Thursday, May 30, 2013

Introducing Yanni Hufnagel to Vanderbilt

Despite being a manager for four years at Vandy, I really haven't gotten to know any coaches from other schools very well, except for two. One is Kentucky assistant John Robic who I got to know because his wife went to Vandy and we exchanged UK and Vandy t-shirts each year while catching up before each game. The other was our new assistant coach, Yanni Hufnagel.

I didn't know Yanni intially because I worked for Vandy, but our friendship began while I was working with the team. My first interaction with Yanni actually came at a basketball camp I went to in high school. There is a gym in New Jersey called Hoops Heaven that runs basketball camps each summer for kids of all ages, and while the Nets were still in New Jersey, they ran their camps out of Hoop Heaven, and I attended one of them while I was in high school and Yanni was one of the coaches for the week.

At the time, Yanni was an intern for the Nets and part of his responsibility was working their camps, and I had never seen anyone quite like him on a basketball court, and that was just my thought process during warmups. His energy was off the charts those first 20 minutes as he was trying to rile up the campers in what he anticipated would be a great day that by the time we got to the drills portion of the day, which was right after warmups, he had already fully drenched his shirt. Then after drills, the new shirt was soaking wet. He went through like 4 or 5 shirts a day because he was so active and engaged.

This wasn't a camp for elite high school prospects or future NBA players, this was a camp for local high school kids, but Yanni treated it as if he was preparing us for the NBA Finals. Each of the instructors was assigned a team to work with and Yanni's team was the only one to run plays and have offensive sets. He would go crazy on the sidelines when his team played well and was disappointed when they didn't, but he was more engaged in the action than many of the campers. It was impressive to see just how much he cared, and ever since that camp I had always remembered his name and wondered where he would end up, until I found out in the summer of 2010.

That summer I was interning for Dime Magazine and doing an interview with Harvard coach Tommy Amaker when I was on the Harvard website and I saw Yanni's picture on there and in his profile it mentioned his internship with the Nets. It was ironic that Yanni was at Harvard of all places, because that is my dad's alma mater, and I follow them closely. I reached out to him via email and we connected over the phone before meeting during the NCAA Tournament last season before we played his Harvard team, and I always thought if an opening was available he would be a good fit for our school.

Not only was he a coach at Harvard, but he went to Cornell as an undergrad and worked as a manager there for Steve Donahue, so he was familiar with high level academic institutions and what he was doing at Harvard was pretty remarkable. As the recruiting coordinator, he was responsible for essentially putting together their roster last season getting guys like Wes Saunders (who turned down USC for Harvard) or Kenyatta Smith (who turned down Cal) to enroll in Cambridge at a place with no athletic scholarships or athletic tradition. He was getting guys to turn down high major opportunities to play in the IVY League.

Now he has a chance to sell another elite academic institution in Vanderbilt (though don't mention that to former chancellor Gordon Gee), but with the chance to play in the SEC as well. With his energy, passion for the game, and recruiting prowess, I think Yanni is the perfect fit for our program and that our players, coaches, and fans will all benefit from his presence in Nashville.

Steve Tchiengang and The Constant Pursuit of Perfection

In life, everybody is friends with a perfectionist. This is the person who gets irritated when you confuse your and you're in a text or who continually revises a paper/resume/email until it is worded exactly the way they want. Despite those at times irritable qualities, if you remain friends with the person, it is because they must offer something else. Well in my life, this person is Steve Tchiengang.

Steve demands perfection not only from himself but from those around him. Rebounding for Steve is not like rebounding for any other player. Most players are happy that a manager is sticking around after practice to rebound for them and are content to just get their shots up then leave, but Steve is not like most players.

When you rebound for Steve, if you are not hustling after every missed shot or completely devoted to rebounding for him, the odds are that he is going to say something like "hey, pay attention, do your job, quit messing around". Or if you throw a pass that is not just the way Steve likes it, he will implore you to make he proper adjustments. At first I threw passes that were too soft, so then I made them have a little more juice but then Steve said they were hard to catch, and then I finally found a middle ground that made Steve pronounce, "I'm surprised to say this but Dan Mark you are the best manager passer we have" last season, and at that moment I knew I had arrived.

