The dream that refused to die: How Matt Hanessian became a Penn Quaker

Matt Hanessian successfully walked on at Penn as a senior, and is now playing meaningful minutes. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream, albeit a dream differed. Courtesy photo / Penn Athletics
Matt Hanessian successfully walked on at Penn as a senior, and is now playing meaningful minutes. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream, albeit a dream differed. Courtesy photo / Penn Athletics

Matt Hanessian ran out of the darkened underbelly of the ancient hoops cathedral onto the hallowed hardwood floors under the high-arching overhead beams of the Palestra on Dec. 9., wearing the storied uniform of the University of Pennsylvania.

As a kid growing up in Chicago, Hanessian had dreamt of playing basketball under the bright lights at the center of a grand stage. It was a dream that was nearly lost when Hanessian spent his entire freshman year of college completely removed from any organized ball, and a dream that remained deferred over the next two years while he played before empty, echo filled seats on the junior varsity squad, where thoughts of a post-college career in the real world drowned out and daydreams of making the varsity.

But it was a dream that simply refused to die.

And when Hanessian’s shot with 15:56 remaining in the first half against Marist, set up by a dump-off feed from guard Matt Howard — the first field-goal attempt of Hanessian’s career — found the bottom of the net, pushing the Quakers lead to 6-0, it was the culmination of one of the most circuitous routes to Division I basketball, and the realization of the previously impossible dream.

Hanessian didn’t have any time to soak in the moment: he had to sprint back on D, and that’s what makes the story so much better.

“To be honest there wasn’t even time to think about that (my first points), because the ball came right back down the court and I had to play defense,” says Hanessian, taking a break before finals to talk about his long and winding road to becoming a Division I player.

“It was as routine a play as could be. And then I think I turned the ball over the next time I touched it,” he laughs.

“It wasn’t like it was the end of the game, the last game of the year, and a charity bucket where we’re trying to get Matt the ball,” says head coach Jerome Allen of the 6-foot-6-inch forward who was so much of an afterthought when he was added to the roster in October that he still does not have a headshot on the team’s website, only to become an indispensable part of the Quakers’ rotation and presence in their locker room. “I recognized the story, but we’re far past that: He’s on the floor, he’s expected to play, play well, and play to the highest standard.”

It would be easy to cast Hanessian as a modern day Rudy set on the hardwood instead of the gridiron – a personification of perseverance: The kid who grows up dreaming about simply setting foot out under the lights for one moment, and after years of toiling on the JV and spending time as a punching-bag practice dummy for the varsity, grabs that dream. But Hanessian refuses to cast himself in that role.

“I know it would be nice if I said ‘yes’ — that I was the storybook hard work and never losing sight of a dream pays off — but it’s not so much that,” says Hanessian. “There was an opportunity that very easily could not have presented itself. It was kind of more seeing an opportunity, being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage.”

And that’s exactly what makes him all the more refreshing: He’s real. Most of us don’t realize when we are being presented with a genuine opportunity until it has already passed us by. Fewer of us still have the sack to take advantage of such an opportunity.

Hanessian is one of those select few.

“He’s taken advantage of every opportunity that he’s been presented with,” says Allen. “He wasn’t happy with being just one of the guys on the team: his commitment was to be ready for whatever was asked of him. He’s the first guy off the bench to celebrate his teammates and support them, and if you call his name as the first big man off the bench, he’s gone in and produced.”

Hanessian’s story begins in The Windy City, where he grew up with basketball on the brain.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to play in the NBA,” says Hanessian.

By the time he reached high school, Hanessian had a fairly good idea that a career playing hoops wasn’t in the cards he was dealt, but he still loved the game and dreamt of playing in college.

“When it was apparent that [the NBA] wasn’t going to happen, I wanted to play college basketball,” he says.

Hanessian attended University of Chicago Laboratory High School, where he lettered in both Basketball and Golf, captaining both teams as an upperclassman. On the hardwood, Hanessian, along with Michael Turner, helped lead Laboratory High School to Independent School League titles in 2010 and 2011, and a regional championship in 2010.

During their careers, Turner became a prized Division I recruit, narrowing his choices down to Northwestern and Penn, which is how Hanessian first crossed paths with his Allen.

“My senior year of high school, one of my best friends and my teammate, Mike Turner, was one of Penn’s top recruits and he was deciding between Penn and Northwestern, so coach Allen was actually at a bunch of our practices all throughout my senior year of high school,” he remembers.

“I was in Chicago for seven straight weeks recruiting Michael Turner, and [Hanessian] was thinking about applying to Penn,” remembers Allen.

Penn was already Hanessian’s top choice academically, and after several weeks of practicing and playing in front of Allen, he broached the subject of trying to play at Penn. It didn’t go as Hanessian had hoped.

“I wanted to play college basketball, didn’t know if I could, so I figured why not: I asked coach Allen if he had a spot for me on the team after one of the practices; he said, ‘Nope,” Hanessian laughs.

“Well, I wasn’t that blunt,” Allen says, breaking into a soft laugh. “Maybe he put a little bit of extra sauce on it.

“At that time I wanted what I wanted. The crazy thing is that his story and his journey is now to the point where we need Matt. Whether it’s the practice setting or games, he makes us better and I give him all the credit in the world. “

Turner wound up choosing Northwestern. Hanessian was accepted to Penn and, despite his best friend heading elsewhere and his basketball dreams seemingly DOA, decided to enroll, assuming his playing days were over.

But after a year completely away from the sport, Hanessian started to get the itch. When Allen had originally rejected him from the varsity, he had suggested Hanessian play for the junior varsity squad, a program that exists throughout the Ivy League but has become extinct across much of the rest of the Division I landscape. After playing pick-up with several of the JV players in the spring, Hanessian decided to try out for the squad, and wound up starting as a sophomore and serving as the JV captain as a junior.

“The coolest part of the JV program was that it was actually very connected to the varsity,” says Hanessian. “We basically ran a light version of the same system – got to run the same plays. The varsity guys were always very supportive, and it was just a really cool experience to get to play organized basketball at a pretty high level in college.”

And they got to play in the Palestra. And for a long time, that was enough for Hanessian.

“I didn’t even really want to play varsity. I was involved in a lot of other things on campus, it would have taken up a lot of my time, and I was happy to take something that was less of a time commitment, if it meant playing organized basketball, especially organized basketball in the Palestra, which was something I never thought I’d be able to do once I was done with [high school] basketball.”

But towards the end of his junior year, his varsity dreams began to resurface.

“Some of the graduating seniors would come to the gym and play pick-up with students. And there were a couple of times – obviously, for me that pick-up game meant a lot to me, for them they were just messing around – but there were a couple of games when I’d be on the floor with my JV teammates and they’d come with three or four of their varsity teammates and we’d actually win, and for me, I’d be like ‘if I can do this, I can hang with them, maybe this is a possibility.’”

And the end of his junior year, he decided to make one run at the varsity – it would be his first, last and best chance at being an official Division I player.

“A lot of people around me said things along the lines of ‘good luck,’ but I don’t think anybody, myself included, expected this to happen,” he says.

Unfortunately, the real world sidetracked him, as a summer job ate up a lot of his time.

But late in the summer into the early fall, Hanessian could be found in the gym, going all out against the varsity.

He didn’t know it at the time, but Allen and his staff were watching intently, having been impressed by Hanessian’s tenacious play during his time on the JV.

“We all like to make projections of how our team is going to be. I watched a lot of the JV games last year, and the way he approached the games, we thought he’d be a great body in practice, and his overall spirit was something we needed as far as being the glue – as being one of the guys who was going to push everyone else in the right direction.”

