Heaven is a Playground — Levi Levine, Vince Carter, racism, and Rucker Park

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The most important basketball game in the sports history occurred on Feb. 19, 1948, when the embodiment of pointed white elbows, stiff horizontal movement, set shots and athletic goggles faced off against the “negro quint,” as they were dubbed by the Minneapolis Tribune.

On that day, basketball’s first dynasty, the Minneapolis Lakers, anchored by George Mikan, were upset, 61-59, by the all black Harlem Globetrotters in an exhibition game. The Globetrotters’ win eviscerated professional basketballs racial barrier, changed the style and content of the game forever and paved the way for every successive generation of ballplayers.

Since then, New York City has been the capital of the basketball universe, at the center of the NYC basketball scene is Rucker Park in Harlem. Growing up in the Polo Grounds housing projects overlooking Rucker Park, former Albany University star forward/enforcer Levi Levine was born and raised almost at the epicenter of basketball.

After a decorated college career in Albany in which he left his name across the Great Danes’ record books, Levine has embarked on nine-year career as a professional player and coach, suiting up in Germany, Ireland and Romania. I caught up with the New York City playground veteran to talk European racism, Rucker Park, Vinsanity, the good side of  AAU basketball and the impact of Harlem.

Noah Perkins: You’ve played professionally in both Germany and Romania, two countries who have poor reputations in terms of anti-Semitism, racism and equality. What has your experience been with racial discrimination in Europe?

Levi Levine: Germany is more civil than Americans think. They are fair people that do not trust easily but will open up everything to you when they see your true worth. I have had a few fights here in Germany back in the day, but nothing racial.

Romania, on the other hand, is a country that is about 20 years behind the western world, but harbor(s) some of the best people I have ever met. Even though a lot of older people have an old racist mentality, they barely act out on it, unless you are dating their daughter.

I had an incident in Romania When I went out to recharge my credit to call home. I walked up a dark alley to get to the 24 hour store and this guy sitting on a car says “hey [N-word] and grabbed my arm. I pulled my arm away and got ready to bust his face, as I did that another guy gets out of the car. At this point my New York instincts kicked in and I pull out my four finger long pocket knife. One guy sprays me with mace as I am fighting the other guy.

To make a long story short they ended up leaving after they saw I was going to hurt one of them, not to mention I was calling my teammates to come outside while I was fighting. I can say that was the only blatant racial situation I have encountered out here because believe it or not black people have been out here way longer than people think and many people were raised properly with love in their hearts.

On a basic human level, what is the grimiest thing you have seen since going overseas?

The craziest thing I’ve ever seen was out in Romania. Many Gypsies are known to cripple their kids at a young age so they can go on the streets and beg for money and one time I saw a man whose knees bent backwards instead of forwards and that freaked me out because that had to be purposely done.

How does pickup ball in New York City compare to Europe?

Pick up is different everywhere, it all depends on who you are playing with. NYC is definitely the toughest place to play because if there is no blood there is no foul.

I have been playing in an annual streetball tournament in Sibiu, Romania for the last three years and it is very tough, because many professionals participate in it, but overall it always depends on who you play with because some guys make too many foul calls or hack the whole time, but that is the same no matter where you play. So I think the difference between New York City and everywhere else is the quantity and the quality of the talent that we have; there aren’t many places that breed as much talent as New York does.

In terms of talent, what is the best court you have ever played at?

In terms of talent, Rucker Park is the best streetball court in the world, hands down.

How do you think a young Levi Levine and the four best players at Rucker Park on a given summer night would fare against the typical starting five in say Romania?

If I took four of my best guys, by position from New York City and put them up against a Romanian team we would thug them out. Simply because not many people in this world are built like New Yorkers are and they would have to have at least one Romanian on their team.

A lot of pickup players, especially the white boys, are intimidated off by courts like Rucker Park and the Cage, what is the typical reaction to white players at these parks?

It’s not really about color it’s about your game and heart. The older dudes run the courts in their hood so if you want to play with them you have to prove yourself.

