to his teammates from tipoff until the final buzzer.

After missing his entire sophomore season, St. Jean was finally healthy during the 2011 spring semester, although St. Jean uses the term “healthy” lightly these days. His cast was off and he found himself in the best shape of his life, working out every day. He said he never felt more comfortable with his body, athletic ability, and overall basketball game.

He described himself as “hungry and ready to become an elite player.” Everything seemed to be falling in place for a perfect comeback story, for his junior year, but once again, adversity struck. During a pick-up game one day, he drove to the hoop, did an NBA style jump stop, landed awkwardly and fell to the ground crying.

“I cringed when I saw him fall to the ground, said Callaghan. “I knew how hard he had worked to get back to this point, and I was praying that the injury was nothing serious.” But it was, St. Jean had torn his ACL and would have to miss the first half of the 2011-2012 season.

“The ACL tear really tested my mental toughness and patience,” St Jean said.  Thankfully my friends, teammates, and coaches were fantastic. Their support really helped me push through the adversity and I could not have done it without them.”

He had suffered his fair share of injuries before the tear, but never one so serious, and never one that took so long to heal.

During the  summer of 2011, he developed a mindset that he would come back better than ever. After months of legitimate sweat and tears, constant rehab, St. Jean felt like he was ready to play. That was his number one goal.

He wanted to get out on the court and compete with his friends again. And he did just that.

St. Jean was cleared right around Christmas, participated in a few practices and played in his  first game on January 6, 2012.

The last time he had put a Wesleyan jersey on was Feb. 20, 2010. He had waited 685 days to play. Before St. Jean came out for warm-ups that night, he thought to himself “This road has come to an end and the wait is over. Give them everything you have…”

Less than a month after his first game, he found himself back on the hard wood in tears during practice. “Same move. Same Court. Same exact spot on the floor. I went down and immediately knew what had happened. The gym went silent and I remember saying “I’m done…I’m done. I did it again.”

Another ACL tear.

St. Jean sat in the training room for an hour, returned to practice on crutches and sat in a chair on the side. Reilly came over and got on one knee and looked St. Jean in the eye. “Nobody has more,” the coach said, pointing at his heart, “than you. Nobody. Remember that.”

St. Jean remembers tearing up and nodding his head.

“ I have never felt for someone the way I did for Greg that day. He had worked too hard and overcome too much to suffer another devastating injury,” Brown said. “The team and Riley did everything in our power to keep his spirits up, and it was not a surprise to anyone that he wanted to make another comeback.”

St. Jean had surgery in mid-March and is currently awaiting full recovery, which doctors sad could take from nine to 12 months. He is training and rehabbing like he is going to come back.

“I told myself early on that I shouldn’t make any decisions until I know and see how I feel. Early on, there were days I just wanted to hang it up and pick up a whistle and start coaching.

“That in mind, I know I will be a coach for a long time. I know my window to be a player is closing quickly and I am going to give everything I have to make it back. As Ray Lewis has said “effort is between you and you” and I know what type of effort I have put into this. I owe it to myself, my teammates, and Coach Reilly to give it one more run,” St. Jean said.

Since his senior year in high school, St. Jean has had six surgeries; a meniscus repair, two ACL reconstruction surgeries on his right knee, and three different surgeries on his abdominals. In addition to these surgeries he has suffered fractures to his back, hip, and wrist.

But he keeps going. St. Jean will graduate after this season, in spring of 2013, and plans on becoming a coach, a career choice his Wesleyan coach approves of.

“He’s got one of the best basketball minds I’ve seen; it’s like having another coach on the bench,” Reilly said during an interview with the Middletown Press.

In the St. Jean family, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree apparently.

David Hjerpe is a journalism student at the University of Connecticut. He wrote this story for his fall 2012 sports writing course.