Sorry for not blogging much this week, it's been a long week with the SEC Tournament. With this post I am going to try sum up the last four years and what they've meant to me. When we lost to Ole Miss on Saturday, that officially ended my affiliation with the Vanderbilt basketball team (in an official capacity), and as I cleaned out my stuff from Memorial Gym, I thought a lot about the experiences I've had.
I have always loved basketball from a young age. I'm not particularly skilled, outside of a very consistent mid-range jumpshot and a high basketball IQ, but I have always loved the game. I grew up playing basketball any time I could whether at the neighborhood court, in my driveway, or at school. I played all the time and even had a mini 6 foot hoop in the house I used to shoot around on during winter when it was too cold to go outside. My dad had Nets season tickets while I was in middle and high school and I lived and breathed Nets basketball. I was a die-hard and I had a good run with the Jason Kidd/Kenyon Martin/Richard Jefferson teams.
I also collected trading cards, newspaper clippings, game programs, ticket stubs, and autographs over the years. My autograph collection is pretty extensive, ranging from Allen Iverson and Jason Kidd to Walt Frazier and Bill Walton. I would go to games hours early, thanks to my mom and dad's willingness to do that, seeking autographs and photos with my favorite players. I would bring a binder of cards to be signed and if I didn't have a player's card I would have them sign a game program.
I knew the ins and outs of the Meadowlands Arena like no other: where to position myself to get the most autographs, which security guards were easy to get by, and where the celebrities sat. Before each game, I also looked up the radio and TV announcers of each opposing team seeing if I recognized any former players or coaches among them. Mike Fratello, Flip Saunders, Cedric Maxwell, and Walt Frazier were among those I met. I also got autographs from celebrities like Jay-Z, Jeremy Shockey, and Spike Lee who went to the games. Ahmad Rashad took a leak next to me one time and I saw Stephen A. Smith at the concession stand another time.
This passion for basketball is why I responded to an email sent by then head manager Sam Ferry seeking new managers my freshman year. It is the reason I initially took the job. I wanted to be around an SEC Basketball program and see the inner workings of it. I remember being in awe my first practice of being there as an observer (I was part time as a freshman so I wasn't required to be at practice, but I observed it once or twice a week), thinking how unbelievably cool it was to be in that position.
On that first day, Sam told me not to rebound for anyone or do anything but after practice Steve Tchiengang came over to me and said "you a manager?" in his deep voice, I said, "kinda" and then he goes "then rebound for me. I need to practice my jumpshot." I knew I wasn't supposed to say yes, but honestly I was pretty intimidated by Steve, actually very intimidated so I got up and started rebounding for him. Sam came back and asked why I was doing that and I said, "well it didn't seem like Steve would take no for an answer" and that was a good enough reason for Sam.
Throughout the year I still pretty much in awe of the situation I was in particularly as I got to know more of the players and coaches particularly John Jenkins, Steve, and Chris Meriwether and Coach Dan Muller. It was also pretty sweet when I got to let the John Wall led Kentucky team into Memorial and met Erin Andrews. I had a really positive experience as a freshman and I liked working part time because I could work whenever I wanted to, I didn't have any set hours or obligations, and was essentially a volunteer.
Sophomore year I became a full time manager and that was much harder to deal with. What I didn't realize as a freshman only working part-time, is just how much of a grind the season is. No matter how passionate about basketball you are, your love for the game begins to wear down during the course of a season. It is very exhausting because you go to class all morning then to practice in the afternoon till 6 or 7 then have to do homework. It was really a tough adjustment. It was so much time and a lot of thankless grunt work. I still enjoyed being around the team and liked the access I had, but the passion just wasn't the same. The sheer amount of time you spend around the game is a commitment like no other and it came at the expense of doing other things on campus. I lost touch with some close friends and got kind of sucked into what I call the "Basketball Bubble".
