A Gentle Giant

Solomon Young's journey through a life in basketball

By Brian Mozey
Photo by Hannah Olson/Iowa State Daily

A Gentle Giant

Solomon Young's journey through a life in basketball

The trip was needed.

A trip that allowed Solomon Young to reconnect with his family.

A trip that allowed him to reflect on his life.

A trip he knew was special.

Last year, Solomon and his two sisters decided to give their mother, Tina Solomon, a birthday present.

She’s always talked about driving up the coast from Sacramento, California, his hometown, so her three kids gave her exactly what she wanted. All four of them packed into a car and drove up the coast to enjoy the ocean view and the scenery as a family.

“It was one of the best birthday presents for me,” Tina said. “I was with my family, and we were enjoying time together.”

One of his sisters, Treshenia Solomon, said she loved that drive because there wasn’t fighting or bickering going on. It was just peace and quiet.

From his father dying at a young age to moving in with his relatives to being the star basketball player in Sacramento to an unimaginable recruiting process to battling injuries and weaknesses to becoming a leader of the Iowa State men’s basketball team.

Peace and quiet.

A rare thing in Solomon’s life, something he appreciates when he has the chance.

Solomon Young grew up in the Sacramento, California, and started his sports career in baseball. Soon, he realized basketball was his true passion.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

A swing and a miss

Solomon’s parents, David Allen Young and Tina, were never married, but lived in separate places. 

He had two sisters on his mom’s side of the family and two sisters and a brother on his dad’s side. Before he started school, Solomon stayed at his mother’s house. When it was time for him to start school, she found an accelerated school near his father’s house and decided that Solomon should stay with his father and attend that school.

Tina described Solomon as a quiet, soft-spoken kid, but also intelligent. She thought this accelerated school would be beneficial for him in the future.

While Solomon attended school, he stayed with his father during the week and his mother on the weekends. During those weekends, Tina worked a full-time job as a bus driver, working 10-14 hours a day. It was hard for her to find time and things to do to keep Solomon busy.

Solomon Young was first introduced to baseball before he found his passion for basketball at a young age.
Photo by Hector Nevejas

Solomon’s father decided to sign him up for weekend activities. He registered Solomon for baseball.

“I thought that was going to be his sport,” Tina said. “He liked playing it, but it wasn’t his sport, and football wasn’t a choice [because I wouldn’t let him], so he went to basketball. Once he went into basketball, he took to that like a fish in water.”

David and Tina had different types of personalities, but the same goal in mind. That goal was to make Solomon the best basketball player he could be in the future. 

Tina described David as a one way type personality where he would have Solomon focus on what he thought was the best decision for him. On the other hand, Tina was the type of person that offered options to Solomon and letting him decide on what he wanted to do in his career. 

David helped Solomon with the basics of how to play basketball, and that’s when the game became a passion.

Then, the summer before Solomon started seventh grade, his father died. Tina doesn’t know specifically how he died, but the death hit Solomon hard.

“When it happened, it was tough,” Solomon said. “The things he instilled in me before he passed, like always work hard and grades, are important. I know he would want me to do well and not end up like my brother.”

His older brother got into the wrong crowd when Solomon was young, and Solomon knew he didn’t want to follow that path.

“Solomon was mature for his age and knew that wasn’t the path for him,” Tina said. “He hasn’t talked much about his brother. He’ll always love his brother.”

But Solomon knew he was destined for something greater.

Iowa State freshman Solomon Young looks up at the hoop during their game against Drake as part of the HyVee Classic in Des Moines Dec. 17. The Cyclones would go on to defeat the Bulldogs 97-80.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

A new direction 

Solomon didn’t just play for his high school; he was also a part of the AAU program in Sacramento. He played for the AAU Yellow Jackets from fourth grade to his freshman year of high school.

“He grew up with the team,” Tina said. “In high school, he had the ability to change AAU teams, and I think he made a good decision.”

George Sousa was head coach of a new AAU team that was forming in Davis, California. He and Solomon met during Solomon’s freshman year in high school at a basketball camp for AAU. Sousa wanted Solomon on his new team because it had all of the elite players from the Sacramento area.

Solomon had been on the Yellow Jackets all his childhood, so changing to a different team would be a hard transition, but after talking to Sousa and seeing what he could do on the team Solomon switched to the Wildcats. Sousa made sure Solomon could shoot from the 3-point line, rebound and go on a fast break, pass to an open shooter and be a physical presence in the paint with the Wildcats.

Solomon Young played on one particular AAU basketball team, the Yellow Jackets, the majority of his childhood. Once in high school, he made the hard decision to switch AAU teams and play for the Wildcats.
Photo by Tina Solomon

The relationship Sousa and Solomon created allowed them to trust each other. It also meant more to Solomon than anyone imagined. Not only did Solomon look to Sousa for help in improving his basketball skills, but he also looked to him for guidance in high school.

“I look at coach [George] Sousa as a role model,” Solomon said. “He’s been there through the ups and downs and has supported me in any decision I’ve made in my life.”

Sousa helped Solomon and his family during his junior year when colleges started recruiting Solomon. Besides Tina, Solomon used Sousa to bounce ideas off of regarding strengths and weaknesses of schools.

When he made the decision to go to Iowa State, Solomon told his family first.

Then Sousa.

Sousa knew it was a perfect fit.

He knew Iowa State was a team that played a small-ball type of game that relied on the 3-point shot, but Solomon could be a good change of pace. With his size and skills, Solomon could provide balance with his rebounding and physical presence in the paint.

Sousa knew Solomon was going to be a special player for any team that took a chance on him.

A new home

After his father died, Solomon started living with his mother full-time. He had to adjust to his mother’s work schedule because she was gone most days.

After a couple of years with his mom, Solomon finished middle school and had to decide which high school to attend. They all wanted him because of his basketball abilities.

“It was a difficult decision,” Solomon said. “[Sacramento] High was the best place for education and basketball, so that’s what ultimately made my decision.”

In high school, Solomon moved in with his aunt and uncle, Mary and Dennis Woods. The two were retired and had time to pick him up and drop him off at practice and be there for the games. He lived with them during his freshman, sophomore and junior years.

During those three years, Solomon was able to focus on basketball and improve his game. After those three years, Solomon had made his decision to play at Iowa State and knew he needed independence leading into college. He decided to go back home with Tina because she had more free time from her job and was able to watch his games and follow the footsteps of Mary and Dennis. 

Solomon and Tina was grateful for everything his aunt and uncle did during those three years, but Solomon knew it was time to go home. 

Solomon Young played basketball at Sacramento High School, but lived with his aunt and uncle throughout the majority of his high school career.
Photo by Tina Solomon

“I told [Solomon] that he can come home, but he’ll be on his own regarding basic daily routines,” Tina said. “He wanted to be on his own, so it was a perfect fit for his last year.”

When he moved back home, Tina and Solomon became closer. Tina had more time off from work, allowing her to see Solomon play in his games and be that number one fan she always wanted to be. They also had more time to talk and understand one another.

And that strengthened bond became essential after Tina got a call from her doctor.

Solomon Young and his mother, Tina Solomon, became really close during his senior year of high school. She helped Solomon in the recruiting process.
Photo by Tina Solomon

An unbreakable bond

Tina was waiting at the bus station for Solomon in June. They were meeting for lunch when she received the phone call.

She had breast cancer — again.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘Not again,’” Tina said. “I didn’t want to ruin my lunch with Solomon.”

Tina has been dealing with cancer for much of her adult life. She had her first diagnosis of cancer when Solomon was about 4 years old. Her second diagnosis came when Solomon was in middle school and still living with his father most of the time.

This past June was her third diagnosis, and all three had been some form of breast cancer.

When Solomon reached the bus station, he knew something was wrong. That’s when Tina told him the news. They still went out to lunch that day, but their discussion was different.

Solomon went back to Iowa State during those couple of months for summer sessions and to continue working on basketball. He went back to Sacramento in August to check on his mother before heading to a leadership conference with the basketball team.

When Solomon arrived, Tina wasn’t able to walk and needed a helping hand. That’s when Solomon stepped in to help her get back on her feet. He did simple workouts with her, activities like stretching or walking in a pool or around the house. He needed to be with her.

He called coach Steve Prohm and asked if he could miss the leadership conference. He, of course, said yes, and Solomon focused his attention on Tina.

Throughout that week, they proceeded to work out every day. They made small steps, but by the time he left, Tina was able to squat and walk up and down her steps.

“Those couple of weeks really meant a lot to me, and I know they meant a lot to my mom,” Solomon said. “It was just another opportunity for my mom and I to get closer and continue building our relationship. I’d do anything for her.”

In those two weeks, Solomon and his mother talked about her past cancer experiences. He doesn’t remember the first diagnosis, and only remembers bits and pieces of her second bout with cancer.

“How did you get through those two times?” Solomon asked.

“Fight,” Tina said. “All you can do is fight and hope the treatment does its job.”

The family has made a GoFundMe page to help with paying off some of the bills for her treatments, since it’s a more aggressive treatment plan. She also appreciates all the prayers coming her way. She said they do help.

Tina is now working out at the local gym, and Solomon and her stay in contact almost every day to see how that particular day went and to encourage one another to continue working hard to reach each other’s goals.

“I want Solomon to focus on basketball,” Tina said. “That’s why he went to Iowa State. He can get an education and also continue pursuing his dreams as a basketball player.”

To the cornfields of Iowa

Tina told Solomon that she wanted him to pick a college before his last season of high school basketball. That way it would be more fun to play in his senior season without the stress of picking a new school hanging over his head.

At the beginning of his junior year, he was getting calls from many different schools in the Midwest and West Coast. It was too much for Tina and her family. It became so much that Tina actually gave some of the interest forms and information to Sousa and some family members to sift through.

“We were getting calls constantly,” Tina said. “It was really bad. I couldn’t answer half the calls because there was so much.”

They visited schools like Nevada, San Francisco, UC Berkeley and San Jose.  

But something changed.

Solomon thought if schools were interested in him, they would be asking him to come for a visit. But none of those calls came. Some of his favorite schools, such as Washington State and Oregon State, were growing disinterested while some of the schools lower on his list continued to pursue him.

It wasn’t an ideal situation.

Solomon was saved by T.J. Otzelberger, then an assistant coach with Iowa State who told coach Steve Prohm, who had just been hired to replace Fred Hoiberg, about Solomon.

Solomon Young boxes out West Virginia's Brandon Watkins in the first half of the Big 12 Championship game on Saturday in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

Otzelberger told Solomon he needed to make a decision, because otherwise he wouldn’t be attending any of his dream schools. He also told Solomon to visit every school he was interested in, then make Iowa State his final visit.

Solomon and Tina found that Iowa State was different from those other schools. Otzelberger didn’t talk about basketball as much as he talked about education. Tina liked that.

“Most of the schools tried to impress Solomon with the team, the gear, the gym, the sport,” Tina said. “Education is my number one thing. Always has been.”

When they visited Iowa State, the first thing they discussed was courses and professors and the daily schedule of being a student-athlete. Then they discussed basketball.

Before they left, Otzelberger told Solomon that he was going to have another prospect come visit unless Solomon committed soon.

Within 24 hours of returning home, Solomon made the decision to go to Iowa State. He called Otzelberger and told him to tell the other prospect to go home, because they had their guy.

Ups and downs

Solomon came to Iowa State knowing four of the five starters were senior leaders and the main four for the upcoming season. He continued to learn and progress and vie for that fifth starting spot, but then he broke his hand and had to sit out for about a month.

After working hard to get back to 100 percent, Solomon had his shot to start on February 11, 2017, when Iowa State hosted Oklahoma.

He had eight points, two blocks and two rebounds during 22 minutes of play. Prohm said it was nice to have a big man like Solomon to be in the paint grabbing rebounds and also using the paint to score points.

In his 12 starts last season, Iowa State went 10-2. One of his biggest games was at Kansas State when he recorded a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds.

In the Big 12 Tournament, Solomon showed his dominance in the paint by blocking four shots, a career high, against TCU in the semifinals.

“He was the puzzle piece Iowa State was missing,” Sousa said. “It was a perfect fit that led to a great ending with a Big 12 Tournament championship.”

Solomon couldn’t have asked for a better first season with a Big 12 championship and experience in the NCAA Tournament.

“It was a fun first year,” Solomon said. “Of course, we wanted to make it farther in the NCAA Tournament, but winning a Big 12 championship helped me learn how hard you need to work and the determination you need to reach that goal.”

Now he wants more.

Iowa State forward Solomon Young dunks the ball after a lob pass from a teammate. The Cyclones went on to win 130-63.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

“I know I’m going to be a leader this season,” Solomon said. “I just need to continue working hard to show what Iowa State basketball is all about in Ames.”

Prohm wants to see Solomon continue to build his physical presence from last year, while being a threat out on the 3-point line. The ability to have that versatility is key to Solomon’s success.

His sister Treshenia thinks this Iowa State team will win a national championship within the next three years.

“They’ve already won a Big 12 championship and they are continuing to get better,” Treshenia said. “They should be winning a national championship soon.”

As for Solomon, he’s taking his college experience day by day. He’s not thinking too far into the future. And he always remembers where he comes from.

“When I go back to Sacramento, the younger kids know who I am and what I’ve done at Iowa State,” Solomon said. “They look at me as a role model, so I continue to strive not only to be a better basketball player, but a community person too. I’m always representing Sacramento.”

This story was updated in late December because of minor factual errors in the original story. 

It's not just another game

An oral history of the Iowa State and Kansas rivalry

By Emily Barske
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

It's not just another game

An oral history of the Iowa State and Kansas rivalry

Keep your options open.

In December 2014, ESPN told the Iowa State Athletics Department to be flexible on the start time for the Kansas game they were hosting in January. There was a possibility that the College GameDay crew might come to Hilton Coliseum to host its show that day.

The Athletics Department sprang into action — all hands on deck. The department ran a student-ticket pick-up in December to reserve seats for the game on a first-come, first-serve basis. The reserved tickets were meant to allow students to attend the potential College GameDay broadcast instead of waiting in line outside Hilton for the best seats.

ESPN had a decision to make. There were plenty of matchups ripe for a showdown scheduled for Jan. 17, 2015 — Duke at Louisville, Utah at Arizona, West Virginia at Texas. But none of those games were selected.

Instead, for the first time in the telecast’s history, College GameDay chose to host the show at Hilton Coliseum, where No. 9 Kansas (14-2) would take on No. 11 Iowa State (12-3). The only two losses in Hilton over the past two seasons were to none other than the Kansas Jayhawks.

Students showed up in bulk to be in the background of the telecast, holding signs like “Bill Self stole my bike,” “Bill Self drinks wine coolers,” “Perry Ellis shaves his legs” and a sign with Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz saying “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” And as if the fans weren’t excited enough, the crowd exploded when College GameDay host Jay Williams ripped open his button-down to expose an Iowa State jersey.

ESPN's Jay Williams reveals an Iowa State jersey during GameDay in January 2015.
Photo by Kelby Wingert/Iowa State Daily

While the wind chill was at 28 degrees just before the 8 p.m. tip, Hilton Coliseum was anything but cold. Packed in like sardines, more than 14,000 fans — many of whom witnessed Iowa State winning its first Big 12 Tournament Championship since 2000 the previous spring – filled Hilton.

At the half, the Cyclones were up by three points. After an explosive start to the second half, Iowa State was up by as many as 12 points. But as the Jayhawks normally do, they crawled back in, narrowing the deficit to three points again.

With the help of 20 points from Naz Mitrou-Long, the Cyclones held off Kansas, winning 86-81.

"I told those guys how much they deserve getting a GameDay [telecast] to Iowa State because of what they have done to help put Iowa State basketball on the map," then-head coach Fred Hoiberg said after the game. "That is a credit to what has happened in this program the last few years, and that is all due to the players, so I told them to enjoy it."

A sign at Allen Fieldhouse after Iowa State beat Kansas in early 2017.
Photo by Luke Manderfeld/Iowa State Daily

SB Nation writer Kevin Trahan said the game symbolized “the return of Hilton Magic, stolen back from the Jayhawks.”

“But this game was different than winning in the Big 12 Tournament, and it was different than pulling a major upset against the Jayhawks,” he wrote. “This was Iowa State gaining the upper hand on Kansas and proving to be a credible challenger in the years to come.”

But long before that national recognition in 2015, the Iowa State and Kansas rivalry was alive and well. It has a storied past full of peaks and valleys, controversial calls and games with everything on the line. Here is some of that history, told through the people who have been through it.

The history

Iowa State’s first intercollegiate basketball game in 1908 was against Kansas, according to university archives. The two schools are in the middle of the Midwest, approximately 268 miles apart, and are separated by the state of Missouri. They are unlike other basketball powerhouses.

Kansas has won 17 regular season titles in the 25-year history of the Big 12 Conference. While Kansas basketball has had a name brand for many years, many would argue Iowa State has created one for itself as well.  

The Jayhawks lead the matchup 115-48 if you started keeping track in the 1949-50 season. If you look at the last five seasons, Kansas still holds the lead, 8-5. But if you narrow the scope a litte more, and look at only the last four seasons, the series is tied 5-5.

Assistant athletics director for communications Mike Green: If there’s one team in the league, if you ask any Kansas fan, who’s been their pest, I would say it’s Iowa State.

Longtime Des Moines Register columnist Randy Peterson: I’ve always known it to be a rivalry. Even in years Iowa State hasn’t been the greatest, they get up well for Kansas. Whether the game’s in Ames or whether the game’s in Kansas, it’s usually always been a good game.

Kansas head coach Bill Self: I think KU and Iowa State have always had a nice rivalry, but I think it has certainly intensified in the last eight to 10 years. They have had such a good run of players, and we have, too.

In the past 20 years, no other team has beaten Kansas more than Iowa State.

Peterson: It annoys me when people say Iowa is Iowa State’s biggest basketball rival. Well, that’s B.S. — I mean, please. If the Iowa fans want to think that, that’s fine. But it’s no question that Iowa State, Kansas is the biggest rivalry. I can never remember when these games weren’t heated among fans or among players.

It’s a rivalry that reaches beyond the bounds of the Big 12. Head coach Steve Prohm said he was paying attention to the matchups even before coaching at Iowa State.

