Kim Garner thought her son was joking. He told her his butt was chafed from sitting at the end of the bench, in a role he hated as a late sub getting scant minutes of playing time, if that.
She laughed it off. No, really, Shep Garner insisted to his mom, something slipped through his mesh basketball shorts and was irritating him.
"The next thing I know I'm going out to buy tweezers," Kim recalled with a hearty laugh. "You know the saying splinters in your butt, well, Shep literally
had splinters in his butt from sitting on the bench."Shep Garner III
flashed a brilliant smile and shook his head sitting across a dining room table from his mom as she retold the story when Shep was an 11-year-old in the fabled Biddy League of Chester, Pa. Somewhere deep inside, that 11-year-old who sat the bench still whispers to Garner. It reminds him where he was once was, the last kid picked, the one nobody paid any attention to, the one who missed open layups or would dribble the ball off his leg. The kid with no left hand, and seemingly, no future in basketball.
Today, you may not find a player who smiles more on a basketball court than the talented 6-foot-1, 190-pound sophomore point guard at Roman Catholic (Philadelphia). That kid who was once seldom-picked has blossomed into one of the best players in Philadelphia, and one of the best sophomores in the country. There's really nothing Garner can't do on a basketball court, finishing this season averaging 16.1 points and 3.7 assists a game.
Yes, watching Garner play today, it's hard to believe his game had any holes. He's silky smooth. He never gets rattled, and he took on state runner-up Lower Merion a few weeks ago in the PIAA state playoffs and caused the Aces some serious headaches. One moment he's casually dribbling the ball up the court, the next second, he's bolting through a maze of defenders for an easy layup. Or pulling up for a short jumper. Or coming from nowhere to steal a pass. He smiles and rarely sweats. He carries a "Captain Cool" veneer that belies the fact he's just a sophomore.
"The kid is a player who you have to be aware of everywhere on the court," said legendary Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer.
It's enough to scratch your head in bewilderment, still trying to fathom that at one time Garner wasn't very good.
"I wasn't," admitted Garner, who lives in Chester and is very close friends with Chester High star Rondae Jefferson. "As a kid, I didn't take basketball that seriously. It was more a recreational thing to me. But basketball is a serious thing in Chester. You better be able to play to certain standards. People talk in Chester. Coming up through the Biddy League, I was one of the smallest kids on my team, and I sat the bench every game.
"They'd put me in the last 30 seconds of blowouts. That's what put a fire into me to become better. I'd watch kids my age pass me by; I didn't want to do this anymore. I would be angry. I would come home and cry, telling my mom I was done, I didn't want to play basketball anymore. But that passed, and I'd calm down. I decided that I wanted to do something about it."
In three months, he grew 5 inches. Someone also entered his life, Eric "Pooh" Evans, the older brother of 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year and Sacramento Kings star Tyreke Evans. Pooh Evans works with local youth, as he did with his brother Tyreke, and he noticed early something special about Garner.
"I've known Shep since he was 12 and my first impression was that he was a hard worker and had mentality of someone who wanted to get better," Pooh Evans said. "I saw a hunger in Shep. He was driven to become better and that's what allowed me to show him that he could flourish. With the way Shep works, I believe one day he can reach the NBA level. His personality reminds me a lot of my brother Tyreke. What is unique about Shep is that you recognize his character right away. The kid has a great heart, and there was a pureness about his outlook, which is a reflection of his parents, Shep and Kim. They're amazing people and you see how that's reflected in Shep."
Roman Catholic coach Chris McNesby is as impressed with how Garner carries himself off the court as he does on it. A month into the season Garner's freshman year, during the final quarter of a tense game with Malvern Prep, McNesby noticed something unique about his future star.
"Shep is coming up the court and he has this smile on his face, like ‘Coach, I got this,'" McNesby recalled. "He plays with such poise, and once I saw that smile on his face, that told me he has ice water in his veins. He knows the pulse of the team. He embraces the moment, because he always wants the ball."
But what struck McNesby the most came this past season. McNesby was counseling a freshman on the team about a class, when Garner intervened, because Garner previously had the instructor.
"Shep sat down and spoke to the kid, guiding him through what to expect, and how to handle the course," McNesby said. "That really impressed me. But that's also Shep. He's a real leader on and off the court. He's someone who cares about his teammates, and I think that wider scope, the attitude that it's not just about him comes from his parents. The kid is very unselfish."
This will mark a huge summer for Garner on the national level. He's already received scholarship offers from high level local schools in the Philadelphia area, and he speaks frequently with Jefferson about the two of them playing together at the same college.
Evans plans on pushing Garner even harder this summer. There is an aura about Garner that rubs off on teammates. His skill set is there; his motor is there.
"What's killing Shep right now is that he's too nice," Evans said laughing. "I had to make Tyreke mean, not a throw-elbows mean. But if your grandmom comes out there, you have to show her that this is where you rule. I want to see Shep take over games. He tends to want to satisfy everyone else. Shep has triple-double ability and the moment his demeanor catches up with his game, that's when he'll break through. I see more in him. A lot more. I'll make sure that comes out this summer. I'll routinely be hard on him and it has to come this summer."
Garner is ready for the challenge.
"I want to have a very big summer going into my junior year, try to get my name out there. I want to show what I can do," Garner said. "I'm going to be a junior and it's basically the time to take control. Being more of a leader has grown over the years. I'm looking ahead and this summer will be important toward that. I still remember the times I sat the bench and watching all those kids play. I think it's something that will always push me."
One thing is certain: No one will be reaching for the tweezers again to pick out splinters.