"I don't believe in fate."- John Wooden
Game #9-042: South Dakota State at Hofstra PrideNovember 16, 2012 7:00 pm
Mack Sports Complex
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - For one of the very few times in my life, I had to disagree with Mr. Wooden Friday night.
But I can understand why those involved in Our Game don't put much stock in something that's very difficult to see and even more complicated to define. And so we (and they) talk about things like Humility
, and Grace
Fate remains untamed and therefore unloved and ignored.
I had probably heard of Nate Wolters in passing last year when I started recapping games, and as he led South Dakota St. to the NCAA Tournament, his name reached the edge of my radar. As the Jackrabbits gave Baylor a run at an upset that would make him someone that people might remember for a while, I paid attention. But the Bears won, and so we moved on to Norfolk St. and Lehigh.
Even as we got ready for the TMM Season 9 Draft two weeks ago, Wolters was an afterthought. I wanted C.J. McCollum of the aforementioned Lehigh, who I'd probably get to see a couple of times, but he was gone with the first pick. As I waited for the second and third pick (we were fourth), I was all set to take Shane Gibson of Sacred Heart, an underrated player and great story, as well as a local kid who I would see plenty of in his senior campaign.
But in the delay, I used my fabulous BBState membership to look at last year's stats, especially efficiency. One name leaped off the page: Nate Wolters. I still went back and forth for the reasons above, typing Gibson's name before finally going with Wolters.
The next step, of course, was to check the South Dakota St. schedule. I had already made my preliminary slate of games to see, but surely there had to be a way to fit the Jackrabbits in. Maybe when I head to Chicago, I could make it work. Wait, it's 10 hours from Chicago to Brookings, S.D.? Oh, boy. Not going to happen.
Earlier last week, though, I came upon something strange. South Dakota St. was coming to Hofstra for a subregional of the 2K Sports Classic. Three games in three days. As I would later find out, it wasn't on the original public schedule because they were trying to figure out the order and times of the other teams they would play (Hofstra, Marshall, and Division II District of Columbia).
Thank you, Fate, although it couldn't help me with New York traffic on a Friday afternoon. I got to the Mack Center by halftime of the opening game, with Jeff Ruland's UDC threatening a Stendhal with a six-point second half lead, only to collapse and lose 80-58. As that game drew to its conclusion, South Dakota St. started to come out of tunnel and congregate behind the basket just a few feet away from me. I made a plan to go over and introduce myself to Wolters and explain our community, that he was a member of the Picket Fences, and the convoluted route that made me a fan.
In the end, though, they were preparing for a game, he was with his teammates and coaches, and I was just some idiot in a Hickory shirt that was slightly too small. Fate had intervened again. Or, as Wooden would probably say, I chickened out.
Someone last year came up with an idea to watch one player for an entire game, and - like the dozen or so NBA scouts who joined us - I tried to watch as much of Wolters as I could. Unfortunately, as is the case of many hyped (not by himself, mind you) players, I expected perfection out of Wolters. I think I thought he would just take the ball and score every time he got the ball, blowing by defenders, making no-look passes for dunks, stealing the ball from the opposing point guard, and hitting every 25-footer with ease. Kind of like Teen Wolf
, you know?
In reality, with the Pride keying on him, Wolters was content to let his teammates do a lot of the work early. He showed glimpses of the instincts and quickness that make him so dominant in the Summit League, like when he read a teammate's air ball, sneaking in to grab the offensive rebound in a crowd of bigger guys and getting fouled.
Still, Wolters had only one field goal, a couple of bad misses, and Hofstra senior Stevie Mejia (all 5-foot-9 of him) was clearly up to the challenge, harassing Wolters - verbally as well - at every turn and making things very difficult on both ends of the floor.
