All Jazzed up: Tanner McGrew’s NBA journey

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part story. The final part will publish online tomorrow and in Monday’s edition of The Dominion Post.

If you’ve spent a fair amount of time in West Virginia, you’ve heard the story of a young man from Kanawha County named Jerry West who grew up to be a 14-time NBA All-Star and the silhouette on the NBA logo. Or perhaps you’re familiar with Fairmont native Mary Lou Retton — the first American woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal in gymnastics.

From shot put world record holder Randy Barnes to NFL legend Randy Moss, many West Virginians have had their athletic talents lead them to national and global prominence. The greatest Mountain State success story you’ve never been told, however, is how bright-eyed Buckhannon native Tanner McGrew went from dreams of teaching music to standing stranded in Copenhagen, Denmark, in a rain storm and late for basketball practice. If that doesn’t sound quite that impressive, you’ll want to hear just how he got there and where he is now.

Buccaneer and Bobcat proud

Before McGrew found himself in Copenhagen — one of many metropolitan centers worldwide he’s now lived in — he was growing up in Buckhannon. The only incorporated city in Upshur County, it’s home to 5,639 citizens, WVSSAC Class AAA Buckhannon-Upshur High School and West Virginia Wesleyan College, which participates in the Mountain East Conference at the NCAA Division II level.

McGrew was a fan of basketball growing up, but never had much exposure to the local college’s team. He mentioned being a bit more interested in Division I and the NBA at an earlier age, so he took up the sport as a hobby, and eventually attended B-U where he would play through his senior year for the Buccaneers.

“I played all four years — it was my last two years that I was on the varsity team,” McGrew said. “I didn’t have a whole lot of success individually. I did some things well, but I wasn’t recruited by anyone, and I assumed my career would end after high school for sure.”

He would choose to attend West Virginia Wesleyan to continue his education, with no plans to play basketball collegiately. He entered school as a music education major — the degree he would eventually graduate with.

McGrew was quite the talented musician, attending the school on a trombone scholarship. He had spent his final two years of high school as a member of the college’s jazz band, and would continue as a member until he earned his degree and left Wesleyan.

“He was one of the most talented trombone players I had ever heard,” current Dean of West Virginia Wesleyan James Moore said. Moore was the Director of Jazz Ensembles during McGrew’s time at the college. “I met him when he was a junior at Buckhannon-Upshur. He had a great sound, and was pretty advanced for his age in terms of his ability. He had an incredible high-range. The higher you go the harder it tends to be on brass instruments.

“When our trombone professor at the time first heard him, he looked at me and said, ‘that kid’s a freak.’ He’s a professional level jazz trombonist, and he could have went out and had a successful career in the field.”

Of course, McGrew’s interest in his favorite sport didn’t subside, and he continued to play recreationally. One day, McGrew was putting up shots in the gym by himself when an interested observer walked in: Wesleyan head basketball coach Patrick Beilein.

Tanner McGrew’s player profile headshot for West Virginia Wesleyan. (West Virginia Wesleyan Athletics)

Equipped with a 6-foot-8-inch frame, McGrew is by most measures a massive human. So when Beilein — looking for an extra body to round out his squad — walked into the gym and saw a kid that size shooting around alone, he had a feeling he’d found the perfect fit.

“He just walked up and told me they needed a 15th man to fill their roster,” McGrew said. “He said if I wanted to come in and be a body, I could have a spot on the team.

“I was basically playing every day in some capacity anyway, so I figured I should make the most of it and take advantage of the opportunity. It was a chance to do something when I never thought I could.”

Practice team to All-Conference

Niagara assistant basketball coach and former West Virginia Wesleyan player Brett Ervin still remembers a late-February road trip to play Shepherd University during his senior year.

The regular season was winding down, and the Bobcats needed a win against the Rams — as well as a win later that week against Glenville State — to secure a first-round bye in the MEC tournament.

Wesleyan would find themselves trailing by one at the break, but would wear down the Rams during the final 20 minutes of play to earn a 12-point victory. That win can largely be credited to McGrew, who netted 18 points.

“They couldn’t stop him in the paint. We kept running the same play: Enter it to him on the block, enter it to him on the block,” Ervin said. “I think it’s around that time when he realized he could really be something special.”

Ervin dished the assist that McGrew converted for his first bucket that night, which is fitting considering their history together. The pair spent the better part of a decade as neighbors before Ervin transferred to Robert C. Byrd in Clarksburg.

Ervin was ahead of McGrew in school, and would first attend Elon University to play basketball. When he transferred into Wesleyan as a senior, he was reunited with his former neighbor, then in his second year with the program.

It was during this time that McGrew would begin to excel and show a glimpse of the potential he held.

“I was in a place to be successful, and I put a lot of hours in during the offseason after my sophomore year — more than I ever thought I would. I fell in love with lifting weights, and I started getting stronger,” he said.

“He caught that fever to really dedicate himself to the game,” Ervin said. “He fell in love with the weight room, dedicated himself to a stricter diet, and it sucked him in.

“When you see the results of your hard work, you don’t want to stop. He was in tip-top shape, and he began to see the production on the court and he ran with it. It was the perfect storm.”

Beilein would leave the program after that season, and McGrew would find himself well-suited for incoming coach Gary Nottingham’s offense, which relied on a strong and sturdy low-post presence. He would go on to average a double-double his final two seasons, including 22 points and a Division II best 12.4 rebounds per game as a senior. He also earned MEC first-team honors both years.

“The way he wanted to play put me in a position to succeed. Suddenly, I was able to use my size and new strength,” McGrew said. “I had to adapt my game a bit for Coach Beilein. Who knows if I would have been in his system for two more years if I’d have had success or not? But things happened the way they did, and I’m glad.”