In addition to expecting excellence from his rebounder, Steve expected excellence from himself. Other than John Jenkins, nobody took more shots after practice than Steve, but the shots he took were always confounding. They were confounding because Steve took only threes. Despite being our backup five man and playing mostly down low, the part of his game Steve loved to work on was his three point shot. He averaged less than one three attempted per game, but Steve was convinced he was an outside shooter. This was both Steve's blessing and his curse.

On the one hand, Steve could shoot the three and his ability to stretch the floor helped us out enormously at times. Additionally, despite dying to play the four and be a stretch four man his entire career, Steve never complained once about being used as a center his last two seasons. He was the ultimate team player who put winning above everything else, even his personal desires. It wasn't the role he wanted necessarily (Steve would have Dirk Nowitzki's role if he could have), but nobody was tougher or more selfless on the basketball court than Steve as I pointed out in this profile I did on him for DIME Magazine.

Steve set bone jarring screens to help get John Jenkins and Jeff Taylor open while also defending some of the SEC's top interior players on a nightly basis like Jarnell Stokes and Anthony Davis. When you hear the term "serviceable big man" it sums up Steve well. He shows up and just gets the job done, whether that is in a game or in a practice pushing other guys to get better, but there was always that desire within him to be on the perimeter more.

Steve is 6'9" and around 240 pounds so really his natural place was down on the block, but Steve was convinced he was an elite jump shooter. He worked on his form and his shot over and over and over, more so than any other part of his game, and at times as a manager, a fan, but most importantly a friend it was infuriating to be completely honest. Steve had an incredible work ethic and strived every day to be the best player he could but he focused so much on a skillset that he rarely used in games. I wished Steve would have worked more on his post moves or other areas of his game, and he did work on those as well but not as much as his jumpshot, but Steve sees things in Black and White and he saw himself as a shooter so that is what he worked on until he perfected it.

While many players will strive for excellence on the court, what is impressive about Steve's perfectionist personality is that it extended to every area of his life. Now, Steve is not a perfectionist in that he wants everything to look and be perfect, he is more a perfectionist in the way that he sees the best in everybody and any situation and will do whatever he can to bring the best out of a person. Steve's clear sense of right and wrong alienated some at times because he was never shy about sharing his opinion on what a person could do better, it never really bothered me though. I think the reason it didn't is because Steve pointed things out to me that I knew I could do better, but was either too lazy or just didn't feel like doing and he held me to it.

Anybody that knows me knows that I love to eat, particularly free food. I just love food, but at the same time I don't want to blow up and gain a lot of weight so Steve always encouraged me to eat healthy and workout because he thought that would be best. Last year he told me to text him every night after I finished doing the ab workout he gave me and if I didn't text him, he would text me the next day asking why.

Or there were the times when Steve would try to improve my "swag" and introduce me to girls he knew. I was always kind of bashful when Steve would go up to a girl at a bar and say "This is Dan Mark, you need to know him" because he was so forceful in the introduction, I felt that it was a personal letdown to Steve if nothing came of it (and usually nothing did), but he kept advising me on what to wear or what to say.

I don't necessarily think Steve is the expert on those matters, but he saw qualities and traits in me that he tried hard to bring out. I am not the most talkative person and definitely not the best dressed, or most in shape, but Steve didn't think I should limit myself. He believed I was a good person and he truly wanted to help me out, even if I wasn't necessarily asking for it, and that is why I love Steve. He is always looking to help find the perfections that lie within each of us, whether it be me or the African refugees he volunteered with, and bring those qualities to the surface so that others can see them. It takes a special type of person to do that, and Steve is one of a kind.

  Me and Steve

Sunday, May 19, 2013

And Then There Were 3: A Tribute to the Freshman Class That Was

Every class that comes into the program is different from the others. No two classes are the same, but in my time with the team, no class as a whole has been more distinctive than this past year's freshman class. I absolutely loved being around all seven of our freshmen from last year because they were like a microcosm of society in general. Each one was a character totally unique from the others and they were seven pretty different people who ended up being a great group.

