Practice brings the diehards out for ODU Hoops. Including me, of course
It's a rainy Friday night. A few dozen basketball fans crowd the doorway of the gym in ODU's Athletic Administration building. It's the first night that men's teams are allowed to practice under NCAA rules. A number of U.S. college teams have high profile events, complete with pep rallies and slam dunk contests.
Not Old Dominion. For Coach Blaine Taylor and the team, it's right to work. There's something almost homespun about team managers making sure there are enough chairs for the diehards who've come to watch. Of course I'm among them.
Taylor and his coaching staff run a brisk practice. One drill moves seamlessly to another. Most have a common thread: They include some sort of competition- which team can make the most layups, or most defensive stops. This is a hyper competitive group of guys, and in their first formal practice, they don't hesitate to go right at each other.
Eric Acra watches the drills intently. The Norfolk Academy varsity boys' coach, Acra has brought his wife Ruth and three kids Madison, Taylor and Lee to the practice.
"It's great to watch. For one thing, as a basketball coach I learn a lot of drills," Acra says. It's the first time almost all of these fans have seen the players since last March, and Acra notes something that others do as well: "It looks like they're really in shape. A couple of the guys, Frank (Hassell) and Gerald (Lee) look like they've slimmed down."
Anton Larsen, one of the team's two true freshmen, is also attracting a lot of attention. True seven footers tend to do that. "Watch how he holds the ball up, that's a good sign," long-time season ticket-holder John Costulis says to his 10-year-old son, JD. "He's got a smooth jumpshot."
Keyon Carter hits a long three-pointer on a fast-break drill and the crowd murmurs approvingly. "He's the key. If he starts hitting that shot, the sky's the limit for this team," says an older guy leaning on a cane. I'd been thinking the same thing.
"I'll tell you who else the key to this team is: (Trian) Iliadis," the man continues. "He was hurt all last year. You watch him this year." Again, it's like this guy was reading my mind. I was shocked when I saw how good Iliadis' fitness test scores were. "So how do you know so much about ODU basketball?" I ask the man.
"I've known these guys for years," says the man, Mark Linn. Linn explains that he arrived in the area right around the time Taylor did, and ran the Harbor Club in Norfolk. "I met Coach Taylor and people don't know this about him: he's a basketball historian. I said my name was Mark Linn and he said 'Are you the Mark Linn who was an All-American at Long Island University?'
"We just hit it off. We've been together ever since. I love him like a brother." Linn lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., now, and is battling bone cancer. He's in the process of making a giant donation to ODU basketball, hoping to endow two scholarships.
"I grew up a poor kid in the South Bronx. Pretty much whatever I am today I owe to the game of basketball," Linn says. "I would have never made it through high school, let alone getting into college. I'm just giving back a little bit of what I've gotten. This team needs to be done with having to raise money. If I can do that, that's what I'll do." After practice wrapped up, I asked Coach Taylor about Linn.
"I've known him since I got here. He ran the Harbor Club when we started taking kids there during recruiting visits. It was he and (senior director for athletic development) Ed Fraim who came up with the idea for Meet the Monarchs," the annual dinner where fans can meet players and coaches before practice starts.
"We didn't ask for this (donation). It's just so incredibly generous," Taylor says. He chokes up a tiny bit when I ask him about his friend's fight with cancer. "I love the guy. I make sure I tell him that every time I talk to him."
Last Wednesday's Meet the Monarchs dinner was my first. More than 400 fans had a great meal at the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club, and watched the coaches and players interview each other with a microphone, telling stories and cracking jokes. As a bonus, a player or coach was seated at each table. At our table, three retired couples and my wife asked Iliadis a bunch of questions about the adjustment from Australia to the U.S., who he thinks will be ODU's main competition this year, and how he likes living in Norfolk.
"I've done these Midnight Madness events before," Taylor says. "I think our Meet the Monarch dinner is a better way to get to know the team, a better setting."
I commented to Taylor that he smiled more at the first practice than he had in a month of workouts that I'd watched. "Last year I ran 95 practices, and coached in 35 games. That's what I really love," he said. "The other stuff, the speeches, the workouts, is part of the deal, but I like to compete. The kids are like that, too."
I dragged my wife and kids to practice at the Ted Constant Convocation Center on Sunday, to watch some more of those competitive juices flow. In two minutes, my wife picked out that Kent Bazemore has entered this season in great shape. "He can really jump," she says. On cue, Bazemore climbs an imaginary escalator to swat away a layup attempt.
Another guy who looked really good on Sunday was redshirt freshman Nick Wright. Although more slender than the rest of the team's front-line players, he took the ball right to the basket for layups twice in three possessions.
"He's really quick off his feet. He's surprisingly tough to rebound against," big Frank Hassell says while saying hi to my kids. My son, who's 15 months old, brought a toy basketball with him to practice. It took a fair amount of dexterity for me to keep him from throwing the ball out onto the court during the drills.
The whole time, my son loudly said, over and over: "Ball! Ball! Ball! Ball!" I thought to myself, "I know! Isn't it awesome?" I hope I'm raising someone who's as passionate about hoops as me.
Brendan's Blog 46