According to Hanessian, his official induction to the varsity was somewhat anti-climactic.

“Coach Allen came down, he basically yelled at the rest of the team, and he just said ‘give coach Mike [Lintulahti] your shoe size and be in the weight room on Monday,’ and that was it,” he laughs.

But once it sunk in, the moment – and the journey to get there – truly sunk in for Hanessian.

“When it did happen it was very validating for me,” he says. “It was just an awesome experience to know that I wanted something for a long time and I wound up getting it.“

After making the team, Hanessian had no delusions of grandeur about fighting his way into the rotation, and was thrilled simply to be part of the team and push his teammates in practice. But things went a bit differently.

Hanessian didn’t play a second in the first game of the season, before getting a glimpse of garbage time in a 16-point loss versus Rider, and then returning to the end of the bench one game later against Lafayette.

“The first time that I played was against Rider, the second game of the season. They outplayed us that game and we were down by 15 or so and he put me on with about 50 seconds left,” he says. “It was cool. It was surprising to me how normal it felt.”

But then the Quakers were racked by injuries to their front court, losing talented freshman Mike Auger to a broken foot and later sophomore Dylan Jones to a concussion.

Against a long, athletic and physical Temple squad from the Atlantic-10, Allen wasn’t happy with the effort of the front court, and called on Hanessian in the first half, and the economics major and music minor went right at the Owls front court.

“Coach Allen put me in with about six minutes left in the half. I’m nowhere near as gifted as the other players – especially the Temple players – but the one thing I can do is work just as hard as everyone else on the floor, and I think coach Allen saw that.”

Hanessian didn’t post any statistics in three minutes, but he put a body on a far larger and more athletic opponent every time down the court, and defended the heck out of the paint.

“His number was called and he was ready. We talk a lot about being ready when the opportunity presents itself and he’s embodied that,” beams Allen.

After registering one more “DNP” Hanessian has played in the Quakers’ last three games, helping the team register three straight wins – their first three of the season. In six minutes in a 79-70 win at Binghamton, he pulled down three rebounds, before following that up with six hard minutes against Marist and his first career points.

“We need Matt to deliver, we need Matt to get underneath a ball screen, we need him to close out, we need him to box out, we need him to help us win games,” says Allen.

Hanessian, who has a job lined up working for Deloitte in Washington D.C., knows his role on the team: set bone-crushing screens, play relentless defense, and push his teammates in practice and pick them up in the locker room. He knows that as his teammates return to health, his playing time will likely decrease. But no matter what his stat line reads at the end of the year, he’s left his mark on the program.

“He’s part of this program and he’s expected to help us win,” says Allen, “whether it’s one second or 50 minutes.”

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How Isaiah Williams went from unwanted to Iona glue guy

Williams, Iona's best defender, guards 2013-14 MAAC Player of the Year Billy Baron. Courtesy Photo /
Williams, Iona’s best defender, guards 2013-14 MAAC Player of the Year Billy Baron. Courtesy Photo /

The Isaiah Williams story is one of disappointment and triumph, temptation and restraint. It is about an irrepressible desire to find a way out of crime-ridden Newark, and a young man with NBA aspirations who began his college career paying tuition at Marshall.

Its mantra is inked on Williams’ right forearm, amidst a myriad of tattoos: “Life is what you make it.”

Cliché and idealistic? Perhaps. But Williams has lived by those six words ever since he was 10 years old. They have led him to Iona, where he is a 6-foot-7 forward on scholarship, instead of a jail cell or a grave, the destinations of so many of his peers growing up.

Like many kids, Williams had a vision for his life bordering on the quixotic. He loved basketball, and he wanted to forge a career at the highest level. But he was young — maybe nine or 10, he estimates now. He didn’t have a strong work ethic simply because he didn’t realize how hard he would need to work to make the NBA.

That changed after a conversation with his aunt.

“There was one day when I was sitting in the house, and my aunt, she asked me, ‘You want to be an NBA player?’” Williams recalls. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I want to be an NBA player.’ She was like, ‘But you don’t work out a lot.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, I do.’ She’s like, ‘Nah, no, you don’t. There’s kids right now working out, rain, snow,’ and that stuck with me ever since that day.”

Williams is shooting 47 percent from three-point territory this season. Courtesy Photo /
Williams is shooting 47 percent from three-point territory this season. Courtesy Photo /

Since then, few obstacles have been obstinate enough to keep Williams off the court. He left Iona for undisclosed personal reasons for a five-game stretch last year in which the Gaels went 1-4 — they’re 27-10 with Williams in the lineup. Then there was the time Williams, a ninth grader, didn’t make varsity at Malcolm X Shabazz High School.

“Basketball was everything to me, so I’m like, ‘I don’t want to play basketball no more. I don’t want to go to school no more,’” he said, “so I just basically stopped going to school.”

Basketball, though, was too precious to give up.

“People were just telling me, ‘You’ve got to go back to school. If you want to go to college, how are you going to go to college?’” he said. “I was like I’m going to find a way. I didn’t know the way I was going to do it, but I knew I was going to find a way.”

Williams could hone his craft on a Newark blacktop in the rain and the cold. He would shovel inches and inches of snow off the court in the winter and shoot until he could no longer feel his extremities.

Iona assistant coach Brock Erickson, who coached Williams at State College of Florida in 2012-13, immediately recognized that quality in Williams — that stubbornness in pursuit of his hoop dream, that will to brave the elements and wee hours of the morning.

“He would beg me for the keys to the gym,” Erickson said of a regular occurrence during his and Williams’ year together on the Gulf of Mexico’s shoreline. “He would beg me to try to get me into the gym with him. I would have to open the gym for him late at night and early in the morning.”

But before the junior college would admit Williams — and before Marshall would do the same a year earlier — the high-flying, do-it-all forward would need to graduate from high school. He couldn’t accomplish that goal on Newark’s outdoor courts. If he couldn’t break out of his funk and return to Shabazz High School, he would almost definitely end up on the streets.

Life is what you make it, and Williams faced a crossroads.

“You see drug-selling all day, guns, but I just stayed away from it,” Williams said. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re good people. I know them and stuff, but that’s their way of living. I didn’t want to live like that.”

So Williams went back to school and finished ninth grade. Every waking moment he wasn’t in class, doing homework or eating, it seemed, Williams was playing basketball, often by himself because so many of his friends opted for the streets.

“That’s the way to get away from it. Other than that, you’re just going to be standing right there with them,” he said. “And then what’s going to happen? You’re going to see them making money, and you’re going to want to make money, too. So I would just be like, ‘No, I’ll see you all later.’ They didn’t get mad at that. They pushed me to do it. They said, ‘Yeah, don’t hang with us. Go to the court.’”

Despite the countless time he devoted to his game, Williams received limited college interest as he progressed through high school. A prep year at the Robinson School barely improved the landscape.

“You always knew he was a talented kid,” said Iona associate head coach Jared Grasso, who recruited Williams at the prep level. “Long, athletic, could shoot it. I think at that point his game was still developing. Physically, he was still developing. I think confidence-wise, he wasn’t a kid who played a ton of AAU basketball or was on the circuit, so he was kind of an under-the-radar guy.”

With few options, Williams elected to pay his way at Marshall, hoping in vain to find a role with Tom Herrion’s Thundering Herd.

“I actually liked the school and the campus and stuff like that, but I didn’t like how the coaches were treating players,” said Williams, who sat out because of eligibility issues. “He wasn’t pushing them to get better at all.”

