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Jamal Shuler's Happiness Is Generational

Jamal Shuler is a happy man, living a happy life. VCU fans remember his megawatt smile and the joy in which Shuler played the game and conducted himself off the court. That can come easy in college when you’re a basketball star.

Shuler scored 1,011 points in his VCU career, including 14 in the landmark March 2007 win over Duke in the NCAA tournament. He earned CAA All-Defensive Team honors and was regarded as the “Electric Blanket” during his time here, as much for his offensive firepower—Shuler was a 41% three-point shooter in both his junior and senior seasons—as for his defensive prowess and the relentlessly positive demeanor, fronted by his wide grin.

He graduated in 2008 one of the most loved players in VCU history, but a trifecta of life events nearly prevented this legacy. Shuler was heavily recruited by Virginia Tech. Then-coach Seth Greenberg and Shuler’s high school coach were good friends, so there was a natural connection. It didn’t pan out, but it did for UNCW. The Seahawks were right down the road from Shuler’s Jacksonville, NC home. They were coming off back-to-back CAA titles, including a win over Southern California in the NCAA tournament. Shuler verballed that he wanted to go there.

It didn’t work out. Daniel Fountain was scheduled for an official visit and took the last available UNCW scholarship. Ditto NC State. Shuler verballed to the Wolfpack and the ACC but the situation was the same—not enough scholarships. A visit to VCU was next up, and Shuler committed to Jeff Capel before I-95 roared through South Hill, VA and into Norlina, NC.

That’s two. It’s the third reason that really matters.

Shuler grew up in a military family. His father David spent 22 years in the Marines and met his mother, Dianne, a Wilmington resident, in Jacksonville. As you would expect, Shuler’s childhood was spent learning focus, discipline, and a strong work ethic. A child has no idea how important that is, but a dad does. Because of that, Shuler never played organized basketball until a sixth-grade rec league.

“Dad didn’t even know I was interested in basketball but took me to the next county so I could play,” recalls Shuler. “I played my seventh grade year. I got into a little bit of trouble with a teammate, which wasn’t like me. My dad saw my teammates and guys I grew up with, and they were headed in a bad way. Dad was up for orders to leave Jacksonville and he wanted his children to experience something different. He had two choices. He picked Yuma, Arizona. Moving out west saved my life.”

That Shuler credits his father is a recurring theme. David Shuler was a skilled basketball player coming out of Harlem, NY but sacrificed his playing career to join the Marines. “It was to help his parents send his younger sister and brother to college,” says Jamal, “so ever since I could comprehend his stories I’ve always wanted to mold my life around his principles and values.”

Shuler talks fondly of his two years in Arizona, a trip that may have kept him from far more than a basketball career at VCU. It may have saved his life, but it also paved it. Shuler has carved out a very successful overseas career since graduation, but he’s been more Rand McNally. Shuler has played for eight different teams in 12 years, most recently in Greece. He’s currently evaluating options for next season.

“I’m in no rush,” he says. “I just want the right opportunity in the safest place.” Shuler is playing for his own family now, he and his wife Kim have three daughters and a son and call Chester their home. He knows what to do because he comprehends the lessons of David Shuler. We all know Shuler’s smile and the joy he carries, but he’s also been among the most mature players we’ve seen. His perspective makes you smile.

“(Moving there) gave me values to open up to new experiences, open up to new people,” Shuler says. “Ultimately it helped me adjust moving up to Richmond. I was a skinny kid from a country town. I spent a lot of time talking with my dad; he had moved around before I was born. It helped me to talk to him about being a million miles from my family. I thank my dad for that. He gave me a mindset. I’ll never forget when I signed my contract in Germany. He said he was there in 1980, I had a military ID and a base 30 minutes away and he helped tell me where to go. He helped me open myself to new things.”

***


The universe is not random. Things align. People align. They just do.

On January 11, 1986, Anthony Grant stuffed a stat sheet. He scored 14 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished five assists, and for good measure committed six turnovers in 38 minutes of play. Dayton beat VCU 74-64 that night, the last time the two teams played before locking horns in the Atlantic 10. It was also the night David and Dianne Shuler welcomed their son Jamal into the world.

Fast-forward a smidgen more than 21 years. Anthony Grant is now coaching Jamal Shuler at VCU. The duo are in Buffalo as VCU prepared to play Duke in the NCAA tournament, the landmark Dagger game. They were walking out of the HSBC Center after practice to the team bus, and they passed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was entering he building.

I’ll let Jamal take it from here:


“I’ve got to back you up to Selection Sunday. Me, Eric (Maynor) and TJ (Gwynn) are from North Carolina. When our name came up I told Matt Coward we are playing Duke. And then they popped up and I yelled ‘I told you!’ This was big because we were not recruited by Duke. My father called me on my way home and told me they were doing an office pool. I told him to put us beating Duke because we were going to beat Duke. ‘You will win your pool!’”

It’s worth noting, as an aside, that Shuler is telling this story like it’s April 2007, not August 2020. And he hasn’t yet arrived at the good part. Let’s get back to Buffalo and after practice.

“Coach Grant was doing an interview. I was gathering NCAA pins. I wanted to get all the swag I could and pass around pins to my family and friends. As I’m collecting pins Coach Grant walks over to me. He says ‘are you excited? It’s good to be excited but you have a big test ahead of you.’ As we walk out to the bus we see Coach K. Now, I’m a North Carolina boy so I was shocked that I could almost touch him. It’s like there’s a golden aura around him! Of course he pays me no mind. He goes to Grant and says ‘how are you coach? I know you and your team are just happy to be here.’”

