Last year, they had their first winning season in the ACC ever. This year, they received votes in the AP and USA Today preseason polls for the first time since the 2008-09 season and were ranked No. 24 by Blue Ribbon Yearbook.
There is no denying it.
Miami’s basketball team is enjoying a genuine buzz and few are more excited for this season than senior Julian Gamble. The big man was forced to watch from the sidelines last year when an injury forced him to sit out the season. Now he’s back and ready to make up for lost time. Yours truly was fortunate enough to follow him and the team around for a couple of days. Here is what transpired:
Day 1 / Athletic Training Room / Monday Oct. 29 / 1:55 p.m.
As I am walking down the hallway in the BUC, I notice the bold, green writing on the white walls: “U COMMITMENT”. Eventually I reach the athletic training room. I am about to meet Julian Gamble for the first time.
There are three green massage tables lined up along the wall and ESPN is playing on a TV to the far left. The beige walls seem oddly foreign compared to the usual green/orange/white color scheme that is otherwise omnipresent. After a few minutes of waiting inside the elongated room, Julian comes in through a green door next to the TV.
He is dressed in all black.
A black Marlins baseball hat, a black “True Religion” hoodie, black Jordan basketball shorts, black Nike socks, black Jordan’s and a black digital watch. I introduce myself to him and after we shake hands he takes his shoes off, puts weights around his ankles and lies down on one of the padded tables.
As he moves his leg up and down, he talks to other players about topics that range from the new “Assassin’s Creed III” to NBA players’ salaries. Every once in a while he takes a break from entertaining the room with his jokes and antics by getting up and switching weights.
Julian is in his sixth year at Miami.
The big man tore his ACL in a preseason workout in the summer of 2011 and thus had to sit out all of last year. “I was driving to the basket, I kind of planted and my leg just gave out,” he explains. The 6-10 senior didn’t think it was anything serious at first, but when he consulted athletic trainer Wes Brown and a doctor the next morning, he was in for a rude awakening. “I went and got the MRI and I spoke to the doctor and that’s when he showed me the MRI and showed me where my ACL was supposed to be and it wasn’t.”
The North Carolina native didn’t want to risk rushing back from the injury and so a six month healing process began.
“It’s tough, obviously, because you have to take it a day at a time, especially with a process like that. You want instant results and it never comes as fast as you want it to. […] I don’t think I felt healthy again until this previous summer. ”
I ask him what it was like to finally be his old self again. The answer surprises me.
“I don’t think I ever really got back to my old self, I was just a completely different person. I was a lot better than I was before and it was exciting to be that way, kind of be around my teammates and be able to run and play and jump like I hadn’t before.”
His knee is back to normal and fortunately for him, the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility. Today he is here, because of all the little bumps and bruises that accumulate in practice, “maintenance” they call it.
Ahhh, yes, practice. That’s where I’ll be tomorrow.
Day 2 / Practice I / Tuesday Oct. 30 / 3:35 p.m.
I’m waiting in front of the Fieldhouse, Miami’s practice facility, when slowly but surely more and more players trot past me. After watching them shuffle into the gym I swiftly follow. I don’t want to miss anything.
Once inside, no time is wasted. Jim Krumpos, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, instructs the players to stretch.
Meanwhile, head coach Jim Larranaga is chatting with Katie Meier, the women’s coach, on the other court. Eventually, he walks on over towards us.
“Does anyone have class today?” he asks.
“Yessir,” the players answer in unison.
He winces. There never seems to be enough time.
The players start to clap it up and form a circle at midcourt. Larranaga briefs them on today’s practice. The message is clear: “You got to develop the right attitude.” The huddle is then broken up with a “1-2-3-TOGETHER” as the players start to warm up with a passing drill.
As his players move on to the next drill, Coach L watches every move closely, standing at midcourt, hands behind his back, body slightly tilted forward.
After some shooting and defensive drills, a tip drill is on the agenda. But Larranaga has something special in store for his team. He arranges a number of green folding chairs near the sideline to mimic a bench area. Next, he sits players down on his makeshift “bench” and tells them: “Everybody’s up cheering. […] That gets the crowd into it too.”
The players are then equipped with towels and again instructed to cheer every time a tip goes in.
And so the hooting, hollering and towel-waving begins.
With every successful tip-in the players become more enthusiastic. They seem to thoroughly enjoy the fake cheering. Assistant coaches Eric Konkol and Chris Caputo can’t help, but crack smiles.
