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Image by Annie Spratt
  • Writer's pictureEthan Voss

PykeNation: Bigger Than Basketball

“I really like surfing…it’s really like balance, it’s so peaceful, it’s my favorite thing.”

Laughing in the booth across from me with a Chick-Fil-A breakfast burrito in hand, Jordan Pyke, a freshman business major, surprised me when I asked him what his favorite activity in the world is. To be honest, I baited the question expecting an answer regarding shooting a game winning shot, playing in a high stakes matchup or dunking on an opponent in a playoff game.

While I expected basketball, he gave me surfing, as he often does with all things in life, shattering predictions, while bringing a smile to the faces of those who watch him.

Nearly six months ago, Pyke reflected on his high school basketball journey as he faced no offers to continue his athletic career at the collegiate level. Today, he is hailed as one of the most underrated players in the country. With millions of views on social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and X, Pyke has brought a modern flair and energy to the men’s basketball program at Union in the midst of a rebuild that will define the near future.

“At first I had transferred a whole lot to a bunch of different high schools so I had been to six high schools, which is part of the reason I knew so many people,” said Pyke. “I made the best of it and started posting stuff online with basketball clips to music that started going viral.”

While turning down NIL deals and overseas opportunities to play in semi-professional leagues, Pyke left his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina to join a Union team that fell short of .500 last season with a 14-15 record. For some players, these opportunities seem like the dream they have practiced and trained for since they first heard the swish of the net, but for Pyke there are things that are more important than purely wins.

“I took a bunch of visits and Union was a mixture of the best coach with the best academics with everything included that made it the obvious decision.” 

As family and friends encouraged Pyke to consider other schools such as Emmanuel, he chose to lay his roots in Jackson, Tennessee joining an energetic incoming recruiting class that included players such as his roommates Parker Applegate, Devaki Garr and Camden Lockett.

“In the past I feel like there were kids on the team who would treat people who are not athletes like they are lesser,” Pyke said. “I feel like with the team having new kids and a new dynamic this year we can expect it to be a lot better because there are a lot of people on the team that are showing up to men’s and women’s soccer games, baseball scrimmages and volleyball games.”

Pyke has made an intentional effort to pour into campus through his attendance and investment across Union athletics along with activities such as Welcome Week events, SAAC meetings and involvement in the newly formed Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization.

“I feel like our support going into other stuff is going to help in return for us but that isn’t even why we do it,” Pyke said. “We do it because it’s a fun night to spend time with friends.”

For Shane Felis, junior Christian studies major, this effort has spoken volumes as a regular attendee of Union athletic events. After watching Pyke and his roommates provide free energy and entertainment on the sidelines of each Union volleyball game earlier this year, Felis looked for a way to showcase the environment to the rest of campus through a social media page dubbed ‘PykeNation.’

“I didn’t really think about it until the first volleyball game when I thought to myself, this is wild. When have we ever had basketball players doing comedy skits on the court and sidelines with costumes and pom pom sticks and whatever that broom thing is,” Felis said with laughter in his voice. “I thought ‘this is hilarious’ and I edited it to freeze on certain shots… It took me like five minutes during the game and I tagged them on a social media account, and that is how it started.”

Along with the constant creation of meme-esque video content, Felis wields a massive 20×30 sign on the sidelines he ordered from Walgreens emblazoned with the title ‘PykeNation’ over a screenshot photo of Pyke taken from a volleyball social media video.

“One of the family members came down and got a picture with us holding the sign…I think it was his grandpa,” Anderson Lafoon, freshman engineering major and PykeNation supporter, said. “That was funny and then his dad came down and said ‘we appreciate you guys supporting Jordan and being his fans.’”

For Felis, Pyke is so much more than his incredible playing ability and skill on the court.

“Jordan to me is so outspoken in the way that he is that he becomes the natural face. He is joking around with the cobo workers and other students and that is so good for this campus. Sports brings out so much in people and people are vulnerable in sports because it pushes you to your limit and to see the family supporting him and so many Union students come together and say we are going to boast in our team, that’s what it’s all about.”

With mounting pressure placed on Pyke from the growing number of views, likes and comments on social media, there is always a tendency to feel alienated from the rest of everyday life as people build an image of him through the content on his platforms. While he has enough awards to fill cabinets, the online titles usher a new pressure for a player performing in his first season at the collegiate level.

“More than basketball, I guess some people get focused on my followers, but I am just like a regular dude living a regular life like everybody else,” said Pyke. “Some people just forget that when they are talking to me but I go through everyday experiences alongside everyone else.”

I asked Pyke about the rumors swirling of his possible future moving up to play at a higher level with a D1 program as online sources constantly comment about how he deserves a more competitive experience.

“I want to play in the NBA eventually but what I have to do to get there, I honestly don’t know. Right now I am just focused on being the best player I can be here and working my way to even just the starting position. It is far-fetched to talk about that and pro ball.”

While he could have easily used this opportunity to boast or share his path to success, Pyke stopped the interview to talk with a student who recognized him in the middle of Chick-Fil-A. The question was quickly forgotten as his focus shifted away from me and entirely on the guy checking in on him.

In the first 16 minutes of his college debut, Pyke posted 25 points, three rebounds, two assists and a dunk that could be felt from miles away from the rim earning him the honor of Gulf South Conference player of the week. He picked up a victory in the Bulldog Madness dunk competition as he leaped through the air with his 40 inch vertical over Joe Ball, the Director of Student Leadership and Engagement, in a moment that symbolized the start of a new chapter for Union basketball.

“I was honestly kind of embarrassed and didn’t want to miss any of them so I kind of just did stuff I knew I could make first try,” Pyke said in regards to his dunk performance. For me to attempt half of the shots he made would most likely place me in the ICU.

Pyke has found his home at Union as he trains under a coach who treats him like a father treats his kids and teammates he views as brothers. His story is greater than basketball as he looks to one day pursue managing multiple companies and pour into others in the sport he loves.

“I wanna be a coach, own a super big farm and relax,” Pyke said when asked about his dream.

For Pyke, the college athlete experience is a lot like surfing. There will be waves that will rock you and hit you in the face, but it’s what you do to get back on the board and try again that counts. If you are able to find the balance between pouring into the sport you love and caring about the people who are around you, it can be the most peaceful thing in the world.

This story was originally published as a feature in the Cardinal & Cream.

Photo Credit : @rowensmedia

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