When I was growing up, guys like “Alimoe” “Speedy” “Kareem Reeves” ”Master Rob” “Strickland” “The Future” “Skip to my Lou” Ran places like the Rucker and West 4th , but every hood has some place to play and if you have a name you can play anywhere, until then you must earn it by purely “busting ass.”

If you showed up in west 4th or Rucker Park you would have to know someone or get down with whoever has next and if you have heart you can try call next yourself but depending on where you are they will thug your next from you (take it away and make their team in your spot).

How has the New York City Streetball mentality benefited you professionally?

My New York City background has kept me relevant against a lot of guys over the years, not because of my reputation but because of how hard I always fought on the court. I grew up playing against guys like, Royal Ivey, Adrian “A whole lotta game” Walton, Charlie Villenueva, Randy Foye, Lenny Cooke, Andre Barrett, Ben Gordon, Julius Hodge and Keydran Clark, all guys that play NBA or High level Europe and that prepared me for every type of competition I would face in the future because those dudes were dead nice and some of them are still playing on very high levels. I had to persevere then and I am still, until this day, able to do my thing on the court, it just hurts more after.

I used to go to Pee Wee Kirkland’s basketball camp for about 2 years and he is a big reason for the fire inside of me, not because he made me better but because he ignored me and a lot of other kids until he thought I was relevant.

What is your craziest Rucker Park memory?

When Vince Carter came to the Rucker (summer, 1999).

My guy, and streetball legend Adrian “A Whole Lotta Game” Walton was set to match- up against Vince Carter that day. The rain site was in My AAU gym and a severe thunderstorm hit us so we had to forfeit our practice for the EBC games to take place. To my surprise Vince Carter walked into the gym. I was there for a normal practice when we are surprised to see that Vince Carter came to NYC to compete. We all sat down to witness one of the greatest streetball games ever.

Vince Carter caught an alley-oop windmill dunk on a fast break, something never seen before at that time, it made us go wild! The whole game was close because Adrian Walton took that game as a challenge and wanted to show everyone that he was NBA material. [Walton] hit at least six 3-pointers that game on Vince Carter and even though Carter’s team won the game and Vince blessed us with numerous dunks we had never seen before, Adrian Walton was representing Harlem in a major way, dropping 37-points to Vince Carter’s 29.

Vince may have won the war but Adrian Walton won the battle and in streetball that’s almost as good as winning the game. It was good to watch an NBA legend in action, live, but it felt better to see a friend, teammate and hood legend get buckets against a top NBA player!

I think it was Smush Parker who said something like the playground raised me second to my parents, growing up at the Polo Grounds you had Rucker Park right outside, is this something you can relate to?

Growing up in the Polo Grounds, from what I can remember, was very hard for me because I was basically outside with my brother or by myself. When I was with my brother, I would watch games in the Rucker and play when I could, so that’s how it all began. I used to watch the games sometimes from my 29th floor window but when my brother was playing I was right there in Rucker Park watching.

I only lived in the Polo Grounds for the first 10 years of my life and it was hard, but having Rucker Park at my doorstep instilled that hunger for the game in me. I can definitely relate to what Smush said because I literally played ball every day, that’s all I knew existed until I went to prep school in Cheshire, Connecticut. If you didn’t play ball you was a thug and I knew nothing about that life so I chose ball over all.

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What is your reaction to the criticism of AAU basketball for taking kids away from playground ball? Do you think less time playing pickup weakens these kids’ games?

Spending less time playing in the streets can be a good thing because many kids do get killed or into altercations in these streets and AAU basketball takes them away from all of that, I know because it did that for me. Playing with the Gauchos taught me how to play organized, under the whistle basketball and gave me my first experience in Europe.

People should realize the good AAU does for their kids, I think you’re as strong or as weak as your coach lets you become and if you had a good coach it was better for you to play AAU because that would open up doors to colleges.

What does it mean for you to be from Harlem?

Being from Harlem means everything to me because I am a part of the culture and illustrious basketball history that we have and that says a lot.

