Finding calm amid chaos

by Alan Siegel

For a few moments at a time, his life is still.

Feet set, knees bent, orange globe in tow, he raises his non-shooting arm up vertically, uncurls his fist and folds his ring finger under his thumb.

The trinity of digits points skyward, perhaps south, toward his family, or maybe toward Alaska, the most exotic place the army kid lived growing up. He tells us: the pinky pays tribute to his son, Trey. The middle finger salutes his father, Danilo. The index finger represents himself.

It ends one second later, when his infielder's mitt-sized palms grip the basketball and he releases the free throw. As the ball slices through the net, the crowd purrs like a Mustang. The ruckus pushes J.R. Pinnock's play button, and he's back, frantically trapping a smaller opposing player in the backcourt, diving face first for a steal, rising like a heat-seeking missile for a vicious baseline dunk.

The regular season win is soon a reality, and the game ends after 9 p.m. The Smith Center is empty and motionless, but the sophomore guard is stuck swirling on fast-forward. He is still a young man, the father of a toddler, the son of a retired soldier and the molten core of the GW men's basketball team. The game - especially the way Karl Hobbs lets the Colonials play it - is speedball. But in reality, any version of the game slows life down for Pinnock, the Atlantic 10's Sixth Man of the Year.

After games, he often comes back to the old cage on 22nd and G at two, maybe three o'clock in the morning for extra work. Repetition is a big part of shooting, he says. Tempo, rhythm, cadence - things his father taught him at a young age.

"Basketball has always been my escape ever since I can remember," Pinnock says. "When I was mad, I played basketball. When I was upset about something, I played basketball. I didn't go to my high school prom, I was in the local gym. Basketball was never something that stressed me out. It was always something I looked forward to doing."

*

On a warm Monday in early March, Pinnock leans his six-foot-five-inch frame back on a white concrete ledge near the entrance of the Smith Center. His denim and mesh Atlanta Braves hat is slightly askew, and a black headband wraps around the top of his forehead with the letters "R.I.P.L.G." monogrammed in white thread, in honor of his aunt, Lisa Griffin, who died last month.

When he smiles, it's hard to miss the bling. The set of gold teeth gleam as Pinnock speaks. He is one of the most explosive members of the Colonials, but his approach is cerebral. He admired Jordan and Magic growing up, but also had love for less heralded guys: John Starks for his intensity, John Stockton for his unselfishness.

"You can't play basketball at this level and not be intense," Pinnock says. "But you can't let your intensity take over so much that you can't think."

He has a frantic life in a hectic city, and plays on a team that moves at the speed of light. But on the court, he floats calmly, carefully picking and choosing spots to detonate the explosive stuff.

Coming off the bench this season, he finished second on GW in scoring (13.5 points per game) and shot a team-leading 50 percent from the floor, the third best mark in the league. In the Colonials' A-10 West clinching win over Rhode Island last week, he put up 17 points, going 6-for-9 from the floor. He ended up on SportsCenter that day after an eye-popping alley-oop lay-in, just one week after a pulverizing jam against Xavier landed him on the show's Top 10 Plays list.

He rarely takes bad shots, only testing the three-point waters once in a while.

"Me and the coaches, we watch film and see what I do well, and that's what I've got to do," Pinnock says. "If you look at the stats, I'm not a great three-point shooter stats-wise, so I'm not going to jack up a lot of threes."

Walt Webb, athletic director and basketball coach at Coastal Christian Academy, in Virginia Beach, Va., had Pinnock on his team in 2002-03. Webb has known for a while what GW fans have seen all season.

"He has a real passion for the game," Webb says. "He is also a winner. When I say winner, I mean he wants to finish school just as much as he wants to win a game. He'll sacrifice points for victories. He'll do those things where other players won't."

As Pinnock will attest, occasionally the intensity smoldering inside his chest gets the best of him, bubbling up and over.

"When he tries to do too much," GW associate coach Steve Pikiell says, "He can get into trouble." That fact certainly is not a secret.

"Everybody on the team knows," Pinnock says, "that once a month me and coach Hobbs might have a day when he'll kick me out of practice, or we might curse each other out. But the next day we put that behind us, because we both have the same intensity for this team. We want to win."

Last October, along with two teammates, he was involved in an altercation with bouncers at a D.C. nightclub. Hobbs later suspended the guard for the Jan. 5 game against La Salle for breaking an unspecified team rule. Pinnock said the two "bump heads a lot." Perhaps the contention comes from similarity. The coach might be even more intense than his pupil is, and the pair is thriving together now.

"I'm not going to lie and say everything I've done here is positive," Pinnock says. "But coach Hobbs has been behind me from day one and he always will be."