So a disappointed but not discouraged Williams headed south to Bradenton, Florida. In many ways, Erickson’s SCF team was a junior college version of Iona, employing a fast-paced, high-scoring style in which a versatile, freakish athlete like Williams could thrive. The 6-foot-7 wing averaged 17 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while shooting 41.8 percent from long range in his one season in Florida en route to Suncoast Conference Player of the Year honors.

Williams' ability to handle the ball at the four has been key to Iona's fast-paced offense. Courtesy Photo /
Williams’ ability to handle the ball at the four has been key to Iona’s fast-paced offense. Courtesy Photo /

“He did everything,” Erickson said. “He was a leader. He played the one, the two, the three, the four, the five for us. He literally did everything. He was tremendous.”

“I love Florida now,” Williams said. “I want to live in Florida. It’s hot all the time. You don’t have to shovel to shoot.”

Williams is the same do-it-all player for Tim Cluess’ Iona Gaels. Through nine games this year, the junior is averaging 15.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 turnovers per game. He is shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 47 percent from long range.

His 135.2 offensive rating is 24th-best in the country.

Because of Iona’s fast pace — the 6-3 Gaels currently rank fourth nationally with 75.2 possessions per 40 minutes — Williams’ 15.4 points per game is just fourth on the team. A.J. English, who leads Division I with 24.4 points per game, and David Laury (18.3 ppg) are ahead of him. So is freshman Schadrac Casimir (16.6 ppg).

Make no mistake: The OBW preseason MAAC second-teamer is undoubtedly a cog in Iona’s “big three,” along with preseason first-teamers English and Laury. But it’s always English, Laury and Williams or Laury, English and Williams — never Williams, English and Laury.

“I just go out there and play hard, as hard as I can play,” said Williams, who weighs 190 pounds. “People probably look at me like, ‘He’s skinny, he’s not strong.’ I just find a way.”

Said Cluess: “He’s just a silent assassin. I think sometimes when guys do things the way Isaiah does, which is kind of not flashy and just gets the job done, you don’t realize how well he’s played until you look at his stats at the end of the game.”

He’s not silent in practice. Before Thursday’s film session, Williams and Laury played a light one-on-one. Laury, who has about 50 pounds on Williams even after shedding a considerable amount of weight in the offseason, had an opportunity to back his teammate in from 12 feet. Instead, Laury faced up and missed a bank shot.

Williams' freakish athleticism and versatile skill set have made him an invaluable player for Iona. Courtesy Photo /
Williams’ freakish athleticism and versatile skill set have made him an invaluable player for Iona. Courtesy Photo /

“You did not just turn and face me,” Williams said, shaking his head. “You did not just turn and face me.”

It was half-playful, half-serious trash talk, and it served a purpose.

“I know most people go harder when you mess with them, when you get them mad,” Williams said. “I like to get under people’s skin, especially my teammates so I make them go harder to make them practice better.”

“He’s got a great sense of humor,” Cluess said with a smile. “I think he likes to get the other guys going on a daily basis by giving them little shots here and there to get them competitive and try to get into them.”

Williams said Kobe Bryant is his trash-talking idol, though his ribbing of Laury wasn’t laced with expletives like Bryant’s NSFW tirade against his teammates last week.

One day, Williams hopes to play in the Association. He has NBA shooting range, length and athleticism, but he’s thin. That could cause teams to shy away on draft day.

But life is what you make it, and every other time Williams has set his mind on a goal, he has achieved it. When he says he’ll find a way, it’s hard to not believe him.

“I’m going to try to go as hard as I can and if possible make the NBA,” he said. “That’s what I want to do. If I don’t get drafted, okay. I’m just going to keep going, and one day hopefully I’ll be there.”

Ari Kramer is a New York-based writer who covers the MAAC for One-Bid Wonders. Follow him on Twitter at @Ari_Kramer.

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Dion Nesmith’s long, winding, pot hole-strewn road home

Dion Nesmith's journey has included stops at three schools playing two different Division I sports. Courtesy Photo / Hofstra Athletics
Dion Nesmith’s journey has included stops at three schools playing two different Division I sports. Courtesy Photo / Hofstra Athletics

“I always say this about [Dion Nesmith]: one day we’re gonna all be working for him, because he’s a brilliant guy. He’s liked and respected, he’s very, very mature, and he’s a good leader. He’s one of those, um—you’re too young to remember this—but there used to be an investment company called E.F. Hutton. In their commercial there was a big cocktail party, and then the guy from E.F. Hutton started talking… And everybody stopped and listened. We old coaches would say, ‘Who’s your E.F. Hutton guy?’ meaning, who’s the guy that talks in the locker room and everybody stops and listens? Dion is one of those guys.”

–Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich

Dion Nesmith had to take a long and winding road before he was able to be a lead voice in the Hofstra men’s basketball team huddle. In fact, it was just five years ago that he was playing a completely different sport, preparing to eventually be the only voice in the Northeastern football huddle.

Nesmith spent his Saturdays in the fall of 2009 walking the sideline and holding a clipboard while redshirting as a true freshman quarterback for the Huskies. He would spend his weekdays training in the weight-room, mastering the playbook, running plays for the scout team — biding his time until he earned his spot taking snaps for a team that ceased to exist before his hopes could come to fruition.

Northeastern discontinued its football program on November 21, 2009, leaving an 18-year-old Nesmith with a difficult decision to make. While all of his friends were looking at their transfer options, Nesmith admitted he feared experiencing more heartbreak if he chose to continue his career at another FCS school.

“It was a tough time when that happened,” he said. “I felt that I was gonna go to a program on the same (FCS) level and I thought that it could possibly happen again… and I never wanted that to happen again. So I decided to switch sports.”

Nesmith chose to transfer to Monmouth University and rekindle his love of basketball, which he started playing at the age of five—the same time he first picked up a football. But the NCAA refused to grant him waiver to play immediately for the Hawks and he found himself in the same situation he was in at Northeastern: sitting on the sidelines, biding his time until he could earn his spot.

“That was definitely frustrating because I already had to sit out when I was at Northeastern redshirting,” Nesmith said. “And then all my friends, they were allowed to play right away playing football but I had to sit out because I was playing basketball. I thought it was unfair. But looking at it now, it kind of worked out for the best.”

Nesmith spent the next two years playing on Monmouth teams that went 12-20 and 10-21, respectively, and graduated with a degree in Finance in the spring of 2013. He was presented with the opportunity to transfer as a graduate athlete and use his final two years of eligibility. His high school basketball coach referred him to Mike Farrelly, who was an assistant coach on Joe Mihalich’s staff headed to Hofstra University.

“So we got here, there were only four players here and it was April. We had to get eight guys, so we were just turning over every rock,” Mihalich said. “It was 24/7 doing the recruiting and trying to find out about people. One of my assistants found out about him and heard he was one of those guys who was gonna graduate and still had eligibility he wasn’t gonna get back.”

Nesmith took a visit to Long Island to meet with Mihalich and immediately felt at home. “I thought, ‘This is a great place, this is where I want to go,’” he said. After a year as a part of the Pride’s rebuilding process, Nesmith leads a talented team that is considered one of the favorites in the CAA this season. Finally, his years watching from the sidelines seem to be paying off.

Dion Nesmith has flourished in his role as instant-energy off the bench for the Pride. Courtesy Photo / Hofstra Athletics
Dion Nesmith has flourished in his role as instant-energy off the bench for the Pride. Courtesy Photo / Hofstra Athletics

But in his current role on the team, Nesmith is still on the sideline—at least for the beginning of the game. He said he wasn’t happy about coming off the bench at first, but later realized how much of an advantage it gives him.

