By Murray Evans
OKLAHOMA CITY (Jan. 29, 2013) – As a 6-foot-5 tweener coming out of high school in Abilene, Texas, Jarred Merrill didn’t have many options for continuing his basketball career. His father, Dave Merrill, sent a letter to Oklahoma Christian coach Dan Hays, asking Hays to give Merrill’s son a chance.
“If he is given a shot, I think you will have a gem, and especially if he grows two or more inches,” Dave Merrill wrote.
That letter proved to be prophetic. In five years at OC, Jarred Merrill transformed from a spindly freshman into the most dominant player in NAIA Division I, growing five inches and setting numerous school records along the way. He’ll join five others in this year’s OC Athletic Hall of Fame induction class on Feb. 8.
Not bad for a kid almost no basketball coach wanted.
“Jarred, from day one until five years later, without a doubt, was the most improved player in my coaching tenure,” Hays said. “I saw some things in him when he came and tried out, but in no way did I ever think that he would end up like he ended up. There were some bumps along the way, but the bottom line was he became a total gym rat and developed through diligence, hard work and dedication.”
Merrill’s basketball career almost ended before it started. He quit the sport in high school, not wanting to do the weekly 1½-mile runs required by his school’s coach. He took up golf instead. But the summer before his senior season, he decided to give hoops another go.
He came to OC Cage Camp that summer and worked with then-OC guard – and his future teammate – Kelly Allen. Allen wasn’t impressed.
“He was not very good,” Allen said. “He was slow. He was awkward. He could shoot a little bit, but … he was an in-between player. He wasn’t anything great.”
Merrill had a decent senior season, averaging 20.4 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, albeit for an Abilene High School team with a 10-19 record. He played well in an all-star game after his senior season that featured some NCAA Division I signees and drew passing interest from a few schools, but not enough for a scholarship offer.
“I was about 6-foot-5 and 170 (pounds) back then,” he said. “I was about as beanpole as you could get.”
Hays knew about Merrill through a former OC player, Shawn Dalbert, who was Merrill’s uncle. A scholarship opened up and Hays decided to offer it to Merrill. The only other college to do the same was Clarendon (Texas) Junior College.
“It was not your normal recruitment,” Hays said. “I wouldn’t say it was a favor. I didn’t know if he had the stick-to-it-iveness. Did he really want to play basketball? He just played one year of high school basketball.”
Merrill wasn’t impressive at first, but kept working, spending off hours in the gym, often by himself. He redshirted his first season, growing a couple of inches. By the 2001-02 season, he’d grown even more, to 6-foot-9, and he played as a reserve in 26 of OC’s 29 games, averaging 3.9 points and 2.8 rebounds per game.
He became a regular contributor as a sophomore, averaging 14.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for a team that reached the second round of the NAIA tournament in Kansas City, Mo. It was on the bus ride back from that tournament that Merrill’s career took a turn.
On those rides, Hays would call the players to the front of the bus individually to discuss the season and what the player needed to work on for the future.
“He called me up,” Merrill said. “He told me he had confidence in me. He said I was getting better. Then he pulled out a business card from the Miami Heat. He told me, ‘Their scout said he thought you had good talent and wanted to stay in touch with me and wanted to see how you kept progressing.’ It was the first time I realized somebody saw something in me. It made my work ethic grow by leaps and bounds.”
After that, Merrill was practically unstoppable. Allen saw it coming. He told a friend who played for OC’s rival, Oklahoma Baptist, that Merrill would be the 2004 Sooner Athletic Conference player of the year.
“He was like, ‘No, oh, no! He’s not going to be!’ They bet me $100,” Allen said, laughing. “Sure enough, he was. … They didn’t see where he came from, from when he was a freshman, to where he was, and how much raw ability this guy had.”
Sure enough, Merrill – by this point measuring 6-foot-10 and weighing 220 pounds – was named SAC player of the year, averaging 24.7 points and 12.6 rebounds (second and first in NAIA Division I, respectively) and was an easy selection as a first-team All-American. He recorded eight 30-point games and 23 double-doubles in 31 games.
As a senior, Merrill averaged 24.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game – again earning SAC player of the year and first-team All-America honors – and joined Jay Mauck as the only OC players ever to be named the NAIA Division I player of the year.
“You couldn’t stop him,” Allen said. “You put a big guy on him and he’d go outside and shoot. You put a strong guy on him who’s slow and he’d drive right by him. You put a small guy on him and he’d post up and go dunk on him. If you fouled him, he made every free throw. He was unstoppable, unguardable.”
Merrill’s final performance for the Eagles was one for the ages. In the second round of the national tournament, OC and Azusa Pacific (Calif.) went toe-to-toe for three overtimes in a game still recalled by longtime NAIA observers as one of the all-time classics. Merrill scored a career-high 41 points and added 15 rebounds, but the Eagles lost 100-93, ending a 27-7 season
“That was a nerve-wracking game,” Merrill said. “I had four fouls with 10 minutes left in regulation. Coach never took me out of the game. I never watched that film and I probably never will. I play it over and over again in my head.”
Merrill broke Mauck’s OC career scoring record, finishing with 2,189 points, and was second behind Cory Cole in career rebounds with 1,120. Merrill also set school records for single-season scoring (821 points), career field goals attempted (1,487), career free throws made (650) and attempted (795) and season free throws made (259) and attempted (311). He also shares the school record for career double-doubles with 59.
The NBA was interested enough in Merrill that its scouting director, Marty Blake, gave Hays his business card. He didn’t get drafted, but Merrill received a tryout with the New Orleans Hornets and played on their NBA Summer League team with future stars including Chris Paul and David West. He didn’t make the team, however, and was the last player cut from Tulsa’s NBA Development League team.
He decided to play professional ball overseas, starting in Spain. He moved on to play in Luxembourg for a time, while spending three summers back home in the U.S., playing in the United States Basketball League. He also spent some time stateside in the American Basketball Association.
Merrill next played in Saudi Arabia, then had a D-League stint with Rio Grande Valley during his third year out of college. He moved on to play in Lebanon, Bahrain, Egypt, Argentina and South Korea before deciding to retire from professional hoops in 2011, not long after the birth of his daughter.
“Something about having a little girl, I just didn’t want to be overseas anymore,” Merrill said. “My whole goal is I wanted to be a professional player and I had accomplished that.”
Merrill still is involved with basketball. He serves as an assistant boys coach under former OC player Tondrell Durham at Bishop McGuinness High School in Oklahoma City and hopes to earn his teaching certification later this year. He wants to become a teacher and a head coach, preferably in Oklahoma or Texas.
Basketball took Merrill around the world, but his first stop at OC proved to be the most important. He chuckles when he talks about the letter his father wrote that promised Hays the coach wouldn’t regret giving Merrill a chance.
“He probably didn’t know that himself,” Merrill said. “He was trying to sell me. But it worked. I’m glad it did.”