It’s these kinds of unorthodox and innovative ideas that only 28 years of head coaching experience can spawn. For Larranaga intensity is paramount. This goes for all the players, on the court as well as on the bench.
At one point during a scrimmage, Julian scores on a left jump hook. Larranaga, who has been standing a few feet away from me, turns around and says: “One of the easiest games when you know what you’re good at.” Needless to say that he was the one who encouraged Julian to keep working on this particular shot. When the center/forward came to college he didn’t even know what a hook shot was, two years later it’s his go-to move. The only thing that changed over that timespan was the coach. Go figure.
It is now 5:43 and Coach L is sensing the urgency: “Let’s go. We’re running out of time.” Some of the players, like Julian, have night classes that start at 6:30.
There is never enough time.
Eventually, he makes his signature whistling sound to signal the end of practice. The players and coaches gather at midcourt. The “B-team” receives some much deserved props after out-performing the starters. Then, the schedule for tomorrow is announced and after a quick “1-2-3-TOGETHER!” the players are sent on their way to class. Some stay behind to shoot. In either case, the learning never ends.
Day 3 / The Game / Friday Nov. 2 / 6:14 p.m.
A booming guitar solo bangs against my eardrums as I walk into the BUC to sit down in the media section. I glance over at the band where the fine-tuning of instruments is in full swing.
St. Leo Lions vs. Miami Hurricanes. The first and only exhibition game of the season is 46 minutes away from starting.
The pregame atmosphere is relaxed and laid-back. The players know the warm-up procedure by heart now. They have gone through it time and time again in practice.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
It is 7:05 now. Players are getting in position for tipoff. Miami’s Kadji shoots up and wins it, but before the Canes even realize what is happening to them they are down by 10.
Miami slowly battles back as the band plays “Livin’ on a prayer”. Seems fitting enough. It is 12-13 now, advantage St. Leo.
The Canes hang around as point guard Shane Larkin is able to hit a three as time expires to make it 30-37. But even though the crowd breaks out in cheers, the players quietly shuffle off the court. They know they shouldn’t be down seven to a Division II team. Not this season. Not ever.
The second half starts like the first one ended: sloppy, flat and fruitless.
Eventually, Miami is able to chip away at the deficit. 41-52. 44-52. 47-52. Finally a McKinney Jones three ties it up at 56 apiece. A furious back-and-forth ensues.
It is now two minutes to 9 o’clock. The score is 67-69 in favor of St. Leo. It is Miami ball with 35.5 seconds left in the game.
After various misses the Canes get their own rebound, but then the ball goes out of bounds off of a Lions player. There are three seconds left in the contest. The ball is inbounded and ends up in Kadji’s hands. He shoots … and misses.
St. Leo’s bench erupts. The scene reminds me of the numerous upsets that the NCAA tournament has seen over the years. Coach Larranaga was once on the winning end of such an upset. Today is a different story. The roles are reversed.
But as the players quietly sneak off the court, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a wake-up call at the right time.
Day 4 / The Interview / Monday Nov. 5 / 2:39 p.m.
He told me he’ll be right back.
With nothing better to do, I take the opportunity to study the room precisely. I mean, when am I going to find myself in the men’s team lounge again?
There are stacks of Gatorade boxes on the side, three black leather lounge seats next to each other, three large TVs evenly dispersed throughout the room as well as two black leather couches. The room definitely has a MTV Cribs-like ambiance to it.
Suddenly, Julian comes back out. Shoes in his hand, jersey draped over his shoulder, he sits down next to me in one of the lounge chairs.
“Let’s talk a bit about the game” I begin. Even as the words leave my mouth, I can’t help but wonder how annoying it must be for players to be reminded of losses over and over again.
“Although St. Leo is a Division II team they’re basketball players too, we can’t expect them to miss wide open shots and miss layups and miss dunks. They’re basketball players, they’re going to make those types of shots.”
I can sense that the topic is exhausted. Time to shift gears. We talk about school (he’s a Liberal Arts major now pursuing his master’s) and the difficulty of balancing classes and basketball (“It can get a little hectic.”). Our conversation then turns to life post-graduation.
“Something near the game of basketball, because it’s the game that I love and I want to make a positive impact [on] people that come after me to make sure that they have the best chance to succeed.”
“‘Not taking things for granted’. I’ve been through a lot and I’ve kind of seen many different things and me traveling to Africa some years back with Athletes in Action, seeing what types of things went on over there and the amount of resources they have versus what we have here … [it’s] just ‘Don’t take things for granted’.”
