Chavaughn Lewis’ story of debt, will and challenges

Chavaughn Lewis Action 1

Chavaughn Lewis Action 1

People who know Chavaughn Lewis don’t think he’s a loser, despite his record at Marist. They don’t think he is selfish or egotistical or complacent.

Far from it.

“He’s underrated and under-appreciated as a player because the program recently hasn’t had a ton of success,” says Mike Maker, the third Marist head coach in as many years. “I think Chay sometimes gets unnecessary criticism because it appears like he’s trying to do too much. People may say he’s a selfish basketball player. He’s anything but that. I think what he’s trying to do is carry the program because he’s highly competitive.”

And because he’s playing for something bigger than himself.

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That highly competitive nature brought Lewis to Marist.

Jared Jordan and Will Whittington, players Lewis would eventually pass on Marist’s all-time scoring list, had led the program to, arguably, its best season in 2006-07 since Rik Smits carried the Red Foxes to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 1986 and 1987. Whittington’s 31 points and Jordan’s near-triple-double led Marist to an NIT upset of Oklahoma State, and Matt Brady stuck around for one more winning season before bolting for James Madison.

Then the ephemeral empire crumbled down the banks of the Hudson River and floated out with the tide.

Chuck Martin replaced Brady and set off the ticking time bomb on his firing with a 1-29 record in 2009-10, his second season in Poughkeepsie. After a 6-27 campaign in 2010-11, Martin was desperate for a program-changer.

He got his man late that March.

Lewis fit the bill of a talented No. 1 option with a winning track record, his tendency to embrace the most arduous, heartwrenching challenges matching him perfectly with Marist’s need.

“That,” Lewis says, “is why I came to Marist.”

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Lewis’ father, Edgar, passed away when Chavaughn was a sophomore at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset, N.Y. “He just became sick one day, went to the hospital and complications after complications started to happen to him,” Lewis says. Then he was gone.

The Lewis family moved intra-Queens from Flushing to Laurelton, a neighborhood in Jamaica nestled right against the Queens and Nassau County border. Like most inner city environments, Jamaica has its share of crime and drugs.

“You have the negativity in all neighborhoods, but it’s quiet around where I live,” Lewis says. “It’s not, I mean you know what surrounds you, the bad vibes that surround you, but where I’m from it’s pretty quiet.”

So was the Lewis household. With his father gone and older brother Romain at Buffalo State College, Chavaughn was left alone with his mother, Pansy. Romain served as a father figure from afar, checking in with Chavaughn and making sure he stayed on track with basketball and school. “He was always coaching me — never pampering me, never babying me,” Chavaughn says.

But most of the time, it was just Chavaughn and Pansy.

“Me and my mom went from being a mother-and-son role to being like my sister,” Chavaughn says. “She’s like my best friend, even though she still plays that stern role in my life. At the end of the day, our bond is like no other.”

Chavaughn Lewis action

Lewis would come home from St. Mary’s every day and instead of saying, “Hello, how was your day? What’s for dinner?” like most teenage boys would, he would speak with Pansy about every topic from academics to girls to the myriad social issues that seep into a high schooler’s life.

“I shared a lot more things with her than normally you probably would share,” Lewis says, “nothing out of hand, but stuff that you wouldn’t talk with your mother about.”

Lewis feels indebted to his mother. She brought him into the world, and if he can’t repay her for that, he hopes to pay for her retirement. That was one of two promises Lewis bestowed upon his father in the hospital. The other: “I’m going to get a scholarship.”

That’s a 15-year-old young man, not a 15-year-old boy.

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Lewis hadn’t even starred for St. Mary’s varsity yet. That changed his junior year, when he led the Gaels to a 20-8 season and a berth in the CHSAA state tournament. St. Mary’s bowed out in the first round, but Lewis and his teammates had resurrected a program that had won eight games a year earlier, laying the groundwork for what would be a special senior year.

Chavaughn Lewis became a household name in New York State high school ball that year. A wiry 6-foot-5 do-it-all guard, Lewis scored 30 points every night, it seemed. In reality, he averaged 23.9, but his 30 points against Mount St. Michael in the CHSAA Class A state final helped the Gaels (29-1) overcome a nine-point deficit in the final 6:50 and win in overtime.

“At St. Mary’s, we didn’t win a championship for like five years until we got there,” Lewis says. “I went there to make a difference. I could have went to Christ the King. I could have went to Holy Cross. I could have went to a lot of schools that had a bomb squad. I went to a school where I could create a legacy for myself, make a change and be a part of something.”

Yes, Chavaughn Lewis was once a champion. “That was an amazing year,” he says. It wasn’t the only one.

