Chris Eversley led the Cal Poly men's basketball team to its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament | Ian Billings / Mustang News

J.J. Jenkins
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Chris Eversley was mad, a baseball bat in hand and fury in his eyes. The 6-foot-6 high school senior could easily put the burglars who stole his Xbox 360 out cold.

It was the first and only time his father saw him visibly upset.

Five years later — on the day his collegiate basketball career ended — Eversley had every right to be mad again. Disappointed is more apt.

He had seen too much to let one loss faze him. He grew up in the shadow of Chicago gangs, endured a painful transfer process and led a 10-win team on a spectacular nine-day blitz through the Big West and NCAA tournaments.

Outside the locker room, his eyes are downcast. Not red like his teammate standing beside him, though. As he walks to the press conference, only glum faces of the athletics staff and cold, white walls greet him. On the other side of the arena, reporters breathlessly wait for the victors.

In those moments, Eversley had never seemed so small. But during the run he and his teammates had just put together, Cal Poly had never seemed so big.

Lafayette Avenue

Before the chartered planes, the big shots and the madness, Eversley stood in an empty lot on the south side of Chicago. It was September 2013 and he walked down Lafayette Avenue searching for his past.

He came to see his childhood home: the one his mother required him to return to each night before the sun set, the one where gangsters posted up on the porch at night, the one where he fell asleep to the sound of gunshots.

Two houses stood on either side of a small field, but only a tall, conical tree marked the place he used to call home.

“You have all these memories in this old house, and it’s just gone,” he said. “I got my first train set, I got my first basketball hoop, all these memories just vanished.”

For years it was the only place he knew. It’s the kind of all-encompassing childhood experience that allows him to recount the time his friend was jumped and beat up by gangsters on the way home from school with an icy calmness. Just another story about what he called the inescapable violence on the south side.

Though his mother moved him into the suburbs when the law fell behind the lawless, he admits the city’s attraction; it pulls him like an invisible magnet.

“I look at the past as if it’s trying to catch up with me, which means I have to be able to keep pushing forward,” he said. “I feel like my house being torn down and my neighborhood being abandoned, that’s here.”

He places two calloused hands in front of him.

“And if I don’t keep moving forward …”

His left hand moves away from his right like he’s recounting the size of an imaginary fish.

“It’ll catch up with me.”

His right hand slowly begins to follow the left.

“And I’ll fall into some bad things.”

Inside out, or outside in

“Do you want an easy schedule that you can win?” Eversley recalled his coach saying. “Or do you want a challenging schedule, a schedule that will force you to face some of the biggest basketball names in the country?”

Head coach Joe Callero asked his three seniors — Eversley, Kyle Odister and Jamal Johnson — last spring what they wanted to see when their opponents for the fall were announced.

The answer was easy: They wanted to play the best.

The Mustangs would open the season at No. 5 Arizona. In a two-and-a-half-week stretch during winter break, Cal Poly crisscrossed the country, playing Loyola Marymount, Pittsburgh, Stanford and Delaware, all on the road. They would lose each game by double digits.

Heading into Big West Conference play, the team had three victories over Division I opponents, but it didn’t appear to be from lack of talent.

Eversley had established himself as a Big West Player of the Year candidate, Johnson was a sure-handed point guard who dished out more than twice as many assists than turnovers, Odister was a sniper from long range and newcomer David Nwaba was lighting up the gym with acrobatic dunks, bringing an energy often foreign to Callero’s slow-paced offense.

The weakness appeared to lay in Cal Poly’s size. When guards weren’t aggressive on their drives, they were completely overmatched in the paint.

Eversley had played two years at Cal Poly in a forward position — matching up with big men in the post — but his mid-range game and ability to step back and hit 3-pointers when open gave Callero options on how to best use the senior.

At the professional level, Eversley would have to play on the perimeter. But Cal Poly needed size and experience down low as the other young forwards developed their game.

So the season-long balancing act began. One game, Eversley would play a traditional forward position, working from the inside out. The next — typically when Odister was injured — he’d play outside and look for lanes to drive inside. Often it left him with mid-range shots, some of the toughest on the court.

If Cal Poly was going to be a threat, those mid-range shots would have to fall, but at the outset of the season, a lid was on the basket.