Prohm: I followed it. When I was head coach at Murray State, you know you’re ingrained in your program, but I liked watching Big Monday and ESPN Super Tuesday. I remember watching Niang on ESPN GameDay. I liked watching Iowa State play. Obviously, I followed Kansas. I’ve joked about this — a lot of stuff that we did ball-screen-wise were things that I took from [Kansas] and studied from them. That’s what a lot of our playbook was — it’s changed now.

The phantom points

Alongside the memorable games are also memorable calls — some that the Cyclones still hold onto.

One of the craziest calls Green has ever seen happened in Allen Fieldhouse during former Iowa State head coach Wayne Morgan’s first year — 2004.

Green: A couple things happened in that game that to this day are just bizarre.

Iowa State was down double digits. Iowa State forward Jared Homan went up for a layup and got fouled in the act of shooting. He went to the line to shoot his two free throws. He dribbled twice, took his first shot, missed it. And then things got weird.

Green: Our guys are in the lane off to the side. They obviously don’t do anything after the first shot because it’s a two-shot foul.

A Kansas player grabbed the rebound, threw it to a guy at half court on fast break, and one of the Jayhawk players took a shot from the corner — the refs call it: basket good. All without Iowa State defending them because the team had another free throw.

Green: And our coach just goes ballistic. ‘What is going on? You know, that was a two-shot foul.’ So the refs are like, ‘Oh crap,’ and they start conferring, like, ‘yeah we screwed this up, you’re right, that was a two-shot foul.’

The refs huddled for five minutes, trying to figure out what they were going to do. The decision was that they count the basket for Kansas because it was an uncorrectable error.

And the calls didn’t get better.

Morgan: There were the phantom [points from free throws] that they didn’t take off, but at the end of the game, we were up three, and the kid [Keith] Langford shot a jump shot that the referee said it was three points to tie the game. The replay showed his foot was on the line, it was a two.

Iowa State senior Deonte Burton goes in for a lay-up during its game Jan. 16, 2017, at Hilton Coliseum. The No. 2 Jayhawks defeated the Cyclones 76-72.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Green: I explain this play to people and they go, ‘What, that happened in a game?’ ‘That happened in a game.’ And they go, ‘That doesn’t make any sense.’ ‘I know it doesn’t make any sense. It happened in a game and it happened to us.’

Morgan: So they should’ve lost in regulation.

Instead, Iowa State lost in overtime. And if the game wasn’t bad enough, the night got worse.

Green: We drive into the Lawrence airport … and we see like five cop cars. Their cherries are going, and we’re like what’s going on?

As they drove the bus in to get on the plane, they were told someone was on their plane and they had to search it. Protocol said they had to wait two hours to make sure the plane was safe, so they ended up just making the four-hour drive home.

The ‘no call’

Iowa State was up by two points in Hilton Coliseum on Feb. 25, 2013.

Flashback to January earlier that year, Kansas was down three with just a few seconds on the clock in Allen Fieldhouse.

Former player and former head coach Fred Hoiberg: We knew exactly what they were gonna run and we messed up on one of the switches. It left McLemore’s hand and it looked so off when he shot it that I actually started my way down to shake coach Self’s hand. Then it banked in and I almost fell over.

Iowa State senior Monte Morris loses control of the ball during a game against Kansas Jan. 16, 2017, at Hilton Coliseum.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Despite outscoring the Jayhawks in the second half, that buzzer-beating play forced the game into overtime. Kansas eventually won 97-89.

Flash forward to February — Iowa State was looking for revenge.

The clock was winding down. Kansas’ Elijah Johnson drove to the hoop, with his team down two points.

Green: He comes down, throws up a shot and misses it badly. Georges Niang was a freshman at the time. He plays it perfectly — he’s right underneath the basket and Johnson flies right into him. Georges falls down and Johnson falls basically on top of him. They didn’t call anything.

Hoiberg: Georges clearly took the charge, and unfortunately we didn’t get the call and lost that one in overtime.

Prohm: I remember watching the charge call. I watched that game live.

Peterson: The officials did such a horrible job that two of the three were publicly reprimanded by the Big 12. It was crazy. Iowa State had the game won. The officials, not only on the questionable calls they made, but there was one Kansas player [Johnson] who committed the foul. It should’ve been his fifth foul and he would’ve fouled out of the game. That was one of the many questionable calls.

Georges Niang goes up for a lay-up against Kansas at Hilton Coliseum.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

Allen Fieldhouse and Hilton Magic

Former Iowa State point guard Jamaal Tinsley was a transfer and only played two years at Iowa State. Growing up in New York, he wasn’t intimidated by away games.

Green: We were getting ready to play Kansas again down in Allen Fieldhouse and we had won the year before with Marcus Fizer.

Iowa State won that game in the 1999-00 season 64-62.

Green: All the media were talking to him and they were saying what a tough test this is going to be to go down to Allen Fieldhouse, it’s hallowed ground, one of the greatest arenas of all time, toughest environments. And Jamaal goes, ‘It’s just another gym.’ So when he says that it comes out in the paper.

The comment was pre-social media, but the news still spread.

Green: It appears in the Kansas papers too and they’re all up in arms. ‘How can you disrespect us?’ And then he backs it up.That was the thing that was so cool about it. He says it and you’re like, ‘Ah, jeez, Jamaal, why’d you say that? Cause they’re going to flip out, you know, this is Allen Fieldhouse.’ And he goes down there and he backs it up.

Tinsley ended up with a 4-0 record against the Jayhawks.

Green: Not only 4-0 against Kansas, but 2-0 in Allen Fieldhouse. There’s probably not too many people who can say they’re 4-0 against Kansas.

For some, it wasn’t just another gym.

Peterson: It’s very old — ancient. But it’s historic.

Hoiberg: The first thing I would think about with the Kansas games were as a player, and I’ll never forget the first moment that I walked into Allen Fieldhouse and saw the banners, retired jerseys and all the history.

Peterson: Before the game, when all the players come out on the floor, they’ve got this whole elaborate introduction with all the bells and whistles. It’s like a rock concert. Kansas is off the charts. You shake — you can feel the boom, boom, boom. And they play the music loud and there’s so much history with Kansas basketball they show on the huge video board that hangs over the floor. They’re showing highlights from Kansas in the past from Wilt Chamberlain to Paul Pierce. ... Some opponents don’t even come out on the floor until Kansas’ introduction is over.   

Hoiberg: It was a really fun rivalry to play in, and unfortunately I never won in that building, but we did have some success against them at home.

What makes it so hard to play at Allen Fieldhouse?

Prohm: Great players. Great coaches. Simple.

Former Iowa State point guard Monte Morris: That was a great atmosphere to play in. Nobody really wins there.  

Except last season, the Cyclones did. Iowa State snapped Kansas’ 54-game home winning streak with a 92-89 comeback, overtime win at Allen Fieldhouse. Iowa State guard Donovan Jackson hit a 3-pointer to ice the game with under a minute left to play. The Cyclones trailed by 14 going into halftime.

Morris: We just went in there and played; you need to make plays to win in there. Being down 15 in the second half, to go and come out on top, it speaks for itself.

Hilton is a tough place to play, too.

Self: It seems to me that the players from both teams enjoy the atmospheres at both places. Going to Ames, we know it is going to be hard and we certainly look forward to each year.

Hoiberg: Allen Fieldhouse speaks for itself. So many people say that it’s maybe the loudest arena in all of college basketball, but I would put Hilton up there with it. I think Hilton’s every bit as loud when the fans get going, especially late in games and it’s bouncing off the wood ceiling, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Peterson: At Iowa State you do have Hilton Magic. I’ve heard the fans so loud, and so revved up, that you can see the backboards shake. I don’t hear that for every game. I hear that for the Kansas game if there’s reason to be loud.

Prohm: They’ve got great tradition there. When you talk about great environments in the Big 12, you’re talking about Hilton and Allen Fieldhouse.

‘A guy you’d like to have a beer with’

Green: I really respect Coach Self …. He has the ideals of a normal Iowan. He grew up in Oklahoma. He’s just a good ol’ nice guy. When you see him behind the scenes, he’s funny, he’s engaging. He doesn’t big-time you. You know I’ve been around coaches and they’ve got the bravado and the ego and the crowns. Bill Self’s not that way ... I know he respects our program. I know fans have that hatred and they just don’t like him.

Peterson: You can say what you want to about Bill Self. He’s a Hall of Fame coach. Bill Self reached out to me when I broke my leg. It had nothing to do with the Kansas game obviously, it was against Iowa [in 2015]. It was a text message because I was in the hospital and pretty loopy. When I ran into him later in the season, we reached out and talked before the game. That was pretty cool.

Prohm: If [Self] does something well, I’ll shoot him a text. If we do something well, he’ll shoot me a text back. I thought it was really nice of him when we won at Allen Fieldhouse, he called me the next day and congratulated us and talked about how much respect he had for our senior class and this program.

Hoiberg: I have a very good relationship with Bill. My daughter actually went to Kansas and works for Bill a couple days a week so I’ve got a really good relationship.

Prohm: When he went into the Hall of Fame, we put a nice video tribute together. I just opened a letter from him today [Sept. 27] thanking us for sending him a note of congratulations for making the Hall of Fame, and also how much he appreciated and thought the video was first class.

Hoiberg: I was down at the Hall of Fame ceremony a couple weeks ago [Sept. 8]. I went out to visit Dwyane Wade, who was getting the humanitarian award, and I was able to spend some time with Bill and the Kansas coaches. It was fun, it was good to see him and it was a very well-deserved honor.

Green: He’s the guy you’d like to have a beer with cause he’s funny and he doesn’t have that ego like a lot of Hall of Fame coaches have.

Mutual respect

Peterson: While there’s a huge rivalry, there’s tremendous respect between the two programs. I don’t care who the Iowa State coach is or players, they go out of their way to compliment Kansas. And why wouldn’t you?

Green: Iowa State has four wins in Allen Fieldhouse since the 1996-97 season. Most teams have one.

Prohm: You want to compete against the best. Coach Self is a Hall of Famer. Kansas is one of the top-five programs of all time.

Iowa State fans hold up signs during ESPN's GameDay show on Jan. 17, 2015.
Photo by Kelby Winger/Iowa State Daily

Peterson: They made an announcement to the crowd after the game that this was Georges Niang’s last game at Kansas. They’d never done that before for an opponent. I remember Georges, after the game, he started crying. That shows you the respect there is among the two programs.

Prohm: That’s the thing, it’s a great rivalry, but you also want it to be a first-class rivalry by the way you handle yourself and the way you compete against them.  

New life to the rivalry

And though Iowa State comes in with a lot of new faces this year, it seems the rivalry will be just as serious.

Peterson: Donovan Jackson won’t let Lindell Wigginton, Terrence Lewis — whoever the newcomers are — he’ll inform them of how big this rivalry is. Solomon Young will. Those guys will let them know. And they’ll sense even before the game. Even Steve Prohm picks up his pace a little bit before Kansas games. So they’ll figure it out.

Perhaps the rivalry will even take on a new meaning for some.

Freshman point guard Lindell Wigginton: On my visit, everybody was like, ‘Forget Kansas, you gotta come here.’ Nobody likes Kansas. So I mean, I was kinda familiar with it. And everywhere I go, everybody’s like ‘Beat Kansas.’ It’s a fun rivalry and I look forward to playing in that game too.

Wigginton’s teammate from Oak Hill Academy, freshman forward Billy Preston, is set to play at Kansas this fall.

Wigginton: Yeah, we’re definitely gonna be talking trash to each other. We used to talk trash to each other in practice and everything, so we’ll definitely talk trash.

Prohm: It’s become a good rivalry and hopefully we can keep that.

Point Guard U

A history of Iowa State's best position

By Aaron Marner
Photo by Iowa State Athletics. Design by Jon Hesse

Point Guard U

A history of Iowa State's best position

Lindell Wigginton stood in a tiny gym in central Iowa wearing a neon-green jersey tucked into his shorts. Most of his teammates played for local community colleges, and given the nature of the Capital City League, Wigginton didn’t know some of the guys with whom he shared the court.

He was playing for no reason other than to show the most loyal of Iowa State fans a glimpse of the star they had heard so much about. Given the hectic summer Wigginton had overseas, nobody would have blamed him for not playing in the Capital City League. Wigginton showed up nonetheless.

The highest-rated recruit to come to Ames since Craig Brackins a decade earlier, Wigginton had the weight of an entire fanbase on his shoulders before he ever played a game at Hilton Coliseum.

On that July night at Faith Baptist Bible College in Ankeny, Iowa, the crowd was quiet and patient, waiting to explode at a moment’s notice if Wigginton leaped for a dunk, crossed over a defender or nailed a long-range bomb.

Wigginton caught an outlet pass, dribbled up the court and missed a pull-up jumper short off the rim. The only voice Wigginton heard as he jogged back on defense was that of Monte Morris.

“That was great,” Wigginton said. “A lot of players played before me at the Cap City League but he made a point to just come watch me. He was talking on the sidelines, telling me what to do and things like that during the game. It was just fun.”

A history of greatness

Dating all the way back to the 1950s, Iowa State’s greatest teams and moments have almost always been led by talented point guards.

When Iowa State knocked off Wilt Chamberlain’s No. 1-ranked Kansas Jayhawks in 1957, it was Cyclone All-American guard Gary Thompson who outscored Chamberlain, 18-17, in the two-point margin of victory.

When Hilton Magic began with coach Johnny Orr in the 1980s, point guard and future NBA all-star Jeff Hornacek ran the offense.

In the 21 seasons since the formation of the Big 12 conference, a Cyclone point guard has led the league in assists nearly 25 percent of the time (five times) — an extremely disproportionate number for a conference that has had 10 or more teams each year.

Since 2006, a Cyclone has finished in the top 20 nationally in assists five times among all 351 Division I teams.

It’s been a tradition for every coach from Orr all the way through current coach Steve Prohm. Nobody can pinpoint the exact cause, but for some reason, Iowa State has always found a way to produce great point guards. It’s as much a part of Cyclone basketball culture as Hilton Magic and Clone Cones.

Some have been flashy passers like Jamaal Tinsley. Others, like Curtis Stinson and Mike Taylor, looked to score first. They’ve come in all forms and play styles, but the one constant throughout the years of Cyclone hoops has been leadership and strength from point guards.

‘Your guards are just so good’

Iowa State was in a panic.

Just two years removed from back-to-back Big 12 regular-season titles, head coach Larry Eustachy resigned after photos surfaced of Eustachy drunk with college students at a house party in Columbia, Missouri, after a January 21, 2003, Cyclone loss to the Tigers. Arguably the most successful stretch in Iowa State basketball history was ending in shambles and national embarrassment.

Desperate to cling to the recent success, Iowa State promoted assistant coach Wayne Morgan to the head coaching position. The goal was to keep Eustachy’s recruits — namely guards Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock — on board with Iowa State’s new hire.

After all, Morgan had been the lead recruiter for both Stinson and Blalock. As a New York native, Morgan had a strong connection with them since they had also come from the Northeast.

Iowa State first learned about Stinson from a friend of Morgan in New York when Morgan was still an assistant coach.

Morgan’s friend called him up and said he had a kid named Curtis who Morgan should see. The kid, Morgan’s friend said, played a lot like Jamaal Tinsley, who had been named Big 12 Player of the Year in 2001.

That, of course, piqued Morgan’s interest. He went to see Stinson’s AAU team and immediately knew he had a special player on his hands.

Curtis Stinson (above) and Will Blalock were a fearsome guard duo right when they came to Iowa State.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

“Curtis played on a team where he was the point guard, but he was like the biggest guy on the team,” Morgan said. “Nobody could stop him. He just went to the basket and scored, went to the basket and scored, went to the basket and scored … and I said, ‘Yeah, we’d be absolutely interested in him.’”

When Stinson and Blalock arrived in Ames, they were ready to go right away.

Stinson led the team in scoring and assists as a freshman, with Blalock finishing second in assists while coming off the bench. Stinson still holds the Iowa State freshman scoring record with 534 points.

The magic of Stinson and Blalock, however, came during their second season. That’s when the backcourt took over.

Stinson again led the team in scoring, with Blalock finishing third on the team in points. Blalock, the more natural passer, led the team in assists, while Stinson finished second. Iowa State went on to win 19 games that season before losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to eventual champion North Carolina.

The biggest moment, though, came on a Saturday afternoon in February in Lawrence, Kansas.

Iowa State pulled off a massive upset over No. 2 Kansas, thanks in large part to Stinson’s game-high 29 points. He hit a game-winning pull-up jumper with 5.1 seconds left in overtime to seal the deal.

“I can’t tell you how many times an opposing coach would say to me, ‘Your guards are just so good,’” Morgan said.

Will Blalock (above) and Curtis Stinson forwent their senior seasons after Wayne Morgan left the program.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

In 2005-06, Stinson and Blalock finished first and second on the team in points, assists, minutes and steals. Iowa State lost six games by one possession or in overtime, however, and missed out on the postseason.

When Wayne Morgan was let go after the season, Stinson and Blalock elected to forgo their final year of eligibility. Both declared for the NBA Draft. Blalock was selected 60th overall by the Detroit Pistons while Stinson went undrafted.

Morgan called it a “travesty” that Stinson never got to play in the NBA. While he never got that opportunity, Stinson left his mark as a Cyclone. He ranks ninth in school history in career points per game at 17.6 and is eighth all-time in career assists. His backcourt mate ranks seventh in career assists.

Taylor, Garrett and a new era

The departure of Morgan after three short years was followed by an in-state hire. Northern Iowa’s Greg McDermott had led the Panthers to the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years, but he walked into a depleted roster in Ames.

Gone were Stinson and Blalock, two leaders and veterans who had more experience than just about any pair of players in the country. Sophomore Tasheed Carr and freshman Shawn Taggart elected to transfer as well, leaving McDermott with a bare cupboard.

Rahshon Clark and Jiri Hubalek were the only contributors that remained from the Morgan era, but neither of them were guards.

Mike Taylor was.

Taylor was a skinny 6-foot-2 guard, who, as McDermott said, played the game more like a two-guard than a point guard.

Nobody could guard Mike Taylor except, well, Mike Taylor. He led Iowa State with 16 points per game in his first year at the Division I level and also led the team in assists.