However, unfortunately that group of seven has dwindled to three as AJ Astroth and Sheldon Jeter have transferred while Andris Kehris and Alex Gendelman will not be playing again next. That leaves Kevin Bright, Nathan Watkins, and Carter Josephs as the last remnants of this freshman class. This blog post is a tribute to those seven and an appreciation for everything they brought to the program. So if you guys are reading this, thanks for being so freakin' great.

I'll start off with Kevin Bright. I don't want to refer to Kevin as the ringleader of the group because it wasn't like the other guys followed him around and tried to be like him, but Kev was like the cool kid. If this were high school, Kevin would have been most popular because he was well liked, a starter, and had a beautiful girlfriend. Everybody liked and respected Kevin because it was hard not to, he is just really a great guy.

Then there was AJ. I described AJ in detail in this blog post, but I will touch on some of the main points again here. AJ is a happy-go-lucky kid. No matter what is going on at a given time, AJ is always smiling and always in a good mood. AJ is kind of naive in the fact that he would often times ask questions with what seemed like obvious answers, but AJ truly didn't know the answer and that is why he asked. AJ was always talking and saying something, he was full of energy, and AJ didn't have any grand expectations or demands.

Obviously he was upset he wasn't playing (and that is why he ended up transferring), but AJ never vocalized that to the team or complained outwardly, instead embracing his role as a Gold Bomber on the scout team. A lot of guys would have said "screw this" and kind of loafed on the scout team, but AJ took it in stride and had a ton of fun with the "Gold Bombers". He was just happy to be there and be around the program each day, and his positivity is something that will be greatly missed.

Next up is Sheldon Jeter. Sheldon is a different cat. He marches to the beat of his own drummer and doesn't conform to the standards or expectations of those around him, which is why I respect Sheldon so much. A lot of times in a team setting, it is easy to change or try to "fit in", but Sheldon's attitude was I'm going to be myself whether you like it or not. In the piece linked above, I delve further into Sheldon's personality, but his individuality and intensely competitive nature were fun to observe this season. I have no doubt, he will have success wherever he ends up.

Then there was Nate "Swatkins" Watkins. Nate tried out for the team on a limb, never quite expecting to make it, but when he did make it, Nate was still shocked he was on the team. Nate spent most of his time with the squad last year crafting an alter ego of Swatkins, based on his tenacious shot-blocking capabilities, racking up Trillions (where a player plays 1 minute without racking up any other statistics), or promoting his candidacy for SEC Walk-On of the Year (a fictitious award that Nate "dreams" of one day capturing).

Walk-ons have a precarious place in the program. They are a part of the team and there to make others better, but you can't have an ego as a walk-on. You are essentially glorified practice players and you need to embrace your role, and Nate did that with reckless abandon. I look for him to continue his campaign toward the trillion leaderboard next year and for the Swatkins nickname to be revived, and I'm counting on you fans to help him out.

Next up is Carter. Carter is like Switzerland, stuck in eternal neutrality. Carter is the most even-keeled person I've ever met. He's like a road that is endlessly flat with no changes or curves. Carter pisses nobody off and is liked by everybody because you can't not like Carter because he doesn't do anything that would push you to not like him. Nate has said, "There is nothing Carter hates more than controversy" and he does an excellent job of avoiding it. He is never in the middle of any arguments and nobody ever thinks to bring him into one because often times they forget he is there or that he has an opinion. He is very smart (he could have gone to MIT), but doesn't show it or brag about it, he is humble and understated, and therefore well liked by those around him.

Then there was Alex Gendelman. Gendy was another walk-on, but he had one foot in Memorial and one foot on frat row the entire season. When you think of a frat guy, you think of Alex Gendelman. Always well groomed with his hair impeccably parted to the side (his hair never moved during a game or practice, it always maintained the part) and well-dressed, Alex looked more frat-star than D1 athlete, and he kind of was.

At one point during the season when Alex had a concussion, he disappeared for two weeks and nobody knew where he was. We thought he was gradually fading away from the team before announcing his shift to full time frat guy. The rumors and speculation were rampant in the locker room about the fate of the walk-on from New York. Then one night after a game, Alex appeared in the locker (he was alive!!!) just in time to get that night's per diem (I don't find his timing to be a mere coincidence...). Alex finished out the rest of the season, but will not be coming back next year.