Harlem has taught me how to survive in this crazy world; My swagger often deters a lot of negative energy from coming my way but it also brings negative, jealous hatred my way because you can almost tell where I am from by the way I walk and that makes some people mad. When I tell people that I am from Harlem, they either have a big love and respect for me because they often dream of New York or they hate me because they cannot be me. It may sound a bit cocky but many people want to be what they see on T.V. and New York has always been in the worlds view.

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NBA All-Star Weekend — Zach LaVine, Steph Curry and one heck of a fun time

From the city streets to the subways, brands like Adidas, Nike, and the NBA itself have New York City plastered in advertisements and other imagery in preparation for Today’s All-Star Game. While the Rising Stars Challenge at Barclays Center got things underway on Friday night, the festivities really kicked off on Saturday evening in Brooklyn with the NBA All-Star Saturday, and I was fortunate enough to be in attendance.

The last time I was at Barclays Center was for a college tripleheader that featured the Patriot League’s Loyola-Maryland facing off against Fairfield. Similar to Ari Kramer’s experience earlier in the year, the arena was nowhere close to buzzing and was a shell of its normal rambunctious night life.

Saturday was a completely different story. Immediately after stepping out of the heavily branded train station at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, fans were greeted by the giant white security tent and immense oculus of the Barclays Center.

Inside the arena, fans from all over the world gathered to watch some of the NBA’s best go head to head in a wide range of skills competitions. The two most talked about events of the evening: the 3-point competition and slam-dunk competition.

The first two events, which consist of the Degree Shooting Stars and Taco Bell Skills Challenge competitions, little more than a light appetizer. Fans were still filing in during the former, and during the latter, it was obvious the players themselves weren’t taking it seriously.

But everything changed the second Stephen Curry started burying 3-pointers during the shooting competition, culminating in an electrifying final round, turning an otherwise lulled crowd at the Barclays Center into actual participants. Curry has entrenched himself as one – if not the — best in-game shooters on the planet, as evidenced by his 51 point explosion against the Dallas Mavericks earlier this month.

But even in light of Curry’s sterling reputation as one of the game’s premier snipers, entrenched two years ago when he set the NBA record with 272 3-pointers in a season, performance on Saturday was something else, as the lanky gunner drilled 13 straight 3-pointers in the final round to seal his championship.

Curry’s effort on Saturday was a statement that he is one of the purest shooters of our time. His ability to effortlessly sink the 3-pointer was on display, and he made it look easy, while his splash bros. partner Klay Thompson looked like your average-Joe.

After being infused with new life from the 3-point competition, the crowd was primed and ready to go for the slam-dunk competition. And while Sam Perkins may be skeptical about Zach LaVine’s performance, it was one for the ages.

Battle of the Bronx in Brooklyn does not feel right

After so many years of the competition, most dunks have been done to death, leaving many fans thinking they won’t ever see an original slam again, which has led to an emphasis on showmanship among presentations. “The Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo did a great job in terms of his presentation, having several models enter the arena with him, carrying the Greek flag and fans. Unfortunately, his execution was seriously lacking, which surprised many, considering his hype and general athleticism.

The runner-up Victor Oladipo started off red-hot, singing Frank Sinatra’s classic “New York, New York,” with his 360-degree (maybe 540-degree) reverse jam, but did not have enough left in the tank for the finals.

But LaVine was nearly perfect on every slam, combining the showmanship of both Oladipo and Antetokounmpo, the skill of legends like Dr. J and Michael Jordan, and the nostalgia that the common fan loves. To top it off, LaVine’s love for the 1990s classic, Space Jam was on full display as the rookie rocked a Tune Squad jersey on his first dunk. LaVine set the tone early, throwing down a between the legs jam off a self alley-oop to record a perfect 50 on his first dunk of the night.

LaVine’s impressive night continued to drop jaws around the arena, threw down several other high-flying between the leg dunks sending the fans into a frenzy every time.

By the end of it, the All-Star Saturday experience is a worthwhile one. Fans get to see some of the NBA’s best players at the moment, and some of their rising stars doing what they do best. And while the branding aspect of it has a large role, the show put on by the players and the league is one unmatched by other professional leagues.

