FARMINGTON — Jesse Wade has a unique link to the game of basketball.
The moment he came into this world on March 31, 1997, the University of Arizona was playing the University of Kentucky in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship game. His parents, Eric and Amanda, were watching the game in the delivery room.
A little more than two months after Jesse was born, on June 11, he was at the Delta Center along with his parents and 19,000-plus for Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Bulls. The game has since been dubbed “The Flu Game” because Michael Jordan overcame illness to score 38 points, including the go-ahead 3 with 25 seconds left, and propel the Bulls to a 90-88 win.
Eric said Jesse slept the whole game.
Jesse is also uniquely linked to Gonzaga University. The first basketball game he can remember attending was in March 2003, when Gonzaga played Cincinnati in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.
Jesse credits that experience for inspiring him to play basketball.
“Seeing how many people were there, it was like heaven for me almost just being there,” he recalled.
Jesse was just a sophomore at Davis High School in 2013 when he was first noticed by a Gonzaga coach. Donny Daniels, an assistant coach for the Bulldogs, had come to watch Brekkott Chapman, then starring at Roy High, in the 4-A tournament at Weber State University.
Daniels decided to stick around after the game to watch Lone Peak, which was ultimately named the MaxPreps 2012-13 Boys Team of the Year. Lone Peak played Davis and won by 34, but Jesse played well enough that Daniels later reached out and expressed interest in continuing to follow Wade.
In June of that year, Jesse went with his Davis teammates to a basketball camp at Gonzaga. On Oct. 4, he went back to Gonzaga for a visit and was offered a scholarship the same day, which he immediately accepted.
Jesse said he prayed about the potential offer before he went on the visit and knew if it was presented to him that the school was the right fit.
“You can live your religion up here”
Jesse, like many in Utah, is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He recently returned from an LDS mission in France.
When Daniels first reached out to Jesse, he asked him if he was one of those kids who was determined to play basketball in Utah or if he was open to going somewhere else. Jesse said he was open to playing out of state.
Then Jesse went to the camp at Gonzaga in June and had a chance encounter with the school’s head men’s basketball coach, Mark Few. Few said something that remained with Jesse.
“I was just walking around and we kind of bumped into each other and he looked at me and he said, ‘You know, you can live your religion up here,’” Jesse said.
Jesse took the comment as a sign that Gonzaga was the right place for him and said the coaching staff has shown total respect for his religious priorities since he signed. When he was on his mission, he said Gonzaga coaches encouraged him to focus on those responsibilities instead of basketball.
“I would try to tell them things I was going to do with my body, workouts, and they would just say, ‘Listen, when you’re on your mission, you’re on your mission. We’ll worry about that when you get back,’” he said.
Jesse holds Few and the entire coaching staff in high esteem because of how much support they showed him, and said he never entertained the idea of switching commitments in the event another opportunity was presented, as can sometimes be the case with LDS athletes.
“I never had a doubt that it was Gonzaga once I committed, and when I went on my mission, I knew that I was going to come back a Zag,” Jesse said. “There was never for one second any doubt in my mind. That’s where I wanted to go. Coach Few and I had an agreement. I was going on my mission, he’d hold my scholarship.”
Spurned by local schools
Jesse’s father played basketball at Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho, and Jesse admits he cheered for BYU when he was a kid.
BYU never offered. Neither did Utah. According to verbalcommits.com, Jesse’s only other offers, aside from Gonzaga, were from Utah State, UC-Riverside and San Francisco.
Jesse acknowledges he might have ended up at BYU or Utah had they beat Gonzaga to the punch, but shrugs it off — mostly.
“I think to have been in Utah and for some local schools to not really show a whole lot of interest…” Jesse says, allowing his sentence to trail off.
While the chip is evident, Jesse emphasizes his situation couldn’t have worked out better.
“It worked out perfectly for me and so regardless of what happened, what could have happened, what didn’t happen, it’s worked out perfectly, and I’m so grateful for the way that it’s worked out,” Jesse said.
BYU and Utah weren’t the only programs to pass on Jesse. On a smaller, but not insignificant, scale, Jesse was passed over for a club team that included other Utah athletes during his freshman year.
Jesse was in the car with his father after the tryout when the club team coach called and left a voicemail. His father believed the message was a positive one that would affirm Jesse’s place on the team, so he played the message on speaker.
In the voicemail, the coach thanked Jesse for trying out but said he wasn’t selected.
It was a crushing blow, and one that Jesse acknowledges sowed some seeds of doubt.
His father gets emotional when he talks about what happened next.
“We didn’t even get out of the car and he said, ‘Let’s go to the gym,’” Eric said. “He’s always been that way. Pretty tough to fail when you never give up.”
Jesse called the situation a defining moment.
“I started having a purpose,” Jesse said. “Before, I was just shooting, I was just practicing, but then after that I had a purpose. I had goals, I had dreams, and I realized in that moment that I wanted those dreams, that I wasn’t afraid of them, but that I wanted them.”
Every game didn’t always go perfectly after that, but Jesse’s mother, Amanda, said the difficult games only fueled him more. She said he would ask her to go the gym and help rebound for him after those particularly challenging games.
“Instead of pouting and being frustrated, he’s very proactive,” she said.
“You need to sign this guy”
For all the people who may have looked past Jesse, he found a way to earn the respect of one influential player.
During the team camp at Gonzaga in 2013, Jesse was invited to play in a pick-up game against then current and former Gonzaga players late one night at the McCarthey Athletic Center, where the Bulldogs play their home games.
Jesse was matched up against Jeremy Pargo, the 2008 West Coast Conference Player of the Year.
“Jesse just played so well. So unbelievably well,” said Jay Welk, then the head boys basketball coach at Davis. “I still remember Jeremy Pargo turning to Coach Few and saying, ‘You need to sign this guy.’”
Welk said going up against elite guards has never bothered Jesse. During the game against Lone Peak his sophomore year, he was guarded by Nick Emery, now at BYU. The next year, Davis again played Lone Peak in the state tournament, and Jesse was guarded by Frank Jackson. Jackson recently concluded his freshman year at Duke University and was taken with the 31st overall pick in the NBA Draft.
In all cases, Welk said Jesse was eager for the challenge. Although at 6-foot-1 he’s not as tall as the prototypical guard, Welk has seen him overcome that in the past.
“He has great lateral quickness, he handles the ball exceptionally well, he plays low to the ground, yet he can get separation on his shot from a defender that not all players can do,” Welk said.
Jesse even jokes about his height by pointing out his roommate for six weeks recently was 6-foot-11 Jacob Larsen.
“I’m used to being the weird one in the photos that’s shorter than everybody,” Jesse said.
Shorter, yes; but like Cinderella’s slipper, he appears to be the perfect fit for Gonzaga.