The problem? Turnovers and missed shots. In his only year at Iowa State, Taylor racked up 168 turnovers. In contrast, Monte Morris finished his four-year college career with 165.

Mike Taylor was wild with the ball, but he sure was a playmaker. He eventually played in the NBA.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

“He hated to lose a drill in practice, let alone a game,” McDermott said. “We gave Mike a tremendous amount of freedom that year he played for us and obviously he’s gone on and done some good things in his professional career as well.”

Taylor became the first NBA D-League player to be drafted into the NBA when Portland picked him up in the 2008 NBA Draft. The highlight of his professional career came on the bright stage of Madison Square Garden in 2009 when he lit up the Knicks for 35 points and eight rebounds as a member of the Clippers.

With Taylor gone after only one year, McDermott was able to hand the reins to the next man in line.

Diante Garrett had basketball in his genes. His father, Dick Garrett, played in the NBA in the 1970s, and Diante’s 6-foot-4 frame made him an intriguing prospect.

When he first arrived in Ames, however, Diante was about as raw as a prospect could be.

“Diante really worked on his game,” McDermott said. “He really had an endless motor … Obviously, there was a learning curve as a freshman, but he had a good sophomore year and a better junior year, then a great senior year when he was playing for Fred [Hoiberg].”

Garrett got better each year. His assist and steal numbers progressively improved each of his four seasons. As a scorer, Garrett jumped from 6.3 points per game as a freshman to 17.3 as a senior.

He marked the transition from the Stinson and Blalock days to the Hoiberg era, too. Garrett never had a winning season in college, but he played a crucial role for both McDermott and Hoiberg and became a steadying force in a time of turbulence.

“He was pretty consistent,” McDermott said. “He wasn’t one of those guys where he’d have a big game and then disappear. He was a rock for us. He had to play a lot of minutes and he never got tired.”

When Iowa State had rare moments of success on the court in those years, Garrett was at the forefront. Iowa State knocked off then-No. 5 Kansas State in 2010 as the Wildcats fought for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They wouldn’t have won without Garrett, who McDermott called “huge” in that game.

Iowa State’s star forward, Craig Brackins, had fouled out with about two minutes remaining in regulation of a tight game. Garrett took over.

“It was a great win at the time,” McDermott said. “We put the ball in Diante’s hands a lot late in that game, and he made some great decisions for our team.”

Diante Garrett was a steadying factor in the backcourt during Fred Hoiberg's first year as head coach.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

Garrett scored the first five points of overtime and Iowa State held on for the biggest win of the McDermott era. He finished with eight points and eight assists in the win.

Garrett’s senior year was completely unlike his first three. With McDermott now coaching at Creighton and former Cyclone legend Fred Hoiberg patrolling the sidelines at Hilton in his place, Garrett had a lot of freedom as a point guard that he didn’t have earlier in his career.

“When I was able to recruit after that, I showed a lot of what we did with Diante,” Hoiberg said. “I think that was very attractive to point guards. They loved how we played with him [with the] freedom. … That was huge that I had Diante to be the catalyst in that system that first year because it really set the tone for my future guards and the way that we recruited them. Diante was a very important player.”

He led the Cyclones in minutes, points, assists and steals his senior year en route to being named All-Big 12 second-team. Garrett eventually played two seasons in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns before playing overseas.

After Garrett’s one year with Hoiberg, the Cyclones needed a new floor general. Guards such as Chris Allen and Korie Lucious were good one-year options, but Iowa State needed someone fresh to be the face of the backcourt for years to come.

Controlling the game

When Monte Morris arrived in Ames as a 170-pound freshman, he didn’t know what to expect.

The Cyclones were coming off back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade. Half of the team from the previous year was gone. Hoiberg was a local legend who had somehow revitalized a struggling program within two years, but for the first time in his brief coaching career, there were legitimate expectations for his program.

But the 2013-14 season? That was completely up in the air. Morris, fellow freshman Matt Thomas, and some transfers — such as Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane — would be asked to step up, but nobody really knew what the team would look like. The stable of transfers Hoiberg brought into Ames had finally expired, and the Cyclones were looking for new faces to lead the program into the future.

Morris would go on to become arguably the most decorated basketball player in Iowa State history. He currently holds school records for career wins, assists, steals and a number of other achievements. But back then, Morris was just a skinny freshman getting pushed around in practice.

“I think the biggest thing was DeAndre was almost 24 years old and here comes Monte as an 18-year-old kid,” Hoiberg said. “His eyes were wide open, I don’t think he really knew what to expect. DeAndre really pushed him.”

At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Kane had a considerable size advantage over Morris. Having three years of college basketball experience and six years of age ahead of Morris didn’t hurt, either.

Kane started at point guard as Iowa State raced out to a 14-0 record to start the year. For the first half of the year, Morris came off the bench. But as conference play got rolling, Hoiberg switched things up and started Morris in place of Matt Thomas. Morris started the final 17 games of the season alongside Kane.

Playing beside Kane was more fun for Morris than playing against him in practice.

“It was tough,” Morris said. “He definitely bullied me [in practice]. But around February or March, I started learning his style and his tricks and I got better with it.”

Iowa State went on to win the Big 12 Tournament title that year for the first time since 2000, and a Sweet 16 run followed. But once the season ended, the Cyclones again were faced with replacing star players. It was Morris’ time to shine.

Nobody wondered about his passing ability, but people questioned Morris’ size. They questioned his scoring ability and whether he could be a go-to offensive player for a Big 12 team.

He wasted no time proving people wrong.

During the next three years, Morris led Iowa State to two more Big 12 Tournament titles, three more NCAA Tournament victories and a number of unforgettable moments.

One of those moments came during his sophomore year at the Big 12 Tournament. Morris scored a game-high 24 points, including a buzzer-beating fadeaway jumper to give Iowa State a first-round victory over Texas.

“I’ll never forget Monte hitting the shot against Texas in the Big 12 Tournament,” Hoiberg said. “We were down the whole game. I think we may have been down 20 that game in the first half.

“We called a play to run a screen and he was gonna read how the defense played it and he read it perfectly. He rose up and hit one of the biggest shots of the year.”

Monte Morris celebrates in the first half of the Big 12 Championship game on Saturday in Kansas City, Missouri, in March 2017.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

When Hoiberg took the head coaching position with the Chicago Bulls, Iowa State’s next head coach — naturally — was a point guard guru.

Steve Prohm came from Murray State after just four years as a head coach, but he already had produced two NBA point guards at a little-known, mid-major school. Those two guards — Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne — were proof of Prohm’s ability to get his floor generals to the next level.

“You have guys that you give freedom to because you can trust them,” Hoiberg said. “That takes a good coach to be able to have that trust in your point guards as opposed to having your thumb on them all the time and controlling every play. Steve’s done a good job of that.

“It’s always good when you’re coaching and you have players that you helped put in the league because it helps you with recruiting and I believe that’s why he’s continued to have success with the guards that he has in there now.”

Thanks to Morris being drafted by the Denver Nuggets last June, all three primary point guards who have played for Prohm at the college level have gone on to get selected in the NBA Draft.

By the time Morris left Ames, his name was etched in school history among the best to ever play in a Cyclone uniform.

The next chapter

Lindell Wigginton stood in Cairo, Egypt, with a gold medal draped around his neck and a brazen grin plastered across his face. Next to him, one of his teammates held a Canadian flag stretched across his body.

Wigginton had just captained the Canadian U19 team to the 2017 FIBA championship. Basketball fans around the world watched as Wigginton and his teammates knocked off France, the United States and Italy during three consecutive days in early July to win the tournament.

“That was a mind-blowing experience,” Wigginton said. “That’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Two weeks later, as he stood in that tiny gym in central Iowa, Wigginton felt a different kind of pressure.

Although Morris and Wigginton never overlapped as Cyclones, the pair of floor generals developed a strong relationship during the last year.

Just as DeAndre Kane pushed Morris when he was a freshman, Morris wants to push Wigginton. Since Wigginton holds the size advantage, the bullying isn’t quite the same.

Still, Morris and Wigginton both recognize that the torch has been passed. It’s Wigginton’s time now, Morris said.

“He’s definitely ready to take over,” Morris said. “He’s only a freshman. I just broke records, but if anybody can break them, it could easily be him.”

Arguably the most accomplished player in school history said Wigginton could break his records before Wigginton had ever set foot in Hilton. That’s a lot of pressure to live up to, especially for an 18-year-old kid.

Wigginton doesn’t have the luxury of being eased into his college career like Morris did. Instead, he has a target on his back, along with loftier expectations from fans than probably any Cyclone since Marcus Fizer.

“I’m just always gonna go play my game,” Wigginton said. “I don’t really feel pressure. I don’t get caught up too much in the hype.”

He has the benefit of playing alongside senior point guard Donovan Jackson, but instead of learning behind Jackson like Morris did with Kane, Wigginton will be sharing the role right off the bat.

“I know I’ve got big shoes to fill since Monte left. I know the team’s got big shoes to fill because they’ve been making the NCAA Tournament for so many consecutive years,” he said. “It’ll be a disappointment to me if I don’t lead my teams to the NCAA Tournament, or get as many wins as [fans] are used to having.”

Lindell Wigginton will be expected to carry the torch of Iowa State's well-chronicled point guards.
Photo by Hannah Olson/Iowa State Daily

For Iowa State to make the tournament, Wigginton will certainly have to play a big role. The team is replacing six seniors and a transfer from a year ago, but that doesn’t faze Wigginton.

Individually, he wants to play in the NBA one day.

For now? Wigginton has other things on his mind.

“I just want to be a winner,” Wigginton said. “I don’t really care about my individual stats. Obviously that’s a bonus if [I could be] Big 12 Freshman of the Year or All-American, but I just want to be considered a winner.”

When Wigginton leaves, whether that’s after one year or four years, Iowa State will still be in good hands at the point guard position, thanks to the program’s long tradition and Prohm’s reputation.

“You look at guys like Hornacek and Tinsley and Morris and Diante Garrett and Will Blalock and Curtis Stinson and, who am I leaving out?” Prohm said. “I know there’s a couple I’m probably leaving out. You look at all these guys; we’ve had a special, special run of point guards here from Orr to now.”

Two Pops and a Return

After knee surgeries, Hans Brase is ready to contribute

By Brian Mozey
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

Two Pops and a Return

After knee surgeries, Hans Brase is ready to contribute

Pop.

A single sound that no basketball player wants to hear in his career.

Hans Brase has heard that sound twice. He’s also felt it.

“I remember it vividly,” Brase said.

Oct. 27, 2015. The first pop.

It was a couple of weeks into fall practice of 2015 during his senior year at Princeton, and he was practicing some basic drills. Brase drove the line, then stopped near the basket.

He tried pivoting his foot back, but his body continued to move forward, causing his right knee to move two ways and pop. He felt pain instantly as he fell to the floor, but quickly got up from the ground and walked it off.

For a player that hasn’t had any major injuries, Brase didn’t think ACL instantly, but instead thought he could tape it up.

“I heard a pop, but I walked off on my own, so I thought it couldn’t be that bad,” Brase said. “Maybe a couple weeks.”

He went to the doctor the next day, who told him what no athlete wants to hear — a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which signifies a rehab process of eight to 12 months. Even then, he may not return as the same player for his senior season.

Brase took a year off from basketball and school because the Ivy League doesn’t allow standard redshirts. To maintain his last year of eligibility, he had to take a break. He returned for the 2016-17 season ready to show he was ready to make an impact again.

Then, Nov. 29, 2016. The second pop.

Brase and the Princeton basketball team were at Virginia Commonwealth University for its fifth game of the season. It was getting closer to the end of the first half and Brase was getting a pass from a teammate.

As the ball was coming to Brase, a VCU defender stole the ball. Brase stopped quickly to try and stop the fast break when his shoes stuck to the newly finished floor. As he tried to get back on defense, his knee gave out and he heard the pop.

Brase’s mother, Bertina, was at the game. When the second pop occurred, Bertina heard a scream from Hans that she’s only heard when he injured himself before. It’s not a cry of sadness; it’s a scream of pain and frustration.

If you run the video back of his injury, there’s a woman behind the Princeton bench, leaned over and holding her head in her hands. That’s Bertina Brase.

“I knew the second he hit the floor it was the knee again,” Bertina said. “Hans has a very high pain tolerance, and I heard one loud cry and I knew it wasn’t good.”

She was right. It was the second torn ACL on the same right knee. Another eight to 12 months of rehab and getting his knee back to normal.

On top of that, his career at Princeton was over. The next question: Was his college basketball career over, too?

Simply put, no. After visiting with the doctor, Hans found out it was just the ACL and that basketball could be in his future if he wanted to rehab and go through the process again.

Easy decision.

Basketball had been his life. He couldn’t leave the sport now when he could finish strong. It was time to rehab the knee — again

Hans Brase, whose family has German roots, has aspirations to play for the German senior national team some day.
Photo by Brase family

Finding his path

Hans was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, but after about two weeks in the United States, he and his family moved to Germany. His parents were from Germany and lived there for most of their lives.

His mother, Bertina, and his father, Joe, were born and raised in Germany. Hans’ family are the only members of both his mom’s and dad’s families that aren’t currently living in Germany.

“I’m always excited to go back to Germany because I get to see my extended family,” Hans said. “It’s also nice to see where I grew up and continue to learn more about my heritage and culture.”

After two years overseas, his family decided to move back, but jumped from place to place at the beginning. They lived in Kentucky for a couple of years, then lived outside of Detroit for another couple of years.

“All of my friends thought one of my parents was in the military because we moved so much,” Hans said. “It wasn’t actually that though. It was my dad’s work.”

Hans’ father is in corporate finance and had to travel for his job when Hans was growing up.

The Brase family finally decided Clover, South Carolina, would be the final destination. Growing up in Michigan, Hans didn’t touch a basketball, but rather picked up a hockey stick. He also followed the footsteps of his mother, who was a swimmer when she was younger.

In Michigan, hockey is a religion, but once he moved south, the sport of hockey vanished quickly. That’s when he gravitated toward basketball.

“I was tall and athletic and had good footwork from playing soccer,” Hans said. “I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’”

Hans played a variety of sports each summer in middle school, but once he played basketball in high school, he realized the potential of playing at a college in the future.

He played three seasons at Gaston Day School in Gastonia, North Carolina, before he made a big decision that would pay off for his future plans in college.

The formative years

After three years at high school, Hans decided to attend a boarding school called The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

The decision to go there was easy because his older brother, Janpeter Brase, and sister, Marie-Luise Brase, nicknamed Lulu, went there for academics and basketball, so he knew the program was excellent. He also wanted to get away from the house since he was the only child left.

“I was so used to having people be in our house constantly,” Bertina said. “Once Hans left for boarding school, it was an eye-opening experience because no one was there.”

When he went to The Hill School, he reclassified as a junior. Since he had an early birthday in September, if he were to play only four years, he would have graduated at 17 years old. Due to the age factor and how common it was to reclassify at The Hill School, Hans decided to play five seasons in his high school career.

That extra year, especially at The Hill School, helped build Hans’ confidence, and also made his name known throughout the East Coast.

Once he started his reclassified junior year, colleges and universities connected with The Hill School coach as well as the Hans family. Hans wasn’t sought after by big-name college programs, but a Division I school was in his future. He had aspirations beyond that, too, in national basketball for Germany.

The three biggest schools on Hans’ radar were the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Davidson. After being at The Hill School for two years, he was surrounded by the brotherly love of Philadelphia, so Penn — located in Philadelphia — and Princeton — just an hour away — were always ranked higher than the hometown school of Davidson in North Carolina.

He also wanted the opportunity to learn from the best, so playing in the Ivy League would allow him to be challenged academically in the classroom and physically on the court.

“I decided to go to Princeton because of my connection with the coach at Princeton, the family-type atmosphere with the team as well as the rich history in basketball that they have there,” Hans said. “Combine that with the number one school in the country, it’s kind of hard to turn that down.”

He was going to be a Tiger.

Hans Brase in a Princeton uniform. Brase committed to Princeton because of his Philadelphia roots.
Photo by Princeton Athletics

Once a Tiger, always a Tiger

Hans played minimally in his first season with the Tigers because they already had one dominant post player. HIs name was Ian Hummer, one of the all-time greats at Princeton and one of Hans’ mentors.

Hans described Hummer as a “freak athlete.” After all, he was two-time unanimous first-team All-Ivy League selection and the Ivy League Player of the Year his senior year.

Hans learned the ropes from Hummer and played in 18 games, averaging 5.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game during that first campaign.

After his freshman year, Hans became the inside man and a dominant presence in the paint for the next couple of seasons. He averaged 11.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game his sophomore season and 11.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game his junior year. His leadership off the court was one of the biggest aspects that the Princeton basketball staff appreciated from him.

He also had some fun. Hans’ teammate, Mike LeBlanc, recalled a handful of memories with Hans as a roommate during the summers, specifically at 6 a.m. every day.

They drove together to go work out every morning in Hans’ car, but his radio was broken. The only thing that worked was his CD player.

“He had a CD that we found underneath the seat,” LeBlanc said. “We had no idea what the CD was, so we put it in one day and it was the most unique songs we’ve ever heard. We listened to it every day after that and ended up knowing every word at the end of the summer.”

The CD had three songs: Time of Your Life by Green Day, Breakaway by Kelly Clarkson and Tongue Tied by Grouplove. Now when they hear those songs, they send each other Snapchats, singing.

LeBlanc also said he and Hans had a tight budget for food and other such expenses, so they tried to find the cheapest options. They could barely afford the apartment, so for food, they went to Costco and bought big bags of frozen fruit, a huge bag of frozen chicken and pasta.

“We weren’t great cooks, but we could throw everything in a pot and stir it up,” LeBlanc said. “It was macaroni with eggs and hot dogs. That was our go-to meal. Not the healthiest thing.”

But they made the meal so much that now they get together at least once a year and make macaroni with eggs and hot dogs. It’s become their tradition.

But the funniest memory he can recall is when the two of them along with their two roommates went to see the movie “We Are Your Friends” featuring Zac Efron.

They didn’t just go to the movie; they dressed up and looked slick for the movie.

“We thought it was going to be a big movie at the end of the summer,” LeBlanc said. “We thought girls love Zac Efron, so we dressed up all nice and went to the movie theater to realize we were the only people in the movie theater.”