“My face dropped. I thought ‘wow—you didn’t just said that to my coach!’ I didn’t even wait for coach. I ran to the bus and told the guys ‘you won’t believe what he said!’ It was one of those stories you see in cartoons where your jaw drops to the ground. That was me. That level of arrogance I didn’t think I’d see in person, but it got us going. After that, there was no way were losing to those guys. So we’re at the team meal before the game. I don’t remember what Coach Grant said word by word, but we were so wired for that game. No way we lose. I think once we beat them that was the most emotion he’s shown on camera. Coach Grant is an upstanding man and a humble guy. But because of that, once Coach K didn’t show sportsmanship, he let it out.”

It’s jarring that one of the greatest VCU teams ever may have taken on the program’s greatest underdog stance and outfought a blue blood program. Duke led that game by double-digits in both halves. VCU never led by more than two points, and even that was short-lived. Also that Anthony Grant's emotive outburst consisted of one and one-half fist pumps.

But VCU won. It laid the groundwork for 2011.

“It was an out of body experience, to go from very high and then a super low so quickly,” Shuler says of the VCU locker room after the overtime loss to Pitt two days later. “I felt like if we had a healthy Wil (Fameni)—he broke his nose against Duke—he was my roommate and he couldn’t even rest after that game, there probably would’ve been a different result. It was a learning experience for us. We were returning that following year which was disappointing, but we knew what we etched. It was a peak and valley situation, coming off the high and dealing with the low, but we got to mentor the freshman on carrying the program on and dealing with adversity.”

Those freshmen: Joey Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell, Ed Nixon, Larry Sanders, and Lance Kearse.

***

Shuler was part of the fuel that propelled VCU into greater basketball heights, but he was also one of the architects of the VCU family atmosphere that is palpable and real. That group—BA Walker, Jesse Pellot-Rosa, Eric Maynor, TJ Gwynn. Coward and Fameni. Mike Nice, Kirill, Calvin Roland. And Jamal Shuler.

“I’ve been out for awhile, 12 years,” Shuler laughs. “But we can get back together in the gym and in the snap of a finger it’s like we’re always around each other. We’re always checking in on each other and making sure everybody is ok, no matter what we’re doing with or careers. From Capel to Rhoades it’s nonstop. And the fans. Man. They check in like we’re still in school. They’re our family. They still say hi. As long as you came out and gave it your all, gave your 100, all the fans embraced you. That’s VCU. I feel like you have to pay it forward.”

Shuler admits, grudgingly, he misses Franklin Street gym.

“When Coach Grant came he said we’re going to build our foundation in this gym, and you have to earn the right to play in the Siegel Center,” he says. “It’s etched in our DNA. When they tore it down we all shared texts with broken heart emojis and tear emojis. It was painful but man…”

Shuler’s voice trails off a little. His VCU experience remains close to his heart. His stories are upbeat and jovial, but you can tell there’s a seriousness—a deep meaning—to his time at VCU. So we move to a different topic—his growth. You can feel Shuler’s smile through the phone. His growth came, as you could expect, from a moment of humility. Let’s turn it back over to Jamal.

“My junior year. At Towson,” says Shuler without hesitation. “Coach Grant said ‘I’m going to put you on Gary Neal.’ This was my first look at a pro athlete on film, an NBA caliber scorer.”

Gary Neal averaged 25ppg at Towson and spent parts of eight seasons in the NBA, finishing with a 9.9ppg average at the highest level of basketball.

“We ended up winning the game but Gary Neal gave me 38 points. This was not one of those things where a guy had a big game but he only got seven points on me. He had all 38 on me,” laughs Shuler.” Coach Grant subbed me out and I had my head down as I walked to the bench. Coach grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye and said ‘son, you became a man today.’ I played good defense and he still got 38 on me. I’ll never forget what Coach Grant said to me. It made me work harder and guess what? My senior year I became all defense in the CAA.”

***

Time is catching up with Jamal Shuler. A 12-year professional career means he is entering his mid-30s. His days as a player are, because time always wins, numbered. Something has to be next for Shuler as he looks at the next stage of his life—something he probably had not considered since the sixth grade. As surprising as the sun coming up tomorrow, he has a plan. He wants to get into coaching.

“It’s crazy because if you asked me four or five years ago I would’ve said no way,” he says about coaching. “But these past two years I’ve been a veteran, kind of the elder statesman of the team, a player-coach kind of thing,” he says. “It’s intriguing. So I reached out to Joey (Rodriguez) and a couple other friends who are assistant coaches about the process. How do I transition from leaving the game into the coaching ranks? So maybe it’s coaching or player development but it really might be the next move.”

Yes, Jamal Shuler is living a happy life. For him, it’s gone long past the glory days of Franklin Street Gym. He honors his father by being like him.

“I think my life is great because I was able to continue my father’s legacy. I say that because I was raised under him, studied him,” says Shuler. “I saw him raise a family, serve our country in the military and just be an all-around people’s person.

That approach indeed paved the way and allows Shuler to wear that smile every single day.

“I can say that I play the game I love for a living. I have a beautiful family and I owe it all to my father and my mother on showing me those loving values,” he says. “That’s not to say every day is great because we all struggle in life with different situations and circumstances, but overall I am happy with where I am in life and striving to do better for my family!”

That exclamation point, is the exclamation point.