Growing up on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia, Mark Gasperini was raised in a place far different from that of Amherst, Massachusetts where he now resides as a member of the UMass basketball team.
Living in an apartment in the suburbs of Moscow, Gasperini focused his attention on soccer, playing with friends and cheering on the English giant Chelsea on the weekends. With nothing but a basketball court made of dirt and gravel, basketball never found its way into his life until moving to Boston when he was 10 years old.
“[Moscow] is much different than America, ” Gasperini said. “Everyone lives in projects. There’s a lot of apartment buildings split up between nice projects and less nice projects unless you’re very rich. It’s not a bad place to live honestly, at least where I was. I was on the outskirts, closer to a suburb, I wasn’t actually downtown. Cold in the winters but very nice in the summer.”
Gasperini’s father was originally from the United States but had lived in Russia for Mark’s birth and the first 10 years of his son’s life. After accepting a new job in Boston, the Gasperini’s moved across the Atlantic where Mark would quickly find a love for basketball.
“My dad is from New York and lived in Russia as a foreign correspondent and he met my mom there,” Gasperini said. “He got a job back here and we moved here for his job. I’m a citizen because he naturalized me when I was born and my mom had a green card but is now a citizen as well.”
Living in Boston means you are a fan of Boston sports no matter where you’ve come from due to its intoxicating sports culture. Despite not characterizing his own playstyle as that of any of his basketball idols, Gasperini became a huge fan of Kevin Garnett during the Boston Celtics unstoppable 2008 season.
Both of Gasperini’s parents knew little about basketball and the entire scholarship process, giving Mark an opportunity to follow his passions without any restraints.
“I’ve always been independent,” Gasperini said. “They’ve trusted me in making my own decisions. My mom doesn’t really know about my basketball career at all, she doesn’t really understand it since there aren’t any scholarships for basketball in Russia. This whole concept of getting a scholarship was amazing to her because I’m getting a free education, so she was really excited about that. She’s let me make all of my own decisions and choices.”
Gasperini joined the Mass Rivals basketball team, a premier AAU basketball organization, while in high school at Brimmer and May in Boston.
“We were a sponsored team, so we played in circuits sponsored by Nike, Under Armour and Adidas and they pay top high school talent to travel around the country to play in these tournaments,” Gasperini said. “Mass Rivals is sponsored by Adidas, so I got to travel to Indiana, Texas, Vegas twice, Atlanta, and all of these different places.”
Traveling from city to city, Mark played in games in front of some of the most renowned college coaches in the country, including the infamous Coach Calipari of Kentucky and Coach K of Duke.
“You get to play in front of a lot of college coaches. One time I remember I was in a game and I had a teammate, Wanyen Gabriel, who is in the league now and we were at a game where Roy Williams [University of North Carolina head coach] had to sit on the floor because the game was so packed with college coaches,” Gasperini said.
Gasperini’s biggest accomplishment at the club came in 2016 where Mass Rivals reached the Adidas Championship game, a nationally televised event on ESPN.
Those tournaments were not only just a spotlight on young talent for college scouts, but moments in Mark’s past which hold fond memories of his time playing AAU.
“On those long road trips with Mass Rivals we would all go to Steak and Shake and the coaches would pay for us so picture this, there would be three teams, a sophomore, junior, and freshman teams so there’s 30 to 35 kids and there’s three to four coaches and whoever else so there’s 45 of us filing into the Steak and Shake and we all get two meals, a milkshake, drinks and we would just go all out and get whatever we wanted.”
Mark never understood his basketball talent however, until his head coach at Brimmer and May sat down with him to talk about his skills and sights on the future.
“My mom and dad didn’t know sports so I was just out there playing just for fun but then my coach sat me down and said that if I keep working really hard that I could get a full scholarship which was what my goal really was.”
Growing up a soccer fan, his bedroom draped with a Chelsea flag, Gasperini took his athletic talents to the soccer field his senior year of high school, where school guidelines required him to play two sports.
“In Russia, I just played in the yard then I started playing rec here,” said Gasperini. “At my high school we were required to play two sports so junior year I played baseball and senior year I played on the soccer team, and to be fair we were probably the worst team in the state, but I played a lot and started on the left wing,” Gasperini said. “I think I had four goals and four assists in 12 or 13 games, but it wasn’t a super talented group.”
Mark finally received his first basketball offer from Holy Cross, but had his mind heavily set on American, who at the beginning of his junior year, offered Mark a full athletic scholarship with guaranteed playing time, checking off two of Mark’s must haves. After visiting Washington, D.C., Mark knew the location was right for him to be set on making a career out of.
“I wanted a good education, that was something my mom pushed me to do but also at the same time I wanted to play a lot,” Gasperini said. “If I was going to college strictly for education, I would have gone to Brown because they wanted me really bad, but I also was looking for a place that I could enjoy being there. Visiting D.C., I thought it was a great place to be, so it was a combination of those three things.”
