The first time Jamie Feick played barnball, back in rural
Bellville, Ohio, he was no older than eight, just a fern among
the forest of legs and torsos formed by his six uncles. The
uncles would gather in the barn on their mother Dorothy
Bunfill's dairy farm, where the rusty hoop was 8 1/2, maybe nine
feet off the ground, and the packed-dirt floor was askew. One of
them, usually John Rhea, would start the roughhousing. A push. A
shove. Then, bedlam.
Barnball isn't for the weak-hearted. "Half basketball," says
Rhea "and a big ol' half of football." Bodies slam into wood.
Elbows slam into ribs. Heads slam into heads. There are no
fouls. There are scraped knees, bloody scalps and, always, at
least one of what is referred to in Bellville as "a good knocker
under the chin."
Pretty boys who rely on frilly crossovers and spins to reach the
hoop don't belong, while kids are easy targets. "The thing I
remember most is the beating I would take," says Feick. "They
would just pound me." He pauses. "I loooooved it."
The games weren't just opportunities for Feick, now a
forward-center for the New Jersey Nets, to add to his collection
of scabs and scars. They were also an escape from realities a
youngster shouldn't have to face. "What he's done is show others
that, even if you have a traumatic background, you can survive,"
says Nets coach Don Casey. "What Jamie has gone through best
explains who Jamie Feick is."
Explaining who Feick is, on the surface, is easy. He's a
25-year-old, 6'8", 255-pound, oft-waived, oft-ignored, five-team
NBA journeyman who has no business pulling down 9.9 rebounds per
game, an average that through Saturday was the seventh best in
the NBA. Tendinitis has limited his minutes in the past month,
but Feick has proved himself as a player who can come off the
bench and make a difference. On Jan. 20, in a 122-120 win over
the Detroit Pistons, Feick got a career-high 25 rebounds,
including the game-clincher off a Lindsey Hunter miss just
before the buzzer. "He's one of the best rebounders for his size
I've ever seen," says former teammate Michael Cage, who twice
led the league in boards. "He has the relentlessness all the
great ones need."
He's also a decent jump shooter, a good passer and a mean
pick-setter. Off the court Feick is shy, often aloof. He speaks
softly, with a gentle twang. He has brown eyes and a neatly
groomed goatee that gives his face more mystery than menace.
But that's all surface. It's not who Feick is.
He learned of the murders from a friend last August. The crime
was a double homicide that month, which is still being
investigated by the Richland County (Ohio) sheriff's office.
According to reports, two men were fatally stabbed in a house
near Bellville, and when Feick learned of the death of one of
the men, the 43-year-old owner of the house, he cried and cried.
This was Jamie Feick's father. Perhaps.
There is another man, one Feick would rather not name, a
construction worker in central Ohio. He and Jamie have spent a
good deal of time together these past few years--hunting,
fishing. They talk often, and in the summer, when Feick isn't
lifting weights or tending to his eight-acre farm about 10 miles
from Bellville, he can often be found hanging out with the man.
This is Jamie Feick's father. Perhaps.
Feick constantly tries to sort it all out. For an instant it
seems he knows who his father is. Then--blink--back to
confusion. Jamie's mother, Janet Flynn, was 17 when she had him,
too young and too naive for the responsibilities of rearing a
child. Nine years later, as Jamie was being raised by an uncle
and aunt, Floyd and Pat Feick (Jamie changed his last name from
Flynn to Feick as a boy), Janet was killed in a car accident.
With her death went her secret: the name of the man who had
For most of his life, not knowing the identity of his father
didn't gnaw at Jamie. He considered Floyd his father. Then, five
years ago, something changed. Floyd, who had divorced Pat,
became engaged to another woman, Brenda Jolley. She took Jamie
under her wing, loved him like a son. Three months before the
wedding, Jolley, too, was killed in a car accident. Jamie, then
a senior at Michigan State, went home to comfort Floyd. "When
Brenda died, I really started thinking about things," says
Jamie. That was when he decided he would find his biological
He consulted his aunts and uncles, who narrowed the
possibilities to two men. One was the 43-year-old murder victim,
whom Feick was preparing to contact when he was killed. The
other is the construction worker, who has embraced Feick since
their first meeting, in 1996. "I want to have a DNA test done
pretty soon," says Feick. "I like to assume [the construction
worker] is my biological father, so I worry about having a test
and it coming back negative and me going back to wondering.