Heaven is a Playground — Larry Sanders #420 and the nine worst people in the NBA

July 10, 2012

“What’s in the box”?

“Drugs,” The detective replied, indignantly stone-faced.

“Like cocaine?” I forced the words out. It felt like Tabasco Sauce was being directly applied to my heart. Of course I knew it wasn’t cocaine. Alone in the kitchen with a box of narcotics, I assessed my options as the police entered the house: Lawyer up or play dumb. To answer Dr. Dre’s question from The Watcher, I have no Tupac in me.

How convincingly naïve can I make myself appear?

”Please Mister Officer, I don’t know anything: I just graduated from college last month, I’m just a kid.” The genetic programming of suburban white-folks incarnate.

“Marijuana” he said, emotionless, sizing me up, most likely wondering if I could actually be this stupid. Here I was, front and center, playing the role of Anthony Collins in the Jerome Simpson drama.
Wrong place, wrong time.

My friend, for the sake of his identity, let’s just call him “Dumbass,” had a small quantity of pot shipped in the mail from California to Massachusetts. In hindsight, I was golden: The package didn’t have my name on it, I wasn’t on the lease of the home, and I wasn’t the one to greet the mailman.

No, that was all Dumbass.

Hi, federal postal worker, thanks for the drugs, have a great day!

Logic goes out the window when you are being threatened with a Class D felony and a one-to-five year prison sentence. Fortunately, that Dumbass is quite the mensch. There is something to be said about the people who take responsibility for their own stupidity.

We sat in a meadow for a while. I went to the gym, burned about 2,000 calories in what must have been the best work out of my life. By 10 p.m. I was on my sixth drink. By midnight I had texted every girl in my phonebook until one had finally agreed to come over, Unique Avocado. An otherwise meaningless day, whose only impact upon my life is that it has become one of my better “hey, remember that time” moments.

What did I learn? To be afraid.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where four 23-year-olds and a small quantity of marijuana calls for 10 detectives, but hey, federal law was knowingly broken, so I suppose it’s also difficult to create a victim.

The usage of weed in and out of itself is a victimless crime — we all know that. Why bother stating the obvious about how the enforcement of marijuana laws have been among the greater injustices in the history of this country.

The NBA has its own Dumbass. Well, to be fair the NBA has no shortage of dumbasses, but one dumbass stands out in the vastness of DUI’s, spousal abuse, sex offenses, handguns and occasional homicides: Milwaukee Bucks Center Larry Sanders.

For exercising his own harmless idiocy, Sanders was suspended for 12 games in January after testing positive a fourth time for marijuana. The suspension, which was officially ended on Feb. 11, cost Sanders a total of $1.2 million, and has raised questions regarding whether or not the Bucks talented but listless big man will be welcomed back by the team following the All-Star break. A buyout is reportedly on the table.

It’s rather ironic. Jason Kidd, the team’s head coach and convicted spousal abuser and drunk driver, can look down his nose at Sanders.

The dude likes getting high; most of the NBA does. Remember back in 2001 when Charles Oakley estimated that 60-percent of the league smokes pot? Similar to my Dumbass, I can’t defend Sanders as a victim: He has been caught breaking NBA policy on four separate occasions, of course he is going to be punished.

Yet I can’t help but to feel a kinship with him.

Look at the inconsistencies in the NBA’s disciplinary policy and tell me Sanders punishment fits his crime:

• 2014, Dante Cunningham, arrested on charges of domestic assault: no suspension, signed by the Pelicans three days later.

• 2013 Ty Lawson, arrested on charges of spousal abuse and property damage: no suspension.

• 2013 Jared Sullinger, arrested for domestic assault: no suspension.

• 2012 Metta World Peace, suspended seven games for elbowing James Harden in the head.

• 2012 Jordan Hill, arrested for domestic assault, pleads down to a misdemeanor charge: no suspension

• 2010 Lance Stephenson is charged with assault after pushing his girlfriend down a flight of stairs: no punishment.

