Gerrity finds comfort zone at USC

Mike Gerrity looks like an old man.

As he sits in the hot tub adjacent to USC's locker room after a recent practice, wincing as he moves his body around to talk, he looks much older than a 23-year-old college senior ready to step into the real world.

His bushy eyebrows, hairy chest and unshaven face suggest he already has been hit by the harsh realities of the real world a few times. If you didn't know any better you'd think he were an assistant coach unwinding after a hard workout.

"The guys tease me all the time," Gerrity said. "I don't know if it's because of my facial hair or my hairy legs. The guys act like I've been around forever."

He's actually been around USC for only a year, but it seems as if he has been around college basketball forever. His collegiate career has played out like a cursed cross-country flight that has taken him from one delayed destination to another before finally bringing him home. It has been a long five-year odyssey, spanning three schools, five coaches and nearly 5,000 miles.

It wasn't supposed to be this hard for Gerrity. He had already taken care of the hard work every night in the darkness of his parents' garage growing up. He would sit there with the lights turned off for hours dribbling the ball around until it felt like an extension of his arm. He'd deflate the ball when that got to be too easy to build his arm strength and remind himself that he had to bounce the ball with purpose.

"Few people have the drive he has," said Mater Dei High School basketball coach Gary McKnight, who started Gerrity all four years, making him only the second player to do so at the perennial prep powerhouse in Santa Ana. "Some people talk about shooting 500 times a day, Mike's the kind of guy who doesn't leave until he makes 500."

Gerrity's insistence on perfection may have helped him dribble the ball through his legs and around chairs in the dark, but it also forced him to leave one school after another if it didn't feel, well, perfect to him. It's partly because of this pursuit of perfection that Gerrity still finds himself in college. When Gerrity started his first game at point guard for Mater Dei, Matt Barkley, who also was a four-year starter at Mater Dei before becoming USC's starting quarterback, was in the fifth grade.

As he sits on a plush cardinal couch inside USC's locker room Gerrity has to close his eyes and stretch to think back to his days leading Mater Dei to a 117-6 record and a California state title. Maybe it's because his biggest highlights are against a couple of guys who've been dominating the NBA for a few years now. Gerrity was a freshman when Mater Dei defeated Carmelo Anthony and Oak Hill in 2002 and a sophomore when the Monarchs lost to LeBron James and St. Vincent-St. Mary in 2003. Against Anthony and No. 1 Oak Hill, which had been on a 67-game winning streak, Gerrity scored six points and dished out nine assists in a team-high 29 minutes.

"He just controlled that game," McKnight said. "They tried to press us, but they got out of that in a hurry because Mike was just dribbling through it and we'd get layups. He was that kind of player. I've seen him have no points and be the best player on the court. He can dominate a game without scoring."

Despite his success at Mater Dei there wasn't a long line of schools waiting to offer Gerrity a scholarship after high school. He narrowed his choices to Pepperdine and Southern Mississippi, with his other two official visits being to Sacramento State and UC Davis. Gerrity picked Pepperdine after hitting it off with then-coach Paul Westphal, who wanted to showcase the talents of the 6-foot-1, 180-pound point guard.

Westphal Mike has always been a true point guard. His teams won and he got the ball to the players who needed to get the ball. He penetrated defenses and broke presses easily. He's one of the most driven players I've ever coached.

-- Sacramento Kings coach Paul Westphal

"Mike has always been a true point guard," said Westphal, now the head coach of the Sacramento Kings. "His teams won and he got the ball to the players who needed to get the ball. He penetrated defenses and broke presses easily. He's one of the most driven players I've ever coached."

His ability to render press defenses useless was the first thing Westphal noticed. He even took a page out of McKnight's playbook and stopped practicing specific press offenses because Gerrity would be able to move the ball past them and create mismatches the other way.

"I remember when we went to UNLV, they had a renowned full-court press and we just gave it to Mike and let him go," Westphal said. "UNLV kept pressing the whole game and Mike kept dribbling through them the whole game and we got a nice win in Vegas."

It would be one of the few wins Pepperdine would get that season. Although Gerrity was named the West Coast Conference freshman of the year in 2006, averaging 14.1 points, Pepperdine finished the season 7-20 and Westphal was fired. After being introduced to the dribble-drive offense that would be implemented by new coach Vance Walberg, Gerrity decided to leave the team.

"Once I got into his system and saw the way that they were running it with the substitution patterns, it was different from what I was used to," said Gerrity, who had briefly quit at Mater Dei after a disagreement with McKnight his junior year before returning to the team the next day. "It was nothing personal. It was one of those things where I'm seeing how they're running this system and I have three years of eligibility left and I think I'm better off starting somewhere else."

After leaving Pepperdine, Gerrity again narrowed his choices down to a local school and one out of state. This time he chose Charlotte over San Diego State, believing he'd have a better chance of being the focal point at Charlotte after sitting out a year. Gerrity soon realized, however, his expectations were not in line with Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz's after splitting minutes and averaged only 4.7 points in 2007-08.

"I came in around midseason and when I was there it was difficult getting into the rotation," Gerrity said. "I ended up going 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off, which is hard for any point guard. When you're getting substituted like that it's hard to get into a groove and a pattern."