LeBlanc was in a full suit and Hans was decked out in some fancy threads, but they decided to stay and watch the movie. It became one of their favorite films and they watched it countless times when the movie was available on DVD.

Those are the types of memories LeBlanc will keep with him for years ahead, but Hans has a distinct memory of his time on the court as a Tiger.

Even though Hans was on the bench the majority of his senior year at Princeton, he remembers the run to the Ivy League championship game. The Tigers went a perfect 14-0 against Ivy League opponents in the regular season. Then, they only had two games to win the title.

After a close 72-64 overtime win for Princeton over Penn, the team took on Yale for the title. Princeton took control for most of the game, winning 71-59, allowing Hans to finish his career as a Tiger with his one and only Ivy League title.

“Every season is memorable with different teammates and forming those friendships that will last a lifetime,” Hans said. “That Ivy League title is something special, though, and that will always be in my heart.”

LeBlanc was happy to win that title for Princeton and especially Hans after the injury, but he wished Hans could have been out there to end his Tigers career with a jersey on and the ball in his hands.

Recovery and redemption

LeBlanc thought Hans was banged up after hearing the first pop in practice, but after he walked off on his own, LeBlanc thought Hans was fine. Then he heard that the team would be losing its captain to an ACL tear.

“Everyone on the team called him Papa Hans because he was older than all of us,” LeBlanc said. “You hate to see a guy like him go down with an injury because he doesn’t deserve that to happen to him.”

Hans knew he would be back to play after that first tear. Bertina remembered the phone call from Hans telling them he had torn his ACL, but had all the steps he needed to take to get back on the court.

His recovery was complicated by the Ivy League’s lack of a redshirt season. Hans had to decide whether to stay on the team, injured, and lose a year of eligibility or leave the team to keep that year.

“I decided dropping school would be the best option for me, so I could play my senior year,” Hans said. “It was difficult being away from the team and such, but I knew it was the best choice.”

After making the long recovery back to 100 percent, Hans was cleared to practice fully at the end of summer 2016. His first few games were shaky because he hadn’t played a game of basketball in about a year.

The VCU game, Hans admitted, was the first time that season he felt he had his groove back and was starting to get on a roll before the second pop.

Hans Brase suffered two ACL injuries during his collegiate career at Princeton.
Photo by Princeton Athletics

LeBlanc remembered seeing Hans go down on the court and knew it wasn’t good, especially after he grabbed his right knee, the same one he tore before.

After the second one, though, Bertina wanted to talk it through with Hans and see if he wanted to proceed with the rehab. Once the doctor said it was just the ACL, Hans knew he was coming back for a fifth and final season.

“There was no question that I would be coming back,” Hans said. “There was no quitting in my mind. I was going to be back for the fall of 2017.”

The problem was that he needed a final destination to his college basketball journey. Princeton couldn’t keep him for another year, so Hans decided to rely on his head coach, Mitch Henderson.

Henderson had not helped with graduate transfers in his time at Princeton, but wanted to help Hans play his final season.

Once Hans was available to recruit, Henderson received many phone calls from different head coaches. He would discuss them with Hans and they worked together to find the right school.

That school became Iowa State.

Hans enjoyed the rich tradition of winning at Iowa State and playing in the Big 12, one of the best conferences in the country. He also understood the ability to reach the NCAA Tournament and wanted to end his final season on a high note.

Anything less would be a disappointment.

Hans Brase is back healthy for his final collegiate season, which is at Iowa State.
Photo by Hannah Olson/Iowa State Daily

His German roots

Hans has dreamed of playing basketball professionally, specifically on the German national team. He’s taken steps to reach that point sooner rather than later by playing in the German program during the summers of his college career.

Every summer, Hans flew to Germany and played with the national players. He first played with the U-20 team in the FIBA European Championships in the summer of 2013. After that summer, he went to the second-tier national team, but his injuries haven’t allowed him to play on the senior national team.

He continued to go back each summer, even while he was injured, to reconnect with the players and build a stronger chemistry for the future.

Hans also enjoys going to Germany during the summer because he’s able to see the culture and family his parents grew up with during their childhood. The most exciting part for him is to see the extended family, which provides a stronger tie to his heritage and culture.

“It’s been so much fun going back each summer to practice with the German team,” Hans said. “It makes me truly proud to be a German.”

His mother, Bertina, couldn’t agree more.

“I’m so proud of him for striving to play on the national team and represent Germany on the basketball court,” she said.

Hans knows that Iowa State can help him reach those goals, while striving to win Big 12 and NCAA championships.

“I think this is a perfect place to wrap up my college basketball career,” Hans said. “I’ve appreciated my time with Princeton, but this season I’m a Cyclone.”

More than an Assistant

David Hobbs uses role to be a mentor, friend, coach

By Aaron Marner
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

More than an Assistant

David Hobbs uses role to be a mentor, friend, coach

Nobody is quite able to sum up what David Hobbs means to the Iowa State men’s basketball program.

Not even Hobbs himself.

“Well, my title is — hang on, I gotta read it off the door,” Hobbs said. He got out of his chair at his Sukup Basketball Complex office, walked over to the closed door, opened it, checked the sign, and leaned back into the room. “Special assistant to the head coach,” Hobbs said, walking back to his desk. “But basically, what it is, since this position under NCAA regulations is not an on-the-floor situation, I’m more of like a consultant slash mentor.”

On some days he’s a coach. On others, he’s a spectator, somewhat removed from the day-to-day activities of the team.

He has a wealth of basketball knowledge and experience dating back to his first job in 1972 as a high school assistant coach in Virginia, through stints as a college coach, to coaching the Japan National Team in 2009, and including nearly a decade as an NBA scout.

To head coach Steve Prohm, Hobbs is a trusted mentor.

To Iowa State players, he’s just coach Hobbs.

Former Iowa State point guard Monte Morris credited Hobbs with helping his jumpshot and preparing him for the NBA Draft. One of the first people highly touted freshman guard Lindell Wigginton sought out when he arrived in Ames was Hobbs.

“I talk to him almost every day because I’m trying to get to the next level,” Wigginton said.

Regardless of his title, Hobbs’ role with the Cyclones can’t be overstated, even if he isn’t running the show on the sidelines or hitting the recruiting trail.

Coaching the Crimson Tide

Hobbs spent eight years as an assistant, then a head coach at the high school level in the 1970s. For the first half of the 1980s, Hobbs was an assistant coach alongside Tubby Smith at Virginia Commonwealth (VCU).

In 1985, he got his first major college basketball coaching job at Alabama. The Crimson Tide made the NCAA Tournament six times in Hobbs’ seven years as an assistant coach. When longtime Alabama head coach Winfrey “Wimp” Sanderson left in 1992, Hobbs was promoted to head coach, his first time in that role at the college level.

From 1992-1998, Hobbs patrolled the sidelines, coaching Alabama to two NCAA Tournament appearances and a 110-76 overall record, the sixth most wins by a coach in Alabama history.

During five of those six years, a young student manager named Steve Prohm did whatever the coaches and players at Alabama asked.

Hobbs was impressed.

“The more you’re in athletics, the more you realize there’s two kinds of people,” Hobbs said. “One is talkers, and the other is doers. There’s plenty of talkers in this business. There’s not as many doers. As a manager, Steve was always a doer.”

Steve Prohm (left) and David Hobbs (right) are friends off the court and first met when Prohm helped out Hobbs' staff at Alabama in the 1990s.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

Steve Prohm, who is now Iowa State’s men’s basketball head coach, listed his duties as a student manager at Alabama: “Laundry, rebounding, stuffing envelopes to mail to recruits, running to get people’s lunch.”

While that doesn’t sound glorious, Prohm said it helped him in his coaching career. He made connections with players, other managers and coaches who have helped him along the way.

He also caught the eye of Hobbs, who has remained a mentor and a friend ever since.

Hobbs resigned after the 1998 season after missing the postseason in his final two years.

When 1999 rolled around, both Hobbs and Prohm were gone from the Crimson Tide basketball program, set on different paths that wouldn’t reconnect for another 15 years.

After Alabama

In 2000, Hobbs accepted a job as an assistant coach with one of the most prestigious college basketball programs: the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

His old assistant coaching partner from VCU, Tubby Smith, had won a national championship as the head coach of the Wildcats in 1997-1998. Just two short years later, an assistant coaching job opened up and Hobbs was hired.

From 2000 until Smith left for Minnesota in 2007, Hobbs got to coach future NBA stars in front of one of the most passionate fan bases in America.

“A lot about Iowa State reminds me of when I was at Kentucky,” Hobbs said. “The fans are rabid, the fans are knowledgeable, they really care about their basketball program.”

The main difference, he said, is Kentucky’s tradition. Fans at Kentucky expect the team to succeed. It’s championship or bust for the Wildcats. After all, Kentucky has eight national championships to its credit, whereas the Cyclones haven’t made a Final Four since 1944.

When Smith left, Hobbs accepted a job as an NBA scout and during the next nine years he worked for three NBA teams and watched hundreds, if not thousands, of games.

The only break he took from scouting was in 2009 when he spent a year in Japan.

“That was kind of an interesting situation,” Hobbs said. “It’s probably a two- or three-beer story.”

Gregg Polinsky, the director of player personnel for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, was a former assistant coach at Alabama under Hobbs in the 1990s. The Nets had an intern who was involved with the Japan Basketball Association. Polinsky recommended Hobbs to the intern, who got the wheels in motion back in Japan.

“There was all kinds of challenges,” Hobbs said. “The culture, the language, the 14 hours difference in time.”

For Hobbs, it was the wrong place at the wrong time. He had grandchildren by that point, and his family was nearly 6,000 miles away, back home in Alabama. He returned to the United States to be closer to home, but his heart remained in basketball.

In the pros

After returning from Japan, Hobbs resumed working as a scout for the Utah Jazz, Brooklyn Nets and the Charlotte Bobcats.

The Jazz, like many professional sports teams, had regional scouts. Hobbs was based out of Birmingham, Alabama, and therefore scouted a lot of SEC and ACC games, but during conference tournament season, the Jazz sent scouts out of their typical regions in order to get a second pair of eyes on players.

One year, Hobbs was assigned to the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City. The Jazz’s primary Big 12 scout was based out of Waco, Texas.

“The guy from Waco, he was sending me things,” Hobbs said. “So we got [down the list] to Iowa State, and he listed a couple of guys and his questions about them.

“And then he says, ‘Man, they’ve got this guy. He’s a freshman named Georges Niang. The guy looks like he would be the last guy in the YMCA you’d pick. He’s unkempt-looking, he’s overweight, he can’t jump, he’s got no quickness, but I’ll tell you one thing, that damn guy knows how to score.’”

In two games at the Big 12 Tournament that year, Niang averaged 14.5 points per game on 52 percent shooting. Needless to say, Hobbs was impressed

But the story doesn’t end there.

Fast-forward to the offseason between Niang’s junior and senior seasons, when Niang lost upwards of 30 pounds and was preparing for his final college season and a future in the NBA.

Hobbs was at the Adidas Nations camp in Los Angeles, an elite camp for several dozen of the top college and high school players in the nation. He was talking to some other scouts and watching a few players shoot.

“You kind of knew who everybody was because you had seen them all year,” Hobbs said. But one unfamiliar player caught his eye. “So I went over and I said, ‘Who is that?’”

When another scout told him the skinny forward was the same overweight kid he saw two years earlier, Hobbs couldn’t believe it.

“That ain’t Georges Niang!” Hobbs told the other scout. “Georges Niang was about twice that size.”

A reconnection

Hobbs never really planned to get out of scouting, but in the summer of 2016, the perfect offer arose.

Prohm had wrapped up his first season in Ames. Former Iowa State assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger had taken the South Dakota State head coaching job. Prohm was promoting Neill Berry from the special assistant role to the open assistant coaching job, which left a vacancy in Berry’s old position.

Prohm reached out to Hobbs, who was scouting in North Carolina at Chris Paul’s camp. Hobbs hadn’t been looking for a new job and, frankly, he wasn’t looking to leave his current situation.

“I’ve got five grandkids; they all live in Birmingham,” Hobbs said. “My two kids live in Birmingham. I was happy where I was.”

The two most important factors in any new job, he said, were “who and where.”

His relationship with Prohm was a checkmark for the “who” category.

As for the where?

It took awhile, but because of Prohm and the position, Hobbs knew a great opportunity awaited him in Ames. He eventually accepted the job.

Prohm couldn’t be happier.

“He’s made a big impact on all these guys just from the experience and the knowledge that he can talk to them with,” Prohm said. “When they go visit him in his office, he can share with them a lot of knowledge of high-level college basketball and putting themselves in a position to play in the NBA one day, and that’s what everybody who plays at this level wants to do.”

David Hobbs and Steve Prohm have reunited at Iowa State. Hobbs' mentorship has helped many Cyclones, including Monte Morris.
Photo by Hannah Olson/Iowa State Daily

When Hobbs arrived in Ames before the 2016-2017 season, he was a perfect resource for Morris, Iowa State’s star point guard who was preparing for the NBA in his final season at Iowa State.

Morris needed to improve his jump shot. Morris’ 3-point shooting percentage had decreased throughout his first three years, including a drop to 36 percent during his junior season.

Because Morris isn’t the most physically imposing guard, his ability to knock down jumpers from the outside was critical for his NBA future.

“With him being in the league [as a scout], he told me what they were looking for,” Morris said. “I’m definitely seeing what he was talking about. I’m just happy that I had the chance to work with him over that year.”

Morris isn’t the only one to take advantage of having a former NBA scout in the basketball complex.

Before he ever played his first game as a Cyclone, Wigginton had talked and worked extensively with Hobbs.

“Me and coach Hobbs talk a lot actually,” Wigginton said. “Him being a former NBA scout [is a bonus]. We talk a lot about what I need to work on and what’s working for me best.”

That’s part of the “consultant slash mentor” role Hobbs mentioned, and it’s why he’s been able to stick around the game of basketball for nearly 50 years.

“The NBA’s a different game,” Wigginton said. “He says everybody’s bigger, stronger, faster than you when you’re coming in as a rookie.”

While Hobbs may not have been the reason Wigginton chose Iowa State, he’s part of it. Wigginton said part of the reason he was interested in Iowa State was how Morris was able to grow and become an NBA player as a Cyclone, and some credit for that is due to Hobbs.

“He just brings a wealth of knowledge and he brings a wealth of understanding of being a head coach at this level,” Prohm said. “The responsibilities, the pressures, the things that go on every single day that come at you.”

One last go-around

Iowa State travels to No. 3 Kansas in search of a big win

By Luke Manderfeld
Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily
Photo by Iowa State senior Monte Morris looks on during their game against Kansas Jan. 16 at Hilton Coliseum. The No. 2 Jayhawks defeated the Cyclones 76-72.

One last go-around

Iowa State travels to No. 3 Kansas in search of a big win

Iowa State point guard Monté Morris has been through his fair share of games at the infamous Phog Allen Fieldhouse, but he has never left with a victory.  

The prolific senior has played three games against Kansas at its home arena, losing by a combined 29 points. 

Now, Morris  — for the fourth and final time — and the rest of Iowa State (13-8, 5-4 Big 12) will travel to Lawrence, Kansas, on Saturday for a 1 p.m. game against No. 3 Kansas (20-2, 8-1 Big 12) in search of a big victory. Coach Bill Self is 206-9 at Allen Fieldhouse, and the Cyclones haven't won there since 2005. 

"It's a game where records are out the window," Morris said. "It's Iowa State and Kansas. I know those guys look at it as a big-time rivalry too. I know they'll be fired up. Hopefully, for my last go around, we can come out with a W." 

After falling to Vanderbilt last Saturday and No. 7 West Virginia on Tuesday, the Cyclones are in a precarious situation. They lack a big résumé win for the NCAA Tournament committee and will only have two games remaining this season against ranked teams — West Virginia and Baylor. 

This weekend, in order to combat some of the offensive issues that led to the two straight defeats, the Cyclones will focus on half-court offense.

Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said that lack of production is partly on him.

"Our numbers are good when we run offense," Prohm said. "I've got to get uncomfortable with these guys to where they do it. They've got to change too ... The problem is that bad shots lead to bad defense, and bad shots lead to frustration by everybody. We've got to limit that." 

Asked what he meant by making the team feel "uncomfortable," Prohm said it came down to more and more practice.

"I think it's more, 'We're going to run motion ... and we're going to run it until it looks the way I want it to look," Prohm said. "Not the way everybody else in America wants it to look. The way I want it to look. The offense that I want to see." 

While the team's shooting struggles have been primarily evident down the stretch in the past few games, guard Matt Thomas has been the outlier. He is in the midst of a three-game hot-shooting streak. 

It started against Kansas State on Jan. 24. Thomas put up seven 3-pointers (7-for-10) and was on pace to break the single-game school record of 10 after bucketing six in the first half alone. In the two games since, Thomas has shot a combined 9-for-12 from long range with 44 points. He is shooting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc, good for fourth in the Big 12. 

And he's done it all while dealing with bone spurs in his foot.

"My foot over the past week or two has been starting to feel better, so I've been able to practice most days," Thomas said. "That's part of the reason I'm feeling good." 

While Kansas' defense doesn't pop out on the stat sheet — the Jayhawks rank seventh in both 3-point and overall defense in the Big 12 — it can be a stingy one. And that's why Prohm and the rest of the team will be conscious of getting Thomas the ball. 

The Jayhawks are well on their way to a 12th Big 12 title in a row after beating No. 2 Baylor in a nail-biter Wednesday night. Morris knows Kansas point guard Frank Mason III and freshman Josh Jackson well, he said, and he has nothing but mutual respect for the program.

"I love Allen Fieldhouse, just in terms of the fan support they get," Morris said. "Win, lose or draw there, you tip your hat off there to that organization. Their staff and how they carry themselves as far as winning and tradition. I'm just happy that we get to go down there and compete in that building." 

But when game time rolls around, it will be nothing but hard-nosed competition. 

"[We're going to go with] the same mentality we had when we went to Baylor and nobody gave us a chance," Prohm said. "That's the same way I want us to feel when we get on the plane tomorrow ... I'm going to ask these guys: What's your best road win? What's it feel like? Because if you win, mark them all off the list. This one will feel better." 