• 2009 J.R. Smith, seven game suspension for reckless driving.

• 2007 Stephen Jackson, seven game suspension for firing a gun outside of a strip club.

• 2003 Rasheed Wallace, seven game suspension for threatening NBA official Tim Donaghy in a parking lot.

It appears basketball’s governing body is more concerned with natural vegetation than it is with violence. My position can best be articulated by Sanders, who had this to say following his 2014 suspension for his third offense:

“It’s something I feel strongly about, just to let you know something personal about me… I will deal with the consequences from it… It’s a banned substance in my league. But I believe in marijuana and the medical side of it. I know what it is if I’m going to use it… In a lot of ways we’ve been deprived.. You can’t really label it with so many other drugs that people can be addicted to and have so many negative effects on your body and your family and your relationships and impairment. This is not the same thing.

“The stigma is that it’s illegal.”

Professional sports at their best are a vehicle for social reform. Fresh faced Adam Silver, with his progressive stance on gaming, his swift reaction to Donald Sterling and his promise for more punitive consequences to domestic violence represents a cause for optimism: more discipline for the Jeff Taylors of the basketball world, less for criminally clean recreational smokers.

In a moment of clear headedness I asked the detective interrogating me if he thought marijuana should be legalized. His response: It would make my job easier, but people are making money off of it.

What nonsensical hogwash.

A trip down memory lane: The dominance of Taylor Coppenrath even in defeat

Taylor Coppenrath.
Taylor Coppenrath.

Can a player be truly dominant in a loss?

It’s a question I’ve heard asked many times, in many ways over my years of first following and now covering college ball. And it’s a question that I’m once again hearing on the heels of Stony Brook’s 71-57 loss to Vermont, a game in which Seawolves center Jameel Warney scored 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting, to go with 10 rebounds, two blocks an assist and a steal in 35 minutes of action.

I’ve heard many basketball purists say no, that by very definition a dominant performance would ensure a victory. Now I can’t say whether Warney’s performance on Saturday afternoon was dominant, or merely great. The Catamounts executed a game plan that boiled down to letting Warney get his, forgoing the standard swarming double-teams thrown at the 260-pound bruiser, leaving the New Jersey native in single coverage, while focusing on stopping the entire rest of the Seawolves roster – a game plan that paid big dividends.

But I can say, with the utmost confidence, that a player can completely dominate a game in a losing effort. And I can say it without a shadow of a doubt for one simple reason: I was sitting in the Agganis Arena on Feb. 12, 2005, when Vermont legend Taylor Coppenrath came to town and completely dismantled host Boston University.

I had never, ever seen a spectacle like what I saw on that day before, and I have yet to see one like it since.

Boston University found a way to withstand Coppenrath’s end-of-days level storm on the court, hanging on to a 61-55 win, but the story of the night was the West Barnet, Vermont, native.

Coppenrath’s final stat line — 37 of Vermont’s 55 points, 13-of-24 from the floor, 10-of-10 from the line, to go with 13 rebounds and a block for good measure – was jaw-dropping. Yet it didn’t begin to tell the story. Coppenrath scored 27 points in the first half, scoring 25 straight Vermont points during one stretch in the game that overlapped both halves.

That still isn’t the craziest part of the game.

Coppenrath scored 37 points, including 25 straight, while Boston University head coach Dennis Wolff, one of if not the greatest defensive minds in league history, employed a triangle-2 defense. The catch: The “2” – First Team All-Conference selection Rashad Bell, a super-athletic power forward with tremendous skill, and a rotating cast that included 6’9” athlete and future First Teamer Kevin Garner, extremely athletic future overseas pro Etienne Brower, and insanely long future NBAer Tony Gaffney – were BOTH covering Coppenrath. The double coverage extended to well beyond when Coppenrath had the ball, as the Terriers’ big men blanketed him from the minute he stepped across half court for virtually the entire final 30 minutes of the game.