That's the worst feeling in the world--not knowing. If this man
isn't my dad, I don't know how I'd handle it."
In all likelihood Feick would handle it with the same stoic
efficiency with which he has faced the other adversities. When
Floyd and Pat divorced 14 years ago, Dorothy Bunfill, his
grandmother, moved in with Jamie and Pat. She became not just
Jamie's mother figure but his closest friend as well. When Jamie
was a freshman at Lexington High, Dorothy died from a heart
condition. "Jamie had a maturity that someone his age shouldn't
have had," says Tom Izzo, who coached Feick at Michigan State
from 1992 to '96. "He'd already experienced the worst. He was 21
going on 35."
Even when he was all-state as a Lexington High senior, averaging
24.0 points and 16.0 rebounds, Feick was about the last player
anyone would have tagged as a future NBAer. He was tall but
gangly, an offensively limited rebounding machine. "I thought he
could be a good high school player," says Gregg Collins, Feick's
high school coach, "but I never thought he'd dominate anyone."
Izzo's expectations at Michigan State were similar--Feick would
be a role player, the sort of banger a Big Ten team needs. "But
the NBA?" says Izzo. "I'd be lying if I said I thought he'd be
After leading the Big Ten in rebounds as a senior for the
Spartans, Feick was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers with the
48th pick of the 1996 draft. He was cut by the Sixers and then
played 13 games with Oklahoma City of the CBA. Thereafter Feick
had brief stints with the Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs,
Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks (twice). Before 1998-99 he had
never started more than two games in a season. On two occasions,
with the Spurs and with the Suns, he requested and received his
release. "I've never wanted to just be a part of a team, sitting
on the bench and collecting a paycheck," he says. "If that was
all I was here for, I'd go back to Ohio and get a construction
This is Feick, proudly blue-collar. His closest friends, almost
all of them construction workers, live in Bellville. His town
house in Wayne, N.J., is modest. His cabin in Lexington is a
tiny 888 square feet. His prized possessions are his two
Harley-Davidsons, which he calls "my only spoil." Feick looks at
the average Lexus-driving, tattoo-sporting, party-hopping
hoopster with amusement and contempt. "I know these guys didn't
grow up like this," he says. "I wonder how they lose the values
that got them here. Maybe it's the fame and money and fans. A
lot of guys have conditions in their contract: I have to have my
own hotel suite on the road, I have to be able to wear jewelry.
I had one thing: I wanted to ride my motorcycles."
Feick's demand was met last August, when he agreed to a
six-year, $15 million deal to stay with New Jersey, which
initially signed him to a 10-day contract last March. The Los
Angeles Clippers offered more money. Feick didn't care. "I was
taught to respect those who show you respect," he says. "The
Nets gave me the chance no one else did. I wanted to stay."
Feick may never find his biological father, but he has had at
least one bit of good family fortune. Throughout his childhood
he was told that he had a younger half-brother, also his
mother's son. Not until his freshman year of college, however,
did Jamie Feick meet Mark Greer. The two first came face-to-face
at Greer's house in Columbus in a meeting arranged by Feick.
"He's the only immediate blood relative I still have," says
Feick. "Nobody can imagine how much that means to me--having a
Last summer, Greer, a construction worker five years Feick's
junior, lived in Feick's cabin near Bellville. Maybe it's time
to get the uncles together again. Surely Mark would be up for a
game of barnball. After all, he's family.
COLOR PHOTO: MANUELLO PAGANELLI Feick learned hoops in a barn, playing a rugged variation of the game with his six uncles.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Real grabber Feick is averaging 9.9 rebounds.