Hips Don't Lie

Naz Mitrou-Long free from pain for final season

By Ryan Young
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

Hips Don't Lie

Naz Mitrou-Long free from pain for final season

Things were going well for Nazareth Mitrou-Long when he took the court at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma, on Feb. 9, 2015.

Naz and No. 14 Iowa State were taking on No. 17 Oklahoma, one of the bigger games for the Cyclones in their Big 12 Conference slate that season. Naz opened the game with a 3-pointer. He quickly followed it up with a dunk. Things were fine. It was business as usual. Naz was in the middle of his junior campaign, one in which he truly established himself as Iowa State’s premier 3-point shooter.

But that night in early February, even though the average Cyclone fan saw Naz play well, something was off. Naz subbed out of the game in his normal rotation. He approached his seat on the bench, and that’s when he knew something was wrong.

“I couldn’t sit on the bench,” Naz said. “I had to go lay down.”

Almost instantly, the national audience watching the game on ESPN’s Big Monday started criticizing him.

“Naz is having a great game, so he wants to go to the end of the bench and lay down,” someone tweeted at him.

Several more tweets and comments followed. Naz, Iowa State’s 3-point guru, looked like he was loafing around at the end of the bench. He was having a good game, so why not kick back and relax? He had earned it, right?

Wrong.

“For people to see that, they probably didn’t know why I was doing that and [were] thinking, ‘I just wanted to do that because I could do whatever I felt,’” Naz said.

“But it wasn’t that. It was just the fact that I couldn’t sit on the bench. I was very uncomfortable.”

An excruciating pain, one that had been slowly chipping away at him all season, engulfed him, forcing him to lie down at the end of the bench. It was all that he could do to catch his breath.

Naz didn’t call it quits, though. He finished the game with 14 points, the 15th time that season he finished in double figures for the Cyclones. But it was then that he knew something was truly wrong. The pain that had been jawing at him all season was making itself known.

He couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Naz Mitrou-Long wipes away a tear after Iowa State fell to Virginia in Sweet 16 at United Center in Chicago.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

So a month later, just days after Iowa State fell to UAB in the NCAA Tournament, Naz went into surgery. Doctors repaired two torn labrums in his hips and scoped part of his hip bone. And for the next seven months, the one thing in Naz’s life that always made sense was gone.

He had to step away.

“I genuinely love this thing, man. This ball, I love this game,” Naz said. “Everything it’s done for me, it’s made my life so beautiful, man. I appreciate it.

“And to have that taken away, it hurt. It was one of the worst moments of my life.”

In the beginning

Naz grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, where he attended high school through the 10th grade. And while he didn’t care much for school at the time, there was one thing he did care about:

He wanted to play Division I basketball in the United States.

A Canadian high school student doesn’t easily accomplish that feat. Most college scouts simply aren’t looking at the basketball scene north of the border. So he left to attend Montrose Christian, a prep school in Rockville, Maryland, where he averaged 8 points and 5 assists per game. After that year, Naz transferred to Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada.

While he didn’t see the court much that year in Nevada — thanks to the stocked roster that included Anthony Bennett, Myck Kabongo, Nick Johnson and Landen Lucas, among others — his basketball game reached a new level, Naz said.

“That year was the year that I took the jump of becoming a way better player than I had been in the past,” Naz told the Daily. “These guys were 6-feet-7 or 6-feet-this, 6-feet-that. I’m looking around like, ‘Wow, this is the size of people in the NBA and in college. This is going to get me prepared.’”

It wasn’t until after the Nike Peach Jam, one of the best tournaments on the AAU circuit, that following summer that Naz started getting college offers. And once he connected with then-coach Fred Hoiberg and took his visit to Ames, his decision was made. He was a Cyclone.

“I’d never seen anything like that,” Naz told the Daily. “The athletics out here, you can’t compare to Canada. So when I saw Jack Trice and the football game, I fell in love with that.

“I wanted to leave my mark at a place I had mistaken for Ohio State. I didn’t even know there was a state of Iowa. I hadn’t known, but I wanted to know. I was so eager to know more.”

So Naz moved to a state he had never heard of and started settling in. But during his freshman campaign, his role on the team wasn’t quite what he had hoped. Naz saw action in just 18 games that year, averaging 1.4 points and 1 assist per contest. Essentially, he got scrub minutes.

He knew that going into the season. It wasn’t a shock. Naz just took what he got and ran with it.

Naz Mitrou-Long talks to coach Fred Hoiberg during a game his freshman season.
Photo by William Deaton/Iowa State Daily

“I’m a guy who it takes a little second to learn some things, but once I get it down I’m going to give my all, 110 percent to make sure I’m doing my best at it,” Naz said.

While many freshmen would have been frustrated not getting much playing time, Naz’s mom, Georgia Mitrou, said it wasn’t an issue for him.

He embraced his role.

“It wasn’t hard for him, which is weird because most kids would be like, ‘Oh no, I want to play,’” Georgia said. “His first year he accepted it. He respected the seniors so much, and he learned so much from them that for him it was just good enough to be around that group of guys, that coach, that atmosphere, and that was Naz.”

Naz’s sophomore year was better. He was filling a sixth-man role and doing well. He played in all 36 games that season, averaging 7.1 points per contest and shooting 40 percent from behind the arc.

Even though he didn’t get a lot of playing time, or even all of the recognition he may have deserved that year, Naz was doing everything he could in his role. Senior guard Matt Thomas, who was a freshman at that time, said Naz’s leadership hasn’t differed since he first met him that season.

“Ever since I’ve been around Naz he’s been a vocal leader, even as a sophomore,” Thomas said. “He was still a leader on that team because that’s just the presence that he brings to a team, and everybody respects him when he speaks up. That hasn’t changed.”

The pain that caused it all

On paper during his junior season, Naz was playing fantastic.

He started in all but one contest that year and averaged more than 10 points per game. He even hit a team-high 77 3-point buckets that season. But it wasn’t that easy. The pain in his hips was eating at him again. Georgia said this pain was nothing new for Naz.

“I want to say his hips were hurting since the age of 15,” Georgia said. “He’s always complained. He couldn’t stretch. He hurt. [It wasn’t as bad] as it was when he got older. [We] thought it was growing pains.”

Yet all through his junior season, Naz would talk to his mom about the pain that had returned.

“No, I’m OK. I can do this. I’m OK,” Naz told his mom over the phone one night.

“If you’re not feeling good, just sit out,” Georgia told him.

“No mom. I got this,” he said.

He was resilient. He refused to sit out.

“In his head, he wants to accomplish so much in so little time,” Georgia said. “Little did he know, ‘Hey, you have all the time in the world,’ in a sense.”

So he stuck it out, waiting to have the surgery until the season was over. Naz then took time off.

Seemingly recovered after his offseason break and rehab from the procedure, Naz entered his senior season making national headlines. The Cyclones were good. Led by All-American Georges Niang, Iowa State started the season ranked No. 7 in the country. While Naz looked good on paper, even going 5-of-9 from the field for 13 points in the season opener against Colorado, he was still struggling.

“I wasn’t healthy, even in the season,” Naz said. “It was something where I wasn’t supposed to play last year at all. Numbers wise, we just didn’t have the depth. I knew if I didn’t try and push and get back to play, it would hurt us in the beginning of the season.”

Georgia, who watches nearly all of Naz’s games on TV, was watching one night early that season.

“I saw him sitting on the bench. Then I saw him on the court. Then all of the sudden, I didn’t see him anywhere,” Georgia recalled. “It’s unlike Naz to be somewhere else. He’s always with his team.

“[Then] I saw him lying down on the ground in pain.”

It was like the Oklahoma game all over again. Naz couldn’t sit on the bench. He was in too much pain. That night after the game, Georgia called her son.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“I’m in so much pain,” Naz told her. “This is my senior year. I’m supposed to shine.”

“Mom,” he added, “I can’t sleep at night.”

The pain wasn’t just hurting him physically. It was killing him mentally, too.

“People don’t know that Naz didn’t sleep,” Georgia said. “He would be up half the night not feeling well in pain all the time, trying to make decisions. Every aspect of his life was affected by it.”

By the fifth and sixth games of the 2015-16 season, Naz knew he was running out of time. If he wanted to seek a medical redshirt, he couldn’t play more than eight games.

But Naz didn’t want to give up just yet.

“I knew it in my head [what I had to do], but I didn’t want to believe it,” Naz said. “I kind of knew that it was going to come to that point, but I was hoping that I would play and it would feel better to the point where, ‘Bang, that idea is gone now. Let’s keep riding the wave and let’s keep doing it.’ But you could see as the season was progressing how quick it was for me to decrease.”

Naz played in the Cy-Hawk basketball game against Iowa, Iowa State’s eighth game of the season.

Naz Mitrou-Long could barely stand up while dealing with hip surgery last season. Sometimes, Mitrou-Long was forced to lay on the bench because the pain was so severe.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

Right after the game, he sat down with Iowa State coach Steve Prohm.

“After the Iowa game, we talked one more time, and that’s when I knew he was ready to shut it down,” Prohm said. “He just didn’t feel like he was capable of playing.”

He called the entire team over to his apartment one night and broke the news. He was stepping away.

“Everybody was over, and there was tears in that room,” Naz said. “Not only by myself, man, but Georges [Niang] was crushed.”

Prohm knew Naz was crushed, too. He watched Naz battle with this decision all season and understood how hard it was for him.

“He’s been with these guys [since the beginning],” Prohm said. “I’m sure it was really tough for him because part of him is probably thinking he’s let some people down. On the flip side, he has to make sure long term that he’s healthy and feels good. You can’t have it both ways.”

And just like that, only eight games into the season, Naz’s senior year was over.

Coach Mitrou-Long

Naz and the Cyclones were standing in the back hallway of Hilton Coliseum.

It was the ninth game of the 2015-16 season, and Iowa State was about to tip off against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. It was the first game since Naz decided to hang up his jersey for the year.

The team broke its pregame huddle. The players started to run out of the red double-doors, slapping the Iowa State mural atop the doors before stepping out into the bright lights of Hilton Coliseum.

But Naz froze.

He couldn’t do it.

It was the first time in his career that he would walk out onto the court in street clothes. It was the first time at Iowa State that he wouldn’t be an option in the game. It was the first time he would be tied down to the bench.

And he was devastated.

“I couldn’t stop crying in the locker room because it just didn’t feel right,” Naz said. “I had never walked out in just street clothes. I never redshirted or anything, so I never did that. It was a shock to me.”

Georgia, who was once again watching on TV, texted Naz after the game. He didn’t answer.

Then she FaceTimed him. Still no answer. Finally, she just left him a text.

“Call me when you’re ready to talk,” it read.

When she eventually got hold of him, Naz was still devastated.

“Mom, if this doesn’t work out for me, what am I going to do?” he asked. “I love this game. I love the connection I have with these guys. What am I going to do?”

“Naz, you know God has plans for you,” Georgia replied. “You didn’t come this far for this to be where you stop. You have to believe.”

At that point, the dynamic of the team had changed. One of its senior leaders was no longer on the court.

“As a friend, as a teammate, seeing him go down is definitely tough to see,” Thomas said. “Not having him on the court, it’s tough because he’s such a vocal leader. He traveled with us on the road, but it’s just not the same when he’s out there in uniform competing with us.”

Prohm knew that, even though the team was in a different place, he couldn’t afford to lose Naz for good. He had to do something.

“The biggest thing then was, ‘Hey, come with us. Help coach this team. Help keep these guys encouraged,’” Prohm said.

And Naz did. Once he was able to get over the initial impact of not playing, Naz’s mentality changed completely.

Naz Mitrou-Long turned into a “second coach” on the bench while he was hurt, helping out in any way he could.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

He had become an assistant coach of sorts. Throughout the rest of the season, Naz was right there on the bench cheering on his team. He was right there in the huddles, giving tips and advice.

He embraced his new role, something he described as being an “extension of coach.”

And his team responded well.

“I think his role came to him naturally,” Georgia said. “He didn’t know what was going to happen, he just showed up and things fell into place.”

Better than ever

Throughout all of last season, Naz felt healthy at times.

Especially late in the season, Naz would be in the gym working out and he would feel like his old self.

But the consistency wasn’t there.

“There was times I felt up, but then I’d have a second practice later that week and I’d be so low,” Naz said. “I’d be so pissed off and so mad at myself, and the reality of it was this is the nature of my body at that state.”

Naz wanted to be back out there. He wanted to retake the court. He contemplated coming back, especially right before the conference tournament started.

“It went through my mind every game, honestly,” Naz said. “Every game that we were just walking out in Hilton, it never got easier. I just wasn’t used to it, and I’m not used to it.”

Vic Miller, the team’s athletic trainer, warned him about this scenario

“There are going to be days where you feel like, ‘All right, you’re ready to go back out there,’” Vic told Naz. “But you can’t do that because it’s not what’s going to be the best for your body. Rest is the key thing now.”

So that’s what he did. He rested. That entire season, Naz slowly started to get back into the gym. He said that process, though, was one of the toughest.

“You start to question if you’ll ever be back as the player you were,” Naz said. “In this game, it’s all about consistency. If you have 30 [points] one game, zero the next, win this game, lose that, you’re so up and down, you’re not really doing anything positive. You’re not taking any steps forward.”

Once Iowa State fell to Virginia in the Sweet 16, Naz took five weeks off.

He rested. And once he was ready, he retook the gym.

Prohm likes where Naz is at.

Mitrou-Long returns for his senior season as one of Iowa State’s best 3-point shooters.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

“He’s in the gym all the time shooting,” Prohm said. “His body looks good. I think he’s in a really good place. He’s fully healthy, ready to go. Shooting it well, moving well. I think he’s at a really good place right now.”

Thomas agreed.

“Right now he’s playing the best basketball I think in his life,” Thomas said.

After a painful two seasons, Naz is finally back. The pain he has felt off and on since he was 15 years old is gone, nowhere to be found.

This is exactly where Naz wants to be.

“It was everything I had dreamed of since the day I got my surgery,” Naz said.

“When you go through things like that, you really think like, ‘Is this it?’ I put my whole life, left home young, the whole shebang, for this. And when those type of things happen, you just think, ‘Is it done?’

“When I got that consistency going again and my shot started to fall, when I started to dunk again and started to do the little things and take hustle plays without no pain, I couldn’t do nothing but thank the man upstairs for blessing me with that.”

Unbroken

Tragedies can’t deter Matt Thomas

By Austin Anderson
Matt Thomas poses for a photo at basketball media day.
Photo by Katy Klopfenstein/ Iowa State Daily

Unbroken

Tragedies can’t deter Matt Thomas

Martha Thomas didn’t understand it. Nobody in her family did.

She didn’t understand why in the middle of her shift as a nurse, her manager came to her desk and took Martha downstairs. She didn’t recognize the two cops there, or the detective who was waiting for her. She did, however, know the sheriff. He was the father of one of her son Matt’s best friends.

She also recognized the sheriff’s wife. But why was she there? Why were any of these people there?

“It just didn’t click,” Martha said.

“Your kids are fine,” were the first words anybody said. “Your kids are safe.”

Relief, but not an answer.

Martha could tell the reason everyone gathered in the room wasn’t going to be a good one. It was obvious. She could see it in their faces.

She was right.

“It was one of the worst things I’ve ever heard in my life,” Martha said. “It was awful.”

Her ex-husband and father of her three children was dead.

He shot himself.

The loss

Thirty minutes were the only thing separating Matt Thomas and the end of his first day of fifth grade. But he didn’t get to finish out the school day with his classmates.

His best friend Connor’s mom, the sheriff’s wife, was there to pick him up early. Matt didn’t understand it, but he didn’t think too much of it. He had just turned 11 less than a month earlier.

“I just thought I was going to hang out with my buddy Connor,” Matt said.

Connor’s mom took him home.

When Matt walked inside, the rest of his family was already there. The room’s energy was upbeat.

Martha could tell her kids were excited. They still had the jitters from going to their first day of school. They had new clothes, new backpacks and had seen some of the friends they hadn’t been in contact with since school let out three months ago.

Josie, his younger sister and a second grader at the time, sat right next to Martha. Tony, the oldest, was supposed to be at seventh grade football practice. Instead, he sat in the chair by himself. Matt sat by the fireplace with Sister Bridget, a nun from the family’s parish.

As soon as Martha heard the news herself, she dreaded this moment more than anything. All she could think about on the ride back to her house was how she was going to tell her children. How could she deliver news so awful that her children’s father was not only dead, but that he took his own life?

Greg Thomas battled addiction with drugs and alcohol before committing suicide on Sept. 1, 2005.

After their divorce two years earlier, Greg saw his kids every other weekend on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. As time rolled on, it became only Saturdays and Sundays, and then eventually just one day every two weeks.

Matt Thomas stands with his father, Greg, who committed suicide when Thomas was in fifth grade. Thomas was raised by his mom, Martha, and learned a rugged work ethic.
Photo by Martha Thomas

Martha told her children their father had killed himself. He was gone.

Tears instantly streamed down the boys’ faces. Tony was in his second year of middle school, Matt his final year of elementary. They knew what had happened. They knew they were never going to see their father again.

Josie was 7. Her birthday was the next day, and her dad always took her out for a birthday dinner. She didn’t cry at first but she saw her brothers sobbing. She forced out tears.

“I guess I won’t be going out with dad tomorrow night,” Josie said.

The rise

When Matt was in kindergarten, he only went to school for half a day. At 5 years old, he spent the first half of his day in class and the other half on the basketball court dribbling and getting shots up.

At that point in his life, Matt wasn’t new to basketball. He had been dribbling the ball since he was 3.

“Watching how he could handle the ball, it was like, ‘Wow,’” Martha said.

Matt Thomas has been playing basketball nearly his entire life, starting when he was three years old.
Photo by Martha Thomas

When Matt was 9, Martha put a hoop and a slab of concrete in the backyard. Matt walked around during the summer upset because the concrete didn’t extend far enough for him to shoot 3-pointers.

Martha, who scored a Dubuque Wahlert High School record 48 points when she played 6-on-6 basketball in high school, gave Matt tips such as keeping his elbow in and dipping his wrist into “the cookie jar” on the follow-through of his shot. Other than those small tips, Matt developed his shot on his own.