Finally, there was Andris Kehris. Andris was hilarious and irritating all at once. Andris was very intelligent and insightful. He was actually very well versed in world history and basketball history, but his insights were taken with a grain of a salt because his GPA hovered closer to a Goose-Egg than a 4.0. Andris' case wasn't helped by the fact that he found an argument in anything. One of his favorite arguments was preaching Tony Romo as a better quarterback than Jay Cutler. Andris was obsessed with Romo and hated Cutler and he let everyone know. He was in the middle of every argument on the team.

In addition to his argumentative nature, Andris' mannerisms were a sight to see. He shot free throws by practically falling over to the left side of his body and when he would miss a lay-up, his face wreaked of disgust with himself before he would say "Damnnnn it" in his Latvian accent. Then there was the time he had a concussion at the SEC Tournament and on the bus ride home he practically curled up in the fetal position while panting "my head, my head". Needless to say, he didn't come to the next day's game, but Andris was always there when he could be, and the team loses a valuable source of entertainment next season with his departure.

I hope this gives you guys an insight into the special collection of people and players that made up this freshmen class. They were truly unforgettable.

Friday, May 17, 2013

22 Little Known Facts In Honor of My 22nd Birthday

I turn 22 today and to celebrate I will be doing a number of things. One, I will be taking part in a 25 mile bike ride/fundraiser. I'm not sure what person celebrates their birthday by doing that unless their name is Lance Armstrong and they are heavily injected with PED's but I will be doing that at 10 AM this morning, and all jokes aside it should be pretty fun, assuming I'm still alive at the end of it. I will also be listening to Taylor Swift's "22" and singing along as I see fit, while going to a birthday dinner tonight with my family.

But for you loyal Managing Memorial readers, I have a special gift for you all: 22 little known/obscure/random facts about the program or people within the program. I hope you all enjoy:

1. Before our NCAA Tournament game versus Harvard last year, Festus Ezeli put on the wrong uniform at the hotel. Instead of wearing our home whites since we were the higher seed (the 5 versus the 12), Fes put on his away jersey for a reason still unbeknownst to us all. Then head manager Will Hulings noticed the issue about an hour before tip and asked Fes if he had his white uniform with him. Fes replied he did not. So, I was assigned a police escort and rode shotgun in an Albuquerque police car to get his jersey from the hotel which was 15 minutes away. I got there about 20 minutes before tip off with the jersey in hand.

2. If Coach Stallings curses on the road and an opposing fan tells him to watch his mouth because little kids are around, Coach Stallings will always turn around and apologize to that fan and do his best not to curse again.

3. Vanderbilt does not have a basketball equipment manager. The football and baseball teams each have equipment managers, but neither basketball program does so the managers also manage the equipment.

4. When we bus to a road game, we do not ride a coach bus. We ride two sleeper buses. The sleeper buses have a lounge in the front, 12 cots/bunks in the middle, and a lounge in the back. All of the players ride on one bus and the coaches and managers ride on another. The support staff drives a big van to meet us at the game.

5. On home gamedays, we always do shootaround 5 hours before tip-off, then eat our team meal 4 hours before tip off, and the guys then return to the gym around 2 hours before the game. After the game the players and managers each gets $15 of per diem money to be used for a post-game meal.

6. On team flights Coach Stallings always sits in the first row on the left side of the aisle (viewed from the front of the plane). All players get their own seats unless they need to sit with managers because of boosters or other support staff on the trip, and the players that get their own seats are determined by seniority.

7. Head manager Rob Cross will frequently fall asleep in the gym late at night because he works himself to exhaustion. It is not uncommon for him to wake up at 4:00 AM having passed out on a couch in the basketball offices for five hours.

8. Coach Frederick's brother, Brian Frederick, is the executive director of the Sports Fan Coalition, a lobbying group that was created to protect the interests of sports fans on such issues as taxpayer funded stadiums and television blackouts.

