Diploma in hand, senior eyes Pac-10 title

02-19-09 Basketball Pendergraph
Senior forward Jeff Pendergraph throws down a dunk during ASU’s 65-53 win over USC last Sunday. Pendergraph graduated in December with a degree in economics. (Matt Pavelek/The State Press)
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Thursday, February 19, 2009
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He stands at 6 feet, 9 inches tall. He weighs a solid 240 pounds. He used to get beat up as a kid.

His life pretty much consists of eating, sleeping and playing basketball. But he’s not a basketball junkie.

His finest moment as a Sun Devil took place in Wells Fargo Arena. But there wasn’t a jersey or basketball in sight.

Indeed, ASU senior forward Jeff Pendergraph is a character.

He was always the tallest kid in the class. Well, almost. One girl in fifth grade was taller than him.

“That rocked me up,” he said. “I was like, ‘Where the hell did this girl come from? This is impossible.’”

Despite his size, Pendergraph got picked on a lot as a kid.

Elementary school was real tough. It got a little bit better in middle school and eventually stopped in high school.

“Little kids are mean, man,” he said.

Pendergraph was raised Etiwanda, Calif., about 45 minutes east of downtown L.A., by his mother LaDona Orcutt.

Etiwanda, he says, gave him the perfect combination of city access with the quiet and calm of Anytown, U.S.A.

Perhaps mother isn’t the apt title for Orcutt. Best friend may be more accurate. Pendergraph and Orcutt talk every day without fail, and she makes the five-hour drive to Tempe for every home game. He insists “absolutely nothing” is off-limits when it comes to their conversation.

If you ever see Pendergraph at a local spot having a couple drinks, chances are he’s with Orcutt, not some Scottsdale 20-something.

Though he spent most of his life in L.A. Laker country, Pendergraph couldn’t care less. He never spent too much time watching the purple and gold. He never had a favorite player to model his game after, saying he was too goofy, tall and lanky.

Even to this day he doesn’t watch much basketball on TV or pay attention to stats. He just plays.

Growing up, Pendergraph wanted to go to UCLA — and bad. So when the school stopped recruiting him during his senior year of high school, he took it a little personally.

One person the Bruins didn’t stop going after was his high-school teammate Darren Collison, who has since become one of the best point guards in the country for coach Ben Howland in Westwood.

Together, Pendergraph and Collison turned Etiwanda High into a national powerhouse and guided their team to a 62-5 record over their final two seasons.

So when the Sun Devils completed their regular-season sweep of UCLA last week, Pendergraph took some extra joy out of it.

“I can hang out with Darren and talk crap to him,” Pendergraph said after last Thursday’s 74-67 victory. “I actually got something to bring to the table, instead of him just talking about how they’ve been kicking my butt the whole time I’ve been here.

“Now I can walk into a room with my chest out like ‘Yeah, what you going to say now?’”

By the time his senior year rolled around, Pendergraph had whittled his college choices down to two. It was either going to be Pepperdine — a small private school in Malibu, Calif. — or ASU. The east coast, he says, was too cold and the Midwest too boring.

Pendergraph says he was this close — putting his thumb and index finger a couple of inches apart — to playing for coach Paul Westphal at Pepperdine.

But he and another 6-foot-9-inch forward from San Bernadino county made their joint decisions to attend ASU during an official visit Pendergaph’s senior year.

Sylvester Seay, who transferred to Fresno State after the 2006-07 season, and Pendergraph decided together they would play for coach Rob Evans in Tempe.

He and “Vest” still talk regularly. In fact, Seay attended a few Sun Devil home games last year while he sat out because of NCAA-transfer rules.

Pendergraph’s college career didn’t get off to an ideal start. Upon getting a physical in Tempe, doctors noticed something wrong in his left knee. Pendergraph said he felt a little sore, but he always thought it was just growing pains.

“I was like, ‘Cool, I’m about to be 7 [feet], 5 [inches tall],’” he says.

He needed surgery.

Pendergraph went under thinking the surgeons were just going to scope his knee out and see what the problem was. It turned out to be a benign tumor. The doctors went ahead and removed it.

“I woke up and thought I was going to have a couple holes, but I had this big-ass scar on my knee,” he said. “I was like, ‘What the …’”

Not only did doctors take a little bit of excess matter from him, but they also took away some of his hops.

“I used to freakin’ sky,” he said. “I had stupid bounce off my left leg. Like, for reals, it was stupid. Now it’s gone and I’m [ticked] off. But you know what? Oh well, things happen. I still turned out all right. I still dunk on people, so it’s all good.”

Pendergraph missed all of fall conditioning but returned by late November. He played in 27 games, starting in 22, and was named to the All-Pac-10 freshman team.

But just two days after a first-round exit in the Pac-10 Conference tournament, Evans was fired. Pendergraph was already home at that point, during the first weekend of spring break. When he heard the news via ESPN, he mulled transferring schools.

As far as he was concerned, he didn’t have a coach.