“At the beginning of the year when Coach Mihalich told me I wasn’t gonna start I was pretty upset, but I can’t be too upset because my minutes really haven’t changed. Once I go in I usually don’t come out and I think it’s a good thing. When I come in the other team’s a little bit tired and I get a fresh start on them,” he laughed.

“When you decide who’s gonna start and who’s not gonna start you think about a lot of different things. I really mean this: starting is not the most important thing in the world, finishing is,” Mihalich said. “I know that sounds like coach-speak, but it’s true. Finishing is the most important thing and he’s gonna be there at the end, he’s gonna finish the job, there’s no doubt.”

Through nine games the Pride is off to a 7-2 start. Nesmith is averaging 10.6 points while playing 27 minutes a game. The 6’1”, 215-pound bulldozer of a guard still shows flashes of that football player mentality, Mihalich says.

“I think he’s just a really good basketball player who I’ll bet was pretty good at football too because of his speed, his quickness, his toughness, and he’s a physical guy,” he said. “You know what? He could probably play any sport he wants to, that’s the thing about him. I’m sure if he decided to run track he’d be good, I’m sure if he decided to play baseball he’d be good. He’s just a great athlete.”

Mihalich continued: “I don’t know that he has a weakness, as far as skill-set goes. He can dribble it, he can pass it, he can shoot it; I don’t know that he has a weakness. He scores, he can run the offense, he’s a complete player.”

Nowadays Nesmith doesn’t get to pick up a football as much as often he once did. He said can still throw a tight spiral, though admitted he can’t throw as far as he used to. He gets a little nostalgic while watching games on Sundays but has no regrets, saying, “You miss it when you watch it on TV and everything like that. But then when I think about it I’m playing basketball and I’m having fun doing that.”

Nesmith is pursuing an MBA degree with a concentration in business analytics. As he is nearing the end of that long, winding road of his college career, Nesmith looks back at all the speed bumps and potholes he came across on his way to this point and doesn’t feel any sort of ill-will. Instead he feels an appreciation for every moment of adversity he’s faced, knowing he’s now a 23-year-old man with the world in front of him.

“I learned a lot, just the experience of it all,” he said. “I think it made me a better player and a better person for today, so I’m not upset with it at all… I’m just trying to focus every day on being a better person.”

"Who’s the guy that talks in the locker room and everybody stops and listens? Dion is one of those guys.” –Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich
“Who’s the guy that talks in the locker room and everybody stops and listens? Dion is one of those guys.”
–Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich

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The Trevon and Trevin Woods story

Most parents name their newborns. Harold and Karen Woods are not most parents — at least they weren’t in 1994.

Karen bore identical twin boys that December, and the family’s firstborn, Kayla, pinpointed a pair of names for her younger brothers.

“We were choosing between Trevor, Trevin, Trevon, Trevod,” Harold says, his Bahamian accent seeping through the phone. “She just said, ‘Why don’t you call them Trevin, Trevon?’”

Trevon (left) and Trevin (right) in high school. Courtesy Photo / Woods family
Trevon (left) and Trevin (right) in high school. Courtesy Photo / Woods family

“She came up with the name, and our parents were just like, ‘Okay,’” Trevon (pronounced treh-VAHN) says, shrugging his shoulders.

“We don’t have any better names,” Trevin (pronounced treh-VIN) says with a chuckle.

Nearly 20 years later, Trevon and Trevin Woods share everything but the same first name — a dorm room, friends, gaming systems. They share the same basketball team, as they always have, now at LIU Brooklyn. The fifth letter is one of the few differences between them.

Trevin’s voice is slightly deeper, and he speaks faster. Trevon’s voice is slightly higher, with a mildly gravelly tone. He speaks slower. Trevin’s dark hair is clipped closely. Trevon’s rises about an inch off his scalp, and a sparse crop of dark hairs dangles from his chin. It’s a relatively new style for Trevon, who used to keep the same short hairdo as his brother. When they rock the same haircut, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish one from the other.

Says older brother Lavon: “It’s really just, like, when you pick up the phone and you hear your mom, you know it’s your mom, right? It’s this innate thing where if I hear his voice or I see his face, one has a rounder face and one is slimmer. One has a deeper voice. The other doesn’t have as much of a deep voice. You can tell them apart.”

Lavon is in the vast minority, joined by Kayla and the twins’ other older sister, Kayleesha. Not even Harold or Karen can consistently identify the twins correctly.

Harold, whose cataracts and several unsuccessful surgeries have rendered him legally blind, relies on his ears. That can prove fruitless, too, but even before he lost his vision, he had trouble distinguishing Trevon and Trevin by sight.

“When that system would break down,” Harold says, “what I would do is I would just say, ‘You.’ I’m talking to one of them. It had to be Trevon or Trevin. I would say, ‘Then go tell your brother.’ I would make sure if I was talking to Trevon, and I wanted to speak to Trevin, Trevin would get the message and vice versa.”

“They don’t try,” Trevon says of his parents. “They’ll be like, ‘One of you, come here.’”

“If we try to switch,” Trevon continues, “and I’ll be like, ‘Mom, I’m Trevin,’ she’ll be like, ‘Don’t play with me, boy.’”

“Or,” Trevin adds, “she’ll be like, ‘Okay, if you’re Trevin, go do it. I need one of you.’”

“They try to play that trick,” Lavon says over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, “but they can’t trick me, in terms of which one is which.”

But they could delude most everybody else — from their parents to teachers to opponents on the court.

The Byrds

They also tricked Timmy Byrd into thinking they were good basketball players — according to their word.

Byrd, the head coach at Louisiana powerhouse Riverside Academy, watched Trevon and Trevin play basketball when they were in eighth grade. The twins impressed him, and Byrd recruited them to his highly regarded program in 2010.

“He saw us at our middle school,” Trevon says, “and he was like, ‘I want those kids,’ and me and Trevin didn’t know why because we were terrible when we were young — “

“Just disgusting,” Trevin interrupts.

“Terrible,” Trevon emphasizes, elongating the first syllable. “He just really liked us. He said we had potential, and from there we didn’t ask any more questions.”

The twins were exceptionally tall as eighth graders — approximately 6-foot-3, according to Trevin. Though Harold doesn’t scrape six feet, the cousins and uncles on Karen’s side stand in the neighborhood of 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4. Karen also starred for Florida International University’s women’s basketball team, and her pregnancy with Kayla curtailed her professional aspirations, according to the family.

Trevin and Trevon Woods sign their National Letters of Intent to LIU Brooklyn at Austin High School. Courtesy Photo / Woods Family
Trevin and Trevon Woods sign their National Letters of Intent to LIU Brooklyn at Austin High School. Courtesy Photo / Woods Family

Height and basketball coursed through the gene pool, and Trevon and Trevin have sprouted to 6-foot-6.

Harold ascribed the twins’ self-underestimation to a propensity that has clung to them since they were young.

“I don’t know why they would think — they’re so critical of themselves. I guess when you’re so critical of yourself you can’t see the greatness in you,” Harold says. “Everyone else was telling us, ‘These boys can really play sports — baseball, football or basketball.’ People would say, ‘These boys have potential to make it.’ That’s what they would say.”

As residents of St. Charles Parish, La., the twins commuted nearly 30 miles to Riverside Academy’s campus in Reserve. They teamed up with Baylor’s Ricardo Gathers and Southern Mississippi’s Cedric Jenkins, among other future college ballplayers in their one year under Byrd.

But it was another Byrd — Timmy’s father — that impacted their growth as basketball players the most. His name was Daddy Byrd. The twins can’t recall it, but others knew him as Ronnie.

“[Daddy’s] what stuck with us,” Trevin says of the man who passed away shortly after the Woods family moved to Texas in 2011. “I know I’ve heard his first name before. Not that I don’t care, but I think it wouldn’t fit.”