9. In the HBO documentary "Prayer for a Perfect Season" about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's senior year team at St. Patrick's High School, their game versus Milton Academy, Dai-Jon Parker's high school is featured and Dai-Jon has a cameo in game action. Sheldon Jeter was also in an HBO documentary, "Namath", about Joe Namath who hails from the same hometown as Sheldon: Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.

10. Andre Walker watched "Jersey Shore" religiously and would always ask me why I didn't watch it or act like the characters from the show since I was from New Jersey.

11. Our former strength coach, Curtis Turner, now at Georgia Tech was an avid collector of folk art. He had a big art collection at his apartment and was constantly scouring art auction websites for items to bid on.

12. Before last year when he got drafted, John Jenkins would always hate watching the draft. He hated seeing guys from his high school class like John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Xavier Henry, and Alec Burks get drafted and hear their name called before his was, but he used that as motivation before finally achieving his dream last year.

13. Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson have matching "Young Mafia" tattoos next to their right shoulders. The tattoos like sort of like New York Yankee logos.

14. Kyle Fuller's nickname "Zoomey" came during his freshman year in the locker room. Kyle was asking what a good nickname would be, and then manager Chris Clark and I had just watched one of those Mazda's commercials that end in Zoom, Zoom, Zoom and Chris suggested Kyle call himself Zoomey because he was fast like those cars. Kyle took to the nickname he long wanted and had everyone call him it for a long period of time, and that is how Kyle "Zoomey" Fuller was born.

15. Steve Tchiengang was high school teammates in Houston for a year with former UConn star and current Oklahoma City Thunder center Hasheem Thabeet. That was one big front-court.

16. When Festus was not putting his hands up on defense during his junior year, then assistant coach Dan Muller made the managers wrap two bricks in towels and wrote on each one "Keep your hands up Fes!" Fes had to do some drills where he ran around holding the bricks over his head.

17. Before practice each day, coach hands out a practice plan with an offensive emphasis of the day, defensive emphasis of the day, and thought for the day. After the 15 minutes of warmup time pre-practice the team gathers in a circle and a different player is quizzed on each of the three topics. If a given player forgets one, then the team may be subject to run. After going over those things, the team circles up and high fives each other before practice commences.

18. The reason we found Carter Josephs and recruited him to be a walk-on actually happened when we were recruiting one of his AAU teammates, Connor Lammert. Connor was a three-star power forward from Texas and when Coach Cason was watching him on the AAU circuit he saw Carter and we recruited him to be a walk-on. He chose Vanderbilt over MIT.

19. Brad Tinsley was an outstanding high school quarterback in Oregon who was garnering Pac-12 offers as a sophomore but he gave up football after his sophomore year to focus on basketball. Brad also initially committed to Pepperdine, but their head coach was let go and Brad was released from his letter of intent and chose to come here.

20. The first time Jermaine Beal ever texted me, toward the end of my freshman year and his senior year, he texted me saying "This is Dolla Beal, I want to shoot tonight, can you rebound?" The reference to himself as Dolla Beal was classic.

21. Former walk-on Andris Kehris' brother is the quarterback for the Latvian National Club Football team. It is not a full-time league and the chief rivals of the Latvians are the "Estonians to the north".

22. Former walk-on Joe Duffy was high school teammates with New York Giants' wide-receiver Hakeem Nicks.

The SEC's Ugly Stepchild: Starkville, Mississippi

One of the best parts of being a manager is travelling to places across the country, I might otherwise never see if it weren't for being a part of the program. I have been to places as far as Eugene, Oregon and as close as Knoxville, Tennessee and countless others along the way, but no place compares in its dreariness and utter awfulness to Starkville, Mississippi.

Prior to going to Starkville for the first time this year, I had heard about how bad it was from other members of the program. They said that the hotel we stayed in overlooked a big, empty field and typically the team, instead of flying in the day before a game, would fly in the day of the game just to minimize the amount of time spent in Starkville. However, since we had a 12:30 game scheduled on a Saturday, we could not fly in the day of the game and had to spend the night there.

This was the pretense for my visit to Starkville, so my expectations were incredibly low for the home of Mississippi State. They were lower than the expectations for Vanderbilt football under Robbie Caldwell. So essentially my expectations were minimal. To not meet my expectations, Starkville would have to be painstakingly awful, and it was.

