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March 16, 2010

RELISHING HIS ROLE - Terrell Bell's career got off to a slow start, but he's made an impact with his defense and rebounding this season

By: Jimmy Robertson

Terrell Bell

On the evening of Feb. 15, Tech men’s basketball coach Seth Greenberg probably wasn’t putting in a lot of thought about George Washington or Teddy Roosevelt or any of the 44 presidents whose contributions to America get celebrated on President’s Day.

No, on this evening, he probably sat in his nice office, with his eyes blurry after watching hours of film on Wake Forest on his high-definition TV. He probably rubbed his forehead, trying to massage away the migraine that is Wake Forest’s powerful inside game powered by Al-Farouq Aminu, a 6-foot-9, 215-pound double-double machine and potential NBA lottery pick. He probably searched his drawers for some Tylenol, extra-strength style, to alleviate the pain that is the Demon Deacons’ rebounding prowess, and he probably wondered if all his guys, especially his guards, got the message that they all needed to rebound in this one.

What is known is that he picked up his cell phone at some point during this evening and made a phone call, one last measure to reinforce a key point to a player whom he knew would be pivotal in the game’s outcome.

“I called Terrell last night and asked him, ‘Do you understand what I’m talking about?’” Greenberg said after the Wake game. “Obviously, he took that to heart.”

Terrell Bell, the Hokies’ lithe 6-foot-6 small forward, answered Greenberg’s call by being all over the backboard against the Demon Deacons, recording a career-high 14 rebounds in the Hokies’ 87-83 win. He also tied a career high with four blocked shots, and while he scored just five points, he made a point with his play, helping the Hokies to arguably their best victory of the season.

And his coach recognized it.

“Terrell Bell just had a monster game,” Greenberg said.

On the surface, Bell viewed the game as just a part of a string of solid performances, simply his share in contributing to another victory. Deep down, he knew that game marked another step in his maturation process.

It took him two years to get to this point, one where he has become a consistent, dependable performer. This is the point where he has decided to forsake a few shot attempts and instead decided to embrace what he does best – rebound, defend, block shots, get steals and make determined drives to the basket in transition.

As a result, he’s having easily the best year of his career.

“I’m really proud of the way we’ve had guys embrace their roles this season,” Greenberg said. “Guys like Terrell and JT [Thompson] and Dorenzo [Hudson] have done a nice job of embracing their roles. That’s the hardest thing in coaching – getting guys to champion roles and feel good about it.”

Bell feels good about his role. Actually, he feels great about it – finally.

But it wasn’t easy getting there.

Terrell Bell has improved as a defender this season and has seen more playing time as a result.

Had the decision been left up to Bell, he probably wouldn’t have picked up a basketball as a kid. He preferred a brown, oblong ball or a white round ball or a white and black ball as opposed to a big orange one.

As a young kid, he bounced between football, baseball and soccer – and loved them all. Then one day, as football season approached its end, Tyra Majors told her 7-year-old son that she had signed him up for basketball.

“I was 7 and I remember because I was playing football before I started playing basketball,” Bell said. “My mom said, ‘I’m going to sign you up for basketball.’ I was playing football and baseball and I was good at football and baseball. I had never played basketball. But she signed me up and I was taller than everyone else, so ever since then, it has come easy to me.”

“It was a church league,” Majors said. “I wanted him to try all sports. We went from one sport to the next just to see which ones he liked. I kept him in sports so he wouldn’t be sitting around doing nothing.”

Majors raised Bell by herself in Stone Mountain, Ga., though her family helped. She works with her sister, and she has another sister and a brother – all of whom live within 15 minutes of each other. Terrell’s games doubled as a family reunion of sorts for this bunch. Terrell’s father, Hank Bell, lives in Georgia and he and Terrell do have a relationship.

Being a single mother, Majors worried about life’s perils for her only child, and she wanted him to choose sports over the streets. So she constantly shuttled him back and forth to practices and games.

“That was a sacrifice I was willing to make,” she said. “When I got off work, I knew it was time to pick him up and take him to practice, and I waited on him. I didn’t mind it at all. I felt that was a small portion to do for my child.”

In other words, moms do what moms are supposed to do, and her willingness to sacrifice certainly went noticed, especially by her son.

“It was tough for her trying to raise me into a man,” Bell said. “I did the best I could respecting her and obeying her even when I thought she was wrong and I was right.”

They lived in a decent neighborhood in a three-bedroom house like most of Americana, and a tight-knit family lived close by. So all that served to keep Bell on the straight and narrow.

But so, too, did sports. The end result was that Bell never once gave his mother any trouble.

“Not at all,” she said.

Then she chuckled. “He was a little spoiled. But he never gave me any trouble.”

The only trouble he caused came on the basketball court for his opponents. He quickly grew into a very good player and eventually gave up football, baseball and soccer to focus on basketball.

Bell held his own against some of Atlanta’s best prep players – the area actually serves as a nice recruiting ground for talent. He went from that church league to the AAU circuit, facing some of the best Atlanta offered.

“When I was playing AAU over the summer, you meet so many guys and you hear about so many guys, and it’s like, ‘He’s one of the top such and such,’” Bell said. “After a while, I realized I could play with anybody.”

Well, almost anyone. In his freshman year of high school, his team faced a local private school with a 6-11 kid called Superman – better known to some as Dwight Howard.

Yes, that Dwight Howard, a center and NBA All-Star for the Orlando Magic. Bell smiled as he relayed the story.