“He’s a dad,” Trevon says before Trevin joins him in unison, as only identical twins can do. “He’s like our second dad.”

Daddy Byrd’s age was as much of a mystery to the twins. They remember him as an older man whose age was belied by a feverish ardor for basketball and educating the game’s youth. He also saw potential in Trevon and Trevin and prescribed a daily regimen of 100 pushups and 100 situps, encouraging muscular generation without lifting weights.

“He would always check us every month,” Trevin says as he pats his brother’s chest, “and be like,“ Trevon, smiling and nodding, joins in unison, “‘Yeah, you’re getting bigger.”

Daddy Byrd fostered an insatiable work ethic in the twins, who live by his modus operandi, “Excuses are for losers.”

Says Trevon: “We would be like, ‘But coach, Ricardo Gathers is 250 pounds of pure muscle—“

“Pure man,” Trevin interrupts.

“And we’re just 150 over here, just skin and bones, coach.’ He would be like, ‘I don’t care!’”

“’Excuses are for losers,’” Trevin interjects, again.

“’You can block that! Don’t let him dunk on you! Box him out!’”

If Daddy Byrd’s coaching techniques seemed harsh initially, Trevin says he and his brother understood the intent in time.

“It wasn’t that he was yelling at you, but he was encouraging you,” Trevin says. “You got the message instead of getting the criticism.

“That guy was the most influential guy in our entire lives.”

The twins have a tendency to speak in superlatives. Daddy Byrd certainly had a profound impact on their growth as basketball players, but they would be remiss to divert credit from their parents and older brother.

“They tagteamed to get us to shoot well,” Trevin says.

Trevon elaborates: “They used to kick us out of the house at 8 or 9 in the morning and we couldn’t come back until about 10 at night — just to shoot outside. You couldn’t leave the yard. Friends couldn’t come over. It was just you and the rim —“

“Just you and the rim,” Trevin emphasizes. “It’s a good thing we were twins because that,“ Trevon joins in unison, “would have been torture by myself.”

If Daddy Byrd was a tough critic, Harold was impossible to please.

“I would always try to be the devil’s advocate and keep them grounded,” he says.

“Our dad doesn’t say anything good,” Trevon says. “If we won a championship then he’ll say something good. He’d say, ‘Good job.’ If we scored 20, it’s, ‘Why didn’t you score 25? Why didn’t you score 30?’ He believes in the black and white. He doesn’t care about making someone fall and all the hype.”

Tough Times

Trevon, Trevin and the Woods family faced a stiffer challenge in the two years preceding the twins’ enrollment at Riverside Academy. In January 2008, Harold underwent surgery in Louisiana to repair a detached retina, one that had been detached and reattached time and time again.

“The doctor botched my eyes up,” Harold says of the January procedure.

Eight months later, Harold underwent the same surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City’s Washington Heights. His retina was successfully reattached. His vision, however, failed to return.

Not only would he never see his twin boys play for Timmy Byrd — or any coach thereafter — but he would also have no choice but to close the mortgage business he and Karen had opened in 2006.

“After my surgery, I lost my bond because I could not keep up with all my bills and stuff,” Harold says. “My credit started to go south. In order to keep a bond you need a credit score above a certain level, so I had to close the door.”

The family had endured hardship in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina chased them northwest to Lafayette, La., for a few months. But Harold does not view that time with contempt.

“We were all together,” Harold says. “Everybody was together as a family, so there wasn’t really any hazardous effect.”

And their home, which sat perched on a hilltop in St. Charles Parish, sustained minimal damage during the storm.

“It was a blessing that we could come back and recoup, unlike some of the people in New Orleans, with the levees breaking and all that water,” Harold says. “It was never like the people in New Orleans.”

In the year-plus after Harold closed the mortgage business in 2009, family eased the pain again. The older siblings supplemented their parents’ financial needs as they could.

“I think it just put a strain on everything,” Lavon, a software engineer, says of the impact on his brothers’ lives. “At that stage … you want certain things and you’ve had a certain lifestyle and you’ve had certain things and you want those things that a lot of other kids have, whether it’s a cell phone, clothes, whatever. You have to make certain sacrifices.”

Said Trevon: “It was just a realization because you’re used to a certain way of living and then it gets taken away from you. It’s just, you have to adapt to it.”

Their basketball lives did not change, though.

Even though he couldn’t see, Harold would still train his sons, in quasi-Samurai fashion.

“If he couldn’t hear the net whip,” Trevin says…

“Then you weren’t making it,” Trevon finishes.

“He would be like start over,” Trevin adds. “We’d have to make 10 in a row or 20 in a row. He would train us like that. Now that I say that out loud it seems pretty crazy. He used to literally pull up a chair, sit outside, not underneath the rim but near it.”

Trevin Woods. Courtesy Photo / Woods family
Trevin Woods. Courtesy Photo / Woods family

A moral foundation established by Harold and Karen guided the twins during that time. The twins still hark back to their parents’ teaching to “never quit.”

“Just keep moving forward because winners are not quitters,” Harold explains. “If you expect to be a winner you can’t quit, number one. You have to stay in the fight.”

The entire Woods family did just that — the twins with basketball, the parents with an uprooting.

In 2011, Harold and Karen moved the family to Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Trevon and Trevin enrolled as sophomores at Austin High School. Their parents purchased a food trailer and sold Bahamian cuisine, as they pondered how to resurrect their livelihood.

“That’s what we did to demonstrate to our kids again that you don’t quit,” Harold says.

The twins did not embrace the move, initially. Their friends were in Louisiana, in what Trevin calls “a movie-type cul-de-sac.” They would hang out in each other’s houses, go skateboarding or do the things that young boys do, like getting into trouble. Trevin remembers playing one-on-one against Trevon with a bouncy ball in Wal-Mart, using the fragile ball cage as the hoop.

“Trevon once dunked and he broke the fence and all the balls came flooding out,” Trevin says. “They were like,“ Trevon joins in unison, “‘Okay, you guys got to get out.”

The Lone Star State

Moving to Texas introduced the twins to a different basketball culture, a grittier one. They worked out with several high school basketball players at a camp held by former NBA player John Lucas their first week in the Lone Star State.

“We came in and people were just, like, growling at us,” Trevon says. “We were like, ‘What? What are y’all doing?’”

The twins recall Lucas running a one-on-one drill. Trevon and Trevin would switch off trying to dribble by a scrawny but feisty kid named Isaiah Taylor, now a sophomore point guard for Rick Barnes’ Texas Longhorns.

“[Lucas] told him, ‘Don’t let them move,’” Trevon recalls.

“We had the ball,” Trevin says, “and our job was to just get past the guy—“

“Just an inch,” Trevon interrupts.

“For like 30 minutes we kept rotating and the guy would not let us go anywhere,” Trevin says.

“That was our first real taste of Texas basketball,” Trevon adds.

Trevon Woods. Courtesy Photo / Woods family
Trevon Woods. Courtesy Photo / Woods family

It wouldn’t be their last.

Trevon and Trevin starred for Austin High. In three years they never made the state playoffs, but they helped resurrect a program that had not even competed for a postseason spot since the mid-1990s.

Playing in Texas, they said, they learned to never discount an opponent because of his physical appearance.

“In Louisiana, you saw a guy and you saw what he looked like and that’s pretty much who he was,” Trevon says. “In Texas you never could sleep. You were getting surprised everywhere you looked.”

In a late-season game with playoff implications their junior year, an opponent’s unlikely hero nailed a game-winning three-pointer.

“The guy nobody scouted, he won it,” Trevon says, shaking his head.

