Growing up in the western Upper Peninsula in Michigan in the 1980s, Gerald Whitens was a big Magic Johnson fan.
“I thought his game epitomized what every high school, college and professional athlete should be,” Whitens said Friday. “He could have averaged 30 points a game, but he got more juice and life out of triple-doubles.”
Whitens, who is 6-foot-3 himself, kept that in mind when his son Jason was born.
He knew Jason was going to be tall, and tall boys basketball players who attend Class D schools normally grow up playing in the post. Whitens had other plans for his son, though, and kept Magic Johnson’s playing style in the back of his mind when he started training Jason as a point guard in the fifth grade.
The training has made Jason, now a 6-5, 210-pound senior at Powers North Central, one of the top passing, shooting and rebounding guards in the state. The Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan recognized him as such when it named him one of six finalists for the Hal Schram Mr. Basketball Award in February. The winner will be announced Monday.
“Instincts-wise, shooting touch-wise and ball handling-wise, you knew the kid was going to put time into his game, and we saw all those things when he was at a young age and knew we needed him to be a guard,” North Central coach Adam Mercier said. “So we played him at point guard from the fifth grade on, basically. His basketball IQ was so high back then, and it continues to grow. You definitely trust him with the ball in his hands in any game situation.”
The Jets (25-0) have won back-to-back state championships and haven’t lost a game in three seasons. Their current winning streak of 80 games is the longest in the nation and an MHSAA record – for both boys and girls basketball.
They face Hillman in a quarterfinal on Tuesday. A chance to play at Michigan State’s Breslin Center for a third straight year is on the line, as is Whitens’ streak of the most varsity games played by an individual player.
Whitens, who is 105-1 in his four-year career, set the state record last week after playing in his 106th game. This season, he’s averaging 23 points, 11 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.1 steals per game while shooting 57% from the field and 82% from the free-throw line.
North Central’s last loss came Whitens’ freshman year in the 2014 quarterfinal. Cedarville edged the Jets in that game, 81-79, after Whitens couldn’t sink the front end of a one-and-one foul shot with no time left in the fourth quarter.
Whitens also led the Jets’ 8-player football team to back-to-back state championships last fall.
“Our teams always play for each other, and Jason is a prime example of that,” Mercier said. “He’s always trying to make the other players around him better. He doesn’t worry about his stats or where he’s going to play in college.
“He’s all about team success for him, especially in a day and age when players tweet highlights. It’s never been about individual success for him. It’s always been about team success.”
Gerald helped his son shape that mindset as his junior high coach.
North Central often would beat its opponents by 30 and 40 points at that level. Gerald allowed his son to score as many points as he wanted to in the first half. But as soon as halftime passed, Jason had to facilitate.
He made Jason drive to the hoop to create shots for his teammates or had him work on his passing from the perimeter. He forced him to out-hustle defenses for rebounds.
“Anybody can score points,” Gerald said. “But can you raise the level of the people around you at whatever level you’re playing at? In a small community, some kids struggle to even get on the floor, but we used Jason to penetrate and get them wide-open shots and gain some glory. It was pretty great for the parents in the stands because parents want to see their kids in the scorebook or just to even score.”
Whitens said learning to be a better passer in junior high propelled him in high school.
“With the history at our school, if you’re above 6-3, you’re going to play in the post,” the senior said. “My dad had a different vision for me. He played me more outside. He had me do ball-handling drills every day. He had me do a variety of different things so my game was more wide open.
“When I was younger and in junior high, we killed teams, so he had me facilitate more. That just improved my game and my vision on the court. I could have went out and scored every time I touched the ball if I wanted to, but that wasn’t going to make me the player I am, and I thank him because that’s where it all started.”
Opponents still haven’t found an answer for stopping Whitens, nor have they stopped him from helping his teammates lead in the scoring column on some nights.
The Jets have challenged opponents to defend him with a post player or a guard. Either way, he’s been able to get to the basket or find his shot.
“I’m a bigger guard,” Whitens said. “I’m 6-5, 210, but I’m quick on my feet and athletic. I can do a lot, and I’m pretty versatile. I can shoot outside and post you up. I’m kind of a match-up problem, you could say. If I draw a big (post player) on me, I can drive around him. If I draw a small guard, I know I can get in the post and do work down there.
“I’ve been raised to do so many different things, like handle the ball and shoot it and I’m able to pass it. That’s what makes me the player I am.”
That playing style, much like Magic Johnson’s, has drawn interest from many Division I and II college teams, including some that have offered him as a preferred walk-on.
He hasn’t narrowed down his college choice yet, but he likes Central Michigan and Green Bay, and he recently returned home from a visit at Michigan State.
Maybe the Spartans could find room for North Central’s version of Magic Johnson, one of their greatest players ever. That certainly wouldn’t make Whitens’ dad upset.
“Magic was the greatest player to ever play the game, without a doubt,” Gerald said. “That was the master plan for Jason. I felt that it was very important that he was a big guard and could see the floor like Magic. In the U.P., he could have averaged 30 a game, but he’s got great fans and people he grew up with his whole life and therein lies why we have so much success at North Central. They play for each other and do whatever it takes to make each others’ dreams come true, and that’s’ why they’ve had so much success. Kind of like what Magic Johnson did for his teammates.”