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January 17, 2012

Tapley's childhood leads him to SDSU stardom

When San Diego State guard Chase Tapley was growing up in his hometown of Sacramento, his father Tommy had a nickname for his 5-year-old son.

At the time, the younger Tapley didn't resemble the long-range sharpshooter who is currently fourth in the nation in three-point percentage or the lockdown defender averaging 2.1 steals per game this season.

Not even close.

"I tell people this story and some people are shocked when they hear it: Chase was kind of like a little studious couch potato," Tommy said. "Chase didn't even like to go outside and play."

This bothered the elder Tapley, who had played on the same high school hoops squad as five-time NBA All-Star Sidney Moncrief and went on to play collegiately at Arkansas State. But he resisted the urge to pressure his son Chase into the very game he himself loved.

"People who are ex-athletes, we tend to go a little bit overboard and we push our kids," he said. "I saw it a lot. I saw a kid almost commit suicide over basketball, and I said if I ever have a kid I'm not going to push to the point where it would drive a child to do that. I was a little hesitant, but deep down you hope that if your child does pick up a sport, you'll be there to be able to support them."

When Chase was about 6 years old, it was Alice Tapley - "The mom was responsible," Tommy insists with a laugh - that got her son into sports. Not just basketball, but soccer, baseball, football and even swimming as well. And in every single sport he participated in, Chase completely dominated, much to the surprise of his father.

"The stuff that he was doing at 6 or 7 years old, you can't teach," Tommy said. "He just had it. It was strange. Here was a little kid who never even goes outside, but he excelled in every sport he ever played and I think it's because he's very smart. He's a thinker. He watches and observes and I told him that any game you play is more mental and boils down to how mentally tough you are and can you think. It was unbelievable."

So smart, in fact, that after being taught the game of chess in the third grade, Chase ended up becoming his school's chess champion all through grade school and junior high.

As fate would have it, Chase found himself focusing more on basketball than any other sport. Tommy swears it's because his son would rather be inside a cool gym than outside in the hot sun with equipment on, but Chase has a different reason.

"I just loved the game more," he says. "It just attracted me more. Watching it on TV, just being around it. The feeling I had playing basketball wasn't like the feeling I had playing football or baseball, it was just a great feeling."

"And my dad plays," he added with a big smile.

When Chase did start taking basketball more seriously, that's when Tommy knew he had to step in.

"Once he gravitated to that, I started putting some things in his head," Tommy said. "I said, 'If you're going to play, you need to learn the fundamentals and how to play the right way.' I said, 'If you do that, you may have a chance.'"

When working with his 6-year-old son, Tommy made sure Chase learned the game the right way, with no shortcuts - "the way adults would do it," he says. He taught Chase how to hold the ball correctly, the proper form for jump shots and how to dribble with his left hand; all the things Tommy wished he knew how to do at Chase's young age.

But maybe the most important lesson he taught his son was how to keep his ego in check when he stepped out onto the court and how to be unselfish ("almost to a fault sometimes," according to Tommy).

Before long, Chase had parlayed a stellar prep career at Sacramento High School into a scholarship offer from iconic coach Steve Fisher and San Diego State.

Chase cracked the starting lineup his freshman year as an Aztec, and ended up starting 15 of the team's last 20 games. He averaged 7.6 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and shot 50 percent from the field.

The next season was even better, for both him and the team as a whole. SDSU won its first 20 games and made it all the way up to fourth in the national rankings before falling to Jimmer Fredette's BYU squad. The Aztecs would get their revenge in the Mountain West Conference Tournament's championship game, dismantling the Cougars 72-54, and embarked on a magical run to the Sweet 16 in Anaheim, where they lost to eventual national champion UConn.

The team had the best season in school history, and fans could not get enough. Thousands of students lined up hoping to get game tickets for days on end, and the Aztecs had captured the hearts of not just everyone at SDSU, but the entire city as well.