“It was with like three or four hands in his face,” Trevin says. “All of us jumped at him. We even fouled him, and he still made the shot.”

The Rise

While the twins learned to never overlook their foes, they also flew under the recruiting radar.

Their performance on the 2013 AAU summer circuit changed that.

That’s when Jack Perri first saw them play, and he walked away with the opposite impression the twins thought they left on Timmy Byrd.

“Oh, they weren’t terrible,” LIU Brooklyn’s coach says, laughing at the thought that anyone could have ever reached that conclusion.

Perri took his seat in Duncanville High School’s Sandra Meadows Memorial Arena one day that July, and watched the Woods twins go blow for blow with Emmanuel Mudiay and Malik Newman, top recruits in the classes of 2014 and 2015, respectively.

“[Trevon and Trevin] were shooting threes all over the place, off the bounce, dunks,” Perri says.

“They just went off,” Lavon says, laughing as if he’s still in awe. “Trevon I think had, like, 30-something points and Trevin had 30-something points. They were just shooting the lights out from everywhere on the court, defending [Mudiay]. They had no respect for him in terms of his persona or whatever his ranking is and just went and competed and that was special to see that they just rose to the challenge and competed on that level with that team.”

Says Perri: “It was like, oh my God. This is an easy one. They’re 6-foot-6. Can they play a frontcourt spot at our level? Will they play guard? They were versatile, which is what we recruit. They could pass dribble and shoot, so I was excited about them right off the bat and I just followed them around the rest of that tournament.”

Trevin Woods lays one in against Saint Joseph's. Courtesy Photo / Bob Dea
Trevin Woods lays one in against Saint Joseph’s. Courtesy Photo / Bob Dea

Other coaches shared Perri’s sentiments after that game. The Woods twins each received offers from Texas Tech. Arkansas and Alabama expressed serious interest, and Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Southern Methodist and Penn State were among several other programs that at least reached out.

But they all viewed Trevon and Trevin as the same player. They weren’t exactly wrong. Trevon and Trevin are identical twins, after all.

“They all wanted us separately,” Trevin says.

Not Perri.

The twins, who complained about the inconvenience of living in different rooms in the same suite while taking classes this summer, barely considered shipping off to different schools. They had to be together.

And together they are, sharing a dorm room on LIU Brooklyn’s campus this semester.

“It’s better this way because we can actually talk to each other, especially if he annoys me or something,” Trevin says. “I don’t have to knock on the wall. I can just go over there and punch him in the face.”

Don’t worry. He’s kidding. Maybe.

Either way, it definitely wasn’t a brotherly brawl that sidelined Trevon for several practices leading up to the season and the opener at St. John’s. He played nine total minutes in the Blackbirds’ losses to Saint Joseph’s, Stony Brook and Temple.

Trevin had seven points on 3-of-5 shooting in the overtime loss to Saint Joseph’s. He added eight rebounds and two blocks in 22 minutes. In LIU Brooklyn’s other three games, he totaled six points, six rebounds, two assists and a block in 41 minutes.

The Woods twins haven’t exactly burst onto the scene like they did on the 2013 AAU circuit. But they have embraced the challenges the college game presents to freshmen — the size and athleticism of opponents, the speed of the game, the level of preparation for each contest.

They have frames that could develop into exceptional college bodies, especially in the NEC. They’re athletic, and, like Perri noticed immediately, they can shoot, dribble and pass.

Trevon Woods drives to the hoop in the NIT Season Tip-off against Stony Brook at Madison Square Garden. Courtesy Photo / LIU Brooklyn Athletics
Trevon Woods drives to the hoop in the NIT Season Tip-off against Stony Brook at Madison Square Garden. Courtesy Photo / LIU Brooklyn Athletics

Attitude problems have curtailed the careers of many promising prospects with similar attributes, but that shouldn’t be the case for Trevon and Trevin.

“They’re superstar kids,” Perri says.

They’re humble — respectful of players of any size, thanks to their experience in Texas — but confident.

Daddy Byrd taught them that only losers spew excuses. Harold and Karen showed them that winners don’t quit.

And they won’t quit. They have a plan.

At the very least, basketball will help them earn a college degree — Trevin in computer science; Trevon in media arts. It could also be a source of income, as their goal is to play professionally after college.

Their first paycheck — or at least a significant portion of it — will be addressed to Harold and Karen Woods.

“They give us everything,” Trevon says.

Everything except names.

“We,” Trevin adds, “are going to make sure we repay them.”

Ari Kramer is a New York-based writer who covers the MAAC, Ivy League and NEC for One-Bid Wonders. Follow him on Twitter at@Ari_Kramer.

Return to OBW’s Top 20 Great Reads of 2014

Jekyll and Hyde: Holy Cross’ Eric Green

ericgreen copy copy

With 12 seconds left, and the Crusaders clinging to a 58-57 lead over 25th ranked Harvard, Eric Green misfired on a 12-foot jumper — a chance to hammer perhaps the final nail in the Crimson’s coffin — putting the ball right into the hands of Wesley Saunders, Harvard’s 6-foot-5 inch, 225 pound dynamo who was the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year who had already lit Holy Cross up for 24 points and 12 rebounds and who, a day later, would be chosen to the Wooden Award Preseason Top 50.

Green didn’t hesitate, didn’t pound the floorboards or sulk, even for a second. Before his errant jumper had finished plummeting back to the hardwood, the Holy Cross’ junior had already forgotten about it.

He had Harvard — and Saunders — right where he wanted them, and was still in prime position to give the Crusaders their first win over a ranked opponent since 1977a.

“On offense, if I’m not scoring, I really don’t let that get to me, because I know I can still have a big impact on the game with my defense,” he explained, almost prophetically, two days before Holy Cross tipped off its season under the bright lights of the TD Garden for the nightcap of the Coaches vs. Cancer Tiple Header against the Crimson. “I can’t let my offense carry over to my defense.”

Green pounced on the far burlier Saunders at three quarters court, and stayed glued to his hip, step for step, as the potential NBA draft pick turned on the jets and tried to blow by him. Saunders stopped on a dime on the right wing, and Green was still there with him. Unable to blow by him, Saunders sized up his smaller opponent, dribbling between his legs, left to right, before attacking the hoop.

Green was still right there, his eyes burning with intensity as he stared down one of the best players in the country.

His path to the rim impeded, Saunders drove right, before hitting Green with a spin move — the kind that comes out of nowhere and has left many a defender on the ground, searching for his sneakers.

Green was unfazed.

Unable to juke around or blow by Green, Saunders tried to use brute force, planting his right shoulder squarely in the middle of the skinny wing’s chest.

Green was unmoved.

Saunders still had one final trick up his sleeve — the tried and true pump fake — the one that had helped him get to the free-throw line 445 times up until that point in his career.

Green didn’t bite, and stood straight up, hands in Saunders face, before contesting Saunders off-balance shot, that clanged off the front of the rim. The buzzer sounded. The Crusaders’ rushed the floor, embracing at center court.

“Eric Green is a monster. If there’s a better perimeter defender, I haven’t seen him,” said head coach Milan Brown following the game.

Green finished the game with 12 points and two steals, shooting 6-of-11 from the floor including a high-flying two handed slam in the second half in which he hit the rim like a heat seeking missile. But as his teammates whooped it up on the Celtics’ half court logo, Green stepped back and smiled as other’s took the spotlight.

“Once he steps on the floor he’s a completely different person than he is off the court. It’s crazy, as a player he is very athletic, very dynamic, he makes some crazy plays – he’ll go up there, he’ll finish, he’s a high-flyer, he’ll dunk, he’ll rebound, block shots,” marveled senior captain Justin Burrell. “But off the court, he’s the complete opposite: He’s a very, very laid back guy, you’ll barely hear him talk. He’s always around us, but he’ll just slip in a couple words sometimes.”