*

Rewind back to day one, or pretty close to it. On a military base somewhere across the great 48 or maybe beyond, J.R. Pinnock is a baby in a stroller, watching his daddy play a pick-up game. J.R. does not know it, but 18 years later he will be in his father's place, playing in front of his infant son.

Danilo Pinnock came to this country when he was 18, a Panamanian immigrant seeking a better life. He lived in Brooklyn and eventually joined the Army, where he served for 21 years. His wife Lucille gave birth to Danilo Jr. (or J.R.) in Fort Hood, Texas.

As a small boy, his life sped along like a videotape stuck on fast-forward. The Pinnocks made stops in the state of Washington, Alaska and Alabama. Then, in 1997, they settled in McDonough, Ga. Like any kid who has a papa in the army, J.R. met friends, then sped off to another state.

But stuck in the cracks of upheaval was that orange globe. That single constant kept him going. "I can't remember not playing basketball," Pinnock says. At five years, he played on his first organized team. By high school he was a hot prospect at Eagle's Landing High in McDonough.

After graduating high school in 2002, Pinnock spent a post-graduate year at Coastal Christian, where Webb saw him blossom as a player. He signed with GW and seemed set. But when his life was finally static, it caught fire again.

*

When he found out his girlfriend was pregnant, Pinnock could have wilted. His life already moved at breakneck speed, now it seemed to reach terminal velocity. But he said he was ready for it.

"(J.R.) didn't want to be a statistic," Webb said. "He had heard horror stories of guys with lots of talent who never got to use it." Pinnock was not about to let himself slip.

His son, Trey, was born in the summer of 2003. According to Danilo, the new father considered putting college on hold. But J.R.'s parents were not about to watch their son's dream vanish into the air. Then it was settled. J.R.'s son would live with his grandparents in McDonough, where the child's mother also lives and works.

"That's what we're here for," Danilo says. "I know that's the type of person he is. When his son was born he wanted to leave school, but we helped him take that out of the equation."

On occasion, Trey and the Pinnocks make the trip to games, home and away, where they see J.R.'s three-pronged tribute during trips to the foul line. Still, the father spends long periods of time away from his son. When he misses Trey, J.R. thinks of the sacrifices Danilo made for his family. A 21-year military career is much more strenuous than four years of college, J.R. says.

"To tell you the truth, I thank God that I have two parents who help me as much as they do," he says. "They help me so much with my son so that I don't have to worry about him, because I know he's in great hands. It's a burden that I use to make me better."

His life is not that of a normal college student, but he has no regrets. "I believe that there's been nothing but good since I had my son," he says.

Thankfully for Pinnock, he still has the chance to kick back, slow down, press the pause button. His teammates might not be in the same position as him, but the Colonials are a close group.

"I grew up a lot faster than some of the other guys on the team," Pinnock says. "But we have a lot of fun together ... when I had my son I was pretty much ready to become an adult anyway. I just think it made me mature a lot faster."

*

He is only a sophomore, but on the court he is mature. Like most other facets of his life, his basketball career is moving frenetically. His scoring has crept up, and as the Sixth Man of the Year award proves, the A-10 is taking notice.

Through the haze of Pinnock's whirlwind time on this planet, people saw it all along. Saw his talent, his desire and his leadership ability. But unselfishness seems to be in Pinnock's blood. He was a reluctant leader. Danilo says he taught J.R. to be unselfish with the ball, but now he thinks Hobbs would like his son to be a bit more selfish - in a good way. Contrary to popular belief, Danilo says, leadership is a skill taught and learned, not an inherited characteristic.

At Coastal Christian, where the talent pool was chock full of big fish, Pinnock started out as a guppy. But he eventually became a shark - in a game against national powerhouse Oak Hill, he nearly helped his squad pull off the upset by scoring bunches of second half buckets.

"We lost by two points," Webb says. "But he took over that game in the second half. That was his coming out game and he led us as a team."

Such a dominant performance has yet to come at GW, but by the speed at which Pinnock is flying these days, it could happen at any moment. But even now, he has moments of serenity. They come during warm-ups two hours before home games when he's wearing a tattered old T-shirt while shooting 15-foot jumpers, or at the free throw line, when he raises his hand to honor his family, or this week, sitting outside the Smith Center and contemplating a short-term project.

"As of right now, my only goal is to get my team to the NCAA Tournament as many times as I can," he says.

The Colonials will make their run to the dance this week, and it's a safe bet to say a streaking Pinnock will be leading the pack, motoring along like the Roadrunner, with a hazy cloud of dust rising behind him and spinning orange globe floating in front.

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