Stijn Dhondt is fired up. Fired up over french fries. Excuse me, make that Belgian fries.
“They aren’t French, they’re Belgian, get it right!” the Belgian native and former Boston University Terrier booms from across the other side of the Atlantic. “You’re calling them ‘French Fries’ because you’re being stupid and you’re ignorant” he says in a voice that still scares the shit out of me despite the nearly 3,500 mile divide between us.
As fate would have it, a few minutes before Dhondt’s number flashed on my phone, I was listening to a short NPR segment on Belgium’s push to have their Frites recognized by United Nations’ Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as an irreplaceable part of their cultural heritage. In a country divided along ethnic and language lines, it seems that Belgian fries — traditionally served in a wax-paper cone, with mayonnaise or vinegar — are the tie that binds all Belgians, with the ministers of culture of the Dutch speaking Flanders region, the French speaking Walloons, and the German speaking segments of the population all having all submitted official paperwork to UNESCO.
Cue Dhondt, and our friendship, built on happenstance, coincidence, tragedy and, yes, fate. Thirteen years ago, I was a high school senior and Dhondt was a senior at Boston University, a 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound tank of a man who locked down opposing scorers, set the hardest screens in the league and was one of the most fun-loving players in America East history.
But on one cold night in January of 2002, Dhondt finally got mad. Mad enough to dive head-first into an all-out brawl with rival Hartford that spilled down the back stairwell at Case Gymnasium. The brawl follwed an end of the game buzzer beater by Hawks forward Deon Saunders, who promptly got in Dhondt’s face and bellowed “Ain’t nothin’ but a bucket!” after hitting the game-winner.
It preceded one of the the all-time great Karmic moments in basketball and the biggest shot in BU history.
On an unseasonably warm, extremely grey and rainy day on the first weekend in March, a little more than a month after Saunders’ shot, Dhondt was once again fired up at his foe. Only this time, it was Dhondt who was bellowing, “Ain’t nothing but a bucket.” Literally.
Dhondt had ripped Kevin Fitzgerald’s three-quarter court heave out of the stale air at ancient Matthews Arena away from three Hartford defenders, turned, fired and banked in the the game winner at the buzzer of the America East Tournament semifinals, sending the Terriers to a 63-60 win — momentum the Terriers rode all the way to the NCAA Tournament.
In the immediate aftermath of the shot that became known as the “Matthews Miracle,” Dhondt pounded his vanquished opponent on the chest and exclaim, “Ain’t Nothin’ but a Bucket, baby!” before dropping the s-bomb live on the NESN post-game interview, saying, “When it went in I was like, ‘Oh, shit!’” after a reporter shoved a microphone in his face.
Which brings us back to French — sorry, once again, Belgian — Fries. Yes, he was similarly fired up about that discrepancy.
“Sam, I’m going to slap you,” he says.
All over fries?
“They’re Belgian, man,” says Dhondt, who despite appearing to have negative body fat readily admits that he indulges in his country’s culinary delicacy. “We invented them hundreds of years ago; Americans have no sense of history,” he says, breaking into an all-out laugh.
Dhondt and I try to catch up about once a month, and usually do our best to take as many pot shots at each other as time will allow — me about his rapidly evaporating hairline, him about any number of my shortcomings.
“They called them ‘French Fries’ because they were too lazy to research that Belgium is it’s own country and we’ve never gotten the credit we deserve,” he says, breaking into another laugh.
Oh, how the times have changed. Back during his BU days, Dhondt was an American, at least an honorary one, who rocked platinum blond hair in a fresh hip-hop inspired fade, over-sized jeans and untied Timberland boots and spouted American slang.
“Dennis Wolff used to call me an American,” says Dhondt, who grew up in Bornem, a town in the Antwerp province of northern Belgium.
“Stijn Dhondt was like the Vanilla Ice of basketball,” laughs former BU teammate Rashad Bell. “He sure dressed like Vanilla Ice.”
Now, 13 years after his Matthews’ Miracle landed him on Sports Center’s Top Plays of the week, month and year, and his post-game sound bite was played continuously across Boston’s sports radio stations (“Is Belgium part of Compton?” one local personality laughed after hearing him speak), Dhondt’s accent has returned. A married father of a rambunctious 5-year old son, the one-time Wildman of Comm. Ave is all grown up:
But his love of life and passion for the game remain.
Dhondt is truly the last man standing from his America East basketball class – the only senior from the conference’s Class of 2002 still playing professional basketball. In fact, only two America East players who ever set foot on the same college court as Dhondt — Bell and Vermont’s Taylor Coppenrath, both freshmen when Dhondt was a senior — are still playing professional basketball.
“It’s really been an amazing, remarkable ride,” Dhondt says. “It’s crazy that I’m the only one [from my class] still playing. Looking back, I’ve been amazingly lucky to have the career I have, play on some good and cool teams with great people, and win a few titles along the way.
“I still can’t believe that shot (against Hartford) went in. It still seems so surreal.”
Always much more of a bruiser than an athlete and lockdown defender and glue-guy than go to scorer, basketball has taken a toll on Dhondt’s body over the years, resulting in shoulder surgery midway through his career and microfracture surgery on his knees two seasons ago.
Last season was a roller-coaster of draining emotions for Dhondt, who performed life-saving CPR and administered the defibrillator to a teammate who suffered a near-fatal heart attack on the court early in the season before leading his team to a regular season title and playoff championship.
“I just kept thinking of Trevor,” he says, his thoughts turning to his old America East foe, late University of Vermont center Trevor Gaines. After battling each other on the low blocks in college, Dhondt and Gaines formed a very strong friendship in Europe, where both were playing professionally. Gaines’ fatal heart attack during a pick up game in the summer of 2010 hit Dhondt hard.
“He was just such an amazing guy, once in a lifetime,” he says. “When it happened [my teammate suffered a heart attack], it was like I could see Trevor there, that was really hard to deal with.”
Selfishly, I hope that Dhondt keeps on playing. Dhondt’s heroics at Matthews Arena weren’t simply a compelling narrative of a one-time starter turned end-of-the-bench reserve finding redemption by hitting the most karmic big shot of his career. Sitting there in the stands watching his miracle fall into the bottom of the net was one of the most memorable, and final, moments I ever spent with my father, who died a year and a half later after a car accident. The memory of it, and the friendship that spawned between Dhondt and me in the aftermath, helped fill some of the void left behind. And in some strange way, Dhondt’s continued career kept a small part of my father alive all these years later.
As for the Fries: “We serve them with mayonnaise, which I guess is one of our shortcomings,” Dhondt laughs, “but once again, it’s our shortcoming.”
All this talk about food has made me hungry, what about Belgian waffles?
“Oh god, don’t even get me started,” he laughs.
Later that night, Dhondt met with his head coach — who was trying desperately to convince Dhondt to re-sign for one last hurrah following this season. According to Dhondt, it was a good meeting, but he remains undecided.
A few hours later Dhondt led his downtrodden Waregem squad, racked by injuries, onto the court against a first-placed Gent. For the next 40 minutes of action, Waregem laid the smack down on the championship favorites, walking away with a 14-point win.
“You know, it still feels good to pull off an upset and shock everyone,” says Dhondt with a laugh.
Here’s hoping for at least one more year of miracles.