Just call the junior from Mountain House, California — a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exburb off of I-205 a few miles outside of San Francisco — basketball’s Jekyll and Hyde: On the court, he’s a high-flying, slam dunking, pick-pocketing, shot-swatting ball of energy capable of taking over games on the defensive end. Off it, he’s so soft-spoken that getting him to give himself even a mild complement (he gave himself a “B-minus” as a grade for his first season of college basketball, more on that later) is akin to pulling teeth.

He’s also one of the game’s great untold stories, even if he needs a great deal of coaxing, cajoling, and help from teammates and coaches to finally tell it. Continue reading “Jekyll and Hyde: Holy Cross’ Eric Green”

Heaven is a Playground — Saying goodbye to a good friend: The Downtown YMCA, San Diego

The final pilgrimage of the lunchtime ballers.
The final pilgrimage of the lunchtime ballers.

I imagine that when the lights went off, the Ghost of Pete Maravich came out to run ball-handling drills across the battered floorboards.

On Friday, Oct. 31, the Downtown YMCA of San Diego closed its doors for the final time. Where do all the old ballers go now? The guys with the pointed elbows, who represent the promise of full frontal locker room nudity after the game; what becomes of the aged, shirtless lawyer in the bandana who used his low center of gravity to throw hip-shot-box-outs, or the dude with the off-balance set shot always guzzling down Starbucks before playing? Do the hairy backed rage monsters and past their prime arguers find a new basketball playing community to call their own?

How could they? Many of them had been playing on this court since Hanson was a chart topper. Their eccentricities already accepted, perhaps even admired — If Jon the Weeble had slapped cross-eyed T in the face over a loose ball in any other basketball enclave he would have assuredly become the victim of an assault so vicious, only Jim Ross could narrate it. But at the Downtown Y, it was all part of the game.

Sure, there were better players — younger, and quicker — elsewhere, but why would I have ever wanted to play with them when I had the Downtown Y?

Opened in 1882, the gym, which shared the building with a café and hostel, had no frills, no new equipment, and at times no electricity. Smaller than a regulation court, and with a running track in the rafters taking away the possibility of corner threes, ambitious newbs often jacked shots up from Ray Allen territory, the ball ricocheting off of the track, followed by chants of “rookie” from court veterans.

At one time, there was a scoreboard, then a clock, and then in the end, games were timed by cell phone. Populated by a lot of lawyers, an ABA player, young transplants, and the unemployed, lunch-time games ignored the standard meritocracy, opting instead for a form of basketball socialism where winners couldn’t play more than two games in a row if guys were waiting — every game guaranteed an argument over what the score actually was.

The characters made this place special. There was Black Mo (presumably for Maurice), Indian Mo (presumably for Mohammed,) and Old Mo (Presumably for… Morris?). There was Jim the hack, with the surprisingly young wife, whose big Halloween joke was coming dressed as a referee; Cha, who reeked of menthol and was missing most of his front teeth. You liked everybody, but also kind of hated everyone simultaneously. Guys brought out the best of athletic competition in each other. Continue reading “Heaven is a Playground — Saying goodbye to a good friend: The Downtown YMCA, San Diego”

Taking his shot: How walk-on Caleb Donnelly has left his mark on Northeastern

Northeastern walk-on Caleb Donnelly has made a big impression on the coaching staff, even if he has never appeared in the stat sheet. Courtesy photo / Northeastern Athletics
Northeastern walk-on Caleb Donnelly has made a big impression on the coaching staff, even if he has never appeared in the stat sheet. Courtesy photo / Northeastern Athletics

This Sunday, New Hampshire-native Caleb Donnelly will step on to the parquet floor of the TD Garden in a Northeastern jersey for the second straight year and survey the setting of the Coaches vs. Cancer Triple-header until he finds his parents in the stands.

They and he know the second-year walk-on will likely not get any playing time in the season opener against BU. It doesn’t matter to any of them.

Donnelly knows when he lines up for the national anthem, his parents will see someone who went from sporting a club jersey to representing Northeastern just as much as his teammates to his left and right.

“It was just about being a part of a team, being part of something that’s bigger than me,” Donnelly said of his decision last summer to quit the club team and take a shot at primetime. “And knowing that we have the chance, especially as a Division I school in a conference like this, to go to the NCAA tournament.”

In high school, Donnelly was a stud, scoring more than 1,000 career points and leading his team to the New Hampshire Interscholastic Final Four… twice. He was the leading scorer in his two years of playing on Northeastern’s club team and in 2013 led them to an all-regional tournament at UMass Amherst. He was named to the tournament’s all region first team.

So why give up being Goliath in club to be David in Division I?

“Clubs organized but it’s still just club. I realized how much I missed it and how much I love the game,” Donnelly said. “I couldn’t live with myself not giving it a shot so the summer before, I worked out everyday, did my thing and decided I’m the best I’ve ever been so why not give them a call and give it a shot.”

Try-outs are the start of a long, hard road for walk-ons. When Donnelly made the call to Coen, he was invited to practice with the team in the summer but there were no guarantees. Various Northeastern students interested in walking-on have also been invited to work out at the Cabot gymnasium.

It wasn’t until one work out, when Donnelly took more reps on offense than usual, that he realized the coaches were watching. The guard came around a screen and made a hesitation move before drilling a shot. To his surprise, he heard applause from the coaches.

“Every once in a while you come in to contact with a very elite human being like Caleb,” Coen said. “He’s a guy who’s totally selfless, he’s extremely humble, he’s extremely hard working and he embodies all the qualities that you want in a student-athlete.” Continue reading “Taking his shot: How walk-on Caleb Donnelly has left his mark on Northeastern”

Looks can be deceiving: Mark Cornelius makes a big difference for UMass Lowell

Mark Cornelius (left) has scrapped, scratched and clawed his way to becoming a Division I player -- and a good one at that. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins
Mark Cornelius (left) has scrapped, scratched and clawed his way to becoming a Division I player — and a good one at that. OBW Photo / Sam Perkins

The rim was still shaking — and the guttural scream that followed still reverberating — around tiny Costello Gymnasium as the downtrodden River Hawks trudged into the locker room trailing 35-22.

For the previous 20 minutes of action, upstart UMass Lowell had been outplayed, outhustled and outmuscled by visiting Binghamton, with Bearcats super-sophomore Jordan Reed leading the bull rush. Reed had flown over, around and through the River Hawks en route to 10 first half points, the last of which came just before the buzzer on his second earthquake-inducing slam dunk of the half.

Coming out of the break, the River Hawks needed an answer for Reed, a 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound ball of fast-twitch muscles and highlights who had been utterly unstoppable against Lowell’s high-flying frontcourt.

The River Hawks found it in seemingly the most unlikely of sources: walk-on Mark Cornelius.

At a listed 6-feet-2 and a wiry 180-pounds,  with a slow, plodding lope that appears if he were dragging the his sneakers across the bottom of the ground – his head bobbing up and down lazily like a buoy on a gentle ocean wave — Cornelius looks like he could be flattened by a feather and couldn’t jump over a phone book or outrun a rickety city bus driving in reverse.

In other words, he looked like he couldn’t hold Reed’s jockstrap, let alone slow down Binghamton’s dynamic wing.

Looks can be deceiving, and when it comes to Cornelius, they sure are.

“You underestimate him because of the way he looks, but he just gets it done,” says UMass Lowell senior guard Chad Holley.