Despite Coppenrath’s fellow 2,000 point scorer T.J. Sorrentine handling the rock for the Catamounts, Wolff’s strategy against Vermont was the complete opposite of Becker’s strategy against Warney and the Seawolves 10 years later: Stop Taylor Coppenrath at all costs; Do not let Vermont’s bigman beat you singlehandedly, because he will.

Wolff’s strategy, of course, was a sound tactical move: One season earlier, after missing nearly a month with a broken left wrist, Coppenrath returned to the floor, cold, for the 2004 America Championship game against Maine. Maine head coach Dr. John Giannini decided to start the game with Coppenrath in single coverage.

What proceeded was the greatest one-man butt-whooping in conference tournament history, with Coppenrath scoring 28 first half points en route to a championship game record 43.

Boston University was able to hang on for the win when the Terriers were able to finally deny Coppenrath the ball in the post, and Vermont was unable to capitalize on the 4-on-3 advantage they had across the rest of the court. But despite the loss, the 6’9” inch 250-pounder was devastatingly dominant none the less.

Stijn Dhondt, the Matthews Miracle, friendship and French — err Belgian — fries

Former Boston University Terrier Stijn Dhondt has played pro ball for 13 years in his native Belgium. Courtesy photo / Natalie Tijtgat
Former Boston University Terrier Stijn Dhondt has played pro ball for 13 years in his native Belgium. Courtesy photo / Natalie Tijtgat

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.

Stijn Dhondt was a team captain for three years at Boston University.
Stijn Dhondt was a team captain for three years at Boston University. Photo courtesy of Boston University Athletics.

“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.

Photo courtesy of Boston University Athletics.
“I still can’t believe that shot (against Hartford) went in. It still seems so surreal.” – Stijn Dhondt Photo courtesy of Boston University Athletics.

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.

The "Matthews' Miracle."  Courtesy photo / Boston University Athletics
The “Matthews’ Miracle.”
Courtesy photo / Boston University Athletics

If you enjoyed this story visit our features section for more compelling pieces on the inspiring players who suit up out of the limelight in the shadows of mid-major basketball.

OBW America East Mailbag Dec. 17 edition

OBW Editor-in-Chief Sam Perkins
OBW Editor-in-Chief Sam Perkins

OBW is unveiling a new and what will hopefully become a weekly feature with it’s OBW America East Mailbag, in which fans email their America East-related questions to OBW Editor-in-Chief Sam Perkins, who promises to answer them openly, honestly, transparently, and, at times, bluntly.

As a Hartford Alum, this season coming in had a lot of high expectations. A month into the season those expectations have not been met. With a new Athletic Director and several more years left on his contract is Hartford’s head coach John Gallagher on the hot seat to be fired at season’s end?

Thanks,
Mike

Hi Mike, thanks for the email. I know I sound overly harsh on Hartford a lot, and perhaps I’m holding them to too high a standard. The Hawks have been enigmatic in the early going, but have shown they can play at an incredibly high level as evidenced by their beat down of a very good Holy Cross team.

With that said, Hartford just does not seem to have evolved from the team they were two years ago. Yes, the then-sophomores have taken steps over the past two years to be come better players, but their team, their system and their scheme are still very much the same: An over-reliance on three-point shooting, and on Mark Nwakamma holding down the battle in the low-post trenches on his own, without reinforcement.

To me, this is a huge year for the Hawks: With the graduation of six seniors at the end of the school year, among them Nwakamma, the team’s star, and the team’s heart and soul in Corban Wroe and Yolonzo Moore II, if the Hawks don’t win this year, they are in for a big rebuild next year and I just do not see them being able to offset all the talent they are losing.

Back to the question at hand: If the Hawks don’t punch through to the big dance, what happens with Gallagher? From everything I have heard, when he was hired by then-AD Pat Meiser in the summer of 2010, the understanding was that he needed to get the team to the NCAAs (which would be the first in school history) within six years. We’re now in year five. Certainly some things have happened since then: Gallagher was extended through 2017-2018, and Meiser retired and was replaced by Anton Goff in May of 2014.