When looking up Starkville on Wikipedia, I found that there was a museum at MSU dedicated to MSU alum John Grisham, one of my favorite authors, so I thought maybe Saturday morning it would be a good thing to check out. The museum was closed on Saturdays. Strike one for Starkville before we even arrived. Then I thought maybe, just maybe, I would go out at night in Starkville just to see what life forms went to the bars and clubs there, and to say I went out in Starkville. But when we landed in Starkville that idea was squashed like a bug.

The plane landed in Mississippi in total darkness. There were some lights at the airport, but the sky was pitch black, and then when we got on the road, it was even more pitch black because apparently Starkville doesn't believe in street lights. There were literally no lights along this two-lane highway and it was one of the eeriest feelings in the world. I felt like I was stuck in the 1950's or a scene from the movie "Mississippi Burning". It didn't appear the town had progressed since the Civil Rights era. I even tweeted, "Starkville doesn't appear to have changed from the Civil Rights era, but I hope their views on Jews have progressed since then."

It was spooky just how dark and desolate the town was along the highway. I always thought it would be fascinating to go back in time and live in different historical periods, and I found that in Starkville I could be transported back to an earlier time quite easily. It was like driving through a relic that refused to modernize. There was hardly any type of activity in the town. It was like "The Walking Dead" but for a town. Until we passed the university, I can honestly say there was not one sign of commercial activity in the entire city. Then we pulled up to our hotel, the La Quinta Inn.

As an SEC school with a pretty sizable athletic budget, usually we stay in pretty nice hotels. Hiltons, Marriots, and the like are the type of places we frequent. However, in Starkville, there were only two hotels: La Quinta and a Hilton Garden Inn, located right across from each other. Despite not being the usual type of hotels we stay at, these two structures served as beacons of light that some form of progress had been made in the town. There was real, observable human life at the hotel, which was a nice surprise.

However, in the hotel, there were some issues like AJ Astroth and Alex Gendelman's room being littered with old pizza boxes and used sheets or the fact that the hottub looked like it hadn't been sanitized in years. It was just so weird. All of it. In a day and age where technology is bringing the world closer together by the minute, it felt like we were in a place resisting all of this change. Like we were in a bubble that was slowly being burst 50 years after it should have been.

I am all about exploring new places and I love history, but Starkville for me triggered memories of a shameful past in America with all the wrong sorts of historical connotations. It is a place I've been to once, and I can say pretty surely I won't be back anytime soon

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Case for AJ Ogilvy

Blog readers, sorry for not posting much the past few weeks, been busy with that whole graduation thing. Vanderbilt actually let me walk out of there with a degree, so 200,000 or so dollars later I got the piece of paper saying: I did it. Anyway, with graduation, beach week, and finals now out of the way, I can resume blogging with a fervor as I will now be taking some time off and enjoying the comforts of my home for the first time in 9 months for the foreseeable future.

In today's post, I touch on a topic that has always kind of bothered me since my freshman year, and that is the perception by fans, media, and students of AJ Ogilvy. I was only on campus for a year with AJ, as he left after his junior year, but during that year I always felt AJ got the short end of the stick from the aforementioned parties.

To put it simply, AJ is one of the 10 or 15 most talented players Coach Stallings has coached at Vanderbilt. He is right up there with Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, John Jenkins, Matt Freije, and others guys like that. Had he stayed for his senior year, he would have been one of the best players in Vanderbilt history and a leader in a number of statistical categories. I think that when AJ had such a phenomenal freshman season averaging 17 points and 9 rebounds, he created incredibly large expectations for himself, that he couldn't quite live up to. However, just because he didn't average those gaudy numbers again, doesn't mean he did not have a successful career with the Commodores or was a "disappointment" after that year.

In addition to never putting up the kind of numbers he put up as a freshman, AJ received a lot of flak, both directly and indirectly, for just being himself. AJ didn't act like your stereotypical SEC center. He frosted the tips in his hair, wore skinny jeans, and even grew out a mustache. He read indie music magazines and was just as likely to be at Cafe Coco listening to music late night as he was to be watching a basketball game. Basketball didn't encapsulate his identity or his interests, and I feel like that was held against him by a lot of people.

