Nearly 20 years after becoming North Central’s first Mr. Basketball, Jason Gardner continues his best basketball life
You could say that Jason Gardner (North Central ’99) is a trailblazer. A prodigious talent, born into a basketball-rich family, Gardner led the Panthers to their first basketball state title in 43 years in 1999. He became the first player in program history to be named Mr. Basketball in Indiana. Today, as the head basketball coach at IUPUI, he is looking for more firsts in a city where he became a star.
Gardner was destined to be a program-changing player at North Central. His brother played at North Central. His sister cheered at games, while Gardner put up shots in the upstairs gym. A lightning-quick point guard with incredible ball control skills, Gardner walked into the starting lineup for the Panthers his freshman season. A program loaded with top talent, Gardner was a silent leader who led with hustle, effort and unselfishness. By the time his close friends joined him on the varsity for the title run in 1999, it was a dream run come true. Growing up with the same AAU teammates, his summer team didn’t resemble his winter team, until that championship season.
“My ultimate goal coming here was to win state,” Gardner recalls fondly. “It was a process, our chemistry that brought us together. It definitely wasn’t the most talented team, but it was us being together.”
One of the best players, nationally, in his class, Gardner chose the University of Arizona over a host of suitors. Known for its history of producing world-class guards, Gardner added to that legacy, coming one win short of a national championship in 2001. Gardner played alongside future NBA stars Richard Jefferson, Gilbert Arenas, Channing Frye, Andre Iguodala, Loren Woods and Luke Walton. He was a second-team All-American his senior year and would have his #22 retired by the Wildcats in 2005. There were never any regrets.
“I was so connected to Coach [Lute] Olson,” Gardner said. “How he allows his guards to play, it was based around the guards, and made it an easy decision for me.”
After Arizona, Gardner went on to play nearly a decade in Europe, with stops in Slovenia, Belgium, Australia, Israel and Germany, the latter where he was an All-Star for two seasons. Basketball became a career, but it also became the catalyst to life-changing experiences.
“After my second year, we got a four day break and I came back [to the United States] and I went back and thought this is too much traveling, so I decided it was time to start seeing other countries. “It is amazing that this little orange ball led me to see the world.”
Gardner’s current home is filled with art and souvenirs from trips all around the globe. Having married his high-school sweetheart, he also had a companion to see it with, not to mention giving his oldest children an international education. That well-rounded experience made moving back to Indianapolis a simple decision. The Gardners saw the world and brought it home to their family, to setup roots where it all began. After a few jobs as an assistant coach, Gardner’s rise as a coach was quick when he took the head position at IUPUI in 2014. Now in his fifth season, the program is on the rise.
“I always wanted to get into coaching and be around basketball,” he adds. One of the most recognized names basketball history in central Indiana has seen a lot, and while he is not looking back, that experience pays off every day in practice. “I always try to tell our players ‘you can only control what you can control,’ so you have to focus on yourself.”