A LITTLE MORE than 4 years later, it's easy to forget that JayVaughn Pinkston's Villanova basketball career nearly ended before he played a game.
"I didn't know what was going to happen to me," the 6-7 fifth-year senior remembered. "Looking back at it now, from the bigger picture, I feel like it was the best thing to ever happen to me. And that doesn't sound stupid to say."
In November 2010, the McDonald's All-American forward from Brooklyn was arrested and charged with assault following an off-campus fight. The details are no longer relevant, having been more than trumped by what he has done since then.
After a disciplinary hearing, Pinkston was suspended from the university for the spring semester for violating its code of conduct. He was allowed to complete his class work for the first semester, but then he was barred from the campus. So the only times he could even watch the Wildcats in person was when they played at the Wells Fargo Center.
More than a few folks figured Pinkston might transfer, including the man who recruited him.
"I told him I'd understand if he wanted to leave," said coach Jay Wright. "I think the penalty was harsh, but I understood why Villanova had to do it.
"He's a really loyal guy. In high school [Bishop Loughlin], he had four coaches in 4 years. Every year, all the other schools were trying to get him because his coaches had left. But he stayed.
"He told me this is where he wanted to come, and this is where he wanted to be."
NCAA rules didn't permit the school to do anything to help support him. But after a lengthy due-diligence process, Pinkston was able to move in with a family whose children went to school with Wright's. Since he had to pay rent - which had to be the equivalent of what an average one-bedroom apartment cost in the area he was living - he got a job at a factory doing manual labor.
"The real world," Pinkston said. "I really wasn't doing nothing, barely making the rent. It was hard.
"My mom [Kerry] was upset. I felt like I'd let her down. She was disappointed that I didn't tell her. She had to hear it from someone else. But I had to deal with it, so I did what I had to do. I was fortunate. It made me realize that anything can be taken away in the blink of an eye. I had to grow up, look at life as something you should cherish.
"Instead of running away from the problem, my mom always told me to be a man. Even if you don't like it. You did it, so suffer the consequences.
"If I'd gone somewhere else I still would have had to deal with the situation," he continued. "So I didn't bother bringing it up. It made me a better person. Every life journey's going to have its ups and downs."
Last summer, after staying out of further trouble, he was accepted into an Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition program. If he remains clean and meets certain court requirments, his record will be cleared.
He also has had to overcome asthma. "It sounds real bad," Pinkston smiled, "but over the years you're just like, 'OK, if you take care of yourself, you'll be all right.' "
And before his junior season, he had to spend a week in the hospital battling a MRSA infection.
"Sometimes you wonder why it kept happening to me," he said. "But all you can do is keep going."
He struggled to get back in shape before averaging 9.6 points and 5.2 rebounds for a team that went 13-19 in 2011-12. His scoring went up to a team-high 13.3 as a sophomore and 14.1 as a junior. And the Wildcats kept getting better. This season, he's among four players each averaging 10 points, for a 15-1 group that is ranked fifth and has won 44 of its last 50. The emergence of 6-11 junior Daniel Ochefu into a low-post presence has meant Pinkston no longer needs to constantly go up against taller opponents.
"I actually have long arms," said Pinkston, who carries his 235 pounds well these days. "And I'm much faster than what people expect.
"I feel like nobody can guard me."
His numbers probably aren't what many were projecting by this point when he arrived. But his value has never come into question.
"Everyone was talking about one-and-done and everything, but he never did," Wright said. "Early on, he was trying to make everyone happy. Now he's just kind of understated, but he does all the little things. That's who he's become. He's not a 'me' guy at all.
"He's really grounded. He takes responsibility for everything. Whatever we've asked him to do, he doesn't complain. And he's honest. If he's frustated and I call him, he'll tell me the truth. Sometimes it's things I don't want to hear. But always respectful. And I have to bring it up.
"He's a simple guy who cares about his teammates. I think after that first year, he was over [the incident]. He's happy in his own skin. He knows people. Emotional intelligence is the term we use. The other kids listen to him. They get his selflessness more than anybody. In the beginning, I think they feared him because he was a bully. He's given that up . . . He can carry us, and he has, but he doesn't have to score to be one of our best players.
"Within our program, he's going to be one of the great stories of all time."
Most of all, he's going to get his degree, which is the thing that stands out for him.
"I'm from Brownsville," Pinkston said of the Brooklyn neighborhood. "There's not so many good things that happen there. Just making it out is a big accomplishment. There was a time I would have laughed at you if you'd told me it was going to turn out like this. That's how 18-year-old kids think, especially being a McDonald's All-American.
"I just want to do whatever it takes. I don't care what other people [on the outside] are telling me. As long as you're winning, everybody's going to get their fair share of the deal. It's a lot, being a college student and a college basketball player. I'm the third person from my whole family to make it to college. Once I got here, I'd never been around so many white people. I went to a Catholic school, but there was only like two in my entire building, as far as students. So it was like, 'Wow,' a new world to me. I knew what I was getting myself into, but I didn't know to what extent it was going to be. It was a big adjustment."
Even if the path he chose hadn't taken a major detour. Now Wright says Pinkston is one of the more popular people on campus. Who knew that this relationship could ever evolve into such a mutual comfort level?
"The only goal is winning," Pinkston said. "I can't tell guys what to do if I'm not doing it myself. You have to follow through on your word. When we're in tight situations, I want to make sure everybody's got it together. You have to sacrifice for each other, leave it all out there . . .
"You could say it's been quite a statement, but I still have more stuff to accomplish before it's the end. I want the ending to be great."
In many ways, it already is.