Michigan Sparkplug Jordan Poole Was Made for March Heroics: 'It's Who He Is'

David Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterMarch 29, 2018


LOS ANGELES — As the seconds wane toward another Michigan win, Jordan Poole jumps with each tick of the clock. When the buzzer sounds, he bounces across the court, accosting every teammate he encounters with a high-five or a hug. Against Houston in the round of 32, Poole's buzzer-beater was the reason Michigan survived to play in the second weekend of the 2018 NCAA tournament. In the Wolverines' Elite Eight victory over Florida State, he spent all but two minutes on the bench. But the way he streaks around the floor, you'd think he's the team's MVP.

In some ways, he is. The boundless energy on display in this celebration is matched only by the tireless work ethic of a player who has climbed from the last spot in the rotation to become one of Michigan's first guards off the bench, coaches and teammates say. The confidence he carries with him onto the court is contagious, and it means far more than the minutes and points he provides. "He's always happy," assistant coach DeAndre Haynes says. "He's always making people laugh. He helps us play loose. He's the life of this team."

Michigan is a program powered primarily by upperclassmen, and it's rare for a freshman to have this kind of impact. Even rarer when that freshman's path to this point has been so fraught. A top-100 recruit, Poole arrived in Ann Arbor expecting to see the court right away. Instead, he found himself on the scout team for the first few months of the season. At times, his outspoken nature put him on a collision course with his coaches. But as the season wore on, Poole and his coaches worked together to find his perfect place.

As the Wolverines gather on the dais to receive the West Regional trophy, Poole places himself right next to John Beilein, throwing his left arm around his head coach. On the bus to the airport a few hours later, he and Beilein meet in the aisle for a dance battle. With smartphones behind them serving as spotlights, the 18-year-old Poole and the 65-year-old Beilein shimmy their shoulders and throw their hands up to the tune of "I Bet You Won't" by Mouse On Tha Track for about 15 seconds. Then the two meet in the middle, high-fiving and smiling.

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Beilein knows moments like these can matter as much as an instruction about defensive hand placement in practice. And he knows how important this freshman will be for the Wolverines' chances in the Final Four, no matter how many minutes he played Saturday against Florida State.

"Obviously," Beilein says, "we wouldn't be here without him."

"I was pissed," Poole says. Before Michigan's formal practices began, a group of Wolverines players would gather for open-gym scrimmages in early summer. In open gym, rules are relaxed and players call their own fouls. During one early game, junior center Moe Wagner had flagged Poole on consecutive possessions for a pair of infractions that the freshman would later describe as "little baby fouls." On the next trip down the floor, Poole jockeyed with junior forward Brent Hibbitts for a rebound. When Hibbitts leapt to gather the miss, Poole pushed him in midair. And when Hibbitts called the obvious foul, Poole collected the ball and hurled it at his teammate.

Hibbitts got in Poole's face. Poole pushed him. Hibbitts pushed back. As they were about to come to blows, teammates pulled them apart. The game continued, but the message was sent. Poole didn't even know all of his teammates' names yet, but he had communicated clearly to each of them that no matter the place or the opponent, he would be fearless.

Poole was raised that way. His father, Anthony, was a multisport athlete at Chicago's famous Simeon Career Academy, and he went on to play football at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. When Anthony and his wife, Monet, settled in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, he started running Sunday afternoon pickup hoops games at the local Lutheran church. He'd bring Jordan with him and insist that his son, starting in first grade, shoot with an NBA ball on a regulation 10-foot rim.

Jordan's first basketball memories are frustrations, but his father soon enough formed a nationally recognized AAU team, Wisconsin Playground Warriors, around him. And Jordan was consistently swishing three-pointers before middle school.

Although Anthony was his coach, Jordan never got a pass. Once, on the drive home from a tournament in middle school, Anthony was especially harsh with his son. "You played terrible," he recalls telling Jordan. "If you want to just be like every other kid and just have fun, that's fine. But if you want to play in the NBA, you won't make it playing like you did this weekend. You'd be lucky to play overseas."