One of the things that makes college basketball great is the different routes to success. When I watched Chaz Williams of UMass on Tuesday, you could see immediately what he brings to the table: flying around the court, taking risks, diving into crowds, just pure energy. Wolters doesn't bring that. He stays calm, always composed, under control, doesn't like to push the issue. As the guys behind me said late in the first half, "I expected more out of this guy. He's going to go to the NBA? I don't see it."
I certainly hope to see Wolters in the NBA next season, but does it really matter? Why does he need an NBA career to validate what he's done in college? Wolters hit a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer to give the Jackrabbits a 32-31 lead, and in a half where he was not noticed much, he had 11 points and 10 rebounds.
At the intermission, I checked Twitter and found that several people were telling me that high schooler Kuran Iverson had packed in an overflow crowd at Albertus Magnus, a Division III school that is about a 10-minute walk from my house in New Haven. I thought of Wolters and his high school career. That he rarely if ever left his home state of Minnesota for AAU games, and that his dad strongly objected to him going to Division I South Dakota St.
because it was the only offer he received, so obviously he'd be better off going to a Division II school where he'd get playing time.
Ah, well played, Fate. Well played.
There are times, however, where Fate deals blows that seem cruel and are hard to comprehend, even a decade later. In my younger days, I was too lazy (or smart?) to get a summer manual labor job like some of my friends, so I worked at the West Haven Parks and Rec summer camp with youngsters all the way through college. Toward the end of my run - now one of the people running the show -a high schooler named Jerry Gambardella started working for me. Having literally grown up in the shadow of the park the camp took place, Jerry was one of the best athletes West Haven ever produced, starring in three sports (basketball being one of them). Baseball was his love, though, and after graduating, went off to Hofstra to play.
What separated Jerry from others, though, was not his athletic ability, but his personality. He was not the pampered star athlete that expected favors, that expected things because his name was in the paper. He loved kids, never shirked his duties, and was tremendous with them. When teams were formed at camp for whatever game and his ended up with some of the weaker athletes, he didn't complain, just did the best he could with what he had.
He was going to major in physical education, and there was no doubt in my mind, he was going to come back and be a teacher and coach and lead the next generation of young men and women after his playing career was over.
In the fall of his sophomore year, though, playing a pick-up football game, Jerry collapsed and died
of what was later deemed to be a Hank Gathers-like heart condition. He was 19 years old.
As Fate would have it, I was on the campus nearly 11 years to the day of that tragedy. The baseball field at Hofstra now has a memorial to Jerry in the front. With 40 minutes between games, I had plenty of time to check it out.
Back in Mack Arena, Wolters was most upset at himself when he made a couple of defensive lapses. One, just 22 seconds into the second half, made teammate Taevaunn Prince come over and get his third foul, leading Wolters to profusely apologize to him as Prince left the game. He also let Mejia get behind him for a layup later in the game, and with 11 minutes left, Mejia stripped Wolters cleanly at midcourt and went the other way for a layup that gave the Pride a 58-53 lead and all the momentum.
This was the time, though, where you saw the composure and stoic nature of Wolters pay off. Down 59-55 with two minutes left, Wolters hit a runner. Down 61-57 on the next possession, Wolters swished a 25-footer to bring his team within one. With 32 seconds left, the shot clock running down and the Jackrabbits now down 66-63, the Hofstra crowd was now smart enough to be horrified when Wolters was left wide open (and found by teammate Brayden Carlson). He wasn't missing, and the game was tied.
On the final possession, Fate had one more twist for Wolters, though. In my perfect story, you'd expect him to make a great anticipation steal as he had done a couple of times. He would then take the ball and hit the winning shot, of course.
In reality, as the ball swung to sophomore Shaquille Stokes, Wolters and Mejia were on the other side of the floor. There was absolutely nothing Wolters could do as Stokes hit a clutch three-pointer with 3.0 seconds left. Wolters was smart enough to get the ball in quickly, flung it to Carlson in the left corner, who had a decent look to tie it, but it rimmed out.