The park

Mike Eversley followed Nina Leonard home after she watched him play a pickup game in Chicago.

Mike had just returned home after a whirlwind tour of professional basketball. He was drafted in the seventh round by the Bulls in 1979 — five years before the team took Michael Jordan in the first round — but an injury forced him to move overseas, where he played in northern and eastern Europe. At one time in his life, his afro and familiar toothy grin, looking like “black Jesus,” his son joked, were plastered across foreign newspapers he couldn’t read.

“American basketball player” is about all that can be comprehended.

But by the late 1980’s, he returned to Chicago as a local legend, though no longer a professional basketball player. He wasn’t about to leave the game for good, though, which is why he found himself in the park that day and why he saw Nina, immediately smitten.

So Mike decided to get her number, which involved tailing her home — not creepily, Chris said — and asking her out.

The two were married shortly afterward and had Chris in 1991. Though now divorced, Mike and Nina sit next to each other for each basketball game they attend, never too close together, never too far apart.

Rollercoaster

Four days after a 10-point loss to Delaware, the Mustangs were back on their home court to open Big West play. The non-conference schedule was more or less a warmup. Unless they made a statement — winning games at Arizona, Oregon, Stanford and Pittsburgh — to place themselves in contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, the games were little more than a measuring stick.

And since the team failed to pull an upset of a major-conference foe like they did in 2011 at USC and in 2012 at UCLA, their fate in the postseason would be determined in the Big West Conference — more specifically, during three Big West tournament games in March, if they got that far.

Considering the conference’s parity, they’d have a puncher’s chance in the tournament.

The painful non-conference schedule appeared to be paying dividends when the Mustangs returned to campus, handling a large Hawaii team without much of an issue. Two days later, Anthony Silvestri, a walk-on who had originally been cut from the team, feasted on the UC Santa Barbara defense at The Thunderdome. In Cal Poly’s 8-point victory, Silvestri scored a team-high 17 points while the Gauchos’ center Alan Williams netted 33.

In their next game — a win against Cal State Northridge — Nwaba and Odister took the bulk of the scoring, while Eversley dominated the boards with nine rebounds.

At 3-0 in the Big West, Cal Poly was almost certainly headed for a showdown with conference-favorite UC Irvine in two weeks. However, in the Mustangs’ next game against Long Beach State, they trailed by 10 points late in the second half before a ferocious run — including two 3-pointers by Eversley — pulled the team within one point. At the free throw line with five seconds remaining, Long Beach State star Mike Caffey missed the front end of a 1-and-1, then Jamal Johnson corralled the rebound and sprinted up the court. Twisting through 49ers defenders, he spun inside the arc, made space, jumped and put up a floater.

It rattled off the iron and out.

Eversley said afterward there was no other person on the team he would have rather taken that shot.

The team would go on to lose nine of their following 12 games, including two against UC Davis, which finished last in the Big West Conference.

Growing pains

Nina Leonard was the enforcer.

Her son was never to be out past dark; nothing good ever happened when the sun went down. Grades were not a priority, they were the priority. She once grounded her son for two weeks for getting a C and trying to justify it by saying it was a passing grade. That wasn’t enough. It still isn’t.

Though a great basketball player in her own right, Nina left most of the on-court coaching to Mike.

Eversley and his dad would talk every day and shoot around when they could.

As a gangly kid with a big head, literally, and a smile that showed off nearly every one of his teeth, Eversley tried out sports across the spectrum: football, soccer and, of course, basketball.

He began high school at Walter Payton College Prep, where his cousin coached basketball, at 5-foot-8. By his sophomore year he grew two more inches, still undersized for a point guard. But over the summer before his junior year, he shot to 6-foot-3, and suddenly had no idea what to do with his newfound length.

There were growing pains on the court, relearning all the angles and coordination, and literal pain in his knees as his body coped with his new frame.

“I was super skinny, too,” he said. “So I was, like, what am I doing with myself?”

But he’d learn his size would have its advantages on the hardwood.

His mom eventually took him aside and said he should pick one sport and be great. He chose basketball.

California kids

“We’re soft,” Joe Callero yelled out in practice. “That’s what they think, a bunch of soft California kids.”

