Past behind UWA’s Ward

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 27, 2006

Kareem Ward is the West Alabama men’s basketball team’s leading offensive rebounder, leading shot blocker, and amongst players who have seen time in all 16 of the Tigers’ games, team leader in field-goal percentage.

Not bad for a guy who’s still only in his second full season of organized basketball.

Ward is a rarity at the college varsity level: a player who did not play for his high school basketball team. Ward is a native of York and attended Sumter County High School, but poor academics and discipline problems meant he never became a member of the powerhouse Wildcat program.

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“I really wasn’t focused. I kind of stayed in trouble,” Ward said in an interview Thursday. “I’ve changed a lot since then.”

UWA head coach Rick Reedy is glad he has, as Ward has become one of the Tigers’ steadiest players and a vital presence in the post. He has led the team in rebounds five different times, more than any other Tiger, and is far and away the team’s most talented shot blocker, having swatted away more than twice as many shots as his closest teammate.

“He is without a doubt the best pure athlete I’ve ever coached,” Reedy says. “He’s only 6-4, and we ask him to guard guys who are 6-7, and he does it. He is without a doubt the best leaper, and best dunker I’ve ever had … He’s the best I have seen, at all levels. He has uncanny ability.”

Since that ability couldn’t be developed with his school team, Ward made sure he found plenty of time on the court elsewhere. He became a regular participant in the pickup games at York’s Whitfield Community Center, alongside some of the most competitive and talented players in the area.

“We had a lot of good players in our community,” he says. “There were a lot of real good games there to play in.”

But for Ward to break out of the pickup game and into the college game, he still needed a favor. He got it, from a cousin who was playing for coach Barry Mohun at Shelton State Community College and had seen Ward’s ability on the court. He convinced Mohun to give Ward a tryout, and the Bucs’ head coach was impressed enough to offer Ward a spot on the Shelton team despite his inexperience.

Everything didn’t go quite as smoothly at Shelton as Ward would have preferred, as an injury kept him sidelined for most of his sophomore season. But he flashed enough talent to draw the interest of Reedy, and he came back to Sumter County for his junior and senior years.

The injury bug bit again in the 2004-2005 season, limiting Ward to appearances in only seven games. But finally healthy and finally ready to contribute, Ward has had little problem making his mark.

“I think the biggest factor is that I’m a lot healthier,” he says of a senior season which has seen his points-per-game jump from 4.4. to 9.3 and his rebounds-per-game balloon from 1.7 to 5.3.

“I worked harder during the summer and I’ve gotten the opportunity to play more,” he said.

While Reedy admits there are aspects of Ward’s game that could still be developed (“We’d like to see him shoot a little more consistently from the outside,” he says), he is also more-than-pleased with the effort Ward has made both on- and off-the-court this season.

“He loves the game and plays extremely hard. We have to be careful and take him out sometimes because he plays so hard, he’ll tire himself out. I wish I had five more like him,” Reedy says. “The biggest difference between last year and this year is his work ethic, his attitude and work ethic … I tell you, I wish I’d had him for four years.”

The Tigers will need him Saturday, as they play host to the Montevallo Falcons, the top-ranked team in Division II. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., and Ward is going to have a little extra motivation going for him.

“We’re ready to play. We had a bit of a letdown last game and we need this win. Plus, it’s my birthday,” he says with a laugh. “I’m going to be really fired up.”

It’s the kind of big-time game that Ward knows he could have experienced years ago, at SCHS, as a Wildcat. As glad as he is for his UWA opportunity, he can’t help but wonder how things would have turned out if he had not missed out on high school hoops.

“I regret it a lot. I’m happy where I’m at, but I don’t think I’d be playing D-II,” he says. “I wish I could have been a part of (the high school team). It would have been something special.”