“My second ever high school game was against Dwight Howard,” he said. “He played for Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. We were in a holiday tournament and his team was in it. I was starting varsity as a freshman. I think he had like 37 points. They beat us by, like, 40 in the championship.

“It was like a college game. The game was sold out because everyone wanted to see him, and there were scouts everywhere, NBA and college. I was a freshman, maybe 15 years old. It was way too much for me. I still remember it well. He was massive. His body was just huge. There was no way he was a senior in high school. He was a man already.”

Bell gradually grew into a man himself, though not quite to Howard’s extent. Still, he became an all-district performer during his time at Stone Mountain High School, and he averaged 15 points a game on his way to earning the district’s player of the year honor during his senior season.

He already had a lot of interest at this point, with Georgia, Florida State, Tennessee and others inquiring. The College of Charleston wanted him. Providence called and he considered the Friars because a former teammate played there.

But he chose to sign with Virginia Tech.

“I wanted to play in the ACC and I didn’t want to be too close to home,” Bell said. “I’d lived with my mom all my life, and I knew if I were too close to home, she’d always be at my school. I didn’t want to get too far away, but at the same time, I wanted a little distance. Six hours was far enough, and plus, there was the ACC and Virginia Tech is a great school.”

“I let him make the decision,” Majors said. “I wanted him to look at different schools and then sleep on it. But the decision was always his, and I was fine with Virginia Tech.

“Hey, six hours, that’s an easy drive. That’s a piece of cake.”

Still, it wasn’t always easy for her. She helped him pack his stuff and drove him to Tech in the summer of 2007. She moved him into Cochrane Hall – and then said good-bye.

“We cried,” she said. “When I walked out of that dorm room, I felt he was all grown up.”

With long arms and a long frame, Terrell Bell can challenge the shots of those bigger than him, like he did here against UVa's Jerome Meyinsse.

Bell’s career didn’t exactly get off to a rousing start. In fact, his career crept along as he spent most of his time sitting on Tech’s bench.

He played in 33 games as a freshman, but averaged just 1.8 points and less than a rebound a game. Last season as a sophomore, things only got slightly better, with him averaging 2.3 points and a rebound per game.

He expected things to be like they were in high school, and it pained him to see classmates Jeff Allen and Malcolm Delaney getting extended minutes. Instead, he found himself buried behind A.D. Vassallo, a potent scorer and one of the best shooters in the ACC.

“It was the hardest time of my life,” Bell said. “It was overwhelming with school and study hall, and I didn’t have a car, so I was just walking to class. Then on top of that, we had practice every day. No matter how you felt, you had to go to practice. It was hard.

“And I knew some games I wouldn’t get in, and that made everything even harder. People on the outside were looking in and saying, ‘You should be playing.’ It was hard to block everything out and stay focused on what I had going on here.”

He spent a lot of time on the phone his first two years at Tech, calling his mom and venting his frustrations. Mom listened because that’s simply what moms do.

“At first, it was hard on him and it was hard on me,” Majors said. “I really couldn’t do anything but tell him to hang in there and that things would get better.”

His career took a turn after a blunt conversation with Greenberg following last season. The two had butted heads a time or two over the course of Bell’s two-year career, and Greenberg called him into his office and explained to Bell what he wanted from him and told him the areas where he needed to make improvements.

Perhaps jarred by Greenberg’s honesty, Bell decided to stay in Blacksburg over the entire summer. He got up at 7:30 every morning and lifted weights. Then he went to class, and in the evenings, he played basketball with his teammates or some of the players from nearby Radford.

“Every morning at 7:30,” Bell said with a smile, while shaking his head. “I hated it, too.

“After my freshman year, I went back home and I realized that when I was at home, I’d sleep till noon and then my friends would want to go to the mall. I wouldn’t get the right workout. But being here, that’s all there is to do. Being at home, for the most part, was a distraction. Being here was better for me.”

The results on the floor bear that out. He ranks as one of the most improved players on the team. Sure, he only averages less than six points per game, but his six rebounds a game rank second on the team and his 30 blocked shots rank second. He made a critical block of Clemson’s Demontez Stitt in the second half of a win over the Tigers, a big block of North Carolina’s Marcus Ginyard in Tech’s win over the Tar Heels and took away a lay-up with a block of UVa’s Sylven Landesberg in the second half of the Hokies’ home win over the Cavaliers.

“Once I saw that it was working for me, I started enjoying doing the little stuff more – getting us extra possessions and stuff like that,” Bell said.

“Guys like Terrell, they play an instrumental role every night,” Greenberg said. “There are things that don’t show up in the stat sheet, like contesting shots – Terrell contesting shots. The UVa game, he runs the length of the floor and blocks the ball with his inside hand and takes away a basket. Those are the types of plays that have enabled us to have a special season.”

Bell plans on making his last season – next season – a special one as well. He plans on sticking around town again this summer and working on his game, while also finishing up coursework on his degree in apparel, housing and resource management.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence, especially defensively,” Bell said. “Offensively, it’s coming. I plan on being in the gym 24-7 this summer, working on everything.”

Certainly, his mother will be behind him every step of the way. The two possess an undeniable bond, one that will not be broken.

As for his coach, he’s certainly behind him, too. When he picks up that remote next year and gazes at film of opponents on his high-def TV, Greenberg will find plenty of things to worry about.

But Terrell Bell’s play shouldn’t be one of them.