Before redefining his career at UNC Asheville, Drew Pember was barely an SEC afterthought.

When you read the words “Waffle House,” a number of sights and sounds probably come to your mind. The flickering yellow sign. A jukebox murmuring. The sizzling griddle. Depending on the time of day, a verbal altercation unfolding just a couple of tables down.

Yep. That’s all part of the experience.

Since its inception in the 1950s, the 24-hour diner has served as a breakfast essential, a road trip pit stop, a late-night elixir and everything in between. But for UNC Asheville’s Drew Pember, Waffle House represents something a little more significant. Because at one of the restaurant’s locations in Knoxville, Tennessee, he found himself at a crossroads in his basketball journey.

“The Christmas of my freshman year, I told my dad I wanted to work a 9 to 5,” Pember told Heat Check CBB. At that point, Pember was at the University of Tennessee. “I was mad crying in a Waffle House on Christmas night at like 12:30. And I was like, ‘Dad I don’t want to do this.’

“It was rock bottom for me. I didn’t want to play basketball anymore. I didn’t love basketball anymore. And it took me a while to fall in love with it again.”

Watching him today, you would never expect that these doubts plagued him just three and a half years ago. Pember is a deadeye shooter, an emphatic shot-blocker and the playmaking hub for an Asheville squad that will play in the NCAA Tournament later this week. His accolades further testify to his talent: A couple of All-Big South First Team appearances, two defensive player of the year awards and the league’s outright player of the year honors that he recently added to his collection.

However, Pember’s path to stardom was as atypical as it was arduous. In particular, that first year of college ball left him scattered, chunked and diced.

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Header image courtesy of UNC Asheville Athletics.