For every one of his 12 minutes second half minutes, Cornelius found a way to get it done – beating Reed to his position almost every time down the court, scrapping, scratching and clawing, clutching and grabbing, and generally using every inch of his body and every trick in the book (and several explicitly outlawed by it) to frustrate and fluster the Binghamton star into just four points, while propelling Lowell to a 62-55 win.

“He was relentless,” marveled an exhausted Reed after the game.

“It’s funny… how you can still be an effective player and effective defender without having the best foot speed, shall we say,” UMass Lowell head coach Pat Duquette deadpanned about Cornelius after the game.

Eight months later, the game still stands out vividly in Cornelius and Duquette’s minds.

“He’s was making fun of my feet,” says Cornelius, letting out a lazy laugh and followed by a slow, chuckled “alright” worthy of a Dazed and Confused-era Matthew McConaughey.

“That was a big game for me – I think that was kind of the turning point in the year for me. I just tried to work hard, front him, and we played good help defense, so it was really five guys not just me,” he remembers.

But while Cornelius refuses to self promote, his head coach gladly picks up the slack on his player’s behalf.

“That was a huge game for Mark – he was the determining factor in that game and I think that was the game where he finally started to realize, not just that he belonged on a Division I court, but just how good he could be as a Division I player,” says Duquette. Continue reading “Looks can be deceiving: Mark Cornelius makes a big difference for UMass Lowell”

The Last Man Standing: Jabrille Williams

Jabrille Williams. Courtesy Photo / Jonathan Cohen
Jabrille Williams. Courtesy Photo / Jonathan Cohen

Jabrille Williams is the last man standing – the final holdover from the darkest time in Binghamton basketball history. He wears his Scarlet Letter as a badge of honor.

“People joke in the locker room a lot about it – about me being the last guy left and the old man of the team,” said Williams, speaking on a late Sunday evening in a soft voice that conveyed a commanding presence. “I take a lot of pride in it. And I take a lot of pride in the fact that I am a part of this program after everything.”

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in Vestal, New York, the young, rebuilding Bearcats took the floor under the bright lights of the sparkling Events Center for their first exhibition of the season. For 40 minutes they struggled to put away Mansfield University, an incredibly inexperienced Division II squad.

And for 40 minutes Williams, Binghamton’s elder statesman and lone senior, sat stapled to the end of the Bearcats bench.

On paper Williams, an energetic and athletic 6-foot-6-inch wing with a high motor and NBA bloodlines, would seem to have the tools, experience and pedigree to help the Bearcats out on the court. Yet he never left the bench. Williams raised his voice repeatedly during game, but never in protest of his lack of playing time. Instead, he shouted himself horse cheering on his teammates — his “little brothers” as he refers to them.

“I really don’t think about numbers or playing time,” said Williams. “I think about what I can do to help the team, to make the team better and help us be in a position to turn the program around. Whatever I can do, I am going to do, and that means mentoring the younger guys, pushing them in practice and just being there for everyone – players and coaches.”

“I respect the heck out of Jabrille Williams,” said Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey. “He knows that he’s probably up against it from a playing time standpoint, but he puts his best foot forward and he’s committed himself to being a great leader and mentor.”

That Williams is still enrolled at Binghamton, let alone a vocal and vital part of the Bearcats basketball team, makes him a truly rare-breed in the current landscape of college hoops, where players walk in and out of schools like turnstiles in a subway station. In today’s “Transfer U” culture of hoops, coaching changes, more heralded recruits, injuries and losing rank amongst the top reasons that players pack their bags and head elsewhere, and Williams career has been hit by heaping doses of all four.

In his three-plus years in Vestal, Williams has seen the coach that recruited him fired, been leapfrogged on the depth charts by a slew of younger players recruited by his new head coach as his replacements, and battled through a litany of injuries.

And he’s lost — a lot. In fact, over his three seasons at Binghamton, Williams has lost 79 games, more than any other America East player or coach during that period.

“Losing has definitely been tough, I won’t lie,” he said, “but I’ve always felt like I was helping the team build towards something a lot bigger — a lot bigger than the season and a lot bigger than me.” Continue reading “The Last Man Standing: Jabrille Williams”

Herrion’s Highway: Three decades later, New Hampshire’s head coach remains driven

New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion. OBW photo / Sam Perkins
New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion. OBW photo / Sam Perkins

Basketball has been a very long, winding, and lately, rocky road for New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion.

“It’s been a pretty long run. It’s been a pretty rough, long run, if you hear what I’m saying, and I know that – I’m not totally blind to that,” said Herrion, reflecting on his 29-year Division I coaching career on a recent Thursday morning.

Herrion has spent parts of four decades in the college coaching ranks, starting as an assistant to newly-hired Boston University head coach Mike Jarvis in 1985, the last 23 years of which as a head coach. It is a head coaching career that has been defined by skyrocketing successes early, including six 20-win seasons, three NCAA Tournament berths, three America East Coach of the Year awards and an NCAA Tournament shocker over heavily favored fifth-seed Memphis over his eight seasons as the head coach of Drexel.

And it is also a career that has been defined frustrating seasons of futility as of late, with losing records in 13 of his last 14 seasons, spread across stints at Eastern Carolina and UNH – two notoriously tough programs to win at. Coming off a 6-24 season, the worst record during his nine years in Durham, and staring down the final two years of his contract, Herrion would seem to be in a precarious position. But according to the head coach, his focus remains solely on the court and on his players.

“I totally understand our situation when you look at contracts and you look at things of that nature, I’ve got one more year left. We know what we’ve got to do, no one needs to remind me of that, I’m not blind to it,” he said.

After nearly three decades on the autobahn that is the head coaching highway, and the mental and physical grind of disappointing seasons and the growing volume of discontent from his fan base, one could hardly blame the 56-year-old if he took the next off ramp onto the slow, scenic route and pulled over onto the shoulder for some rest — a cushy gig as a high major assistant, or a small college athletic director, or even prep school coach or AAU director, or even some time to simply relax and enjoy retirement. But that just isn’t in Herrion’s DNA.

Basketball is.

“I think the first thing that keeps me going, and I really mean this, is I’ve got an unbelievable passion for the game – basketball is in my blood,” said Herrion. “If I let that (losing, criticism and an expiring contract) dominate me, I wouldn’t be here – I would have gave this up. “

While the highlights of Herrion’s journey may have been his three NCAA Tournament appearances, the win over Memphis, and his discovery and mentorship of future NBA Malik Rose, some of his fondest memories are of his first steps in his basketball journey, which began almost as soon as he learned how to walk.

“I grew up in a basketball family,” said Herrion, whose late father, Jim, was a legendary high school coach in the New York City Catholic League, before a stint as an assistant at Holy Cross and a head coaching career at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), and whose brother, Tom, is a current assistant at Georgia Tech.

“When I talk about being brought up in basketball, I’m not talking about just being in a gym when my father coached and shooting around on a side hoop, this was like 365 days a year. It’s something that got into my blood.”

According to Herrion, the defining moments of his coaching career weren’t cutting down championship nets or setting foot on the NCAA court, but long summers spent under the sun on cracked and sweltering blacktops.

“From age four years old to 15 years old I would go to summer basketball camp, and I’m talking not to like a college or a showcase, with an air-conditioned dormitory and an indoor court,” he remembered, palpable excitement in his voice. “I used to go up into the Catskill Mountains, to these old-time, outdoor courts, cabins, that was my life. We would leave after school got done in June, and we would come home right before Labor Day and the start of school. I would spend every summer there.” Continue reading “Herrion’s Highway: Three decades later, New Hampshire’s head coach remains driven”