That all changed about three weeks later, when Herb Sendek was lured from North Carolina State by ASU athletic director Lisa Love.

Early on in Sendek’s reign, the coach made Pendergraph know he wanted Jeff to be the face of the program.

“[Sendek] was like, ‘Jeff we need you to be the ambassador of the team. We need you to start bringing in recruits and stuff. I know it sucks, like, you don’t really have too many people around you. We’re going to bring them to campus, but we need you to be that guy who makes them feel welcome here and makes them want to come and be a part of what’s going on here,’” Pendergraph remembers.

Anyone familiar with Sendek knows the conversation was probably a bit more articulate than that. But you get the point.

That’s what Pendergraph does, though. He paraphrases. Everything. Sometimes even himself. Once he really gets going into a story, there’s no stopping him. It’s as if he removes himself from his own body and becomes a third-person observer of a situation.

Call it the JP voice.

The phrases ‘I was like’ and ‘he was like’ foray themselves into almost every conversation. As does the phrase ‘duh-duh-duh-duh-duh.’

When Pendergraph recalls his official visit with Seay, he offers up the JP voice.

“[The coaches] were like, ‘Alright guys, we want you to come here, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh.’ I was like, ‘Damn, this would be fun.’ Then I asked Vest like, ‘Yo, Vest you want to go here?’ And he’s like ‘I’ll go if you go.’ And then I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll go.’”

See?

The JP voice.

It wasn’t instant success, but Sendek started rebuilding the program one block at a time. The first recruit he signed at ASU was Jerren Shipp. Then came Derek Glasser. Sendek also got Eric Boateng from Duke, but he had to sit out a year.

The 2006-2007 season came and went, and the Sun Devils went just 8-22 and notched two conference wins.

But help was on the way.

A McDonalds All-American named James Harden signed. So did Rihards Kuksiks, Ty Abbott, Jamelle McMillan and Kraidon Woods.

The 2007-2008 season was the beginning of the end of an era, and Sendek’s fingerprints covered the program. The Sun Devils went 21-13 and missed the NCAA Tournament by the slimmest of margins.

Jump to this year and ASU is sitting at 20-5 with a 9-4 conference record.

Transformation complete.

Through it all, Pendergraph has been the anchor of the Sun Devil basketball team. While Harden may garner all the headlines, it’s Pendergraph who serves as the emotional leader.

“[Pendergraph]’s the one that yells and screams and stuff like that,” Harden said. “I’m just behind him, like ‘Yeah, yeah.’”

It’s been almost four years since Pendergraph came to Tempe, and he can hardly believe it himself. And to think he was but a phone call away from transferring to another school.

“Hell yeah, it’s crazy [to think I’ve been here almost four years],” he says. “Now it feels like we’ve been winning forever, like how this is how we’re supposed to be. I don’t think it’s going to hit me until senior night, and it’s going to be a rush of emotions. I’ll be crying and stuff.”

At least it will be for the right reasons. As a kid, Pendergraph says he had a terrible temper. A loss usually meant he would go beserk and kick whatever he could find.

Dave Kleckner, his high-school coach, said Pendergraph started to harness that temper during his time at Etiwanda High.

“He was always real competitive,” Kleckner said. “To the point where, before he learned how to channel that energy into being positive early in his career — that energy level, that competitiveness, that intensity — sometimes it can work against you.”

Sendek said he and Pendergraph have discussed how to keep emotions from debilitating his potential to perform. After a career-long path haunted by foul trouble, Pendergraph has done a much better job controlling himself on the court this season.

“As you compete, emotion isn’t nearly as much your friend as passion,” Sendek said. “We would like Jeff’s energy to be manifested in a passionate way rather than in an emotional way. I think he’s made great progress in that area, I really do.”

The goofy, tall kid has matured a lot since those early days.

In December he graduated with a degree in economics, a semester ahead of schedule.

Well, most people’s schedule anyway.

Pendergraph came to ASU looking to graduate in three years, taking a full load of classes every summer. It took a little longer than expected, but he became the first person in his family to earn a college degree. He’s called it the greatest accomplishment of his life.

Orcutt and close family and friends were on hand to see him walk at Wells Fargo Arena. Since then, Pendergraph’s life has been a lot simpler.

Eat. Sleep. Ball.

“It’s been really chill,” Pendergraph said of his new lifestyle. “I think it’s really helped how I’ve been playing lately. Mentally, too. I’m not worried about finals, mid-terms or assignments. It’s been stress-free.”

As Pendergraph’s college career comes to a close, he’ll be sure to end it dancing. Barring an epic collapse, the Sun Devils look like a lock to the make the NCAA Tournament in March.

Listening to him throughout the season, though, it seems there is only one thing on his mind. A Pac-10 title.

And why not?

ASU currently sits one game behind the conference leader No. 22 Washington with five games to play. “If we win the conference championship, I’ll be crying my ass off,” he says.

Sure beats the old days, doesn’t it, Jeff?

Reach the reporter at alex.espinoza@asu.edu.