I take a closer look now at the man who has about 13 inches on me. He is hunched over, his inked-up arms crossed, occasionally resting his curly head of hair on his huge palm. I wonder if some of the tattoos serve as constant reminders of the things he’s been through. I wonder what they are. Suddenly, I realize that he has a film session soon.
“I don’t want to make you late, do you have time for three more?” I ask.
“Yeah, yeah go ahead.”
I ask him if he has noticed that players sometimes don’t listen to Coach L (something Larranaga briefly hinted at on Friday) and if he thinks that is a problem with this particular team.
He explains to me that it’s not a problem with the team, but rather with coaching young players in general. He compares it to how children don’t always listen to their parents, but then when they’re older they realize ‘Yeah, mum was right’ or in this case ‘Coach was right’.
A very fitting analogy I think to myself.
“Coach L knows exactly what he’s talking about. He’s been around for so long so every word he speaks when it comes to basketball and knowledge-wise is gold to me, because I know that if he says it, it’s going to become true.”
I quickly wrap up the interview and then get up to shake his hand. I always feel like a hobbit standing next to him. He then exits through the same door he entered. Film session and then practice followed by class from 6:30 to 9:00. Say what you will about college athletes, but they definitely work for their scholarships.
Day 5 / Practice II / Wednesday Nov. 7 / 3:39 p.m.
Coach L is watching, hands stemmed into his hips, wearing an orange vest, black Jordan sweatpants and white/black Jordan shoes. Whistle in his mouth and glasses on his nose, he looks like a professor.
To my left Raphael Akpejiori is backing down Reggie who is chatting with Coach Huger. As I glance across the court I see Tonye Jekiri shooting free throws while Julian works on his turnaround. It seems always busy in here. And loud. The bouncing of the balls echoes and fills the whole gym with clangor.
I notice Huger strolling across the court wearing a white “U” shirt over a green long sleeve shirt. Can’t blame him. It’s freezing in here.
Next on the agenda is a three-on-two drill , “White vs. Green”. Bodies starting hitting the floor as Rion Brown takes a charge. The intensity and pace pick up further.
Bishop Daniels, who is finally back practicing with the team after a hamstring injury had limited his participation for a few weeks, drops down to do push-ups after he fouls Julian in transition. No one called it. No one said anything. It’s just automatic. It’s understood.
When Kenny doesn’t sprint hard enough in one of the drills, Larranaga calls him out. “That’s the problem in the game!” He’s got an edge to him today.
Moments later, when Trey shoots after Larranaga has called the play dead, Coach L finally explodes: “What is wrong!?” The gym goes silent. You could hear the proverbial needle drop.
But the outburst proves effective. The second play works a lot better. “Now that’s a fast break! Go get a drink!”
Next up is a one-on-one defensive drill. Bigs vs. bigs. Guards vs. guards. Larranaga takes Rion aside to explain to him the intricacies of on-the-ball defense. That’s Coach L at his best – the teacher.
Meanwhile, Julian whirls around defenders, spinning and stopping in the paint. I keep thinking that I can’t believe that he’s the same guy that would routinely make me groan whenever he entered the game during my freshman year. I keep waiting for him to take off a mask Mission Impossible-style and reveal his true identity.
Then, about an hour into practice, the gym goes silent again. This time because Scott hit the floor hard. I imagine hearing a collective sigh of relief as he gets up.
Moments later, Julian earns a “Good job, Julian” and then even a “Great Job, Julian” from Larranaga as he shows on ball screens. Exactly what the coach wanted.
As the team plays five-on-five I realize how easy it is to mistake Huger for a player. The assistant coach often helps out on the “B-Team”. He bangs bodies with the rest of them and later on even drains a three that leaves Larkin in disbelief.
Practice is nearing its end, when I spot Julian and Coach L sitting next to each other, talking. I remember what Julian told me about Larranaga just the other day: “He likes to slow things down and really teach the fundamentals in every aspect of the game. He wants the little things to be right, he wants it done the exact way that he envisioned it happening and if it doesn’t happen that way, he’ll repeat it until it happens.”
Finally, around 5:42 the clapping begins. The circle of players and coaches is formed and Coach L states: “Now that was a good practice. […] We got a game on Friday. We need another practice tomorrow like we had today.”
Lastly, he explains to his team that he’d like to go to lunch or dinner with them this week.
“I’ll text you guys,” he says.
It is now 5:48 p.m.
The season starts in less than 48 hours…
words_patrick riley. photo_raquel zaldivar and zach beeker