Lewis and Marist teammate T.J. Curry suited up together for St. Mary’s Nativity, a Flushing-based CYO team, from the age of nine until their freshman year of high school. Those teams, Lewis says, routinely played against older competition.

“A lot of teams would try to bully us, but we held our own,” Lewis proudly says. “I have a ton of trophies in the house from when we played CYO because we had that heart.”

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Opponents have tried to bully Marist in Lewis’ three-plus seasons in Poughkeepsie, and they’ve had a lot more success than those CYO challengers. The Red Foxes have won 37 games in that span. St. Mary’s won 29 in its championship season.

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With a roster ravaged by injuries — even Lewis, Mr. Durable, missed the first three games of his career with an ankle sprain — the Red Foxes have hit their nadir this year, winning just one game in 15 attempts. “How many people do you know that get the odds that we got?” Lewis asks, noting that just three players have appeared in each game.

Lewis is Marist’s do-everything playmaker, as he has been since he set foot on campus. He has led the team in scoring and steals every year and assists each of the last two. He has ranked no lower than third in rebounding.

The odds against Lewis winning a MAAC title are stacked higher than the rolling hills across the Hudson from Poughkeepsie, but his name has already been etched into Marist history. At 1,754 points, he’s within range of Steve Smith (2,077) and Smits (1,945) for first and second all-time. No Red Fox has made more free throws than Lewis’ 450, and just three have recorded more steals than his 203. He’s 10th with 267 assists.

Lewis has never been an efficient player, and critics who call him selfish point to his percentages and turnover rate. He’s shooting 40.4 percent from the field this year with career-worsts of 30.6 percent from deep and four turnovers per game.

Maker says Lewis is anything but selfish. Those numbers, he says, are partially a product of the injuries to reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year Khallid Hart and Curry.

“Now Chavaughn draws every best defender because now you can just concentrate on him, not necessarily on him and Khallid,” Maker says. “There’s less space for him to play, and I think Chay feels more of a burden to carry our basketball team. I mean, he’s had 30, 28, 28. Right now we’re not winning unless he scores 25 or more because we don’t have Khallid to lessen that burden.”

Lewis also has an admirer in Iona’s Tim Cluess, who rejected an offer of anonymity to comment for this story.

“I think he has developed his game a lot, and he’s a player that I’d want to coach if I could, so I think he’s a very talented kid,” says Cluess, whose Gaels lost to Marist two years ago after Lewis forced overtime with a 75-foot heave. “I wouldn’t look at it the other way at all. I don’t see that at all.”

Neither do the advanced statistics.

One hundred players entered Friday’s games with shot rates of 30 percent or higher. Only two — Colorado’s Askia Booker and Murray State’s Cameron Payne — have assist rates higher than Lewis’ 31.5 percent, a career-high that ranks 78th in the country. Lewis’ 38.7 percent shot rate ranks second.

Lewis credits each of his three college head coaches — Chuck Martin, Jeff Bower and Mike Maker — for his development into a player that could post stats like that. Martin, he says, taught him how to exploit angles and move without the ball; Bower, now the Detroit Pistons General Manager, brought an analytical approach along with an NBA pedigree; Maker has let Lewis fuse everything he has learned.

“In regards to the coaching changes, it’s a blessing,” says Lewis, who admits he momentarily considered transferring after Marist fired Martin. “I was able to gather all the information, everything each of them knew differently about basketball. I was able to take in a lot and give back [to younger teammates] what I learned from all my coaches.”

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That sums up Lewis: a young man who wants to improve every day so he can give back. On the court, that’s to his teammates. In life, it’s to his mother and, now, his 1-year-old son, Camren.

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Having a son at 20 years old was yet another challenge Lewis embraced.

“It’s another opportunity to have somebody that’s counting on me, to push me even more,” Lewis says. “That one day I decide to slack off or say, ‘Hey, I’m going to stay home,’ no I end up going to the gym because I have that motivation factor. I think that’s helped me. I take that as a blessing, the fact that God was able to give me a child, because now I have something to go after. I’m not in pursuit of something just for myself. I’m also in pursuit for my family as well.”

Lewis says he will go wherever basketball takes him for as long as he can play the game. It would be an honor, he says, to provide the family he loves with money he earns playing the game he loves.

But Lewis hasn’t begun to consider viable options for life after Marist. He’s still focused on resurrecting his program in the second half of 2014-15, just like he did in his final two years at St. Mary’s.

“Hopefully I can be a part of a championship, but if not I would like to be a part of a steppingstone. That’s my main goal,” Lewis says. “I want people to respect me for who I am and the things I did here and at least acknowledge the things that I’ve done here and see the impact that I made.”

All photos courtesy of Marist Athletics.

Ari Kramer is a New York-based writer who covers the MAAC for One-Bid Wonders. Follow him on Twitter at @Ari_Kramer.

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