When they got home, Jordan jumped out of the car, ran into his room and slammed the door. The next day, Anthony found a note pinned to the frame. It read: "You have talent and you MIGHT be able to go OVERSEAS. Not the NBA. Overseas." For a few weeks, that was his only communication with his dad. Anthony didn't mind. He and Monet had raised their son to be respectful but to challenge everything. If he thought he deserved a better grade than he received on a paper, they'd encourage him to meet with the teacher. If he was called for a foul he didn't think he deserved, they encouraged him to ask for an explanation from the official. When his private middle school insisted its students wear pants as part of their uniforms, Jordan rolled his pant legs up so he would be in full compliance but still stand out. "I looked at him like, Why?" Anthony says. "But that's the way we raised him. Jordan is not afraid to be himself."

At Rufus King International High School in Milwaukee, Poole broke the mold in basketball in a number of ways. First, he made varsity as a freshman, something only two other first-year players had achieved under longtime head coach Jim Gosz. And second, he started to roll his shorts up—the signature look he rocks to this day at Michigan. "My first pair looked like parachute pants," he says. "They were awful. But by my junior year, I'd started a little short-shorts revolution, and almost everyone locked into the look."

Before the start of his junior year, he committed to Michigan in front of a crowd of a few hundred at his high school. Beilein had extended Poole the Wolverines' first offer in the class of 2017 after a summer workout Gosz hosted. The high school coach loved Beilein's offense and thought his pupil would be a perfect fit. After advising the Pooles to accept the offer, they canceled workouts scheduled for other college coaches.

When Poole jumped to La Lumiere School in Indiana for his senior season, playing alongside highly coveted recruits like Michigan State big man Jaren Jackson Jr., high-major offers continued to roll in. But Poole never wavered. In fact, he began to offer previews of what Michigan fans could expect from him. In an interview, he promised to make Michigan known for "savagery" in his freshman season—a thinly veiled clap back at Illinois forward Maverick Morgan's remark that Michigan was "white collar." And on the court, he accepted a role coming off the bench to help lead La Lumiere to a Dick's high school national championship.

"He can start pretty much anywhere in the country, and he probably should be starting for us," his head coach, Shane Heirman (who's now an assistant at DePaul), said at the time. "But for him to accept that role for us coming off the bench is an incredible testament to his character."

Poole brought the same level of self-assurance to Ann Arbor, which prompted that initial scuffle with Hibbitts and Wagner.

In the locker room after that incident, Hibbitts approached Poole, and the two shook hands and exchanged phone numbers. Soon after, they discovered they shared a lot of the same interests, and now they talk all the time and play Fortnite together. And a few weeks later, before the start of the season, they started a team of their own: the drip boys.

During intrasquad scrimmages, Michigan's players are often divided into Blue (the starters) and Maize (the backups). But after practice, they're organized by whether or not they're members of the drip boys. The club consists of Poole, Hibbitts, freshman guard Eli Brooks, freshman forward Isaiah Livers and sophomore wing Ibi Watson.

The drip club was born one day after practice when Poole and Watson walked out of the showers at the same time and noticed how their haircuts—buzzed sides with big afros above—dripped water in the same way. Drip is also another word for swag, so they knew the club's membership had to be exclusive.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

"We told Isaiah to join us," Poole says. "We were like, 'We're about to start a movement.' And then we all looked and saw that Eli looks like us, too. We got the same hairstyle. So we said, 'We're the drip boys.' But then we thought: 'Oh, we have to add a little diversity to the team. Who's got swag in their own little way?' We had a couple applications, but we looked at [Hibbitts] and thought it'd be best to bring him."

About a month ago, before Michigan's final road game of the regular season at Maryland, Beilein was leading the team through a film session when he paused on a shot of Hibbitts. He asked how the drip boys were doing. As the team laughed, some of the drip boys also realized that Coach B, as they affectionately call him, might be more aware than he regularly reveals.

