Bestowing a nickname on a sports team is by no means unusual. Often these names are earned from either jokes in the locker room or from some sort of heroics that occurred on the field or court. But sometimes, those nicknames have a deeper meaning.
It’s safe to say that at Pearl River Community College, hearing head basketball coach Chris Oney yell out, ‘Walmart’ when calling out to one of his players this past season might have had heads turn in confusion for those not familiar with the nickname.
‘Walmart’ or J’Quan Ewing, played forward for the Wildcats this past basketball season. For Ewing, his nickname holds not just a meaning but rather tells his story.
Like most people, the strange year of 2020 sparked a hectic journey for Ewing that tested his will and love for the game of basketball.
A native out of Clarksville, Tennessee, Ewing gained some interest from colleges with his 6-foot-8 frame. In high school, he was rated a three-star recruit by 247sports.com and was ranked as the 11th best power forward in Tennessee.
Ewing ended up signing with the successful Division II program Morehouse College in Georgia. However, like most athletic seasons in 2020, Morehouse first delayed its winter and springs sports seasons until March 1 but then announced in February that the school was canceling both its winter and spring sports seasons.
A combination of the season’s cancellation and some financial issues led to Ewing returning to Tennessee and finishing the rest of the semester online.
“It was (a shock),” Ewing said. “I found out at the end of the first semester of college. We were online at Morehouse, so I was still at home. I had to finish my classes for the semester.”
Options to play somewhere else were almost nonexistent for Ewing because of the late news that the Morehouse season was canceled.
So with no other true basketball options, Ewing began working at Walmart. At the same time, with no gyms open, Ewing tried to find any way to stay in shape by mainly doing any type of workout outside.
“I was working there before and trying to get some money before I went to college,” Ewing said. “I was just going outside and working out because there were no gyms open.
“It was very devious. It was really eating me up. (I would think), ‘Dang, I really can’t play basketball anymore.’ My mom would tell me that we’ll find a way, and I would think, ‘Shoot, we need to find a way soon.”
Soon the summer was over, and September came with still no playing options insight.
Desperate to find anywhere to play, Ewing messaged his cousin Tariq Silver, who had just transferred from Tallahassee Community College to Oregon State’s basketball team, and asked if he could put him in touch with any junior college programs.
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to hoop anymore because it was kind of late to find a new school that was either D-I or D-II, so I just felt like that I needed to go the juco rout,” Ewing said.
Sure enough, his cousin’s contact put him in touch with PRCC’s coaching staff, which asked him to come to campus to work out. In a span of a couple of days, Ewing and his mother drove down to Poplarville, a town that they had never heard of before.
Ewing worked out with the team and made a quick impression on Oney.
“He walked in the gym, and I saw him and thought he was long and that he really was 6’8,” Oney said. “We started doing drills, and on the first play, he grabbed the ball, jumped up and dunked it. I remember when he jumped up and dunked the ball because I said, ‘You are going to have to call Walmart and put in your two-week notice’ That’s when I called him Walmart. I told him, ‘Walmart, that’s pretty good.’”
“He just kept calling me that,” Ewing laughed.” He would call me my name, but he was just so used to calling me Walmart.”
Oney asked Ewing to sign that same day. For Ewing, it was not only a relief but a blessing.
“It was a relief, and it was a great moment,” Ewing said. “I felt like it was meant to happen and that it was God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason. All of that happened just for me to be there with them at that time.
“(PRCC) was a blessing and a great experience. I felt like it went well because I had Coach Oney as a coach. There are not a lot of coaches that are like Coach Oney. I feel like I could connect with him because, off the court, he is a guy that you can go to about anything. He basically helped me become a better man and person.”
Sure enough, PRCC benefitted well from Ewing as he helped the Wildcats become the fifth-ranked team in the country. Ewing averaged 22.7 minutes, 6.8 points per game (shooting 61% from the floor), and averaged 7.5 rebounds per game.
“I thought he did really well, considering everything,” Oney said. “He went from the jubilation of going to Morehouse, from nowhere to go, to working nights at Walmart to being on the fifth-ranked juco team in the country. I know it was a whirlwind for him. He’s a great kid. He is always (saying) ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir.’ He was always where he was supposed to be on time. He tried to do everything you asked him to do. I really enjoyed coaching him.
“He has really good hands. He has really good lateral movement for a guy that is 6-foot-8-inches. His jumping ability is above average, and he has a knack for going to get rebounds that other people on the court don’t think about going to get. He comes up with those balls. He has an outside, mid-range shot that he can improve but is adequate for a kid his size.”
The season’s effort led to Ewing signing with Division I Southern University.
“It’s one of those ultimate junior college stories,” Oney said. “His story is what the junior college athletic model was kind of built for. It’s a kid that is out there in the world, trying to find their way in athletics, and doesn’t really have anywhere to turn with the four-year schools and then land with the two-year opportunity and take advantage of it. He’s now where he was wishing he was months before I met him. That makes me proud as a junior college coach.”
The eight-month experience is something Ewing says he’ll never forget and hopes that his story can inspire others.
“(I didn’t quit because) it’s the passion I have for basketball,” Ewing said. “I have been doing it all my life no matter the situation, no matter the odds. I have always played basketball. It’s my mental relief for everything.
“I felt like if I was able to do it, then other people who have either the same or maybe even worse situations can do it too.”