Jason Conley didn't know any of the people who patted him on the
back and shook his hand last summer after games in the famed
Jabbo Kenner league in Washington, D.C., and they had no clue who
he was, though they knew the slender 6'5" swingman could play.
Conley soared to throw down alley-oops, drilled three-pointers
and slashed through traffic in a league filled with players from
Georgetown, Kentucky, Temple and other prominent colleges.
Afterward the fans routinely asked, Where are you from? "When I
told them I went to VMI," says Conley, "they all gave me this
strange look, like they'd never heard of the place."
Conley won't have to worry about being unknown much longer. A
redshirt freshman, he's the most exciting player ever to play at
Virginia Military Institute. Operating in the Keydets' wide-open
offense, he was leading the nation in scoring (30.2 points a
game) at week's end. If he continues to do so through the end of
the season, he'll become the first freshman to lead the NCAA in
that category. Conley has had some of his best games against the
9-14 Keydets' biggest opponents, including 24 against Kentucky,
25 against Virginia and 38 against Villanova. "He's a player,"
says Kentucky's Tayshaun Prince. "We knew from the tape that he
was good, but sometimes you can't tell how good a guy is until
you get on the court."
Conley isn't likely to get a swelled head at VMI. He wakes up at
6:30 a.m., shares a cramped room with three other students and
receives only an hour of free time per day. Ask him about the two
stripes on the sleeves of his uniform jacket, and he beams with
pride at attaining the rank of corporal this year, an honor that
50 students applied for and only nine received. "A lot of kids
take shortcuts or are worried about themselves," says VMI coach
Bart Bellairs. "This kid is doing things the right way."
Conley's rise has been anything but easy. He attended St. John's
Prospect Hall in Frederick, Md., a high school powerhouse, as a
junior, backing up future ACC recruits Damien Wilkins (N.C. State
and now Georgia) and Jason Capel (North Carolina). For his senior
year he transferred to Montrose Christian in Rockville, Md.,
where he blossomed. He signed with VMI, the only Division I
school to seriously recruit him, but failed to attain the minimum
SAT score needed to qualify for a scholarship. (A dyslexic,
Conley has needed extra time to take tests since childhood.) He
spent a postgrad year at Millersburg (Ky.) Military Academy but
still came up short on his SATs, so he went to VMI and sat out
last season as a partial qualifier.
Being on the sidelines was difficult for Conley, but he made the
most of it. He ran for sophomore class president (making it into
the final 20 candidates), earned a 2.5 GPA and settled on
psychology as his major. He also improved his jumper and excited
VMI fans with dunking exhibitions before home games. Now that he
has proved he can play against the best, he has faced questions
about whether he will transfer. Conley says he's staying put
because he has grand plans for himself and the school that gave
him a chance.
"When I graduate from here, I want to look back and see VMI on
television, right up there with the ACC, Big Ten and SEC," he
says. "That's important. I don't want the fame to stop with me."
COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS USHER/APIX