N.C. Wesleyan men’s basketball coach John Thompson noticed signs early, right around the time the team came back from Christmas break.
He saw a green and blue quilt tucked into Brandon Givens’ locker, stuffed in between a pillow and a shoebox.
When Thompson would show up at the gym around 8 a.m., Givens would be there shooting or watching videos.
One day, Thompson walked into the locker room with some equipment. The lights were off, except for the glow of a small television set in the corner. Givens was lying on a wooden bench in the middle of the room – quilt and pillow in hand – watching film.
“But he was bundled up,” Thompson said with a laugh. “He was in bed, in the locker room.”
When most people wake up in the middle of the night, they head to the kitchen for a midnight snack or click on the television. Givens heads for the gym, because now, it’s only a few steps away.
For the past month, Givens – the second leading scorer in the nation regardless of division – has been sleeping in the N.C. Wesleyan locker room.
“He got a quilt and a pillow, and he moved in,” Thompson said.
Lockers line the walls of the Bishops’ dressing room. A wooden bench that echoes with every knock in the middle of the room becomes Givens’ bed.
“I just wanted to get better,” said Givens, who is averaging nearly 28 points per game this season. “I wanted more time in the gym.”
The first time Thompson heard of Givens was when the forward’s number popped up on his phone. Amid a cluttered desk, Thompson was introduced to one of the elite scorers in the nation by a voice on the other end.
Givens wanted to come to N.C. Wesleyan, but he came with plenty of red flags. He had been to three schools in three years and was calling out of the blue to see if he could play for Thompson.
Players had called before, but usually nothing materialized, Thompson said. So Thompson made Givens jump through a few hoops to make sure Givens was genuine in his intentions.
“He did everything I asked him to do,” Thompson said. “… In the meantime, he got me some highlights. So now, I’m really interested.”
Givens’ red flags soon came with mature reasons. Givens said he left the College of Southern Idaho, where he played with Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson, because the classes weren’t putting him in position to graduate – just keeping him eligible to play basketball.
His one-year stop at Jones County Junior College in Mississippi was all the time he could play at the school.
Last year, Givens played at William Carey University in Mississippi. He left after his grandmother, who raised him as a boy, became ill. He wanted to move closer to his hometown of Ruffin, S.C, just outside of Charleston.
Givens randomly picked N.C. Wesleyan out of a list because his credits could transfer, and it was close enough to home. From his point of view, his random gamble has paid off.
“I wish this was my first stop,” Givens said. “I can’t say anything bad about it.”
The feeling is mutual.
“He (has) been nothing short of what I expected and probably exceeded that,” Thompson said.
The only player averaging more points per game than Givens is Jack Taylor, who scored 138 points for Grinnell College in one game earlier this season.
But Taylor’s season-ending injury earlier this year made Givens the active leading scorer in the nation.
Still, Givens wanted more.
“I felt like I could do more to help our team and help my teammates,” Givens said. “I felt like a lot of them depended on me, and I had to get better. I just had to do more to get better.”
For Givens, the idea of sleeping in the gym came from Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant, who slept in his high school gym.
One night, Givens’ teammate and roommate, Chris Ford, was walking the dorm hallway the two shared with the rest of the basketball team. Ford was looking for Givens when he ran into teammate Eddie Stokes. Stokes told Ford that Givens was in the gym – with his quilt.
“I wouldn’t do it,” Ford said. “He’s a very dedicated person. He’s sleeping in the gym, working out 24/7. He’s doing a lot of things other guys can’t do. He’s mentally prepared, mentally focused all the time.”
Givens never used to wake up in the middle of the night, but now that he’s falling asleep to Michael Jordan highlights and instructional videos instead of David Letterman, he’s waking up two or three times every night.
One week after he started his new sleeping arrangements, he set a new school record with 50 points in an upset victory against Christopher Newport on Jan. 9 – the Bishops’ first home game since Givens started sleeping in the locker room.
“It was kind of weird,” teammate Cornelius Snow said. “On this level, you don’t really hear about stuff like that. … If you think about it, when he has so much success on the court, it kind of makes sense.”
Everett Gymnasium is open 24 hours, lending itself to Givens’ choice. When Snow, Ford or any other teammates come into the locker room and see Givens sleeping, they let him be. They know that he’ll take care of them on the court when the time comes.
Givens doesn’t dream about basketball. When he’s asleep, that’s his break from the sport that has become his life – his craft.
“All he wants to do is win,” Thompson said. “All he wants to do is be the best player he can be to help his team. He really doesn’t care how many points he scores. He really doesn’t care about accolades or attention. He loves the game. He loves the art of the game. He loves working on his craft. He loves to spend time working.”
Givens looks the part of an elite basketball player. The 6-foot-6 forward has long arms and legs, which occasionally make him appear gangly when he runs without the ball.
With it, he’s deadly.
He has range well beyond the 3-point line and can finish at the rim. He’s also improving from the free-throw line, something he thinks sleeping in the gym has aided.
Givens looks the part, but he doesn’t act it. Raised by his grandmother, Givens is humble by nature. Once he started playing basketball, his reserved mannerism remained.
“When basketball came along, it was nothing to be mellow or laid back,” Givens said. “I never felt like I was better than certain people.”
That mentality has never left.
Intimidating at first, Givens is almost overwhelmingly humble at times. He wants none of the credit. He would happily stand in the back of the crowd.
“He doesn’t want all the attention of a quote-unquote star,” Thompson said. “He wants to fit in. He wants to be one of the guys.”
The Bishops accepted him from the beginning, and more than one teammate has professed his love for Givens’ presence on the team. Still, Givens showed reservation on the court at first.
During the Bishops’ first game, Givens took just nine shots. The next game, he took only 12.
Thompson sat Givens down with a simple message: For N.C. Wesleyan to be as good as it could be, Givens had to be as good as he could be.
Shooting was what Thompson needed from his star. But if he wanted something else, Givens probably would give that, too.
“He’s not above anything,” Thompson said. “If I asked him to sweep the floor, he’d sweep the floor for us. If I asked him to hang up uniforms, he’d hang up uniforms. He’ll do whatever it takes. He’s pretty special.”
Givens can score 50 points, but making a last-second, game-winning pass is what he wants. He can score 43, but his biggest contribution could be his hustle on a game-sealing, chase-down block.
Still, with everything he has accomplished in less than a year, Givens gives credit elsewhere.
“None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for God, my teammates and my coaches,” Givens said.
Don’t forget a good pillow, too.
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org