The basketball bubble is essentially when during the season you really only see members of the basketball program. Your schedule is very different from that of other students, you can't really participate in many other extracurricular activities, and unless you make a conscious effort to stay in touch with people it is easy to lose touch because basketball becomes such a single focus. As someone who likes to change things up and can't stand doing the same thing every day, the sameness of the days started to irritate me and bore me. There were many days, and still were this year, where I didn't want to go to practice or shootaround and just wanted to do other things. The time off from basketball I did have I spent on schoolwork or catching up on sleep because I was so exhausted. It was a very tough adjustment.
Junior and senior year, I got to travel with the team which was my favorite part of the job, but still faced indifference towards many of the daily tasks associated with being a manager. Practice was tough to get excited about after the first month or so of the season and the standardization of everything was the same. Travelling helped change things up a bit and I got involved with Big Brothers, Big Sisters and wrote for The Vanderbilt Hustler and Dime Magazine during the year just to try and do some different things within the time I did have away from Memorial, so when looking back this past Saturday I came to a realization on why I stuck with this for 4 years.
I didn't stick with this because of my passion for basketball, though that is still there. I still love watching games on TV, talking to my dad about the NBA, and playing pickup with my friends, but that is not what made me stick with the program as a manager. It is easy to be a fan, rooting for the team when you want, but when basketball becomes a job it can be very hard to balance your passion with your responsibilities. That is why I always try to do different things within the context of the program whether it be playing ping pong after practice with Kevin Bright or exploring a new city on the road during downtime, I love maximizing the opportunities being a manager gives me.
And that is why I have stuck with it, because being a manager has given me the chance to experience things and meet people I never would have otherwise, and those experiences and people will stick with me the rest of my life. In 50 years I won't remember sitting through a 2 hour practice, but instead getting stuck in Oregon on the road trip from hell. I'll remember manager pick-up games before practice and travelling to places as diverse as Milwaukee and Starkville, Mississippi. I'll remember winning the SEC Championship and dancing with Mickey Mouse at Disney Land, but most importantly, I'll remember and stay in touch with the people I've met.
Through this program, I have had the opportunity to form a lot of new friendships and relationships that I hope to maintain over the years. I haven't liked everybody who's come through the program and I'm sure some people haven't liked me at various points (as hard as that may be for you all to believe), but I have met a lot of special, special people through this program. I want to specifically acknowledge our managing staff this year and last year: Will Hulings, Chris Clark, Zach Kleiner, Rafi Goldman, Tyler Anders, Brian Suh, Nick Souder, and Rob Cross. They are not only co-workers but like family to me because we spend so much time together and all share the same experiences whether it be going to a hot tub on the road or going out and pretending we are walk-ons (there will be some exclusive posts on this), these are great guys. Really good guys.
I also want to recognize a few players who have had a profound impact on me. The first is John Jenkins who has been a great friend since freshman year, and you can read more about our relationship here. Also, Chris Meriwether who is the nicest, most helpful guy I have ever met. He doesn't know the word "no" exists because he never says no to anybody or anything. He is incredibly classy and an all-around unbelievable guy. Then there is Steve Tchiengang. Our relationship has evolved from that first encounter into where Steve told me I threw the best passes of any manager last year and try to help me improve my ever mediocre swag. Shelby Moats has also been a great friend, he is very insightful and there is much more to him than you just see on the basketball court. There are countless others I could name, but I feel like those guys have had the most impact on me throughout my time here so I wanted to recognize them.
There is the coaching staff, particularly Dan Muller, David Cason, and Curtis Turner, and also people outside the program. Wes Rucker, the beat writer for GoVols247.com, has become a good friend and is one of the funniest, most knowledgeable guys I've ever met. I've met a lot of NBA GM's and scouts, with five or six calling me last year to ask me about various players in the SEC. It was pretty sweet that NBA talent evaluators valued my opinion and listened to what I had to say. John Hammond and Jeff Weltman of the Milwaukee Bucks being the most notable. They have invited me to practices and pre-draft workouts in the past and are first rate guys as is their whole staff in Milwaukee.
I won't continue on listing people because this post is long enough, but the experiences and the people are the reasons I did it all four years. The passion for basketball helped, but after that first year it wasn't the driving reason. To give up a good portion of your social life and all your vacations for the program requires more than just love of the game. It requires love of the people surrounding you each and every day.