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Cheatham’s rocky road to the top of D-II hoops

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Things weren’t supposed to be like the this.

The view from the bench wasn’t supposed to be a familiar sight for a former all-city star. Yet, during the winter of 1999, Javar Cheatham was increasingly becoming the forgotten man on Iona’s bench, buried on the depth charts like the snow that had besieged New York City during those bleak months.

Opting for Iona, a perennially strong local basketball program, to be closer to his mother, who was battling colon cancer, Cheatham figured he would eventually slide into the team’s starting line-up and anchor himself among the squad’s top five.

After Tim Welsh, the coach who lured Cheatham to New Rochelle, left to take the Providence College job, however, and assistant coach Jeff Ruland took the reins, Cheatham’s status became increasingly cloudy, his foothold in the team’s rotation tenuous. Suddenly, a player whose talents and competitive fire had commanded the spotlight on the court his entire life found himself toiling in the shadows of his sport.

“The experience at Iona was really difficult to deal with, because I’m a very competitive person,” said Cheatham, “and I really wanted to play.”

With his situation at Iona deteriorating, Cheatham planned on transferring to another local program to try and resuscitate his career. While Hofstra and LIU were viable options for the Queens Village native, the coaching staff at Iona made sure getting an official release for the program was about as elusive as playing time.

“I kept calling and asking for the release and they would tell me ‘I don’t have the papers,’” Cheatham said. “I went up to school to try and gain my release, but they just kept giving me the run-around.”

By the time the smoke cleared and Cheatham finally got his release it was July and scholarships at the area programs he had targeted had dried up. Looking for an alternative, he took a trip to Gannon University on Lake Erie in Northwestern Pennsylvania, and decided to head west for a second chance.

“My experience at Iona was a very bad one,” Cheatham said. “I stayed the second year to try and work things out, but it didn’t happen. By the time I got my release it was July, so Division I basketball wasn’t really an option. I had taken a visit to Gannon earlier in the summer and decided to go.”

Gannon assistant coach Chris Kibler remembers Cheatham’s first couple of weeks after he arrived on campus in the summer of 1999, when the former Jamaica High School star was a bit unsure of his surroundings and what to expect from his new basketball program.

“[When he first got here] Javar really wasn’t sure what to expect, from his teammates and from the competition,” said Kibler. “As with any player, establishing a sense of trust was important for him. We had to let him know that this was his program, as the point guard.”

And while his lack of playing time at Iona had never given Cheatham the breathing room to make mistakes and grow as a player, he found a nurturing atmosphere at Gannon that helped give his career a jolt.

“Javar needed to be in a system that let him play and be creative,” said Gannon head coach Jerry Slocum. “Given that freedom, he flourished.”

As a junior, Cheatham was thrown right into the fire, and responded by resurrecting his basketball career and helping guide the Golden Knights to an NCAA Division II tournament berth, as Gannon compiled a 23-5 record. Cheatham logged a team high 35 minutes a game while dishing out more than eight assists per contest, second in all of Division II, and swiping three steals per outing, also tops on the team.

But not only had Cheatham rediscovered his comfort zone on the court, the locals had welcomed him with open arms and bustling crowds at Gannon’s games, showing their support in more ways than one.

“Erie is a really big basketball town,” Cheatham said. “The people were friendly and they appreciated what I was doing for the school and that I was there. That made it easy for me to adapt.”

Finding the town and the program to be a snug fit, the transplanted New Yorker went on to record one of the finest seasons in Gannon history as a senior, leading the Golden Knights to a 22-8 mark and another NCAA appearance while earning piles of accolades, among them Great Lakes Intercollegiate Conference Player of the Year and First Team Division II All-American. Cheatham led all NCAA divisions in assists, at a 9.4 per game clip, while piecing together one of the finest seasons in the memory at the storied Division II program.

“Javar had the full package,” Slocum said . “Not only did he have the physical skills, but he had the perfect personality for the game. He’s such a competitor and such a great leader and he makes everyone around him better. That’s what separates him from any of the players I’ve coached in the last 25 years.”

After a bitter introduction to college basketball Cheatham had finally found a home.

“Ever since I came here, we’ve had two great seasons and packed crowds,” Cheatham said. “It’s really been a great experience.”

While Cheatham had to head west to find his basketball niche, the experience seems to have helped him mature in the game of life.

“The experience changed me in many different ways,” Cheatham said. “I learned that if things don’t work out at first, they may work out in the end.

“And even if things didn’t work out at Iona, I’m glad things worked out with my mother,” said Cheatham, whose mother is now fully recovered and has resumed her teaching job. “That’s the important thing.”

With a semester to go before he gets a degree in Information Systems, Cheatham has been courted by some European teams for his services. After finishing school, the well-traveled Cheatham will look to relocate once again, this time to another continent.

“I have a few offers in France, England and Switzerland,” Cheatham said. “I’m just going to keep my eyes open and hope somebody gives me an opportunity. If they do, I’ll be ready for it.”

Reach contributing writer Brian Towey by e-mail at TimesLedgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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