From what I have seen, Goff is a fan of Gallagher. I also think that the loyalty Gallagher has inspired from players present and past goes a very long way – he brings in good kids, graduates them, and they stay very connected with the school. However, I also know that Hartford wants to get to the NCAAs bad in men’s hoops, so they won’t wait forever.

If Hartford comes up short this year, I don’t see Gallagher on the hot seat – yet. I think if they make it to the Championship game, he’ll have two more years to try and get it done. If they don’t make the Championship game, I think next year will be a make or break season.

Stony Brook has been arguably the premier program in the league during the regular season for the past 5-6 years, but hasn’t been able to win the big one when it counts. What do you think is the reason for the Seawolves’ struggles in the conference tournament?

Thanks,
Steve

Hey Steve, thanks for asking. I’ve thought a lot about the Seawolves’ struggles to win the big one, so to speak, and I can’t help but see somewhat of a lesser version of Dennis Wolff’s Boston University squads from 2002-2004 in the Seawolves, albeit one that likes playing for their coach a whole lot more (before anyone gets up in arms, “lesser” is not a slight to Stony Brook: Those BU teams were ridiculously deep in talent and athleticism).

What I mean is this: Stony Brook, like Wolff’s Terriers teams, is deep, athletic, and really gets after it defensively. Both game planned around their defense and depth. Over the course of a 30-game season, that overall talent, depth, and ability to get stops wins out. However, in the vacuum of the America East Tournament (or now playoffs), when you have to win three straight games, team’s seem to need to be able to hit big shots on offense, benches are shortened, and you usually go with your best 5-8 players as opposed to your best 8-11 players.

BU really struggled with this for a few reasons, and I have seen some similarities with previous Stony Brook squads. With both teams on offense, it often seemed like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen without a head chef: No one really knew who was the guy who should take “the big shot.” I also think that both teams really, really struggled from having a lack of an offensive identity and game plan, so not only did they not know who should take the big shot, but they didn’t even really know how to generate the big shot.

What I think bodes well for Stony Brook is that, even with the graduation of so many great players over the past two years, they seem to have much, much more of an offensive identity now: Get the ball to center Jameel Warney on the blocks, or in point guard Carson Puriefoy’s hands so he can create off the bounce.

With that said, these next two years are huge: If Stony Brook can’t finally punch through to the NCAAs before Warney and Puriefoy graduate, you have to wonder if the current staff has reached the peak of what it can do on Long Island.

Do you think that Binghamton University will be able to move forward this season without Jordan Reed?

Thanks,
Brett

Hey Brett. Things are definitely looking bleak in Vestal right now, and I think expectations need to be tempered among fans. I do definitely think they can “move forward this season,” but moving forward without Reed means comparing the team at the end of the year to where it is right now – did they get better over the course of the season? Did players improve? Did the team gel and compete better? — not to what we expected from Binghamton at the beginning of the year with Reed.

I think the Bearcats have some very, very talented freshmen, especially Willie Rodriguez, whose junkyard dog game and mentality I love, along with skilled scoring big Dusan Perovic and athletic wing Romello Walker. I think how that class — Dempsey’s third, but really his second true recruiting class because of when he was hired — develops is key.

To use this as a jumping off point: I’ve seen some fans openly calling for Dempsey’s head, and I think it is way too early for that. People need to remember: One, just how atrocious a situation Dempsey inherited, and two, just how hard it is to build a program up. Coaches in similar situations have struggled during their first few seasons, alternating between steps forward and backwards before getting it right.

Look no further than Steve Pikiell at Stony Brook for a comparison: Pikiell inherited a mess of a situation, with NCAA sanctions for low APR scores like Binghamton, but Pikiell had the advantage of having an entire boat-load of money and support from the Athletic Department behind a push to get Stony Brook basketball good and get it good in a hurry. This isn’t faulting Binghamton’s athletic department: they want basketball to be good, but it isn’t the same kind of push.

