Jacob deGrom and Nick Pugliese, two baseball teammates, picked up a basketball and hit the court. Their conversation eventually turned to whether deGrom had any basketball history.
“Well, I played a little bit of basketball,” deGrom said in his soft, quiet tone.
All right, Pugliese told deGrom. Let’s shoot around.
“And he’s doing 360 dunks,” Pugliese said, laughing. “It’s confusing. It’s like he’s hustling you or something.”
Pugliese, who had not known deGrom for long, learned of deGrom’s humility. He knew deGrom played basketball in high school, but he’s a few years older than deGrom and never saw him in game action.
By the time deGrom and Pugliese met — they played American Legion baseball together before they were teammates at Stetson University — an unwritten rule said: NO ORGANIZED BASKETBALL. These guys who dreamed of professional baseball careers had no business injuring themselves playing a sport in which they had no future.
Well, most did not.
Others might have had a chance.
Pugliese saw deGrom play basketball many times, but only when the two shot hoops and messed around. Never in games. About deGrom, Pugliese soon thought: OK, do you want to play basketball or do you want to play baseball?
“He was definitely, at that time, better at basketball,” Pugliese said.
Background: deGrom, now arguably baseball’s best pitcher for the Mets, played shortstop as a teenager. Stetson recruited him as a third baseman. He did not produce, so coaches benched him until he finally played shortstop. Then he came out of the bullpen.
So, you can understand why Pugliese felt deGrom was better at basketball than baseball. No one predicted deGrom’s rise to the major leagues’ elite tier.
“I heard he was a hell of a basketball player,” said Rick Hall, who coached deGrom’s American Legion baseball team.
He heard correctly.
DeGrom attended Calvary Christian Academy in Ormond Beach, Fla., located about 30 miles from DeLand — where deGrom and Pugliese still meet up to this day. The high school only had around 90 kids and competed in the state’s smallest athletic division.
Ryan Knernschield, the athletic director and basketball coach at the time, said he often feared CCA would not have enough kids to field a team in certain sports.
The basketball team had a losing record the year before Knernschield arrived. Eventually, his teams posted winning records. Still, they were no powerhouse.
“It’s kind of sad,” Knernschield said. “I don’t have much of a story to tell you because we weren’t that good (in basketball). I’m being honest. We were nothing to brag about.
“I guess if we didn’t have Jake, it would’ve been really bad.”
Everyone knew deGrom loved baseball first, but he was a basketball player — not a baseball player playing basketball.
“No, he had the skill set to play basketball,” said Joey Kreuter, who transferred into CCA for his senior year. “He could shoot the ball, he could bring it down the court, he had a good I.Q. for the game.”
Could deGrom have played basketball at the next level?
“He could have, sure — if he wanted to,” said Knernschield, who played basketball at Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo., and won a national championship. “But then again, it wasn’t his first love.”
“Yeah, I think he could’ve. Absolutely,” said Kreuter, who became an All-American hooper at Central Bible in 2013. “It’s so hard to tell because he was just so talented at baseball. It’s hard to compare the two. Basketball to baseball, it’s a no-brainer. He was just a gifted baseball player. That was his game. But basketball, yeah, especially his senior year he had that growth spurt and developed his game some more. If he put the drive into basketball like he did with baseball, I think he absolutely could’ve (played in college).”
Knernschield said deGrom was probably the team’s best overall player.
If pushed by opponents, Knernschield recalled, deGrom usually did not react. He remained composed, a quality he now shows on a big-league mound every fifth day. But he had an edge.
Knernschield said some NBA players feature a “next-level, rip-your-heart-out mentality.” Kobe Bryant, the coach said, possessed it. So did deGrom, even if he never became too emotional.
“Everything may be calm on the outside, but he loved to beat you,” Knernschield said of deGrom. “He loved to beat you bad.”
On the court, deGrom could do anything. “He had pretty good form,” Kreuter said of deGrom’s shot. DeGrom’s excellent hand-eye coordination helped him on defense because he used his quick hands to be disruptive. He hit a growth spurt and grew into his body after his junior season, so he improved even more after Kreuter graduated.
“It just came so easy to him,” Knernschield said. “Maybe even was frustrating for other kids. Things that others had to work at really hard — it doesn’t mean Jake didn’t work hard — but he just got it.”
Man, could he play.
But of course, everyone understood the inevitable.
DeGrom spent his childhood playing baseball with his dad. He loved it above all. He had always wanted to pursue it.
Now, he’s a two-time Cy Young Award winner. Mets fans hope he plays for their team for his entire career.
After his freshman year of college, Kreuter visited CCA. When he walked into the gym, he found a certain senior hanging out.
“Jake, what’s going on?” Kreuter said.
“Hey, watch” deGrom said.
DeGrom immediately grabbed a basketball, sprinted toward the hoop and dunked.