When middle school and high school rolled around, the one thing coaches would always say is, “We don’t mess with Matt’s shot.”

Considering Matt has made the most 3-point shots of anyone returning in the Big 12 this season, it’s safe to say leaving his shot alone was the right move.

“I think he’s the best shooter in the country,” redshirt senior Naz Mitrou-Long said. “I know he knows that. The work he puts in can back that up as well.”

From an early age, Matt’s go-to activity was basketball. Even when he was one of the smallest and youngest players on the court, one thing he could control was his work ethic.

“I’m not going to get outworked by anyone,” Matt said. “It’s kind of been like that my whole life. That’s a value my mom taught me at a young age. If I want something bad enough, I can work hard enough to achieve it.”

Everything he does is based on his basketball career. He doesn’t drink pop, watches everything he eats and what he does on the weekend.

“I’ve literally devoted almost my entire life to the game of basketball,” Matt said. “I don’t remember the last time I took a day off.”

All of the work Matt has put in led to his coach, Steve Prohm, delivering some high praise for him at basketball media day.

“[Matt] is probably as hard of a worker as anyone I’ve ever been around,” Prohm said.

Matt was 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds when he slipped on the blue and white Onalaska High School jersey for the first time. As a 15-year-old freshman on the varsity team, he wasn’t the star, but everyone in the gym knew he could shoot.

Onalaska had a road game early in his freshman year against a rival school. The game was tied late in the game and Onalaska was holding the ball for the final shot. His teammate missed the shot, the other team got the rebound and called a timeout despite being out of timeouts.

A technical foul was called with essentially no time on the clock in a tied game. Matt’s coach, in a hostile environment with the opponent’s fans nearly on top of the court, picked the freshman to step to the line and shoot the free throws.

Matt won them the game.

“The amount [of courage] that took, I was wowed by that,” said Tony, his brother and a junior on that team. “That’s when I knew he could be special.”

Matt Thomas led Onalaska High School to a State championship his junior year on his way to being one of the top recruits in the country.
Photo by Martha Thomas

It was as easy to see his shots fall in as it was to see the potential he had as soon as his body started to grow. Tony was two years older than him and hit his growth spurt between seventh and eighth grade. He stood at 6-foot-5.

As a freshman, Matt had size 13 shoes, clown feet as he called them, so he knew he was about to hit a growth spurt.

“Matt would always say to me, ‘Gosh Mom, what do you think? Do you think I’m going to grow?’” Martha said. “I would look up to heaven and say, ‘Oh, God, don’t do this to the poor kid, let him grow.’”

He finally did grow, shooting up to 6-foot-2 at the start of his sophomore year.

During that year, Onalaska was ranked No. 1 in the state of Wisconsin. The team started by winning its first 16 games of the season. Then Nick Arenz, who went on to play collegiate basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, tore his ACL. Three games later, Tony, who went to play at Viterbo University, an NAIA school in La Crosse, Wisconsin, tore his ACL too. That put a lot of pressure on Matt.

He reveled in that pressure. He became a star.

“Matt literally carried the team,” Tony said. “He would score what seemed like 30 points every game when he was getting double-teamed.”

His first scholarship offer came from Northern Iowa after his freshman year. More mid-majors followed before schools from the major conferences started giving him offers.

“There were times I would be worried because Matt wasn’t home yet and he should’ve been,” Martha said. “Then I would look out and see him talking on the phone to coaches in the driveway.”

Then-Cyclones assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger was the guy Iowa State had constantly talking to Matt. He attended Matt’s high school games, and Iowa State offered Matt a scholarship his sophomore year.

In the end, it came down to two schools, Iowa State and Virginia. Virginia’s head coach, Tony Bennett, played collegiate basketball in Wisconsin and told Matt he would be a perfect fit in Virginia’s system, which thrives off players who can shoot and play defense.

Matt Thomas runs on the court of Pepsi Center in Denver at the NCAA Tournament against Little Rock on March 19. Thomas made 16 points, the 37th double-digit point total of his career. Iowa State won 78-61.
Photo by Lani Tons/ Iowa State Daily

But it was too far from home.

“It was a gut feeling,” Matt said. “I felt like this was the right place.”

Matt led Onalaska to the state basketball championship his junior year, the same year he started hearing comparisons to his future coach, Fred Hoiberg.

It’s an easy comparison to make. Both are 6-foot-4 shooting guards who grew up in the Midwest. They both chose Iowa State over more prestigious programs and both have two of the sweetest shooting strokes to grace Iowa State’s campus in the history of the program.

Matt was the highest-ranked player coming out of high school who Hoiberg ever recruited, according to ESPN. Better than all-time great Georges Niang and this season’s preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Monté Morris.

The only difference in the comparisons is the Iowa State faithful compared the expectations of a 19-year-old freshman who had never donned the cardinal and gold jersey to a career of one of the greatest, most beloved players in the history of the program.

“It’s definitely humbling getting compared to him,” Matt said. “Coming here as a freshman, you want to make a name for yourself. I just wanted to be the best me I could be.

“I didn’t necessarily like getting compared to him, but that’s something I didn’t have control over. It was definitely tough when people expected you to play like Fred did his senior year when you’re a freshman. It’s just kind of unrealistic to try and fill those shoes when I had never even played in the Big 12 at all.”

Another loss

The night Greg Thomas died, the Thomas family already had friends and neighbors at their door, providing comfort, food and support. Martha had three active kids, and she raised them on her own.

There were nights Josie, Matt and Tony would all have three different activities they had to attend, and there was no way Martha could get them there by herself.

She needed help, and the communities of Onalaska and LaCrosse were there for her.

Matt’s best friend Dustin’s family was there for him. Matt spent weekends in northern Wisconsin at Dustin’s family’s cabin.

Dustin’s dad, Todd, filled a lot of the void that Matt’s dad wasn’t able to fill. He took him to practices and games and was the father figure Matt didn’t have after fifth grade.

“He was the No. 1 father figure in my life,” Matt said.

Matt was playing in an AAU tournament in Milwaukee the summer before his senior year. His team had just advanced to the championship game when he went out to the car to get a Gatorade and something to eat.

His mom was waiting for him. She had news reminiscent of Matt’s first day of fifth grade.

The news was about Dustin’s dad, Todd.

He had drowned.

Martha gave Matt a choice, should they stay or should they make the six-hour drive up to the cabin to be there for Dustin.

“There was nothing we could do at the cabin,” Martha said. “Matt knew he had to be there for his friend. There was just no question that we were going.”

It’s how you respond

Martha Thomas woke up to a text. It was from Fred Hoiberg. She knew something was up but she didn’t know what. She tried to get hold of Matt but she couldn’t. She was scared, she didn’t know what had happened.

So she went for a walk.

She had her phone in her hand as she passed neighboring houses. The phone rang.

It was Matt.

He had asked if she had heard what happened. She hadn’t.

Matt had left a party in the summer after his freshman year at Iowa State. He had a couple drinks but didn’t think much of it. He had driven home lots of times after a couple of drinks; he knew his limits.

Flashing lights lit up the rearview mirror.

He had been pulled over for a broken taillight. He spent the next 12 hours in jail. He had gotten an O.W.I.

“I feel like I let her down,” Matt said. “I feel like I let a lot of people down. The community of Onalaska helped raise me. Everyone was there for me during times of adversity. A lot of those people look up to me. I feel like I let them down. My teammates, Iowa State, everybody.”

For the first month or two after that, every time Matt was out in public he was self-conscious.

“People look at you one way and you think they’re judging you or they’re thinking lower of you,” Matt said. “I just hated that.”

The hardest part was calling his mom the next morning.

When Martha heard the news from Matt, she started saying, “What were you thinking? I can’t believe you would do this.”

But then she stopped.

“What am I doing,” she asked herself. “The kid learned from it the second it happened. He needs understanding and that you’re there for him. I was mean mom for about two minutes, then everything changed.”

Matt has gone to different schools in the area and talked about the dangers of drinking and driving after his arrest. He gave up drinking for a year.

“Something we’ve talked about is,” Martha said, “it’s really not what happens to you in life, it’s how you respond to it.”

Unbroken

Matt came home one day the summer after his sophomore year and pulled up the movie “Unbroken” on demand. He watched it with his mom in the living room.

The movie is the story of Louis Zamperini, who tirelessly trains to represent the United States in track at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. According to the synopsis, during his training, he learns to become resilient and disciplined; his brother’s words of advice, “If you can take it, you can make it,” push him to overcome any adversity.

“[The movie] was awful,” Martha said. “I sat there and watched it and thought, ‘Why am I watching this, it’s the most frustrating movie?’”

Matt poses for a picture with his brother Tony, far left, sister Josie, middle left, and mom Martha, far right in “Team Luke” shirts, in support of Matt’s cousin Luke who was diagnosed with liver cancer.
Photo by Martha Thomas

She could see the similarities between the movie and Matt’s life.

The adversity he faced seemed to just keep coming back.

Matt lost his father at 11 years old, but he didn’t grow cold. He embraced the love he received from his community.

He then lost his second father in what appeared to be a freak accident. He drove six hours to just be with his friend.

He arrived at Iowa State, and the coach who recruited him, Otzelberger, left for another coaching position at Washington. The next year, the man he was constantly compared to left for the NBA. But Matt stayed.

He got benched on a top-25 team 14 games into his freshman year after just one loss. But he didn’t quit.

He paled in comparison to the expectations he was presented with when he arrived on campus. But he didn’t grow hostile toward the man he was compared to.

He was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. He said the arrest was “meant to be.” He now shares his story in hopes of saving even one kid’s life.

He struggled more in his sophomore season than he had in the rest of his life combined.

“If we missed a shot we were getting pulled [early in our careers],” Mitrou-Long said. “Not because of anything on us but because we were just that loaded.”

After Prohm came in, instead of benching Matt after a missed shot, he begged him to shoot again, Matt came out as a junior and had the best season of his collegiate career.

“A lot of things could have broke him,” Martha said.

But they didn’t.

After all, it’s really not what happens to you in life, it’s how you respond.

A Mother's Love

What Drives Deonte Burton

By Luke Manderfeld
Photo by Josh Newell/Iowa State Daily

A Mother's Love

What Drives Deonte Burton

Deonte Burton didn’t smile anymore.

During his sophomore basketball season at Marquette in fall 2014, options weighed on his mind.

Just four years earlier, Deonte’s mother, Barbara Malone, discovered she had breast cancer. After a lengthy fight, the cancer started to recede in 2012, but it returned in early 2014. By fall, the prognosis was bleak. She had about a month to live.

Deonte contemplated giving up basketball, the game he once loved. He hadn’t found joy in it for a couple of years. He was sleepwalking.

“It was like going to sleep, waking up and doing something, but you can’t really remember what you did,” Deonte said. “It was like basketball wasn’t basketball anymore.”

He called his older sister, Nicole Grafton. She could tell he was hurting. He was talking nonsense, she remembered. He wanted to quit basketball, get a regular job and live at home. He just couldn’t play basketball anymore.

“I could get a raise and find a good job,” he told her.

“Mama doesn’t want you to stop,” Nicole replied. “Remember what she told you. She always wants you to continue.”

So he did.

A powerful woman

Deonte hardly got a break.

Growing up in north Milwaukee as the youngest of seven children — six boys and one girl — he routinely found himself on the receiving end of jokes. It was partly his fault, Nicole remembered, because he used to fall asleep before anyone else.

“He was an easy target,” Nicole said.

One night, Deonte was jolted awake by his siblings.

“Deonte, mama wants you. Hurry up!” they shouted. Deonte sprinted into the kitchen to his mother’s side.

“What are you doing? What is that on your face?” Barbara said as she started to laugh. Deonte’s face was covered in makeup, and his lips were outlined by red lipstick.

It didn’t compare to the redness that filled his cheeks with embarrassment. His siblings laughed as he tried to wipe it away.

Barbara was certainly the playful type. She used to dress Deonte like two of his older brothers, Omar and Demario, so they almost looked like triplets. She never missed an opportunity to crack a joke. But she was also a powerful woman, which was directly reflective of her appearance. Her wavy — sometimes straightened — burgundy hair just reached the top of her broad shoulders. She was heavyset, but she was also tall, almost 6 feet.

Photo by Nicole Grafton

“She could do anything a man could do,” Nicole said.

She was flamboyant and opinionated. Whenever Deonte took the court in high school, he expected to hear her voice rise above the crowd. It would’ve been hard to tell she didn’t know much about basketball while she barked suggestions onto the hardwood.

“I warned some of my teammates, ‘You’re going to hear my mother. She’s pretty loud,’” Deonte said through a chuckle.

She also was giving. North Milwaukee was much like other inner cities, where drugs and violence roamed the streets. But Barbara welcomed rather than turned away. Deonte’s house boasted five bedrooms and a basement for the kids to play in. Compared to the rest of the block, the house was almost like a mansion. Barbara treated it as such.

When Deonte was little, the house was dubbed the “Red Cross House” because Barbara never turned away a person in need. If one of Deonte’s siblings had a friend in need — whether it be a place to stay, some clothes or food — Barbara opened her doors.

Sometimes, Nicole would take exception to her mother’s generosity.

“Why are you always giving them our clothes and all your stuff?” Nicole would ask.

“Just be quiet. They need this,” Barbara would respond.

The other children didn’t dare question it.

A chunky kid no more

Everybody told Deonte he was chunky when he was a kid.

“My family said it was just baby fat,” Deonte said with a laugh.

That size lent itself to a career in football. But in the sixth grade, Deonte was about to give up football, the sport he predominantly played until that point, and stick with basketball, a sport he had played since he was a kid.

“He was always playing basketball, even as a kid,” said Deonte’s father, Charles Burton, who separated with Barbara when Deonte was 11. “He always had a basketball in his hand.”

Deonte’s family was a sports family, but it didn’t focus on one. Most of Deonte’s older brothers boxed and played football, although they still played pickup basketball at nearby parks and gyms. While the family was full of pranksters, there was more than enough competitive spirit to go around. Deonte, Omar and Demario played pickup basketball, and it tested Deonte. Omar was faster and taller than Deonte. Demario was a better defender.

It wasn’t until middle school that the rest of the family realized how good Deonte was at basketball. Barbara and Charles didn’t attend Deonte’s games when he was a youngster because of his team’s frequent travel and their own financial troubles.

Barbara didn’t even realize how good Deonte was at first. She knew her children were gifted at sports, so it didn’t faze her when she heard a few people buzz about Deonte’s skills.

Deonte Burton was a “chunky kid” at a young age. But he grew into his size and became a nationally renowned big man.
Photo by Max Goldberg/Iowa State Daily

Deonte’s basketball career and national exposure didn’t take off until his freshman year at Milwaukee-Vincent High School. People in malls approached Barbara and Nicole to laud them for Deonte’s skills. The only problem was Barbara had hardly seen him play.

“She was like, ‘We should be going to some of those games,’” Nicole said. “And I was like, ‘I’ve been telling you that, duh.’”

Deonte wasn’t a fan of his parents attending his games at first. He struggled while they were in attendance. Eventually, Deonte warmed up to it. Barbara quickly became Deonte’s biggest fan.  She brought food and drinks to Deonte’s team, and her encouraging — and sometimes critical — voice frequently ricocheted off the high school gym walls.

Deonte’s basketball career took off at that time. After an impressive year at Milwaukee-Vincent on the varsity team, Deonte was looking for other opportunities. He wanted a bigger challenge and transferred to Brewster Academy, a private school in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, for his sophomore year.

The school had a knack for producing NBA players and housed former Cyclone Melvin Ejim. Deonte played with eight future Division I players while he averaged 6 points per game in that season. During that sophomore season, Barbara discovered a lump in her breast. It turned out to be breast cancer.

Deonte couldn’t live more than 1,000 miles away from Barbara, not while the the rest of his family was at home taking care of her. So he returned home for his junior season and attended Milwaukee-Vincent for his last two years of high school.

His college basketball stock rose.

Deonte Burton is known for his monstrous dunks. Against Sioux Falls on Nov. 6, Deonte threw down this windmill dunk.
Photo by Max Goldberg/Iowa State Daily

Deonte averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds and helped his team finish 17-7 overall in his junior year.

In his senior season, Deonte impressed even more. He earned third team all-state honors by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a McDonald’s All-American nomination by putting up 17.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.

Scholarship offers started to pour in during his first two years of high school. He received offers from Iowa State and Marquette in his freshman season in high school. Clemson, Illinois and Maryland also expressed interest.

But the offer from Marquette gained his attention. At the beginning of his junior season, Barbara was in a full fight with cancer. Marquette, located in Milwaukee, was just a short bus ride away from home. He could be closer to his mother while playing basketball at a Division I program.

He took his official visit to Marquette at the beginning of his junior year. It only took him a day to decide. He verbally committed on Sept. 9, 2011.

That chunky kid had grown into his size. He stood at about 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds — a body perfect for his original sport — and his “baby fat” had given way to muscle. He was now a nationally renowned big man.

The struggle

Barbara hardly got sick. So when the family found out she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, there was more than shock. It was disbelief.

Deonte’s reaction was to take to the computer. He spent late nights researching anything he could about the sickness: treatments, prognoses and other stories. At first, the research gave him some kind of comfort that he couldn’t get anywhere else — even from his own family.

“I didn’t know how to react,” Deonte said. “I really dived into understanding.”

His understanding was that it could be beat. He didn’t spend his days moping or worried about the future. He looked ahead with optimism.

After leaving Marquette, Deonte Burton was forced to sit out a year before he could play for the Cyclones.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

“It’s not always a death sentence,” he said.

Deonte returned home and to Vincent for his junior season to take care of his mother. While Deonte and his family continued to look after her, Barbara was struggling. She wouldn’t allow her children to be pessimistic, though. She didn’t allow them to cry when she was around. She only allowed good thoughts.

But the cancer was taking its toll. She struggled to get through chemotherapy. She still attended Deonte’s games, but not with the same regularity and certainly without the same enthusiasm.

Barbara’s struggles reached rock bottom during Deonte’s junior season of high school.

She tried to take her own life.

Deonte doesn’t remember how he heard the news; he only remembers rushing to the hospital to be by his mother’s side. Stuffed with tubes and plugged to wires, Barbara couldn’t speak. She communicated with a white board. The dry erase marker served as her voice, and her persona still shined through. She still cracked jokes. She still didn’t let her children cry.