Wolters put his shirt in his hands and slowly walked off the floor. We hope Fate will give us a Nate Wolters moment in the NCAA Tournament, and the Jackrabbits will certainly be favored in the Summit League after winning 27 games last season. I was impressed with the number of South Dakota natives on the roster after seeing Maine a few nights prior and basically seeing none. Although they were clearly outclassed inside by a Hofstra team that was at the bottom of the CAA last season and was without UConn transfer Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, the Jackrabbits - like some other upset-minded folk over the years - showed that Wolters will get them open looks, and if they can make them (and get some rebounds at the other end), who knows?
But I'm not sure Fate itself knows what it will want by March. As the game ended, I saw a guy who looked like he was from South Dakota St. (he had a team bag) and introduced myself. It was Ryan Sweeter, the Assistant Sports Information Director at SDSU, who was very helpful, but it wasn't really fair of me to conduct the introduction at the end of a game, by far the most intense time for an SID.
"It's really crazy right now," Sweeter said. "Are you going to be here tomorrow?"
"Unfortunately, no, I'm off to the Mohegan Sun for a couple of games. It's OK, you have a job to do."
He gave me his card and told me I could set something up in the future, he'd be glad to.
But I had the feeling that Fate was telling me to give up the chase.
On the way out, Fate had one more twist. I heard the name "Andreana" being yelled and turned around to see Hofstra sophomore women's point guard Andreana Thomas
. Andreana had make me look like a good soccer coach when she was 11 and 12 by scoring countless goals and winning games we probably never had a right to.
Although she was a soccer star through high school, basketball was her main athletic gig, she won three straight state championships before coming to Hofstra. She is probably the smartest athlete I've ever coached as far as instincts and just pure composure and leadership. Which reminded me a lot of Wolters.
"Coach, what the hell are you doing all the way up here?"
"I came to see that guy Nate Wolters play."
"Yea, he's good. He's going to the Show they say. Plays really smart. He had a quiet 25, but you could see he kept control of the game. Good for Hofstra to beat him."
I asked her how the family was, how college life was treating her, and it seems like she's doing very well, which makes a former coach extremely happy.
(I also saw official Jeffrey Smith on the way out, who used to work our rec league games in West Haven when I was coaching in the late 1990s. Good to see him doing well also.)
"I'll see you around somewhere. Maybe back in West Haven," Andreana said.
Only if Fate wants it that way, I guess.at HOFSTRA 66, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE 63
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE 1-2 (0-0) -- N. Wolters 9-18 4-4 25; B. Carlson 5-11 0-2 12; J. Dykstra 2-8 3-4 7; C. White 0-4 1-2 1; T. Fiegen 3-5 2-2 8; T. Prince 1-3 2-2 4; M. Heemstra 1-1 2-2 4; J. Bittle 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 22-52 14-18 63.
HOFSTRA 1-2 (0-0) -- S. Mejia 6-10 2-2 14; J. Hall 4-11 0-0 8; S. Stokes 4-9 0-0 9; T. Buie 4-7 4-6 14; M. Kone 3-6 0-0 6; S. Nwaukoni 3-6 2-2 8; K. Washington 1-4 0-0 2; D. Imes 1-5 0-0 3; J. Allen 0-0 2-2 2; D. Anglin 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 26-60 10-12 66.
Three-point goals: SDST 5-20 (N. Wolters 3-5; B. Carlson 2-6; C. White 0-4; J. Dykstra 0-3; T. Prince 0-1; J. Bittle 0-1), HOFS 4-16 (S. Mejia 0-2; D. Imes 1-4; T. Buie 2-4; S. Stokes 1-4; D. Anglin 0-1; K. Washington 0-1); Rebounds: SDST 27 (N. Wolters 10), HOFS 32 (J. Hall 9); Assists: SDST 9 (N. Wolters 3), HOFS 9 (S. Mejia 3); Total Fouls -- SDST 18, HOFS 13; Fouled Out: SDST-None; HOFS-None.