I also think AJ's willingness to be his own guy and pursue his other interests, made him an easy target for fans and media. He was called soft by countless people over the year and derided for not being tough. Just because AJ didn't scowl like Kendrick Perkins of the Oklahoma City Thunder does, or play the physical brand of basketball Festus and Steve played, doesn't make him soft. His game and competitive advantage was based on his finesse, his excellent footwork, soft hands, and high basketball IQ. He didn't need to be physically dominant or fearsome looking to have success on the court, and he had a lot of success.

A lot of the criticisms he faced, are the same ones Pau Gasol faces. Despite being a multiple time NBA champion and one of the best big men of his generation, Gasol can't escape the "soft" label no matter what he does, primarily because his game is not based on being physically dominant but using his incredible skillset, and not just his size to his advantage. AJ was similar in the way he used his skillset to his advantage.

As fans and outside observers, whose only interactions with these student athletes often comes when watching the games, it is easy to expect the players to only be wrapped up in basketball. As fans, you all go through the ups and downs of a given season, and when a player doesn't live up to expectations on the court, it is easy to criticize them. We all do it. I do it, you do it, my grandma does it. It is human nature to do it. However, what people forget is that the players they are rooting for are 18 to 22 years old.

While some of them like John Jenkins and Rod Odom, eat, live, and breathe basketball, and spend most of their free time studying the game or working out, not everybody is wired that way. And that is not a bad thing. Just because AJ had interests outside of basketball, doesn't mean he cared any less about the team or winning than those guys did. When he was at the gym, whether playing in a game or at practice, he gave it his all and just because he was not consumed with basketball 24/7 shouldn't diminish the way others view him, or lead to the belief that he was soft.

AJ Ogilvy was one of the best players to come through Vanderbilt during my time there and he deserves to be remembered as such.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Wannabes: Rec League All-Stars

Walk-ons. These are the guys who never see the court unless it is a blowout, are permanently relegated to the scout team, and are not on scholarship. They ride the end of the bench and put on their Gold Bomber uniform in pride like Nate Watkins and Carter Josephs. Walk-ons have to walk a fine line in knowing their place on the team. They are there to challenge the top players in practice every day (and at many schools to lift the team GPA) and having a sense of entitlement or acting like you should play is not something that is recommended. Obviously, the walk-ons want to play but they have to accept their place in the program and most times that involves not playing.

However, the walk-ons have a unique sense of pride in putting on the Vanderbilt jersey. They are just happy to be there and be playing college basketball, and they appreciate all the things they get to experience minus all of the expectations. The walk-ons may honestly have more fun than anybody because there is no pressure on them, other than to compete for the Club Trillion leaderboard (a trillion is when a player records 1 minute played and zero other statistics). Many walk-ons like Ohio State's Mark Titus and Michigan's Josh Bartelstein have even taken to the blogosphere to share their tales from the end of the bench.

While being a walk-on is far from a glorious role, there is a group of about 10 to 15 kids on campus who vie to become a walk-on each year. These guys are total alpha dogs who live at the Vanderbilt Rec Center. When you play pick-up at the rec, you are going to play in one of two kinds of games. The first type of game is where the guys are just looking to get a run in and play basketball, the kind of pickup you see in most places. The second type is what I call the Iso-Show. This is where some combination of those 10 to 15 kids, all try to one up each other with blatant disregard for team basketball. Imagine Nate Robinson being much less athletic and gifted with the same type of shot selection, and that is what you see.

It turns into a 1 on 5 show with contested fade-aways and endless taunting dominating the game. Not to mention the inordinate amount of fouls called when a shot doesn't go in. It is a bunch of former high school stars unleashing the pent up testosterone they have had since their high school career ended, looking for an outlet to return to the top-dog status they so desperately crave. Each year, these 10 to 15 kids take a break from the rec to make their way over to Memorial for the walk-on tryouts.

I respect all of these guys for trying out, and they are all much more talented basketball players than I am and I am friends with some of them, but for many of them it is hard to transition from "rec-league all-star" to "quiet, unassuming walk-on". The coaches don't want a walk on to be cocky or have an attitude because they are likely never going to play and need to embrace their role on the team and not step on any toes. No matter how talented a potential walk-on is, he won't make the team if he exhibits any sort of cocky behavior. Just show up and do your job, that is the motto for walk-ons to live by, but it goes against what the Rec All Stars do all year.

