It wasn’t exactly a welcome wagon reception:
“What are you doing back here?”
“Why’d you transfer?”
“Why are you here?
Those were a few of the pointed questions — some delivered in measured tones by passersby, others in catcall shouts from afar — that Juwan Staten got when he walked around the University of Dayton’s Student Ghetto with Devin Oliver and some of his other former Flyers teammates nearly a year after his departure from UD had turned into something akin to a Jerry Springer episode.
And before that, back in the spring of 2011 — when word first got out he was leaving the Flyers after just one season — the teenage Staten still had a month of classes to finish at UD.
“That was the toughest time,” recalled Staten, now 26 and having played professionally in Europe the past three seasons after a stellar career playing for legendary Bob Huggins at West Virginia University, the other afternoon as he sat in an eatery next to the UD campus.
He was candid and introspective and quite likable as he looked back on a time when some folks saw him in much different terms.
“Initially, I had wanted to wait until the school year was over to announce I was transferring, but I knew it, and coach (Brian) Gregory knew it, and I think his whole staff did, too, and it just came out a lot sooner than I hoped,” he said.
“Going to classes after that was the hardest part. Every day somebody asked why I was leaving. As I walked across campus, people would shout it. And walking in the Ghetto, that’s where you really hear some crazy things.”
The reactions were emotionally charged, not just by the disappointment of Staten leaving, but more so because of the giddy anticipation that had accompanied his coming to UD out of Dayton’s Thurgood Marshall High School.
The 5-foot-11 point guard remains one of the most trumpeted and certainly the longest-courted recruits in UD basketball history.
Gregory had offered Staten a scholarship when he was 5-foot-7, 14-year-old ninth-grader at what was then called Colonel White High School.
Staten gave a verbal commitment to UD as a sophomore, and then — although receiving scholarship offers from Xavier, Cincinnati, Ohio State, West Virginia and numerous other schools — he had honored his commitment and finally signed to play at UD.
“He stayed true to his word,” Gregory said at the time. “He believes in our dream.”
Staten’s hometown hero status had mushroomed even more when, as a junior, he led Thurgood Marshall (formerly Colonel White) to the Division II state title game.
That day — after his one-man show nearly lifted his injury-depleted team over Akron St. Vincent St. Mary — he was left in tears and then tenderly consoled on the court by LeBron James, a SVSM alum in the midst of an NBA Most Valuable Player season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
James’ embrace of the tearful Staten was captured by photographers and became something of an iconic image that appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country.
For his final season of high school, Staten transferred to Oak Hill Academy, the barnstorming prep powerhouse in Virginia that would send all eight of its seniors to Division I basketball programs.
When he got to UD, Staten was rated the 44th-best prospect in the nation by Rivals.com and the top recruit in the entire Atlantic 10.
Although he would play the second-most minutes for the Flyers as a freshman, lead the A-10 in assists and be named to the league’s All-Rookie team, his Flyer love affair soon soured.
It was like a failed teen marriage where starry-eyed flirtation is a lot different than living together day to day.
There were team chemistry problems. Juwan’s dad, Billy Staten — himself a former college player and a local prep coach — thought some of the older players favored Drake University transfer Josh Parker at point guard rather than his son.
Some Flyers, one player’s mom said, thought Staten came into the program with a sense of entitlement.
Regardless, soon Staten and Gregory — both of whom had gushed with praise about the other just months earlier — had a fractured relationship. Near the end of the season, some fans — on radio call-in shows and on fan blogs — were taking Staten to task, as did some in the media.
In turn, Billy Staten became Juwan’s most passionate defender.
“My son’s been made out to be a little punk, that he’s spoiled, he’s selfish and that’s wrong,” he told me one day in a spirited phone call. “My son’s being turned into a scapegoat, and that’s not fair.
“It really hurt him. It hurt our family. And even if he was that horrible, why didn’t BG (Gregory) step in? BG needs to be a man here and admit maybe he messed up.”
After the Flyers lost in the A-10 Tournament’s title game at in 2011, I remember standing on the edge of Boardwalk Hall court in Atlantic City with Gregory, who quietly discussed his team. At mention of Staten, he just shook his head and said:
“I’m not going through another year like this one.”
Neither he, nor Staten, did.
After eight years at UD, Gregory took a lucrative job at Georgia Tech.
And Staten headed off to West Virginia, where he was a two-time All-Big 12 Conference player.
“When everything happened here I was just 18 and it definitely hurt my feelings,” Staten said. “I had to step away. And it took me a little while to realize that the University of Dayton as a school was not the city of Dayton as a whole.
“At first I put them all together and thought my hometown hated me. I thought maybe I should just stay in West Virginia and not come back to Dayton.”
Winding career path
After that postgame embrace following the 2009 state title game in Columbus, Staten said he has run into James two more times. The second meeting came when he was in college.
“As I walked up to him, he was smiling,” Staten recalled. “He remembered. Right off he said, ‘Man, I see that picture all the time! People ask me about it all the time.’”