Education has always played a huge role in Mark’s life and having a backup plan from basketball was something he always kept in the back of his mind in all his basketball decisions.
“That was one of the biggest things for me in college, having a plan B. I’ve seen too many kids who say they’re going pro and then they end up not playing professionally while having 2.0’s in college. That’s something I wanted to avoid at all costs.”
Gasperini had an extensive career at American, starting 83 games over his three years in D.C., averaging 10.4 points, and four rebounds while playing nearly 25 minutes in all his appearances.
Gasperini decided to continue his collegiate career at the University of Massachusetts where he could play another year of basketball while earning his master’s degree in accounting. Mark has had a tough start to his graduate campaign for UMass however, suffering a concussion, tearing his meniscus, and being one of the players to test positive for the coronavirus a few weeks prior to the start of the season.
“We were in the hotel, for 19 days, and before that I was personally out with a concussion,” Gasperini said. “Some days were rough just sitting in the hotel, but I just focus on the end goal.”
Being left in a hotel room left with nothing but the coronavirus and his thoughts, Gasperini questioned the legitimacy of playing basketball professionally. While his mental and physical toughness continue to be challenged throughout the course of the 2021 season, Gasperini will wait and see what lies ahead of him when the season comes to a close.
“I’m still debating on going pro,” Gasperini said. “This year I’ve had a concussion, COVID and now I have a meniscus tear that I just got a cortisone shot for. I don’t know if my body can take any more basketball because it takes such a huge toll on your body and mind. We’ll see how I feel when the season is over.”
As an accounting major, Mark has landed himself a job and Ernst and Young in Boston if he’s unable to play professionally.
“My major is accounting, so it can be tough for sure. From an academic standpoint, if I do retire since my body has been banged up this year and I’m not really sure what I’m going to do, I actually have a job I signed a contract for that I could postpone if I go pro but it’s a job with Ernst and Young in Boston,” Gasperini said.
In an unusual year plagued by a worldwide pandemic, Gasperini has not been able to fully enjoy the transition to a new program. Off the court Mark relaxes in his room watching Netflix or playing FIFA 21, Call of Duty or Rocket League rather than enjoying campus life as all students wish they could.
“It’s kind of a boring routine at this point but if it was a regular year, I’d be out exploring a little bit more and seeing the city,” Gasperini said. “I usually prefer to chill because I’m tired from practice and want to keep my body as fresh as possible, but for hobbies video games have been the biggest one as of now.”
Despite being granted access to live on campus, only a handful of other students were deemed eligible, leaving the campus ghostly with limited interactions for people.
“Outside of the team I haven’t been able to meet many people since no one is on campus but on the team, it’s been great,” Gasperini said. “I love the coaches here; they’ve been great in every way possible. They stay in contact with me always seeing if I need anything, especially when I had COVID.”
Mark has come into the program as one of the oldest and most experienced players on the roster and has used not only his basketball capabilities in practice to push players physically but his experience as a player to help younger recruits learn from his past.
“I can’t force them to do things that I did or didn’t do but if they listen to my experiences then great, if they don’t it’s on them,” Gasperini said. “If they want to listen and learn then that’s up to them to incorporate those things.”
It is no question that UMass’ key to victory is its star center, Tre Mitchell, who proved himself as the best center in the Atlantic 10 as a freshman. Now, Mark competes with Mitchell daily at practice, adding different elements to Tre’s game that only a very experienced player has to offer.
“Mark’s game I’ve respected the most because he’s came in here as a grad transfer and was completely ready to go,” Mitchell said. “I think he brings in a completely different aspect than what I was used to guarding Baptiste every day. You can tell when he speaks, and you communicate with him that his experience shows through that and I couldn’t be more excited to play with him.”
UMass head coach Matt McCall sees Gasperini as not only a veteran for the team, but a talent to not be ignored on the court this season.
“The competition with Tre has been phenomenal,” McCall said. “We’ve really challenged Mark to go at him every day and Mark’s responded to that. He’s got a tremendous skillset, he can step back and shoot, and he’s a great passer which is one of my favorite things about him as a front court player. He’s taken to the development piece and he’s gotten better in the short amount of preseason time. I’ve been blown away with him, I’m very excited that he’s here. Mark’s game is very similar to Tre’s, so we don’t need to change how we play when he’s in the game.”
Mark is closing in on 1000 points in his collegiate career, a huge accomplishment for him personally and for any college basketball player in general. Mark has his eye’s set on March madness however, and hopes that if he can’t reach 1000, that his team is successful regardless.
“I hope to get 1000 points, I am about 80 points away or so and that would be amazing to get. A team goal that I’m more focused on is just winning games. I want to be in the [March Madness] tournament. I have never been there in my four years so that’s the end goal, that’s the dream.”
Kevin Schuster can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @KevinESchuster.