That was her lowest point, Deonte remembered.

Deonte also remembered how she bounced back from that event. At that point, Barbara weighed about 160 pounds, a dramatic reduction from her previous frame. During Deonte’s senior year, Barbara was in remission.

She was walking every day, eating healthy and seemed to be in good spirits. She was back to the old Barbara. Between the continuing chemotherapy, she continued to attend Deonte’s games.

Deonte left for Marquette while Barbara was recovering and played in all 32 games in his freshman season, averaging 6.9 points and 2.2 rebounds per contest with his mother in the stands for most of the home games.

But the family was still cautious about the future. A cloud loomed as Barbara continued to recover. The doctors warned: “If the cancer comes back, it’ll be 10 times harder.”

It did.

While Deonte was at Marquette, the cancer came back full force. At first, the family thought it was side-effects left over from chemotherapy. Barbara insisted it was something more. Nicole took Barbara to the hospital again and again, only to be turned away each time. But Barbara was adamant.

“It came to a point where she was like coming back that same night, and she kept saying there was something wrong,” Nicole said.

The doctors found it, but it had spread all over Barbara’s body. She was put on eight different types of chemotherapy, but they failed to slow the quickly spreading sickness. The number grew to 18 different treatments. Still no luck.

While Barbara was struggling to do daily duties, the family implemented shifts to take care of her. But, just like the first time, Barbara found it difficult to continue. In the middle of 2014, Barbara gathered the children, along with some friends and parishioners from her church, into the family’s living room.

She wanted to stop fighting the cancer. She wanted to live the rest of her life — no matter how long she had left — without the constant battling. She turned the conversation over to a doctor. He explained that if Barbara stopped chemotherapy, she would have about a month to live.

Deonte continued to attend school at Marquette, maintaining a GPA above 3.0, and practicing with the team, but he was still forced to face the inevitable. On a morning run, Deonte broke down, crying. He couldn’t go on. His mother’s impending death hit him. He spent the rest of the day laying lying in bed with Barbara, talking about life.

Barbara was put into hospice care while her health dwindled. She didn’t want to die in the house and leave behind bad memories. The children still took turns taking care of her, but they all knew what was coming. It was about keeping her comfortable at that point.

On Oct. 6, 2014, Barbara succumbed to the sickness she had spent four years fighting. Her death fell within a 15-minute window when none of her children watched over her.

“She didn’t want us to see her die,” Deonte said.

A weight lifted

After Deonte spent his first two seasons at Marquette, constantly worrying about his mother’s sickness, memories littered the Milwaukee streets. She was gone physically, but she still lived in little places around town.

Deonte thought of places he and Barbara would go out to eat. He couldn’t remember the name of a restaurant, so he picked up his phone and tried to call her to get a reminder. Nobody answered. He took to writing to cope. He turned to poetry to explain and grieve.

But Deonte wanted to flee those memories. He wanted to find his love of basketball again. He needed to get away.

Marquette basketball was facing a change of its own. Coach Brent “Buzz” Williams, who now coaches at Virginia Tech, left the program and was replaced with Steve Wojciechowski. Williams was integral in getting Deonte to Marquette. Williams also helped Deonte with his mother, calling Barbara to check in while she was sick. Deonte, who was rooted in faith, found solace in Williams’ faith-based coaching style.

Deonte also isn’t the type to accept someone in his life at the drop of the hat. His mother showed him a Bible verse — Matthew 7:15 — early in Deonte’s basketball career.

“Beware of false prophets,” it read. “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.”

Deonte had taken that verse to heart. It still linked him to his mother. He was skeptical of the new coaching staff because that’s how he was raised. He felt like he couldn’t open up to them.

He wanted to leave Marquette and leave all of his memories and struggles in the rearview mirror. But the way he broke it to his team wasn’t the best.

Deonte was unsure how to talk to coaches. He went straight to the athletic director, who told him to talk to his coaches, but by the time he did, the athletic director had already spread the word.

“If I could do it again, I would gather all the coaches and players and tell them my reasoning of why I’m leaving and why I need to leave,” Deonte said.

Now Deonte had to figure out his next destination.

Ever since high school, Deonte wanted to attend Iowa State, Nicole remembered, but he was bound to his home by his mother’s sickness. Deonte called Nicole one day.

“How would you feel about me leaving here and going to Iowa State?” Deonte asked.

“Get [going] and get your stuff together,” Nicole told him. “Get over there. If you’re not feeling well here, you have to go find you. You have to find the new you.”

Deonte transferred to Iowa State in December 2014.

Deonte Burton wears purple and pink shoes with “Love you” and “Miss you” written in marker on the back to honor his mother, who died from breast cancer in 2014.
Photo by Max Goldberg/Iowa State Daily

But Deonte was still conscious of the “ravenous wolves,” even at Iowa State.

Because of NCAA transfer rules, Deonte was forced to sit out for the second half of the 2014-15 season and the beginning of the 2015-16 season.

There was a new coach, Steve Prohm, roaming the halls at the Sukup Basketball Complex. Deonte still had his guard up. It wasn’t until Deonte started playing again that he really started to connect with his teammates.

Deonte became eligible to play for Iowa State in December 2015, but he never found his groove on the court. He averaged 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds while averaging 18.8 minutes per game.

Now, almost a year and a half after Deonte transferred to Iowa State, he feels comfortable around his teammates. It happened during the summer, when Deonte spent countless hours in the gym alongside fellow senior Naz Mitrou-Long and other teammates.

“He’ll be the first one to say that he’s as close to us as any team that he’s been on,” Mitrou-Long said. “I feel that way. He opens up about jokes. He’s our brother. We’re his brothers. We’ve grown together.”

Deonte and his family are still as close as ever. The first time they visited him in Ames, the hotel they stayed at put them all in separate rooms. It left the family uncomfortable. They had all been through so much and were so close that sleeping in separate bedrooms was almost unbearable.

So the next time the family came to Ames, they set up air mattresses around Deonte’s apartment and slept right next to one another.

“It was like a campsite,” Nicole said.

He felt right at home.

It was as if a weight was lifted off his shoulders. He could play basketball, care-free and surrounded by “brothers.” He no longer had to worry about his mother’s sickness. She was in a better place.

Now Deonte smiles again.

Men's Newcomers

New Players

By Jack MacDonald

Men's Newcomers

New Players

Solomon Young

Height: 6’8’’
Weight: 240 pounds
Position: Forward
Hometown: Sacramento, California
High School: Sacramento
Recruiting Class Ranking: 3-star recruit

HS/College Career:  

  • Led Sacramento High School to 30-2 record as a senior
  • Averaged 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks as a senior
  • Chose Iowa State over Washington, Arizona State and Nevada

Donovan Jackson

Height: 6’2’’
Weight: 175 pounds
Position: Guard
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
High School: Pius XI
Recruiting Class Ranking: No. 7 JUCO player according to 247sports.com

HS/College Career:

  • Averaged 15.3 points and 2.9 assists for injuring his wrist at Iowa Western C.C.
  • Team was 17-2 before his injury and was second in scoring his freshman season
  • All-state and all-conference as a senior after averaging 18 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists
  • Lost in 2012 state semifinals to Matt Thomas’ team

Ray Kasongo

Height: 6’9’’
Weight: 230 pounds
Position: Forward
Hometown: Toronto. Ontario
High School: Pikeville, Kentucky/Phase 1 Academy
Recruiting Class Ranking: 3-star recruit

HS/College Career:

  • Saw limited time in 22 games at Tennessee during his one season
  • Played one season at College of Southern Idaho and averaged 6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks
  • Played AAU basketball with Grassroots Canada

Merrill Holden

Height: 6’8’’
Weight: 224 pounds
Position: Forward
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
High School: Lincoln (Neb.)
Recruiting Class Ranking: N/R

HS/College Career:

  • Grad transfer after playing two seasons at Louisiana Tech
  • Averaged 8.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks as a senior
  • Played one season at Pratt Community College and averaged 5.8 points  

Darrell Bowie

Height: 6’8’’
Weight: 218 pounds
Position: Forward
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
High School: La Jolla Prep (Calif.)/Wauwatosa
Recruiting Class Ranking: 2-star recruit out of high school

HS/College Career:

  • Led Northern Illinois in field goal percentage and free throws made as a freshman
  • Ranked 11th in MAC rebounds as a sophomore
  • Had shoulder surgery in his final season at Northern Illinois

Jakolby Long

Height: 6’5’’
Weight: 208 pounds
Position: Guard
Hometown: Mustang, Oklahoma
High School: Mustang
Recruiting Class Ranking: 4-star recruit and second-ranked player in Oklahoma

HS/College Career:

  • Averaged 24.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists as a senior
  • Named Oklahoma Boys Coaches Association Player of the Year award in Class 6A
  • Won Class 6A title as a junior
  • Picked Iowa State over offers from Oklahoma State, Georgia and Missouri

STUUUUU

The People’s Player

By Ryan Young
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

STUUUUU

The People’s Player

He’s been spotted around Ames, Iowa, during the last several years.

A 6-foot-10 white guy is hard to miss.

And in spring 2015, that’s all Stuart Nezlek was: a 6-foot-10 kinesiology student.

But Stuart wanted more. So he took a chance.

He emailed Iowa State basketball coach Fred Hoiberg.

“Dude, my name is Stuart. I’m 6-foot-10. I just wanted to play basketball for you,” Stuart wrote, more or less.

“Yeah, come by,” Hoiberg replied later. “We’ll talk.”

So they did. Stuart went in to meet with Hoiberg and the coaching staff. Then, a few meetings and practices later, it worked out. Stuart was on the team.

From there, the legend was born. Stuart went from an average college student to a fan favorite overnight.

Instead of sitting in the stands at Hilton Coliseum, Stuart is now the big guy sitting at the end of the bench who fans go crazy for when he gets in at the end of games.

“STUUUUUUU,” fans scream out when he gets on the court — which only happens for about a minute each game, if he’s lucky.

But that doesn’t matter. He’s just happy to be back on the court again.

“Being able to [play at] a school like this that is in the top three conferences in the U.S. and in the Top-25 in the country, it just goes to show that if you really want to do something, there is never anything or anyone that can stop you,” Stuart said.

It’s all about basketball

Stuart started playing basketball as a young child in River Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. While he never played too seriously, he fell in love with the game. Simply put, it was fun.

By the time Stuart began high school, he started to take the game more seriously. He joined the basketball team his freshman year and continued to play his sophomore season.

His junior and senior seasons, though, didn’t go so smoothly. Stuart transferred to Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois. He said he and his new coach didn’t see eye to eye, limiting his playing time significantly. He was still a member of the team, just never really got to see time on the court.

“It was tough just knowing that I was better than the people who were playing above me, and basically because of how it was set up I just never got the opportunity [to play],” Stuart said.

As Stuart approached the end of his senior year, he knew one thing: He wanted to keep playing basketball.

His coach, though, wasn’t so sure.

“The highest level of basketball you would ever play is a small Division III school,” his coach told him. “A liberal arts college, somewhere that was never known for sports.”

That wasn’t good enough for Stuart.

He looked his coach dead in the face: “No. I can do better than that.”

So he started looking around at schools where he could play, but still get the education he wanted.

He didn’t have any scholarship offers to play basketball anywhere, so he landed at Iowa State. He liked the school, and it was one of the only schools to which he was accepted.

But basketball was off the table. At least it was at the start.

Before Stuart even set foot in Ames, he sent an email to Micah Byars, the head of Iowa State basketball operations.

Stuart explained his situation, that he didn’t play much basketball in high school, but wanted to walk onto the Iowa State team.

Stuart’s email intrigued Byars, so he set up a meeting. When he looked at the roster that season, though, the two just couldn’t make it work. The roster was already full.

Soon enough, though, Prohm decided to honor Stuart’s spot on the team. He could stay.

“It was sort of strange in that Stuart was getting a spot on what would have been Hoiberg’s squad just as Fred was departing to coach the Bulls, so there was a period of uncertainty when Steve Prohm took over as head coach,” his dad, George, said. “That had to be a difficult thing, taking someone else’s squad with no real input into choosing your own players, but I was delighted when all the dust settled and Stuart was still there.”

While it was fairly straightforward for Stuart to join the team, successfully earning a spot on a Division I basketball team is no easy task. Only 15 players can make the roster, leaving just two or three spots, maximum, for walk-ons.

Byars, who handles most of the walk-ons initially in the process, said he gets emails daily from students wanting to join the team.

“The majority of them, to be honest with you, are students at Iowa State that enjoy basketball and then they decide that they want to be a part of it,” Byars said. “But I don’t know that most of them know what all that entails. A lot of those folks, when they realize what the entire process entails, they usually back away.”

“He actually came in and sat on my couch,” Byars said. “At that time we had definitely one, may two walk-ons. Then it kind of dissolved into, ‘Oh, well maybe next year.’”

So Stuart just adapted to college like any other freshman.

But just because he couldn’t get on the team didn’t mean Stuart quit playing basketball. He started regularly playing pickup basketball at Lied Recreation Athletic Center.

“I’d mainly go there to play basketball for two to three hours every day, just to pass the time and work out at the same time,” Stuart said. “I was just enjoying playing basketball.”

But Stuart hurt himself by the end of his freshman year. He tore his labrum in his shoulder and was forced to undergo surgery. He then took the next fall to rehab his shoulder until he could play basketball at Lied again.

And when he finally got to that point, Stuart had a thought.

It was time for him to give walking on another shot. That’s when he sent the email to Hoiberg.

“I was actually in [Hoiberg’s] house when he got that email,” said guard Naz Mitrou-Long, who had just finished his sophomore year. “It was interesting to hear because it sounded like a dude who was dedicated and wanted to be on the team. I thought he might be able to come in here and start by that email.”

Once they read the email, Byars and Hoiberg decided to bring Stuart in for another conversation.

This time, things went much more smoothly.

“We brought him in, sat [him] on the couch again,” Byars said. “Then he met with Fred, came down and did a workout with one of our graduate assistants and our managers, and next thing you know he’s on the team.”

Stuart was just as surprised as the rest of them.

“I didn’t really know how to take it at first,” Stuart said. “[I kept thinking,] ‘Is this real? Y’all aren’t yanking my chain?’

“Once I started doing workouts with everyone and it was solidified, I was like, ‘Oh, this is like high school only better.’”

Soon, though, a dilemma arose. Stuart joined Hoiberg’s team. But Hoiberg departed Ames to become the head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

When Steve Prohm was hired to replace him just a few months later, Stuart didn’t know if Prohm would keep him on the team.

But Stuart’s email to Byars stood out. When Stuart told Byars the story of his high school basketball problems, that’s what really made him stand out.

“When you read that, the candid nature of that is just funny,” Byars said. “So that kind of led to another email and a call. When he showed back up, it had been a year or two since I saw him, and I told coach Hoiberg that I saw this kid [before].

“It was just a funny story, so it kind of caught my eye. I thought it was interesting, and coach Hoiberg thought it was funny as well.”

Stuart Nezlek cheers from the bench during a game last season.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

An instant fan favorite

Almost as quick as he had joined the team, Stuart’s fame around Ames grew.

He started appearing in his newfound teammates’ Snapchat stories and other social media posts, and people started to recognize him.

By the time his first Hilton Madness — Iowa State’s version of a preseason “Midnight Madness” — rolled around, Stuart was well known.

He just didn’t know it yet.

“When Hilton Madness came, when I heard ‘STUUU,’ I really thought it was BOOs,” Stuart said. “Literally for the first three games I thought it was ‘boo.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is lovely.’

“But when I finally listened, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a S. That’s Stuart.’”

Stuart doesn’t get much playing time. Last season he played in seven games for a total of nine minutes, dropping just two points on the season.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t putting in the work in practices. Mitrou-Long said it’s far from it.

“He works. He gets it in in the weight room. He puts in that overtime,” Mitrou-Long said. “He’s a very educated dude. And he’s funny. If you’re talking some smack to him, he’s coming back to you.”

Naz Mitrou-Long calls Stuart Nezlek, a fan favorite in Ames, Iowa, his son.
Photo by Katy Klopfenstein/Iowa State Daily

The fact that Stuart can talk some “smack” proves that he isn’t just a footnote to the rest of the team.

He’s most definitely a part of it.

“This was destiny for him,” Mitrou-Long said. “He was meant to be with us. He keeps the character high on this team. He’s just a great dude.

“He fits in well. A Stuart-less Cyclone team would be a little weird. His presence is definitely felt when he comes in. That’s my son.”

Prohm, who had nothing to do with Stuart’s arrival on the team, has felt his impact on the team.

While it’s not traditionally what you think of, Prohm said his impact is still incredibly important.

“All the guys like him. He knows a lot of people on campus. [He’s] got a great personality,” Prohm said. “I think the biggest thing that he provides for us is that he can be a great encourager, be into the game on the bench and on the sidelines and in practice, keep people loose and enjoying it and having fun.”

Stuart knows he won’t have a major impact on the court this season. That isn’t a surprise.

But that doesn’t matter to him. He’s just here to play basketball.

“I just want to keep getting better,” Stuart said. “That’s all I can do and provide for the team in anyway I can.”

Oh, and there is one other goal of his.

“Hopefully [we] beat Kansas, on the road and here,” Stuart said. “That would be great.”

Stuart is set to graduate from Iowa State this spring with a degree in kinesiology. As of now his plan is to continue his education, hopefully attending graduate school to get his master’s degree.

He isn’t sure where he wants to attend yet but is still weighing his options. Should he attend graduate school, Stuart would have one year of eligibility left to play basketball.

“I guess I’ve just looked at a bunch of schools based on what they offer for school, and basketball is just secondary,” Stuart said. “It’s still there, but it’s just not there as much as school is.”

Regardless of where he ends up, Stuart is living a dream that very few college students ever get to experience.

“This is an unbelievable experience for Stuart,” Prohm said. “He’s playing Big 12, high, high-major basketball, traveling, eating at the best places, staying at the best hotels, playing the best competition. This is life-changing for him.”

There are even times where Stuart can’t describe the feeling.

Just three years ago, Stuart was an average fan, cheering on the Cyclones from the stands in Hilton Coliseum.

Now, he’s a member of that team that thousands of fans around the country cheer for every year.

