Tye Mays could have shouted and pouted.
At the very least, the senior point guard at Long Beach State was entitled to a little self-pity upon learning someone else’s mistake would rob him of eligibility this season. But leaders don’t do that, Mays said, so he didn’t.
Instead, Mays waited and worked, hoped and prayed.
And Friday, when Long Beach (20-9) plays Utah (27-5) in the opening round of the NCAA tournament at 11:35 a.m. PST at Boise, Ida., Mays will be at the helm of the 49ers. Coach Seth Greenberg couldn’t be more comfortable with that.
“He’s given us great direction and focus,” Greenberg said. “But more importantly, when that whole academic thing came up, a lesser person would have basically just folded, quit, walked away and pointed fingers, you name it.
“But that’s not Tye Mays. His character, his purpose, the things that make Tye Mays what he is, is the reason that he went on and led us to the NCAA tournament.”
The NCAA Eligibility Committee ruled Mays academically ineligible for the fall semester, forcing him to sit out the first three games. Mays was and remains in good academic standing, school officials said, but he was given erroneous advice about selecting the proper courses to remain eligible.
“It was horrible because it wasn’t his fault,” Greenberg said. “I mean, here’s a kid who is close to graduating.”
Because of its error, Long Beach appealed the committee’s ruling. The appeal was denied, so Mays sat.
“That hindered me, and I was very (mad),” Mays said. “I had some negative thoughts, but I never expressed them.
“I have a lot of faith in God, and I believe everything happens for a reason. Maybe this had to happen for me to get where I am now.”
Since all he had was practice, Mays tried to take something special from every session. He pushed himself harder than ever, believing it was the right thing to do. Still, positive thinking goes only so far.
“When I saw everybody playing well, I wondered, ‘How can I fit in?’ ” Mays said. “I thought I might come back and have to be just a role player.
“I wanted to come in and be a leader, and by me being ineligible, I couldn’t do anything. It was like I was handcuffed.”
Encouragement came from many sources.
Marsha Johnson, Mays’ longtime girlfriend, told him daily that everything would work out. Sixth man Eric Brown, one of Mays’ best friends, took it further.
“I told him that when the time came for him to get back in there,” Brown said, “he was going to run the show and lead us to wherever we were going.”
His eligibility was restored in time for a game against Montana at the Pyramid on Dec. 21. Mays had five points and three assists in 16 minutes during a 79-69 victory.
Getting back, though, was only half the struggle. Rasul Salahuddin, a converted shooting guard, was starting at the point.
Greenberg needed Salahuddin, recently voted the Big West Conference’s top defensive player in a poll of players, in the lineup for his defense and athleticism. And Greenberg also liked the play of starting shooting guard Jamie Davis.
However, the 49ers went into a midseason slump. After consecutive conference losses, Greenberg increased Mays’ role before a game at Cal State Fullerton on Jan. 28.
Mays played 29 minutes, his most to that point, and had 13 points and three assists as the 49ers won, 79-70. Greenberg made Mays a starter for the next game, moving Salahuddin back to his natural position.
Then the 49ers took off.
From Jan. 28 through March 2, the 49ers won 10 consecutive conference games. No one disputes Mays’ importance in the surge.
“Not to take anything away from the contributions of (forward) Terrance (O’Kelley) and (center) Joe (McNaull) down the stretch, and not to be critical of Rasul, but the fact is their fortunes all changed when Tye was made available,” UC Irvine Coach Rod Baker said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that everything turned around for them then.”
Greenberg agrees with his colleague’s assessment.
“It took some adversity for me to realize how important a Tye Mays is,” Greenberg said, “and how to best put together our basketball team.”
Mays, 6 feet 1 and 195 pounds, is a capable ballhandler, determined defender and consistent shooter. But his strongest traits are his intelligence and desire to lead.
“It just looks like he gives them really good leadership,” Utah Coach Rick Majerus said. “He doesn’t seem to make a lot of mistakes.”
How much does Mays mean to Long Beach? Consider: In 116 minutes played during the 49ers’ three Big West Conference tournament victories, Mays committed only seven turnovers.
“They are a different team with him running the show,” Baker said. “He’s always under control. Nine times out of 10 he makes good decisions.”
Salahuddin prefers the situation too.
“With the two of us on the court, I can relax even more,” Salahuddin said. “With Tye in there, I don’t have the pressure of bringing the ball up court and running the offense. I can just play my man and concentrate on getting out there and dunking.”
Long Beach is 12-3 with Mays starting. His season averages of 6.7 points and 2.9 assists aren’t eye-opening, but his steady play provides a calming influence--especially for his coach.
“Tye and I are very much on the same page,” Greenberg said. “The funny thing is, he had been saying to me all season, ‘Coach, I’m going to bring you to the promised land.’ He’s a man of his word.”