Jake Wiley’s path to the University of Montana was strewn with obstacles.
The Griz basketball freshman was raised in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood near Long Beach, Calif. He admittedly surrounded himself with friends who were bad influences and owned a 1.6 grade point average at the end of his freshman year at Lakewood High.
Right after that school year, his father packed up and took his son to Newport, Wash., a town of a little more than 2,000 people northeast of Spokane on the Pend Oreille River where his father’s parents lived.
There Wiley thrived as both a student and an athlete. His grade point average was better than 3.0 at Newport. He caught 52 passes for 875 yards and eight touchdowns for the Newport football team in his senior season. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged roughly 26 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots a game during basketball season. In the spring, he was a sprinter on the track team.
But along the way, Wiley lost both his grandmother and father during a short span in his junior year. Wiley finished out his high school career living with his grandfather and said he was thrilled when Griz coach Wayne Tinkle offered him a scholarship.
Wiley took a few moments to talk with the Missoulian about his path to UM.
Q. What was it like growing up in Long Beach?
A. I was doing things I shouldn’t have been doing. I was a little young to be in high school and a lot of my friends were older than me. I started doing things the older kids wanted to start doing and kind of got caught up in a bad situation.
Q. Your dad took you to Newport?
A. He was already moving to Newport and he always talked about how he wanted to get out, it was a bad neighborhood, this and that. I thought it was my opportunity to really start a new path because I felt like where I was at was just not good. So I told him I was going to go with him and about three weeks later I was gone. I didn’t explain to anybody. I told my mom I can’t stay here, but the people I wanted to get away from, I didn’t say anything to them.
Q. What do you think would have been different if you stayed there?
A. I wouldn’t have played basketball. I was always ditching practice. I just wanted to go home and was really lazy. I probably wouldn’t have graduated either.
Q. Had you ever been to Newport?
A. Yeah, my grandparents lived there and I had visited them some as a kid, so I kind of knew the area.
Q. Did it take a little getting used to?
A. Yeah. It’s quiet, people are just different wherever you go, but they’re good people there.
Q. You’ve had some losses in your life. How did they affect you?
A. My grandmother and my dad passed away during basketball season. When my grandmother passed away it was devastating; everyone in the family was hurt. The day I found out I still played that day because we decided she would have wanted me to play. We ended up winning, which was good. I was pretty emotional. Then not too much later, on Super Bowl Sunday, my dad passes away right after we had a game the previous night. It really affected how I looked at the whole season, how I looked at basketball, how I looked at life, I guess. It made me appreciate everything I had a lot more. It drove me a lot to try to play in college because I know he wanted me to play.
Q. Who has had the biggest impact on your life?
A. It’s got to be my mom, gotta be. Even though I decided to leave it really didn’t have much to do with her at all. She was always getting me through tough times and she was huge after my grandma and my dad passed away. She kept me level-headed, calling me all the time.
Q. Who else recruited you besides the Griz?
A. Eastern Washington, Weber State, Sacramento State, Portland State; a lot of Big Sky schools.
Q. Why Montana?
A. I came to a basketball camp here. It was the first college campus I had ever been on. I loved it. I just thought ‘I would like to go here some day.’ Going into my senior year we played here and I thought if I can play well I might get looked at. Coach Tinkle saw me and told me he liked me and followed my AAU team. Eventually I signed.
Q. How do you think you can help the Griz?
A. I just think energy. I think coach wants me to be an energy guy. In open gyms, he gets on me if I’m not being that guy. So just bring that intensity, rebounding, defense.
Q. Any idea whether you’ll be able to play as a freshman?
A. Everything is earned on this team. If I earn it, then yeah. If I don’t, then I’ll be striving to earn playing time; everyone is.
Q. What do you like about your teammates?
A. They’re all so driven. After winning the Big Sky championship they didn’t get like, ‘OK, we did it.’ It’s, ‘Let’s repeat.’ Guys like Kareem (Jamar) and Will (Cherry), those guys are winners. That’s what’s impressed me the most, how driven they are.
Q. What’s the strength of your game?
A. Athleticism and probably rebounding.
Q. What needs work?
A. I need a lot of work in a lot of different areas. Probably my IQ of the game, just learning where to be defensively; just all-around basketball IQ.
Q. Now that you’re here, did you make the right choice?
A. Oh, yeah. I can’t see myself anywhere else, honestly.