By JOEL COLEMAN
From the local city leagues to Starkville High to Mississippi State, Gavin Ware has played basketball in Starkville his whole life. MSU’s 6-foot-9, 260-pound senior center has come a long way since suiting up for his father Calvin’s youth hoops team, the Ware Warriors, years ago, but now it’s time for Ware to close the book on playing basketball in his hometown.
Saturday, as Mississippi State hosts Auburn at 1:30 p.m. at Humphrey Coliseum, Ware will play his final game in Starkville. The magnitude of that has already started sinking in for Ware.
“It’s going to be very emotional,” Ware said. “I’ll try to hold back all the emotions that’ll be coming through when I’m walking on the court after they call my name for the last time.”
In total, five Mississippi State seniors will conclude the home portion of their careers Saturday. Craig Sword, Fred Thomas, Travis Daniels and Johnny Zuppardo will also say farewell to the confines of the Humphrey Coliseum, but for Ware, things have a different twist. All four of Ware’s fellow upperclassmen came to Starkville either after high school or as junior college transfers. Ware never left.
He helped the Starkville Yellowjackets win a state title as a sophomore and keyed deep SHS postseason runs his junior and senior years. Following his prep career, Ware made the choice to trade in the black and gold of the Jackets for the maroon and white of the Bulldogs while former MSU head coach Rick Stansbury was still guiding Mississippi State.
Since then, it has been a rollercoaster ride for Ware at MSU. Teammates have left. Two other head coaches, first Rick Ray, now Ben Howland, have come in.
“It has been crazy,” Ware said. “I’ve been seeing players come and go since I got here to now when I’m leaving. It has been a crazy transition from three coaches to a lot of players playing beside me to those guys leaving early.”
Through it all, Ware stayed the course.
“I was well-established at Mississippi State,” Ware said. “I knew the way we played and I didn’t want to get away from that. I knew we were working on something special and probably when I leave here, we will have paved the way for some of these young guys to keep adding on to what we’ve done.”
Ware has provided the next crop of Bulldogs with a living example of what can happen to a player who dedicates himself to his craft. Ware had solid seasons during his first three campaigns at Mississippi State, but none have come close to matching the production of his senior year.
While Ware was named to the 2013 Southeastern Conference All-Freshman team and combined to average 9.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game over his freshman, sophomore and junior years, Ware has been dominant at times this season.
He leads the Bulldogs with averages of 16 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. He’s posted eight double-doubles. Twice this season, he’s posted his career high of 28 points in a single game.
The transition from solid player to star was one Ware said began with a simple revelation.
“I woke up one day and knew this was my last season,” Ware said. “I had to make something out of it instead of being a mediocre player. I had to come in and be the force for my team that they expected me to be. I wanted to be a guy my teammates could count on.”
Ware’s biggest steps to attaining the success he desired revolved around picking up his work at the gym and pushing back on his work at the dinner table.
“My first three years, (my weight) was a big thing because I had to transition from being a guy that was 280 or 290 pounds that loved to eat his grandma’s cooking to now, I have to watch what I eat and buy in to staying healthy and eating good foods and staying active almost every day,” Ware said. “One day off could throw my whole weight and all we’ve accomplished off.”
The hard work has paid off for Ware. Because of it, his coach believes Ware’s basketball career won’t be ending just because his time at Mississippi State is coming to a close, at least as long as Ware keeps displaying the attitude he has shown this year.
“(Ware’s) season is going to end here in the next couple of weeks and the bottom line is there is no break for him,” Howland said. “He’s going to have a chance to make money (playing basketball). He needs to keep working and keep his weight down. He’s done a good job working at that and that’s going to be the key to his future. If he ever got down to where he was playing at 255, 253 or 250 (pounds) for a long-term stint, I think it would really make him special. The better shape you are in, the harder you can play and the more active you can be. That’s everything for him.”
Perhaps Ware will continue his basketball career in the NBA or overseas, but wherever he goes, he won’t soon be forgotten in Starkville. The young boy that found his game on the youth courts in town might be about to spread his wings and fly, but he hopes what he’s done in his hometown lives on.
When his family, friends and fans look back on his career, Ware doesn’t necessarily need them to see him as anything too special. How does he want to be remembered?
“Just as the guy with the goggles that played his heart out night in and night out,” Ware said.