For the 9 months they are in school, they all try to one up one another to prove they are the top dog and the best player. It is this intense year-long competition to hold on to the status that they are all clinging to from their high school playing days. And since this dominates the way they play basketball for long periods of time, transitioning to a different style during the two-hour tryouts is often difficult. So each year these all-stars try out and when they don't make the team, they go back to the rec looking to reclaim the title of best baller on campus not actually on the team.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Saying Goodbye

At the beginning of my senior year in high school, a bunch of friends and I were at a friend's house late at night and envisioning where we would be next year. All of us were planning to go to college and we wondered what we would all be doing at that time in the next year. We vowed to stay in touch and visit each other wherever each of us went, and thought we would all still be really close throughout college. However, that is not what has happened.

I still stay in touch with 4 or 5 good friends from high school, but our relationships are not the same as they once were. Distance has caused separation, but also our new lives independent of one another have created new friendships that may be more lasting than the ones created in high school. That is what makes saying goodbye to someone at the end of school so difficult. While you can promise to stay in touch and try as hard as we can to preserve the same relationship we once had, you both know that after that point nothing will ever be quite the same. When you go from spending time every day with someone to living separate lives, it is inevitable that your friendship will change in ways you can't anticipate.

On the one hand, due to modern technology like Facebook, Skype, Twitter, and text messaging, it is much easier to stay in touch with people. However, the definition of staying in touch has changed radically due to these new technologies. Instead of having long conversations on the phone or going to visit, "staying in touch" now constitutes a few texts back and forth or a Facebook conversation once in awhile. You communicate more often with people, but the breadth of the communication is much less than it was in the past, and I think that makes truly staying in touch with someone so difficult in today's day and age, and what made it hard to say goodbye last night to Shelby Moats and last year to John Jenkins.

As I mentioned in my blog tribute to John, he is one of my best friends. We became close as freshmen within the program and have remained close ever since. When he declared for the draft last year, I was really happy for him that he was on the verge of achieving his dream, but I was also sad that he wouldn't be there for our senior year together. The last time I saw John last year he was about to workout, and he gave me one of his game-worn jerseys and signed it with an inscription something like, "Dan-, thanks for everything and being a great friend. Love you bro, John Jenkins". It was a really nice gesture to get one of his jerseys and for him to sign it, then we said goodbye and that was the last time the two of us were officially classmates.

I knew that John and I would stay in touch, particularly because we both love basketball and we would talk about it, and he'd fill me in on the NBA and I'd do the same for him with Vandy, but neither of us knew what the future had in store. He could have ended up in Los Angeles or Sacramento, and I would hardly have seen him this year and who knows how often we would talk or stay in touch, but he got drafted by the Hawks. Atlanta is only 4 hours from Nashville, so I have been to 5 Hawks games this year, and spent 4 days there last week for the playoffs and I had a blast. It was just like old times and luckily he is close enough to Nashville that we could still hang out together a lot, but next year when he is in Atlanta and I'm at a site yet to be determined, who knows what our friendship will have in store.

The same is true for Shelby Moats. As I mentioned in my blog post on him, Shelby has become a really good friend since arriving here. He is one of those guys who I can talk about anything with, whether it be basketball, school, social lives, or just life in general. Last night, we were both hanging out in the locker room and it was around midnight, and I had a test to study for and he did also, so I went to say goodbye and go our separate ways, but it was such a weird moment for the both of us. We shook hands, then hugged, and then talked about how awkward it was, before chatting again for two hours.

It was like we both knew that as soon as I walked out that door, the friendship we had built up over two years would change forever, and we just weren't quite ready for that to happen. We had seen each other almost every day for two years and gotten to know each other very well, and now neither of us knew when the next time we'd see each other would be, and that uncertainty was just incredibly weird.

And that is why saying good bye is so hard because you don't know the paths you will go down and where you will end up, the only thing you know is that what you had won't ever quite be the same.