— By Joe Smith, The Dominion Post
(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part story. The first part can be read here.)
James Moore still remembers the conversation during which McGrew informed him he was going to try out for the basketball team at Wesleyan.
“He came up to me one time after a rehearsal and told me his plan. I told him my biggest concern is, the trombone is your job in this field. I asked him if he thought he was going to go out and play pro ball one day and he said ‘No, I don’t think so. But I want to do this while I have the opportunity,’” Moore recalled.
It must have come as a shock to both when a representative from South West Metro — a professional club in Brisbane, Australia — reached out to McGrew towards the end of his time at Wesleyan. McGrew and his girlfriend researched the opportunity, tied the knot after graduation, and decided to pursue what just a few years ago seemed like a pipe dream.
The summer after earning his degree, McGrew was being paid to play the game.
“The club was awesome, but a lot of people don’t understand what it’s like to play overseas. The levels vary so much. You can go play in a run-down hut or something as close to the NBA as you can get,” he said.
“Luckily I got there and they treated me great. The level of basketball was OK, but I had a lot of success. I worked really hard and they gave me the opportunity to show what I had, and I ended up as league MVP that year. It really helped my growth as a player,” McGrew added.
From there, McGrew would bounce around internationally — he earned a spot with SISU Basketball in Copenhagen for the 2016-2017 season, earning Forward of the Year honors in his league. He would then spend the next summer back with South West Metro.
After his second stint in Australia, McGrew landed his biggest offer yet, nabbing a spot with Saint-Chamond in France for the 2017-2018 season.
It was around this time he began to recognize things were getting quite serious.
“That was the highest level of basketball I had played until then. Everybody on Saint-Chamond was paid, and basketball was taken very seriously daily. You have to change the way you approach things — every day matters so much more. Your fans and your club expect you to win, and you have to make the adjustment mentally to be competitive every day,” he said.
America: Part Deux
McGrew returned home during the summer of 2018 with every intention of returning overseas later that year to play basketball. But as it has always seemed to go with McGrew’s life, nothing went as planned.
A broken foot would soon sideline McGrew, which would subsequently cause his stock on the international market to drop.
Facing a crossroads in a career that nearly never took off the ground, the unlikely occurred once again. Via a connection inside the Memphis Grizzlies organization, he earned a spot with the NBA G-League’s Memphis Hustle.
Soon after, in January, McGrew saw himself shipped west in a trade; he would join the Utah Jazz, playing for the Salt Lake Stars in the G-League.
“He came at a time where we had big injury problems. He played a big role in the first six games, with us winning although we had lost a lot of guys to injuries,” Salt Lake coach Martin Schiller said.
McGrew continued to shine as he climbed the rungs toward the highest level of the sport, posting 11 points and 5.7 rebounds per game with the club.
“At first, I was worried, but I quickly found Salt Lake was a better fit. The style the coach wanted to play was better for me. I went out and had several strong games, and I started getting noticed,” McGrew said.
“What stood out from the get go was his basketball intelligence. He knew our offense with little video study which was extremely impressive. He’s a natural stretch big, and our system is built around that type of player. We were in a win-win situation when he arrived,” Schiller added.
During his impressive run, he would also garner an invitation to play on the USA Basketball FIBA World Cup Qualifying team, getting the chance to learn from coaching legend Jeff Van Gundy.
“After a few weeks, I got a call from my agent asking if I wanted to play on Team USA in the qualifiers. That was shocking — it was a big surprise. I didn’t know if it was even the real Team USA at first. It was, and I played in a World Cup qualifier series,” he said.
Arrangements were made for McGrew to join the Jazz for their NBA Summer League schedule, where he had an exceptional streak, making the list of SportsCenter Top 10 Plays against Cleveland and dropping a 17-point, four rebound performance on 2018-2019 NBA Western Conference runner-up Portland Trail Blazers.
“It was really nice to have a good showing there. I got some recognition and I think it’s been good for my career. I’m getting to play on cable TV — my friends and family are watching. It’s one of those things you never think is going to happen, and when it does, you want to make the most of it,” he said.
“He helped us make the playoffs, and he played a good summer league. Now I hope he can get a good deal overseas. If not we have already offered him a contract for the Stars. He will always be welcomed back,” Schiller added.
The McGrew Legacy
In June, McGrew hosted his first-annual basketball camp in his hometown, on the court he spent countless hours practicing on as a Buccaneer at B-U.
He brought some heavy-hitting friends along for the day, including former Fairmont State and NBA G-League guard Jamel Morris and former WVU guard and Saint-Chamond teammate Juwan Staten. Also on hand was former B-U guard Hanna McClung, a 2018 co-winner of the Mary Ostrowski Award who averaged six points, two rebounds, and two assists per game as a freshman last season at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne.
“It’s something that in Buckhannon, you don’t get to see often. I value being able to bring that experience back. I had some help from sponsors, and the kids were able to receive a few things in return. It was a really good way to give back to the community using my position,” he said.
The camp is just one impact McGrew has made during his still-unfinished career, but his legacy already spans wide across Buckhannon, North Central West Virginia and the paths of all those who have crossed him.
Ervin — now coaching at Niagara under his college mentor Beilein — mentioned sharing McGrew’s story and tales of his energy and passion for the game with current athletes.
“He brought energy and intensity to every single practice, and he made guys better the way he played. He was always going to push guys for minutes. He took advantage of getting opportunities and used them to make himself better,” Ervin said.
“He was grateful for the opportunity to begin with, and he didn’t want to disappoint. The work ethic, he found that. No one teaches you that. I would take 12 Tanner McGrews on my team if I could. He’s the type of player you want to be around, that you want to play with,” Ervin added.
Meanwhile, at home, his friends, family, and peers — well, practically his entire hometown — are following his career closely, eager to see McGrew provide yet another example of how exceptional West Virginians can be.
For those in Buckhannon, it’s extra special to see it be someone from their backyard.
“It’s the coolest thing in the world. I still text him and talk to him — he’s like family. It’s really rewarding to have this success at this level. It’s been amazing to watch. We’re proud of where we’re from, and to see someone come from here and do all these great things is incredible,” Moore said.
“He’s such a great story. Coming from small town USA, people say dream big and you can do whatever you put your mind to. He’s living that,” Ervin added. “West Virginia is a state that doesn’t get a lot of respect, and he’s a great role model for the state. Kids should aspire to be like Tanner McGrew.”