Year-End Favorites: The Basketball Scandal That Rocked Odessa
Texas Monthly senior editor Michael Hall on why GQ's story about Jerry Joseph, the too-good-to-be-true athlete in Odessa, was one of his favorites of the year.
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Every year I read a story that just kills me—partly because it’s so good but mostly because I didn’t get to write it. “Blindsided: The Jerry Joseph Basketball Scandal,” by Michael Mooney, which ran in the July issue of GQ, was one of those stories. It’s the tale of a 22-year-old man who pretended to be a fifteen-year-old teenager, all to play basketball for Permian High School in Odessa, Texas.
But it wasn’t just to play basketball. One of the reasons I like this piece so much is that the guy—Jerry Joseph, known to his mother as Guerdwich Montimere—went through the whole charade not just to play hoops. He was trying to reinvent himself. In Odessa, Texas.
Which is probably not a bad place to do such a thing, if you are from Haiti, as Montimere is. He showed up in West Texas in February 2009, saying he was a homeless orphan who had fled his island nation. Odessa is a strange place, and Mooney does a great job of capturing how sports-crazed it is, usually for high school football but—with Jerry Joseph on the team in 2009—for high school roundball. Mooney shows how the good people of Odessa could be snowed by the tattoo-covered orphan, partly because he was a studious, friendly, nice Christian kid, and partly because he was so good that they dreamed of winning state.
The entire town, it seemed, was falling love with Jerry. After the January 2010 earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, the Odessa-American ran a feature dedicated entirely to the town’s Haitian import. ‘I didn’t go looking for Jerry,’ [coach Danny] Wright told the paper. ‘And Jerry didn’t come looking for me. I believe God sent him here, and he sent him here for a reason.
The story breezes along like a feel-good movie—new kid in town, championship dreams, a tenth-grade girlfriend. Then halfway through, Montimere’s story begins to crack, and we know what’s going to happen. It’s painful, because he is sympathetic. Well, as sympathetic as a liar can be. Even when the truth is revealed—that yes “Jerry” was from Haiti but he and his family moved to Florida, where he played high school ball years earlier—the locals still support him. They continue to stand by him even after he’s arrested for sexual assault (the girl was fifteen) and tampering with government records. They learn his emotional backstory: he had been a good player back in Florida but not good enough to get into any college program. After high school, Montimere got depressed, fought steadily with his mom, and left home. At some point, he moved to Odessa to start over as Jerry Joseph.
My favorite thing about the story is that you as a reader are left wondering, why did he do it? Mooney writes, “He says it isn’t that anyone pressured him to play, exactly. It just made everyone else so happy. Everyone seemed to like him so much more.” Mooney writes about the fantasy everyone has of starting all over, a second chance in a new place, and notes Jerry’s baptism—in front of dozens of local witnesses.
Whoever he was when he went into the water, they say Jerry Joseph came up. That’s what baptism is. They still write him and visit him. They sit behind him at hearings. ‘I love Jerry,’ Pastor Phillip Skelton says. ‘To me, he was a kid who sought after God. You don’t get too deep into the past. It’s not about where you’re from. It’s about where you’re going.
Montimere went to prison. After the story came out he pled guilty to two counts of sexual assault and three counts of tampering with government records. He was sent away for three years.