However, flying under the Aztec radar was the 6-foot-3, 195-pound former chess champion-turned shooting guard from California's capital. Tapley scored almost 10 points per game, but was overshadowed by eventual NBA first-round draft pick Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay's masterful point guard play and the soaring blocks by defensive machine Malcolm Thomas.

All of a sudden, everything his dad taught him about being unselfish and playing within the confines of the team made sense to Chase.

"One of the things I told him very early on is to understand that in the sport you play, there's someone that can jump higher than you, someone that can run faster than you, there's someone that can dribble better, shoot better," the elder Tapley said. "But if you understand and accept that, you will be able to play. At first I don't think he understood it when he was young, but (after the season) he said, 'Oh dad, I really know what you mean now.'"

With the loss to UConn ending the 34-3 season so abruptly, and the rush from SDSU's run to the Sweet 16 dissipating, what was left was a tough reality. The Aztecs were losing five seniors, including Gay, last season's "most important player," according to Fisher, Thomas and Billy White, and when Leonard declared for the NBA draft, Tapley became the only returning starter to an SDSU squad that had only nine eligible scholarship players.

Needless to say, the media and hoops pundits took notice. After back-to-back conference championship seasons, the Aztecs were picked to finish third in the Mountain West and were held out of the national rankings.

Still upset about the Sweet 16 loss and feeling slighted by the naysayers, Tapley went back to Sacramento that summer with a chip on his shoulder. He called his dad and promised to work out three times a day. The first thing he did when he got home was get a key to the gym at his old junior high school. He would wake up every day at 6 a.m. to run before starting his day, get dropped off by Tommy at the gym and would train until lunchtime. When Tommy got off work in the evening, father and son would go back to the gym and work out until Chase was exhausted.

Suddenly, the studious little couch potato who didn't train enough for Tommy was the one running the workouts and telling his father what to do.

"That was a light bulb that went on for me and my wife that let us know he wants it," Tommy said. "It blew me away. I was like, 'Are you kidding me? Are you my kid? I might need to take you and have you examined.' He's never done that before.

"He had the program, whatever the coaches gave him to do over the summer, and he followed it to a T. I told him that sometimes hard work, it pays off. Stay humble, and it will continue to pay off for you."

Fifteen games into the season, Tapley's hard work this summer has paid off tremendously. Tapley has been maybe SDSU's most valuable player, the glue to a team that lists four walk-ons (that get playing time, no less) and has seen Xavier Thames, James Rahon and Tim Shelton limited by injury. He has been SDSU's best perimeter defender and outside shooter - the Aztecs' "silent assassin" according to Tommy - and has even ran the point with Thames sitting out.

The biggest change for Chase from last season to now? His mindset and leadership. He has evolved from being overshadowed to the team's most indispensable player.

"I have to have the mindset of being a leader," Tapley said. "Coach always says I need to be more vocal. Coming from a role player to that player like D.J. Gay, it's a big responsibility. But we have people that are experienced as well ... that all know how to play basketball, so they help me a lot."

Does he take more pride in his defense or long-range shooting? If Tapley's upbringing of playing the right way is any indication, the answer shouldn't be a surprise.

"I have to say defense," he said. "Defense does win games, and you have to be able to stop your man. You've got to take heart in that, and I take that very seriously. If you don't play defense, you don't stay on the floor, and you can't shoot a three."

It's things like that which show why Tommy Tapley is so proud of his son Chase, who wears No. 22, the same jersey number he did. All the blood, sweat and years he spent teaching his son the game of basketball are showing dividends. Chase believes if he and the 15-2 Aztecs keep taking care of business every day in practice and every game out on the court, the critics and those still sleeping on SDSU will start to come around.

"You hear the things, you're only human," Chase said. "You hear the things, people saying, 'You're not going to be the same.' It's just motivating me and my teammates, and we're going to come out and play as hard as we can and we're going to just win and let it take care of itself. We had some tough losses to some great teams, and I feel like we could have won those games. I think we're exceeding people's expectations, but we're not satisfied yet. We just want to keep winning and that ranking and all that media stuff will just take care of itself."


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