Gerrity quit the team before the start of preseason workouts the next season and finished out the semester on scholarship by working 20 hours a week. Gerrity would sit at the front desk at the campus study hall and scan athletes in and out. After leaving the sun-kissed beaches surrounding Pepperdine for Charlotte to showcase his talents, Gerrity was relegated to sitting behind a desk and asking his former teammates for their student ID cards.

"It was a humbling experience and a motivating experience," said Gerrity, who worked out at the student gym and played pick-up games with classmates to stay in shape. "It was tough. I sat out a year and barely played the next and now I was losing another year. It was difficult, but I used it all as motivation to help me for wherever I ended up going."

When Gerrity returned home that winter he actually thought his college basketball career might be over. He began looking at NAIA schools, believing he had used up his NCAA eligibility. He was close to enrolling at Biola when he spoke with McKnight about his situation.

"Around the time we were talking, Tim Floyd came into my office and said, 'God, I need a one-year fix at point guard and I'll be OK after that because I have some kids coming in,' " McKnight said. "So I said, 'Why don't you sign Gerrity? He's back and he's got one year left.' He couldn't believe it."

Neither could Gerrity. It wasn't until he and McKnight did a little research did they discover that he had one semester of eligibility left. While he would have to sit out another year he would be able to finish out his collegiate career for the school where he always wanted to play. Floyd had recruited Gerrity out of high school but ended up signing Ryan Francis instead. Gerrity is constantly reminded off this whenever he sits at his locker, which is adjacent to a memorial kept in the memory of Francis, who was shot and killed near his home in Baton Rouge, La., after his freshman year.

"It's crazy to think that it came down to the two of us during Coach Floyd's first year recruiting at USC," Gerrity said. "He made the right choice. I'm just blessed to be here."

Before Gerrity was even eligible to play at USC, Floyd resigned amidst an NCAA investigation. It didn't take long for underclassman to declare for the draft and a heralded recruiting class to de-commit one by one from the crumbling program.

Suddenly Gerrity, the player who had become known for quitting when the situation around him got bad, was one of the few that weathered the storm. He had no choice this time.

"I wanted Coach Floyd to be here but at the same time I couldn't go anywhere else," Gerrity said. "This was it for me and I had to make the most of it."

Luckily for Gerrity the transition from Floyd to Kevin O'Neil would be the first easy one of his basketball career. It took all of one practice for O'Neil to know that the fate of his makeshift team this season would rest in the experienced, yet rusty hands of Gerrity.

"I knew that we would struggle until he got eligible and it's obviously proven out that way," O'Neil said. "He's been a godsend in terms of handling the ball and making other guys on the team better. I knew immediately that we would be a different team when he stepped onto the court."

No one, however, could have expected how different. In his first college game in nearly two years, Gerrity scored 12 points and had 10 assists in a 77-55 upset of then-No. 9 Tennessee on Dec. 19 as USC rattled off eight straight wins to start the season 10-4.

"I didn't know what to expect," O'Neil said. "I knew we'd be better with him than without him but the bottom line is we won [the Tennessee game] by 22 with him [and] we would have lost by 22 without him. Their style of play would have been very hard for us."

But just when things were finally looking up for Gerrity, he and the team were hit with the news of the self-imposed sanctions against the men's basketball program that would keep this year's squad out of any postseason tournaments. His unlikely fairy tale story would not have the kind of ending he had been working to rewrite since his freshman year at Pepperdine.

"It was a huge disappointment, but I never felt sorry for myself," Gerrity said. "After playing so well and knocking off some great teams the future was looking so promising and to get that news hurt. The timing stung. This is my last season and I want that chance to play in March but after a couple days I realized I couldn't do anything about it. This was the hand that we've been dealt and we have to handle it."

Gerrity and USC haven't handled it as well as they would have liked, going 2-4 since the sanctions with the highlight being a 67-46 win over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion two weeks ago, the school's largest win against the Bruins in over 60 years. Gerrity has also struggled as teams discover how to defend him. After scoring in double figures his first four games, he has hit the mark only three times since and hasn't come close to the 10 assists he had against Tennessee.

"He hasn't been quite as effective a scorer as time has gone on because teams have made adjustments to him and the fact of the matter is he's a better full-court scorer than he is a half-court scorer," O'Neil said. “He'll make the adjustments though. He reminds me a little bit of Mike Conley who I coached at Memphis last year because he's really fast with the ball and makes plays in the full court very well and he's an improving player."

While Gerrity might not get his storybook finish on the court, he will at least get one in July when he marries his girlfriend, Jessi Porter, who he has known since junior high but only began dating a little over a year ago.

"It's going to be an exciting summer," said Gerrity, who proposed to Porter on her balcony after dinner last year. "She's been so supportive and is always there for me. She's my biggest fan and she's a huge part of my life."

Before growing old with Porter, however, Gerrity hopes to be playing with players his own age next season somewhere.

"I just want to have the opportunity to pursue a career and continue playing," Gerrity said. "Personally, I know the player that I am and I knew if I had an opportunity and was in the right place that I could really help a team. I've been seeking that opportunity and I finally landed on my feet here at USC. I'm not ready to quit yet.”

Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com.