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Today, Montana's Will Cherry is the leader of a squad that has won 14 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in America.
He has an undeniable defensive presence (2.2 steals per game in league play). Cherry (14.1 ppg, 4.9 apg) is also vital for an offense that's averaged 72.9 ppg in Big Sky competition, second only to Weber State.
A few months ago, however, Cherry hobbled and limped around the Montana campus.
|Will Cherry said he had to change his mental outlook after breaking his foot in September.|
Fate, at times heartless and destructive, had dealt the senior an unexpected setback through a freak injury in a meaningless September pickup game.
The All-Big Sky first-teamer had labored for weeks as he rehabbed a sprained wrist. And he'd finally received clearance to return to the court in mid-September.
He felt good. He played well, too.
But on a routine layup, everything changed for the Oakland, Calif., native. "As soon as I took off in the air, I felt a pop," Cherry told ESPN.com. "When I came down, I was just like 'Oh, my God. What is that?'"
"That" was the sound emitted by a broken right foot. It was the discord of uncertainty, a pop that threatened a dream and demanded a lengthy stint without the basketball court -- Cherry's "sanctuary."
He ultimately decided against surgery -- after much prayer and a conversation with friend and current NBA rookie Damian Lillard, who suffered a similar injury in college -- but the healing process forced Cherry to miss the first seven games of the 2012-13 season. He preferred that route over a medical redshirt and a longer period off the court.
As the weeks became months, the young man described by teammate Mathias Ward as "the life of the party" had lost his zest.
Frustration and concerns about his future had replaced his typically vibrant demeanor because he had no promises that he would regain his former on-court swagger. "Those two or three months were probably the two or three hardest months of my life," he said. "I've never had to deal with adversity like that. I probably cried about [it] twice just thinking about what I could lose."
On those nights, he called Yvette Martin.
Like any good mother, she soothed the pain. But she also preached the message she'd reiterated since Cherry was a boy: Fight for what you want.
And Cherry wanted to play. So she reminded him that prolonged self-pity would not help his recovery. "I told him, 'We've been through tougher situations than this,'" she said. "I was more concerned about his mental stability in the situation. I just let him break down like he needed to break down. Your mom sees all of the tough stuff."
Added Cherry: "My mom is probably the main reason I am where I am today."
When Cherry was a sixth-grader, a teacher pulled him aside and warned him that his dream of playing in the NBA was a fantasy.
Once Martin heard about the incident, she drove to the school and pulled the teacher aside for a conversation. "You don't tell this child he can't make it," she told him.
Preconceived notions and stereotypes about single mothers suggested that he wouldn't make it.
|Cherry is one of the Big Sky's best help defenders, averaging 2.2 steals per game in league play.|
Martin had Cherry when she was in high school. She did not go to college. And she raised Cherry and a younger brother in a community that has struggled with violence.
But Martin ignored all doubters. She demanded discipline and structure in her home. She steered her boys toward the West Oakland community's many positive elements. She emphasized faith and required excellence.
When Cherry brought home an elementary school report card with straight A's, Martin did not throw a party for her son. She expected that every semester.
Cherry couldn't have a cellphone in high school unless he maintained a 3.5 GPA.
Martin worked near McClymonds High School in Oakland and eventually accepted a job there. So if Cherry even thought about mischief, she'd know. "She don't play that. My mom don't play that," Cherry said. "She made sure me and my brother were definitely on the right track. When I was growing up, the littlest things she used to get on me about. Sometimes I couldn't spend the night over a friend's house like I wanted to, like everybody else could. I couldn't go outside and hoop or have fun with my friends unless my homework was done. That was from Day 1 in elementary."
When Cherry, then a boy, told his mother that he wanted to play professional basketball, she vowed to support his goals. She did that by helping Cherry stay focused. If he really wanted to play at the highest levels, he had to get serious, she told him.
She took him to the local rec center to practice.
She conducted mock interviews with him when he was in high school. She critiqued his posture and his responses to questions she assumed reporters would ask him one day.
"I told him, 'Let me know how far you want to take this," she said.
Montana is far.
The campus is about 1,000 miles from Cherry's hometown.
The Grizzlies were one of a handful of Division I programs that liked Cherry, a versatile prep guard with a mojo that his high school teammates embraced. "Not only could he defend well, he rebounded really well for a guard," said Dwight "Coach Moe" Nathaniel, Cherry's coach in high school. "I called him 'Jesus.' I gave him the nickname 'Jesus' because the year he won the state championship, he said, 'Coach, I'm taking you to the promised land."
Despite leading McClymonds to an undefeated season and a state title, the 6-foot-1 point guard had few scholarship offers. Still, Montana's overtures were surprising and baffling.
Montana? What would a kid from West Oakland do in Montana? "I saw it was nothing like I thought it was," Cherry said about his first trip to the school. "I'm thinking it's cowboys, everybody wearing boots, it's in the middle of nowhere. It was the total opposite. It's definitely a nice community of people. One of the reasons I picked it is because it was a great college town."
Four years later, he's in the school's history books. He became the program's all-time time steals leader last season.
And even though he's not 100 percent yet, he's still one of the league's most effective guards. His two shoes are different sizes -- one 11½, the other 12½ -- to support the brace he wears each night on the foot he injured.
But the foot injury that nearly derailed his final season has not hindered his success. "It's very comforting knowing you've got No. 5 going into any battle you have," said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle.
Montana has lost just one game since Cherry returned from injury. The Grizzlies were prepped for a run at the Big Sky title -- they won the league tourney last season over Lillard's Weber State squad -- without Cherry. But they're clearly better with him. The team's current 25-game winning streak in the Big Sky is a conference record.
The Grizzlies will face Weber State on Thursday. That might be the only team -- the only game -- that can disrupt their current streak.
Facing Cherry is not something that Weber State coach Randy Rahe enjoys. "If you're one-on-one in the open court, you probably can't handle him," he said. "And then he does it on the other end because he's probably one of the top defenders in our league too, and he takes great pride in it. So he's a complete guy."
In a few months, Cherry's college career will end.
And he will attempt to fulfill his lifelong dream of reaching the pros. "That would be the greatest accomplishment of my life," he said.
Lillard's success at the next level proves that a player can come from the Big Sky and make it.
Yet long before Lillard, also an Oakland native, starred as a rookie with the Portland Trail Blazers, Cherry believed in his dream. His mom did, too.
Proof? She devoted her life to it.