I had come to interview Eversley after practice, but it soon became apparent that this practice was going to run long.

Cal Poly was on a four-game losing streak in mid-February — the depths of its conference season — most recently enduring a 14-point loss to UC Irvine on national television and a 69-60 loss to Hawaii where Eversley scored two points. The Mustangs never threatened in either game.

The high point of Eversley’s trip to the islands was rapping R. Kelly’s “Ignition Remix” with David Nwaba at a karaoke bar. Coaches and players alike were doubled over in fits of laughter as Eversley’s outsized alter-ego took over the stage while Nwaba drifted into his teammate’s charismatic wake.

The hilarity subsided by Wednesday, though, as Nwaba hadn’t been giving his full effort in a drill. Associate head coach Paul Fortier pulled him aside, making him throw medicine balls at a practice hoop while the rest of the team ran its offense. Nwaba decided to grab a cup of water and Callero pounced.

“What are you doing?” Callero said, steaming.

“You think that you don’t have to give it your all and then you can take a water,” the word hung in his throat, contorting as his passed through his lips, “break?”

He had transformed the word “water” into an epithet.

The 5-foot-9 coach is normally light-hearted and jovial, but for a minute, he towered over his team.

“Everyone on the line.”

The whole team sprinted back and forth, back and forth until he was satisfied.

Eversley barely said a word the whole time.

“Chris is comfortable making a speech,” Callero said later about the forward’s leadership, particularly following rough patches. “He’s comfortable taking responsibility for mistakes, for getting the guys rallied up. He’ll do whatever it takes, but his best quality right now is he knows when those are.”

Mad

It hadn’t always been like that.

By his senior year of high school, Eversley had long since given up baseball. Nevertheless, he stood in his backyard with a bat in hand, looking for someone to swing it at.

Upon returning home, he and his mother found a window ajar and his Xbox 360 gone. His MacBook lay resting, undisturbed on his desk.

Out in the yard, he was pissed and looking for the burglars. One swipe from Eversley would have put the thieves on their backs.

Not only had they taken his console, they left the clearly more valuable electronic, his MacBook, alone. The illogic of it all sent Eversley over the edge.

Now a senior in college, Eversley laughs at his old self. In the grand scheme of life, he said, it didn’t matter at all.

The hallway

“You and I have been in this hallway a couple times after winning a couple tournament games. How do you plan on getting over the hump tomorrow?”

I was interviewing Eversley, who scored five points in Cal Poly’s 69-38 dismantling of UC Santa Barbara in the first round of the Big West tournament. After dropping the regular-season finale to the Gauchos 71-55 just five days earlier, it was as if an entirely new team had taken the court. One with energy, one with emotion and, most importantly, one that could score.

The first time I met Eversley was in that very hallway, after he won his first tournament game in 2012. Back then, he burst out of the locker room dressed in baggy shorts, long socks and flip flops.

He saw me, rushed over and, before I could introduce myself, wrapped me in his sinewy arms and lifted me well off the ground. I’m still not sure if he had showered yet.

As a reporter, I’d never experienced anything like it, but as I came to find out, that was simply part of Eversley’s perennially happy personality.

Two years later, experience had mellowed him. He’d lost two Big West tournament semifinal games and he was set for another, this time against top-seeded UC Irvine and its 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye.

The team was tortured by big men all season, but in the quarterfinal he’d just finished — facing Big West Player of the Year Alan Williams — they seemed to have solved the riddle. Go over, not through.

And when they did go through, go through with force.

Instead of Nwaba driving to the baseline, he occasionally bounced to the free throw line and nailed midrange jumpers. Forward Joel Awich hit all five of his shots, most of them dropping over Williams.

On the perimeter, true freshman point guard Ridge Shipley had found his stroke, collecting 15 points in the win.

The change was immediately perceptible, but when asked about a game or a strategy, Eversley — normally one of the most quotable people on the team outside of Callero — goes into coachspeak mode.

“Executing the game plan” is a typical response when asked what worked in a win or what needed to work in order to earn a victory. Two wins away from Cal Poly’s first NCAA Tournament berth for the third consecutive year, the answer was no different.

And, no, he wasn’t giving away the game plan.

The switch

In the spring of 2010, Eversley found himself across a different table from Joe Callero, then a newly-minted coach at Cal Poly.

