It’s not every day a 6-foot-9 transfer from Germany walks through the door.
But that’s what happened to Willow Canyon basketball coach Robert Bohon in 2009. Bohon knew he was staring at his new starting center, but didn’t realize the school was gaining a renaissance man in Deion Giddens.
Giddens arrived on campus as a junior after spending eight years in Germany.
At first, it was an akward experience for Deion and his twin brother, Justin, who clung to each other during their initial weeks in Surprise.
It was the first time they’d had anything close to a traditional school experience since they were 8 and lived near Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.
After that, Freddie Giddens’ Air Force career returned him to Germany, where he met and married Bettina.
The family spent the next eight years in Germany — the last four at Spangdalhem Air Base, near the city of Trier, Rhineland-Palatinate.
Half of Giddens’ relatives still live in Germany, and he speaks the language fluently and retains an affinity for his German heritage.
Life on a base in a foreign country was a mixed bag.
On the good side, the Giddens boys had access to a good education with small student-teacher ratios. They also got to see most of Europe — and more exotic places, including Egypt — at a very young age.
But when they weren’t traveling, most of their lives were spent on the base or nearby American schools. The food was different, as was the music — rap was rarely on the local playlists.
It gave Giddens a unique perspective upon his return to the United States. At an age where many teens yearn to get out of their hometowns, Giddens was happy to be in a typical suburban setting.
The adjustment wasn’t seamless,
Bitburg High School had 300 students. Willow Canyon has 2,200. But the things that made Deion stand out allowed him to fit in.
“I’d never been to a real school outside of base,” Giddens said. “When I first got here, everyone saw this 6-9 guy and figured ‘he’s going to play basketball for us.’ So then I automatically made friends. And then, I’m in the band, so that allowed me to know a whole bunch of people.”
Deion picked up the baritone in seventh grade before switching to the tuba in high school. He’s kept up with his music in the school band even as basketball consumed more of his time.
He began playing basketball in third grade, but had never played organized hoops in the United States.
Indeed, his biggest culture shock may have come on the court, In his early teens, Giddens played organized ball, but the teams were a mish-mash of a few kids his age and military personnel in their 20s and 30s.
These games against gritty adults helped toughen him up, but he rarely played against anyone close to his size or athletic ability. When he came to the Valley, points didn’t come as easy in the post.
“Playing in Germany, the older guys were a lot stronger, so they helped prepare me,” Giddens said. “It was a little bit difficult because this school isn’t used to having big guys. I found out that there are a lot of guys that are better than me and made me toughen up down low. In Germany, I was basically the tallest person, so I could turn and shoot. Here, I turn and a whole bunch of people are on me. I had to get used to that.”
Giddens’ slender frame and long arms made things more simple on the boards and on defense. He averaged 7.2 rebounds and three blocks per game — to go with 8.2 points — as a junior on an 8-16 Willow Canyon squad.
Giddens also joined the Arizona Magic club, which hastened his education in American basketball. His performance late in the season and on the AAU circuit, coupled with his untapped potential and 4.4 grade-point average, made him an intriguing prospect, particularly for Ivy League schools.
Though other schools were interested, Giddens quickly narrowed his choices to Columbia, Cornell and Pennsylvania. In October, he decided Cornell had the most to offer, off and on the court.
“For me it’s all about the education, so I was going to stick with the Ivy League,” Giddens said. “I thought Cornell was a great fit. It had a nice, large campus, a nice gym and I felt like I fit right in with the team and coaches. Cornell has a great school with hotel administration and that’s what I applied to.”
His increased comfort level has shown on the court this season. As expected, he paces the team in rebounding (8.8) and blocks (4.3).
It’s the added offense that’s a bit of a surprise. Giddens averages 11.2 points per game for a 12-13 team that squeaked into the playoffs.
He’s only spent half of his high school years at Willow Canyon, but Giddens has found his comfort zone at the Surprise school.
“I love this place,” Giddens said.