Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday around 11:15 a.m., I briskly make my way to the new campus recreation center in order to play in a weekly pick-up game consisting of a diverse group associated with the University of Massachusetts.
Professors, faculty, students and most notably, members of the Massachusetts men’s basketball coaching staff make up the full court contest that features 5-on-5 play for an hour three times a week. Games are competitive and go to 88 by twos and threes. Substitutes (two per team usually) come into the game every eight points, in order to give everyone equal playing time. The first 10 who show up start and each team are equipped with two substitutes for each team for a total of 14 players.
I think of myself as an average basketball player. I played a lot growing up. I have a decent shot, grab a few rebounds, but have a tendency to turn the ball over and miss a few layups and 3-pointers here and there. But more importantly, I hustle and play pretty good defense. I’ve played in the UMass intramural program and have competed in numerous pickup games at the now-defunct Boyden and Totman gymnasiums since my freshmen year. But sophomore year, I began playing at this exact time with some friends who have since graduated and pretty much the same people: graduate students, professors and faculty, with the exception of some students.
I am frequently one of the first ones there, followed by Steve, a basketball manager and Dan, a practice player with the women’s team. I warm up and shoot around in anticipation of the game, knowing that in a few short minutes, UMass men’s basketball coach Derek Kellogg, assistant coach Vance Walberg, director of player personnel Shyrone Chatman and videographer Matthew Vogel along with an assistant coach, Chris and other “regulars” will walk into the gym hoping to be one of the “first 10”.
Lots of people on this campus know about Kellogg, and for good reason: The local product that helped the Minutemen to four-consecutive NCAA tournament berths during his time here in the 90s under historic coach John Calipari. But they don’t know that Walberg helped to create the dribble-drive offense that is commonly used at all levels of basketball and that Chatman played under Calipari in 2000-2001, Calipari’s first year at Memphis. In his senior year, he started 29-of-36 games, leading the Tigers to the final four of the National Invitational Tournament with a 21-15 record. He averaged 9.2 points per game and 3.1 rebounds per game while passing out 165 assists.
When you play with “Chi,” you can see why he shot 40.6 percent from the 3-point line in 2000-01, which is No. 6 on the Tigers’ single-season three-point percentage chart.
When you play with Kellogg, you can see why he had 134 steals in his career as a Minuteman. He picked my pocket on Monday and took the ball down the court for an easy two points. Vogel, a former head manager his senior year and a 2009 graduate, is aggressive in putting the ball on the floor and taking it to the basket. The bottom line is that everyone in the game can play, which makes everyone on the floor, including me, a little bit better. If I miss a layup, I hear about it. If I turn the ball over, I hear about it. But I’m ok with it, because it makes me a better player and stronger person.
With Kellogg and his staff joining these weekly games, it shows that they practice what they preach, especially Kellogg. He wants his players to not only be successful on the court and in the classroom, but active members in the community too.
In his first season, the Minutemen played nationally-televised games against powerhouses. Last season, he was very active in trying to get students involved with the program by giving them access to the team that most Division I coaches would never give to students at a large university.
This year, Kellogg hand delivered tickets to season ticket holders throughout the Pioneer Valley. While the results haven’t been there quite yet for UMass in terms of wins, Kellogg is putting himself out there in order to get fans excited about the Minutemen this season. With the five freshmen one year older, Anthony Gurley taking over the leadership role vacated by Ricky Harris and new faces like Maxie Esho, Daryl Traynham and Jesse Morgan, UMass could surprise some people this year.
I will never be a Division I basketball player. But for a couple of hours, a few times a week, I experience something that not a lot of people will in their lifetime: playing basketball with some of the most talented and high-quality people that are a part of the men’s basketball team.
David Brinch is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.