At first, Poole and Beilein butted heads. Like most other highly touted recruits, Poole expected playing time right away. But he totaled just 13 minutes during the Wolverines' first six games. "Not playing after you've worked so hard all the way up to this point, it's one of the most awful feelings I've ever gone through," Poole says. "I would wish that on nobody."

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

To cope, he'd talk to his father, his former coaches and Michigan's coaches, hunting for ways to improve and earn more minutes. He became particularly close with Haynes, a first-year assistant with the Wolverines. Haynes would regularly remind Poole that the only thing he could control was his effort level in practice. And he promised Poole that he could work his way up from the end of the bench to becoming the team's sixth man.

Early on, Haynes worried the lack of playing time would shake the freshman's confidence. But he quickly came to the same realization that every coach who's ever worked with Poole has had: It's impossible to shake him.

"He drove you crazy sometimes," Gosz says. "But you could chew his ass out in a timeout, and he'd be fine with you by the time you broke the huddle. He's really resilient. Nothing bothers him. Whenever he steps on the court, he always feels like he's the best player."

He also makes every situation a little more entertaining. When he's in the layup line, he'll shoot his shot and then roll on the floor like he's been fouled and bounce up like he's demanding an and-1. After he makes a three-pointer, which he's doing at a 38.8 percent clip this season, he'll shake his shoulders. When music is playing in the locker room—whether it's Quavo or Chris Stapleton—he's the first to start shuffling his feet. And in games, he's made the most of every minute he's on the court.

As the season has worn on, he has endeared himself to teammates who might not have gotten the best first impression. "He's like everyone's little brother," Hibbitts says. Adds sophomore guard Zavier Simpson, "Everybody needs a dude like him on their team." Says Livers, his roommate and frequent Snapchat documentarian, "Jordan is the kind of guy you want on your side when you're going to war."

By the last dozen games of the regular season, Poole was averaging almost 16 minutes a gamea signal that he'd started to win over his coaches, too. "He's got a lot of confidence, and he'll tell you about it, too," Beilein says. "He's not afraid to speak his mind. And he's a wonderful young man who's growing every day. It really can be fun to watch his growth over his time at Michigan."

For his part, Poole says this season has helped him mature in a way that nothing in his life ever has. But through it all, he never lost the element of his game that has always mattered most. "I never doubted myself," Poole says. "No matter what the situation was, I was going to keep working. I knew if it wasn't for this year, then it'd be for next year. And I was always going to find a way to get better. If you ever lack confidence, that's when things go downhill. If you keep your confidence, good things come."

When Poole was a freshman at Rufus King, he played hardly any minutes. But in a state sectional final playoff game, Gosz put him in with 11 seconds to go and his team down by three. Poole hit a game-tying three from the right wing, and King went on to win.

When Poole was a senior at La Lumiere, he hit a game-winning shot from the same spot against national powerhouse Montverde (Florida) Academy.

In the weeklong break between the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament, Michigan's players competed against one another in an intrasquad scrimmage to stay fresh. Poole was on the Maize team, and they were trailing by a wide margin in the closing minutes of the first half. But before the period ended, Poole hit a half-court shot. And on the final play of the game, Poole sunk another three from the same spot to defeat the starters.

"Hitting big shots isn't just what he does," Haynes says. "It's who he is."

A few moments before his fateful shot against Houston, the Cougars had appeared poised to seal the game. With a two-point lead, senior forward Devin Davis was preparing for a pair of free throws when his teammate, Rob Gray, locked eyes with Poole and asked Michigan's freshman where he was from. Poole replied, "Milwaukee."

"You're about to go back there," Gray told him.

Seconds later, Davis' free throws both clanked out, and Poole was splaying his legs and arching his arms, launching the game-winner and sending Gray back home. And more than a week later, Poole and his teammates are still riding the wave of joy they felt then, which sent them sprinting and smiling across the court.

But Poole would prefer that his shot not be remembered in isolation. He'd rather it be remembered for helping the Wolverines avoid elimination en route to their second national championship.

For his legacy at Michigan to be more than just one shining moment.


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