Back to Pikiell: People forget that before all the 20-win seasons and regular season championships that in his first three seasons, Stony Brook really struggled and one could argue that he really missed almost entirely on his first three recruiting classes. Case and point: The Seawolves went 4-24 in 2005-2006, 9-20 in 2006-2007, and then dropped back to 7-23 in 2007-2008. During that time, the Seawolves roster was a revolving door, and of the four-year recruits Pikiell brought in, only Andrew Goba, Eddie Castellanos, Marqus, and Chris Martin stayed for all four years, andnone of them earned any All-Conference honors. Year four, Pikiell hit a home run with his recruiting class, landing guys like Tommy Brenton, Bryan Dougher, Dallis Joyner and Muhammad El-Amin.

My point is, it really takes time to build a program, especially one that was literally blown-up from within because of the scandal Binghamton endured. I think you need to give Dempsey another year before you can make an assessment of him. Overall, his classes seem to have gotten better in overall depth and talent from year one, to year two and now year three.

It definitely hurts to lose a singular talent like Reed, but considering how talented he was, and that he was still available for a team like Binghamton so late in the late signing period, you had to kind of expect there would be a high-probability he wouldn’t pan out.

Speaking of Reed…

What were reasons behind Jordan Reed transferring, and what schools have you heard of have gotten involved in terms of new destination?

UVM Hoop Cat

I usually hear about what is going on behind closed doors in the league, but people from both sides have been incredibly tight-lipped about what happened.

I wrote a profile on the relationship between Reed and Dempsey this summer, in which both seemed very genuine, open and, frankly, vulnerable when discussing what they both acknowledged had been a rocky relationship, but that both said had become incredibly close and supportive.

When news of Reed’s departure broke, I racked my brain wondering if I had been BS-ed by either or both of them. In talking with a laundry list of former teammates, opponents, coaches and people close to Binghamton’s program, everyone seemed to think that both were very genuine at the time.

What I’ve managed to piece together is that both are very strong, and at times stubborn and set in their ways. That they actually didn’t dislike each other at all, and both tried to change a bit to accommodate the other, but that in the end, Reed didn’t like what he saw his role becoming with the team, and Dempsey wasn’t willing to allow Reed to operate in a way different from his teammates because he felt the short-term benefits of his play, would be greatly outweighed by the long-term costs towards the culture of the program.

I have also heard that Reed was legitimately dealing with some non-basketball, off the court issues that greatly complicated matters.

I haven’t heard any specific teams where he might land, but I’ve heard that there’s a good chance it will be closer to his hometown of Philadelphia.

Well, that wraps up our first edition of the OBW America East mailbag. Please email your questions on any America East-related topic to onebidwonders@gmail.com for next weeks edition.

Thanks again!

Man versus Ball: Vermont should dedicate court to Tom Brennan

Former Vermont head coach Tom Brennan celebrates the Catamounts' upset over four-seed Syracuse in the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
Former Vermont head coach Tom Brennan celebrates the Catamounts’ upset over four-seed Syracuse in the 2005 NCAA Tournament.

I shouldn’t have to write this. It seems so obvious. Plain and simple: The basketball court at the University of Vermont should be dedicated to former men’s basketball coach Tom Brennan, who helmed the team for 19 years.

Most memorably, 10 years ago this March, his team upset a heavily favored Syracuse team in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In short, TB won the big one, the near impossible one.

When TB took over the UVM reigns, it was inconceivable that the Cats could achieve such a feat. At at least one point, TB’s team was ranked dead last in Division I. UVM was considered a hockey haven and basketball graveyard. But TB gave the hoops program at UVM life. He did it with fewer scholarships than his competitors. He did it with less than stellar facilities. He did it without a recruiting gold mine on his doorstep.

He did it with passion, persistence and humor – lots of humor. And even if TB didn’t win that first round NCAA game, I’d still be writing this, asking that he get his due.

TB has been much more than a basketball coach. He has been a pillar in the community. He has been beyond generous with his time, from everything from high school graduations to charitable causes to stuff I don’t know about. Coach K has his court. TB should have his. In my mind, he’s bigger than any other. He’s ours – and he let everyone enjoy his team’s success. So give TB his court. Ten years after his team shocked the world, it’s time.

Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures, www.manversusball.com.