So many factors could have turned Tristan Garber into a voice in the wilderness on the top row of the bleachers Friday night in The Jungle, where Free State High’s boys basketball team visits Lawrence High in the nightcap of a doubleheader kicked off with the girls game at 5:30 p.m.
He could have watched the city rivalry game, as he has twice a year every year for as long as he can remember, and he could have griped that he’s better than half the players competing. Hubris, impatience, hurt feelings and any number of other negative forces that threaten to derail teenagers could have kept Garber from playing in the city rivalry he always has dreamed about making his own for a night by hitting the game-winning shot.
Those potential poisons didn’t stand a chance against Garber’s toughness and his passion for a game he calls his favorite sport.
Before this season, he played on the freshman team, then the sophomore team, then the junior varsity, getting left behind by bigger names and frames in a Free State Class of ‘14 packed with talented athletes. His friends beat him to varsity, but that didn’t send Garber into the stands. It sent him to the gym to work harder and to the weight room this past summer for his first intense taste of muscle-building.
“I worked my way up through the ranks, so I’m really excited to play in my first varsity game against LHS,” Garber said. “Hard work pays off, so any kid that’s not on varsity and thinks they should be when they’re younger, just keep playing hard and it will all pay off.”
Garber is proof of that. He backs up Keith Loneker Jr. at point guard for the Firebirds and brings speed, leaping ability and a sweet three-point stroke to the court. He said lessons learned from Loneker have made him play more under control and with a bigger physical presence.
Garber will be the shortest player in Friday’s city showdown. His height is left to interpretation. The roster says 5-foot-8, but rosters very often measure heights the way fishermen do the size of the big haul when they put their hands too far apart in retelling the story.
“That might be a bit of a stretch,” Free State coach Chuck Law said. “Put him in some Nick Saban (shoe) lifts and he might be 5-8.”
So how tall are you, Tristan?
“I’m 5-7 and a half,” Garber said and then correctly read the incredulous face staring at him. “I’m going 5-7, a solid 5-7.”
Closer, but not quite.
“He’s one of the best athletes I know,” teammate and classmate Cole Moreano said. “He’s just 5-6.”
And Moreano is quick to add, he has thrown Garber alley-oops and watched him finish them.
“I can’t dunk because I can’t grip the ball,” Garber said. “But I can hang on the rim now.”
He attributes the extra lift to a summer in the weight room that was a factor in his gaining nearly 20 pounds, bringing him to 155 pounds.
“He’s a very good athlete and he doesn’t think like he’s little,” Moreano said. “Whenever he’s with any of us, he’s jumping with us, trying to box us out, not backing down. He doesn’t play little. You can be little. If you don’t play little, then you’re not little in this game.”
Firebirds coach Chuck Law and his players all seem very happy they have Garber on their side.
“He’s just a great kid, brings a great attitude,” Law said. “He’s a great teammate. He’s a team-chemistry guy in addition to having some nice skills to play the game, which I hope we can get on display more frequently. He’ll do anything for this team and that’s what matters most. He just wants to be successful as a team and that’s why he’s such a great player to have be a part of this.”
Free State will need a big game from Garber and others to compete against a Lions squad led by one of the state’s top backcourts in sophomore Justin Roberts and junior Anthony Bonner, both of whom Garber counts as good friends.
“He’s a great basketball player and he’s very quick,” Garber said of Roberts. “Our goal is to put as much pressure on him as possible, make him dish it out. He and Anthony are great scorers. I’ve been friends with Anthony for a long time and I’ve played with him since I was little. He’s improved a lot. He’s awesome to watch. He’s going to be something special. I’m rooting for him.”
He didn’t mean Friday, of course, but in general.
If it comes down to a final shot, Bonner and Roberts would be the first names that would come to mind as most likely to hit the game-winner. But even Michael Jordan didn’t hit them all. John Paxson and Steve Kerr had their moments too.
Garber hit a big three-pointer in the fourth quarter of a game Free State would lose to Lansing in overtime last weekend.
Maybe, just maybe, if it’s a close game, Garber will hit the game-winner. He’s been there, done that. Two years ago, his three-pointer with a few seconds left gave the Firebirds a one-point victory at Shawnee Mission East for a sophomore team that went undefeated. Per usual, his mom, grandpa and grandma were on hand, beaming with pride.
“That was a fun game,” Garber remembered with a smile.
It was one of many steps that put him on the path to play in another fun game, one witnessed by a much bigger audience Friday.