The forward had finished his freshman year at Rice, but the Owls dropped 10 of their last 11 games and finished 8-23 overall. Eversley averaged fewer than five minutes of playing time per game and scored 1.6 points per contest. The losing and not playing overwhelmed him. He couldn’t stop thinking about it, affecting his daily life.

The coaches that recruited him during high school left, and he was riding the bench without support.

He couldn’t stop thinking about how he wanted to leave and make an impact somewhere else.

Over breakfast in Chicago, Callero was straight with Eversley, something players and parents appreciate about the coach’s style. He would have to sit out a year because of NCAA transfer rules. Then he’d have to fight for playing time with David Hanson, an established presence inside for the Mustangs.

By his junior year, his “contract year,” as Callero put it, Eversley could be the leader if he put in the work. The coach’s words were enough to convince Eversley to visit San Luis Obispo. Even a truly awful scrimmage, where he missed what felt like every shot, didn’t deter Eversley from transferring.

So, looking for a new home, he made the leap.

Giant killers

Mamadou Ndiaye is a large human being. He’s the tallest player in NCAA basketball, and he looks every inch of 7-foot-6.

Following the Mustangs’ Big West tournament win over UC Santa Barbara, Eversley was watching Ndiaye swat UC Riverside shots away like they were tiny tennis balls and his hands were racquets.

“Who are you cheering for?” I texted him from across the arena. The Mustangs would face UC Irvine if they won and Long Beach State, a better matchup on paper, if the Anteaters lost.

“Doesn’t make a difference to be honest,” read the first text.

Then another bubble floated up the screen as he wrote another message.

“I would love to have another crack at Irvine though.”

Less than 24 hours later, he had his wish. The Mustangs failed to top the Anteaters in two tries during the season, but Eversley made the play of the year against Ndiaye.

In an early February matchup in Mott Athletics Center, UC Irvine turned the ball over and Eversley had a clear path to the hoop. Ndiaye saw the breakaway and tried to get in Eversley’s way. By the time he got there, Eversley was midflight. The resulting dunk — directly in the face of Ndiaye — ended up on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays of the night.

It was a highlight in a conference season filled with lowlights, which is maybe why he wanted to give the Anteaters another go.

Shortly after the game tipped off, UC Irvine built up a 9-point lead. However, the Mustangs, like the night before, were doing damage against another big forward. This time, it was Ndiaye. Brian Bennett and Nwaba both had shots that floated over his outstretched arms and found the net. It was almost as if the team practiced shooting over coaches waving brooms in the lane that week.

Combined with Cal Poly’s ball movement that forced the slow-footed Ndiaye to move laterally in the lane, the two-point jumpers that were bouncing out all season finally started to fall.

The Anteaters understood the strategy and pulled Ndiaye, who ended up playing 22 minutes, but lost a major asset on the glass. After taking a 2-point lead into halftime, the Mustangs never trailed in the second frame, eventually winning by three points after a last-ditch 3-pointer by the Anteaters found only air.

For the first time since 2007, Cal Poly would play for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

After the game, the team gathered at the ESPN Zone in downtown Disney for the third consecutive night. It had brought good luck so far, and Callero wasn’t about to change. A long table was arranged for the team, but Eversley sat at a small square table all by himself with a MacBook Air perched in front of him.

Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State were locked in a back-and-forth battle for the right to face the Mustangs in the tournament finals on the screens above him, but Eversley’s hands bounced on the keyboard. He was finishing his senior project the night before the biggest game of his career.

He made no reference to the game taking place directly over his head, except when it was over.

“Ain’t no thing,” he said to no one in particular.

Home 

Eversley recounted his first moments as a student on Cal Poly’s campus.

“For the first time in my life, I could,” he paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “Relax.”

Even though his mother moved the family to the suburbs for “better experiences and better opportunities,” imprints from his early childhood with the threat of possible danger made him edgy. Even in Houston, where Rice University is located, he couldn’t let his guard down. Only young African-Americans raised in an urban setting can fully comprehend that ever-present wariness.

“Growing up in an urban neighborhood has given me, for the lack of a better word, a spider sense,” Eversley said. “When I feel something going wrong, I’m usually going to leave.”