Staten said he’s never forgotten the moment either:
“How could you forget it! That’s LeBron James! He’s a living legend. He’s my favorite player. And that moment was special.”
And he remembers what James — who was wearing a green SVSM jacket that day and had nervously paced behind the Irish bench when the game got tight — had said to him afterward.
Staten had been forced to carry the Cougars on his shoulders that day. Greg Gainey, the team’s All-City big man, hadn’t played because of two sprained knees, and some of the other stalwarts on the team had had off games against the Irish.
Although double-teamed, roughed up and harassed all game long, Staten had scored 28 points, including 20 in the first half. He was crushed when his team came up short and lost 59-53 after leading 29-24 at halftime.
“LeBron told me to pick my head up, that I’d done all I could,” Staten explained soon after their encounter. “He told me he knew how it felt because he had lost a state championship as a junior, too.
“He said, ‘That feeling you feel right now, try not to ever feel it again.’ He said he thought I’d be playing for a championship again. He said I was a great player who could lift a team.”
Staten did just that at West Virginia, especially during a breakout junior season when he led the 2013-14 Mountaineers in points (averaging 18.1 points per game), assists, field goal percentage and steals.
When Staten scored 24 points to lift WVU over mighty Kansas, 92-86, Huggins told the assembled press afterward he thought Staten was “the best point guard in the country.”
Although knee problems hampered him some as a senior, Staten still averaged 14.2 points per game. He went undrafted in 2015, but the Sacramento Kings signed him onto their NBA Summer League team. He played just one game before having arthroscopic surgery.
In late September that year, the Golden State Warriors signed him, but he appeared in just one preseason game before being waived.
After that came a stint with the Santa Cruz Warriors, a Golden State affiliate in the NBA Developmental League. He was traded to the Delaware 87ers, a Philadelphia 76ers farm team, in the NBA G League (formerly known as the Development or D League.).
In the spring of 2016 he left to play for Belfins Mons-Hainaut in the Belgium Pro League. He then spent the 2016-17 season with the Viplas Vikings in the Finnish Korisliiga, averaging 13.3 points and being named the Most Valuable Foreign Player in the league.
Last season in France, he was the standout point guard for Saint-Chamond Basket in the country’s Pro B League.
Over the next couple of weeks, he said he will decide whether to return overseas for a decent payday or try the NBA’s G League with hopes of giving the NBA another shot.
“August is really a big month for me,” he said. “I’ve got to make a real decision.”
Growing as a player, and as a father
Staten has added to his repertoire in the past couple of years.
As the Flyers freshman point guard, he showed he was superb at seeing the floor, had great ball-handling skills and was lightning quick. But now he can do a lot of other things, too.
“I can do hair and change diapers,” he said with a smile. “I can feed her and we can just hang out. I can do it all now.”
He was talking about caring for the 2.5-year-old daughter, Jayla, he and Aysa Bussie, the former Mountaineers women’s basketball player and WNBA Minnesota Lynx draftee, had together.
Jayla lives with her mom in Baltimore, and Staten said he FaceTimes with her every day, even when playing in Europe.
“Having a child has changed me a lot,” he said quietly. “The feeling you have when you have a little you, there’s nothing better.
“But at first I felt a lot of pressure, too. I was like, ‘What am I going to do as a dad? Can I handle the responsibility?’ But I got the hang of it, and it’s great now.”
This was the first summer in the past several years that Staten spent a lot of time in Dayton. He’s trained with his dad at the downtown YMCA, and he’s playing every Sunday in a summer league in Columbus with guys like Jared Sullinger, Trey Burke and former UD standout Chris Johnson, all of whom have played in the NBA.
Saturday night, Staten was scheduled to play in the first annual Kenny Hayes Charity Basketball Game at Northmont. It brought together many of the best Dayton-area players — almost all of whom are now playing professionally — in an effort to raise funds for kids in need.
“Kenny got ahold of me earlier this year when we both were playing in France,” Staten said. “I told him, ‘Sure, I’m down. Just let me know when and where.’ I wanted to help my hometown.”
He wants to do more of that, too.
First, though, he said he’d like another shot at the NBA:
“I want to get to the league. That’s every kid’s dream when he picks up a basketball. Every path is unique, that’s how life is, but the NBA is my end goal.
“Once I’m done playing I want to stay part of the game as a coach. And I’d like to put together some kind of workout service for kids, too. I want to give back to them.
“My dad and mom were there for me when I was growing up and they made sure I got everything I needed. Most importantly they gave me attention and time.
“That’s something a lot of kids struggle with. If I can save a couple of kids by putting them in the gym and mentoring them so they can get a college scholarship and prepare for life, I’ll feel like I’ve done something.
“I’d like to do that for kids in West Virginia and especially those back here in Dayton.”
And with that he provided the perfect answer to those catcallers in the Student Ghetto who once decried:
“What are you doing back here?”