Initially daunted by Cal Poly’s obvious lack of racial diversity, he eventually found people — like teammate Jamal Johnson — who understood his background and his upbringing. As he progressed at Cal Poly, Eversley found that he enjoys mentoring young teammates who come from inner cities on how to adjust and thrive in San Luis Obispo.

It’s part of building a new home, keeping his left hand ahead of his right and making his future better than his past. More than enough to fill a vacant lot on Lafayette Avenue.

“It’s gone and I can never go back,” he said. “It’s a chapter in my life that’s closed.”

Madness

ESPN wanted to interview Chris Eversley. But the mob on the court wanted him more.

So Chris Giovannetti — the sports information director for the men’s basketball team — drove into the crowd to grab him.

Giovannetti, decked in a dress shirt and bow tie, found the forward, bear-hugged him, then dragged Eversley step-by-difficult-step to the broadcasters.

The cathartic moment seemed so obvious now.

Of course, Cal Poly would earn its first bid to the NCAA Tournament as the seventh seed in the Big West Conference, shocking the conference. Of course, the students in attendance would storm the court. Of course, grown coaches would be crying on the outskirts of the mass of students, just looking for someone to hang on to.

But five minutes earlier, the contest hung in the balance.

After Cal Poly and Cal State Northridge battled back-and-forth for most of the half, the Matadors took a 2-point lead with less than 30 seconds to go.

Zach Gordon handled the ball near the free throw line as the Northridge defense dared the forward to take a shot. He pump-faked, but drew the ball down, dishing it to Eversley, who cut in from the perimeter.

Now the Matadors were engaged. Everyone in the building knew Eversley had been deadly that night, scoring 18 points, hitting several jumpers from that spot. The defense collapsed around Cal Poly’s threat, making sure that if he was going to be the hero, it wasn’t going to come easy.

The problem for Cal State Northridge was that Eversley knew — with three people surrounding him — someone must be open. He faked a pass to the wing, stalling a Northridge defender, then heard someone behind him shout, “C.E.”

He turned from the basket and dished the ball to a wide-open Ridge Shipley beyond the arc.

Shipley caught the ball low, brought it up and fired. The ball exploded at the bottom of the net.

After the game, reporters gathered around Eversley, who was still being attacked intermittently by students and fans on the court. A small kid came up to him and asked for his Big West championship hat. Without hesitation he took it off and handed it over, along with a high-five.

“Where did Ridge Shipley come from?” one reporter asked.

“Dallas, Texas,” he said.

“That kid is good. And this program, with him at the helm, is going places.”

Cinderella

Five days later and 20 minutes after his college career had come to a close after a disheartening defeat to Wichita State, Eversley sits in front of the media again. The Mustangs had just capped a run of five games in nine days, including a dominating win over Texas Southern in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Most reporters seated in front of him don’t particularly care how he feels, how the team coped with the national spotlight or how their run will impact Cal Poly.

“How good is Wichita State?” they ask. “Are they really as good as some of the other teams you’ve faced?”

They don’t want to tell his story or Cal Poly’s story, but Eversley answers calmly and deliberately anyway.

Callero makes a quick joke at the podium and, for a just split second, a wide grin sneaks across Eversley’s face. It was as if, even for a moment, he’s on the shoulders of fans following the Big West tournament again.

He’ll never forget that night, his arm raised in triumph while his parents looked on.

Mike stood on the steps not far from his seat, soaking in the scene unfolding around him.

“He never quit,” Mike said. “He’s going to play his heart out, that’s one thing I love about him.”

Several feet away, Nina inched closer and snapped photos of the spectacle.

“I think this is Christopher’s dream come true,” she said as Callero put the Honda Center’s net around her beaming son.

Security forced her to the very edge of the court during the postgame ceremony. No one — not even the mother of the tournament’s most valuable player — was allowed on the floor without a credential.

Her eyes, watering, were fixed on her son, but they seemed to be staring at something further away. Still, her voice was calm.

“I think he deserves it because he’s a good kid; he’s worked hard, he’s been through a lot of trials and tribulations.”

Her lips were quivering now, but her voice was no less even.

“He’s like a Cinderella story to me. I wouldn’t write this script any other way.”

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