He made it.

“To go from there to sitting on the bench, it’s a totally different atmosphere,” Stuart said. “Instead of going to cheer for people, people were cheering for me. Just the whole switching from being a fan to being a part of something that people cheer for, I couldn’t describe it.”

Shouldering the Load

Monté Morris returns for more

By Luke Manderfeld
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Shouldering the Load

Monté Morris returns for more

Monté Morris buried his head into his mother’s shoulder, but there was nothing he could think about besides the pain in his own shoulder.

“Why can’t I come back from this injury?” he asked on the verge of tears.

It was March 2016. The Cyclones had just lost 79-76 to Oklahoma in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament. Monté, a rock for the Cyclones all season, could only muster an uncharacteristic five points and two assists.

But there was a deeper problem.

Monté was hurting.

“He was hurt more than a lot of people know,” said Latonia Morris, Monté’s mother. “It was hard to watch him push through that.”

The Cyclones played at Kansas about a week earlier. At the end of the game, with the Cyclones trailing, Monté jumped into Jayhawk guard Frank Mason III, who was jumping backward into Monté to try and alter his shot. Monté’s shooting shoulder — his right arm — collided with Mason’s shoulder blade.

Monté Morris draws a foul against Frank Mason III at Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. Morris hurt his shoulder on the play, causing him pain for the rest of the 2015-16 season.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

Monté let out a scream.

The team called it a shoulder strain after the game, and the team’s trainer Vic Miller thought it would pass with time. Monté thought it was something more.

Going into the game against Oklahoma, Monté’s arm didn’t get better. To make the pain more manageable, the team trainers shot his shoulder with painkillers.

They missed the spot. They gave him a shot again. Missed again. Monté felt funny.

The numbness extended down to the edge of his fingertips. He couldn’t feel the basketball. He tried to dribble, but his signature touch was gone.

“That whole Oklahoma game, I was all messed up,” Monté said.

The shoulder injury didn’t go away before the NCAA Tournament, and it lasted longer than fans knew, affecting his decisions along the way.

But the injury was just one aspect of Monté’s crazy junior season.

The biggest decision of his life

After the noise reverberating inside Hilton Coliseum became a distant ambient sound in the back of his head, Monté had to make one of the biggest decisions of his career.

It was January of his junior season, and Iowa State had just won its biggest game of the season so far — an 85-72 thriller on ESPN’s Big Monday against then-No. 4 Kansas. The Cyclones overcame a seven-point deficit at halftime, and Monté finished one of the best games of his career, putting up 21 points and nine assists.

But after the crowd dispersed and he was alone in his room, Monté couldn’t celebrate.

“Everybody thought I’d be on top of the world, but reality just hit me,” he said.

Although there were a few months left in the season, Monté felt the weight of a looming decision: to stay for his senior season at Iowa State or to leave and declare for the NBA Draft. It had been on the lips of reporters and fans all season.

He pulled out his phone and thumbed through his Twitter. Tweets filled with fans willing him to stay littered his notifications.

The options puttered around in his mind. His grandma, who died the year before, always wanted him to get a degree. He wanted to leave a legacy at Iowa State. He couldn’t leave now. Not like this.

Monté Morris has his sights set on Iowa State’s all-time assists and steals records and wants to sweep Kansas in his senior season.
Photo by Max Goldberg/Iowa State Daily

But on the other hand, Monté’s draft stock was soaring. After putting up a career game against one of the best teams in the nation, national analysts such as ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla were calling Monté one of the best point guards in the country.

In his mind, time was winding down, and he had to take his best shot and hope for the best. He FaceTimed his mom and tried to piece together his thoughts.

“I’m really leaning towards coming back here for my senior year no matter what,” Monté said. “No matter how I do in the tournament and no matter if we made the Final Four.”

Latonia’s face crept into a smile. She was proud. Monté was no longer the 17-year-old kid who moved to Ames as a freshman. He was a man.

“I wish I was next to him because I would’ve given him a huge hug and kiss,” she said later.

Trying to battle through

Monté had never felt an injury this bad in his entire body before — let alone in the shoulder.

In the weeks leading up to the first round of the NCAA Tournament and through the loss to Oklahoma, Monté couldn’t practice. He said he felt out of shape. He could barely shoot without a sharp pain striking his shoulder with force.

“[The pain] was big time,” Monté said. “[There were even] nights that I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep on my right side. I couldn’t practice. That was the biggest thing — I couldn’t practice. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t extend my arm at all.”

The physical pain in his shoulder was one thing, but the mental toll was real too. Monté had always been able to bounce back from injuries, but this time was different.

“He had never been hurt,” Latonia said. “He’d always been able to play through it.”

It would’ve been hard for a fan or even a teammate to see how Monté struggled through Iowa State’s 94-81 win against Iona in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on March 17. He looked like the pre-injury Monté — dipping, driving and seamlessly dishing assists. He ended the night with 20 points and just two assists shy of a double-double.

But Monté was still in pain. After the game, he couldn’t keep it in anymore. His roommate, former Iowa State forward Jameel McKay, heard the extent of it.

“Bro, I don’t know how I did that. I’m still hurtin’,” Monté told him. “I’m hurtin’.”

The Cyclones kept trudging through the tournament, and so did Monté, even through his shoulder pain was nearing an unbearable level. He never did put up a game like Iona again, but he wasn’t hurting the team either. Against Little Rock in the next round — the round of 32 — Monté had eight points and four assists. It was a far cry from the Monté whose season made him a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

In the Sweet 16, Iowa State faced one of its biggest challenges of the season: No. 1-seed Virginia, a team that was known for slowing down a high-octane offensive like the Cyclones.

Monté never shied away from those types of obstacles. On Dec. 10, 2015, the Cyclones were still trying to claw back from a 20-point deficit against Iowa. Monté was the central driver in that comeback, putting up 20 points and nine assists in the game. That included one of the biggest shots of his Iowa State career.

With time winding down, Monté dribbled to the elbow of the free throw (ree-throw line and let loose a floater. It sank through the basket flawlessly. The Hawkeyes couldn’t answer in the final eight seconds, and the Cyclones pulled off the 87-86 win, sending fans into a frenzy at Hilton Coliseum.

Monté Morris lets a floater go against Iowa on Dec. 10, 2015. The shot led the Cyclones to a last-second victory and went down as one of the biggest of Morris’ career.
Photo by Ryan Young/Iowa State Daily

So Monté wasn’t fazed.

He had 10 points and eight assists against Virginia.

It wasn’t enough.

Virginia stifled the Iowa State offense and won 84-71. Monté missed shots he usually made, and he couldn’t be aggressive.

“I was afraid to get hit,” he said.

Monté felt like he let his senior teammates — Jameel McKay, Georges Niang and Abdel Nader — down.

“I wish I could’ve helped Georges, because he gave it all he had. But I couldn’t do anything,” Monté said.

The bus after the game was a somber scene. Monté went down the line and shared an embrace with each of his teammates. But a hug with teammate Naz Mitrou-Long, who was on his way to a fifth season after sitting out the year while recovering from hip surgery, lasted a bit longer.

Monté had something to tell him.

“I just want to let you know that I’m coming back,” Monté said. “I know you’re getting your year back, so I want to come back and play with you.”

That resonated with Mitrou-Long, who remembers that conversation to this day.

“It means everything,” Naz said. “He could have had millions of dollars right now. He was regarded as one of the best — and in my eyes the best — point guard in the country last year.

“For him to turn down his situation, and where he comes from, it means more than I could even put into words,” Mitrou-Long said.

The loss hasn’t been lost on Monté. It still creeps into his mind when he reflects on his season.

“I feel like [if] my shoulder was normal, I guarantee that we would’ve beat Virginia,” Monté said.

“I’m going to live with the results.”

Monté announced to the world he was staying at Iowa State on April 8, just a few weeks after he assured Mitrou-Long he would help him in his senior season.

The announcement video, posted online, was 4 minutes and 25 seconds in length, but its meaning transcended that length to fans, teammates and his coaches. Many of those teammates believed he wouldn’t be returning.

“A lot of people thought I was leaving,” Monté said. “Like, they lost bets. A bunch of people thought I was leaving. That surprised a lot of people.”

Although Monté made his decision to return for his senior season in January, a new NCAA rule could’ve allowed him to test the waters with NBA scouts and camps so long as he pulled out of the process in time. But his shoulder continued to hold him back. It wasn’t until May that he felt 100 percent. By then, it was too late.

“I’m going to live with the results and just know that if I have a better year or a worse year than last year, it’s not going to change me as a person with my character,” Monté said. “I’m going to live with my decision no matter what.”

Latonia has seen a change in Monté since he made his decision. He has always spent time in the gym, but he has been spending copious amounts of time shooting, dribbling and working on his game since April.

That’s where Monté was on June 23, 2016 — the night of the 2016 NBA Draft.

While NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced LSU’s Ben Simmons as the first overall pick of the draft, Monté was practicing to hear his own name called in just one more year.

More to come

Monté still has droves of goals he wants to achieve at Iowa State.

He is close to Iowa State’s all-time assists records and steals records — both held by former NBA player Jeff Hornacek. He wants to make the Final Four. He wants to sweep Kansas. He wants to break those records.

“If he wants to do all that, he’d have a perfect season,” Latonia said, laughing.

As a senior at Beecher High School in Flint, Michigan, in 2013, Morris put up his best season to date. He averaged 23.8 points, 8.8 assists and 5.1 steals on his way to earning Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award. He led his team to a 27-1 record and its second straight state championship, in which he scored 29 points.

If that senior magic can carry over to his senior season, Iowa State will be in for a treat.

Monté believes it will.

“I can’t really tell you [what I’m working on], you’ll just have to see,” Monté said. “When it’s that time, I want people to say, ‘He took his game to the next level.’ I’m really going to do that this season.”

Making the Assist

Eric Heft, Cyclone record holder and color analyst, reflects on Hilton Magic

By Emily Barske
Eric Heft was one of the first Cyclone Basketball players to play in Hilton Coliseum.
Photo by Ryan Young / Iowa State Daily

Making the Assist

Eric Heft, Cyclone record holder and color analyst, reflects on Hilton Magic

Eric Heft played for the Cyclones from 1970-1974. His record for assists in a single game still stands today.
Photo by ISU Athletics Communications

Eric Heft had never been west of Ohio. But basketball would change that.

After a visit to Iowa State, he decided that’s where he’d take his college basketball career. So, Labor Day weekend of 1970, Heft put all that he had in a couple of suitcases and got on a plane to Iowa, not knowing anyone and not knowing what would come.

College ball

Heft had been playing basketball since first grade. His older brothers played sports — he said it was just what you did in the time before the Internet. His competitive nature elevated him to success in basketball and baseball.

In his sophomore year at Lewisville High School in Ohio, Heft realized playing basketball in college might be in the picture. But college basketball back then was different.

People at Lewisville didn’t play college ball. Basketball wasn’t in the limelight at a national level. Recruiting was about personal relationships you’d built with coaches. There weren’t any basketball camps to compete against other players outside of your area.

“You never really knew how good you were,” Heft said.

His senior year, he started to realize how good he was. His high school coach started talking to college coaches and soon enough he had offers from small colleges in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

He thought at least I can play at the small colleges, but he was hoping for more.

“The turning point for me was one of the colleges, Marietta College, the coach there had been recruiting me,” he said, speaking of Coach Don Kelley. “And he had played at Ohio State. I told him I was hoping to go to some place, I guess, a little more big time than a small college.

“He’d been there for a number of years and then he called me one day and said ‘I’m leaving Marietta College and I’m going to be an assistant coach at Iowa State. He said, ‘I agree with you, I think you can play at that level and would you want to take a visit?’”

He took Kelley up on his offer and decided to take the visit.

He liked Ames. He liked campus. But ultimately, what drew him to Iowa State was something that wasn’t there yet: Hilton Coliseum.

“Hilton Coliseum was under construction,” he said. “So I saw the place I was going to play. The fact that I had someone who would advocate for me, in Coach Kelley, since I was coming out here, I guess I trusted him.”

After all, why would Coach Kelley steer him wrong? he thought.

Filling the role

Many Cyclone fans know Heft’s playing time at Iowa State by his record that still stands today for most assists in one game.

But when asked about memories of his time playing at Iowa State, the game against Nebraska where he made those 16 assists was the second memory to come to mind. The game that came to his mind first was Oklahoma his junior year.

Though he hadn’t played a lot throughout the game, down 12 points with about 10 minutes to go, Heft knew he needed to do something to turn the game around. And he did — he came in and scored 17 points to lead the Cyclones to victory.

“That was pretty big,” he said.

But bigger than 16 assists and a record that still stands today?

“I’ll tell you what the difference is — we won the Oklahoma game and the game I set the assist record in we actually lost. I count wins better than losses,” he chuckled.

Making the assist

Heft’s assist records are poised to stick around for a while, but one record isn’t in the stats book. For the past 37 years, Heft has been a color analyst for Cyclone radio broadcasts, first alongside Pete Taylor, and now John Walters.

It was happenstance that he became a color analyst.

Pete Taylor started doing solo broadcasts for Cyclone radio when Heft started playing for Iowa State. The two developed a bond that turned into a friendship, continuing after Heft graduated in 1974.

In 1979, while playing racquetball together, he told Taylor that he was going to be helping broadcast Ames High School basketball. Taylor asked why Heft didn’t do analysis with him too. That’s how his Iowa State broadcast stint got started and it hasn’t stopped since.

Seeing Hilton Magic

Having seen nine coaches make their way through the men’s basketball program, Heft has a pretty good idea of what Hilton Magic is.

Though he spent his last three years playing in Hilton, the magic wasn’t there. It wouldn’t come, he said, until Johnny Orr arrived. When Hilton Magic did come, it came in full swing.

Heft credited Orr for putting Iowa State basketball on the map and broadcasting during that time are some of the fondest memories he has of his long career with Cyclone radio.

One of his favorite memories was Iowa State knocking off Orr’s previous team, the Michigan Wolverines, in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1986.

This was the era when Heft said Hilton Magic arrived. It was driven by how the team excited the fans and soon enough the atmosphere became comparable, if not better, to playing at Kansas. The atmosphere created is still around today and Heft said it’s sometimes impossible to hear himself talk — even with his soundproof headphones.

Has he seen the floor shake? Not being at the court’s level, it’s hard for him to tell, but when Fred Hoiberg was a player he said he felt the ground shake at the end of the game when Oklahoma State missed a free throw. He’ll take his word for it.

“When there’s a lot of people there, and they’re invested in your team, it’s exciting whether you’re broadcasting the game, a fan watching or a player playing,” he said. “It just jacks up the level of not only importance but excitement around an event like that. Our fans have been tremendous for a long time.”

Arriving two hours before each game, he gets all his equipment set up and plans his segments with John Walters. But most of his preparation comes from watching recordings of the other team’s games to analyze the opponent’s strengths, weaknesses and key matchups against the Cyclones.

Heft still can’t believe that something so fun could count as work.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world — are you kidding me?” Heft said. “It’s a dream come true.”

The Team That Almost Wasn’t

Returning seniors revive team’s potential

By Ryan Young
Photo by Katy Klopfenstein/Iowa State Daily

The Team That Almost Wasn’t

Returning seniors revive team’s potential

Steve Prohm should not be sitting in the position he’s in.

Not at all.

Georges Niang, arguably the best player in Iowa State basketball history, graduated. So did fellow starters Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader.

Naz Mitrou-Long was supposed to graduate. Monté Morris was going to the NBA Draft, forgoing his senior season.

Prohm was going to be left with next to nothing. He was going to be forced to rebuild from the bottom up.

Iowa State should have been a mediocre team this season. All of Fred Hoiberg’s leftovers, who Prohm replaced before last season, are gone.

Yet that’s not how it worked out.

Mitrou-Long was forced to sit out last season because of a hip injury, which gave him a redshirt year and one final season of eligibility.

Morris decided against declaring for the NBA Draft, allowing him another year at Iowa State.

Pair those two with Matt Thomas and Deonte Burton, who both had standout years last season, and Iowa State is now in a position that it shouldn’t have been in.

“God is looking after the Cyclones,” Prohm said. “It’s a good thing.

“It gives us a chance to now put a full recruiting class together without losing a bunch of guys. I think that really, really helps this basketball team. I think we have a chance to overachieve and surprise some people. I’m excited about that.”

Replacing a legend

Replacing Fred Hoiberg is no easy task.

Yet that’s the hand Prohm was dealt. And while many have dubbed it as “one of the hardest jobs in college basketball,” Prohm feels pretty good about his first year at Iowa State.

“It was really hard. It was really, really tough,” Prohm said. “I wish I could have done better in some areas, but I grew as a coach.”

When he first arrived in Ames, there was a lot of thoughts going through Prohm’s head. How could he live up to Hoiberg, a man who the majority of Iowa State fans idolize?

There is no simple answer to that question.

Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tournament last season. The Cyclones fell in the first round 79-76.
Photo by Max Goldberg/Iowa State Daily

“When you replace an A, beloved, and B, legendary figure in Fred Hoiberg, I think you were going to meet some resistance,” ESPN analyst Holly Rowe said. “But I remember this comment that Georges Niang said about halfway through [last] season. ‘Prohm is like the stepdad. He comes in and isn’t quite sure how much discipline or how he can really get on you.’”

Prohm was the stepdad, and the first thing a stepdad does is get to know his kids.

So that was Prohm’s first task.

“The biggest thing I was thinking about [when I got here], in all seriousness, is I have to get relationships with these kids,” Prohm said. “I have to get them to trust me, believe in me.”

Instead of just shifting gears and taking over 100 percent, Prohm listened. He adapted to the style that was already in place at Iowa State. He worked to mix what he could bring with what Hoiberg had left.

“He could have easily come in here and cleaned house if he wanted to,” Mitrou-Long said. “He could have put his foot down and led with an iron fist and just been like, ‘This is my way. This is the way we’re doing it. If you don’t like it, you can go over here.’ But he was accepting to it.”

Things started out smoothly, too.

The Cyclones opened on a nine-game win streak, beating Colorado, Illinois, Virginia Tech and Iowa, among others. It was an impressive start, especially for a rookie coach.

But then the Cyclones fell to Northern Iowa. Two games later they lost to Oklahoma. Then they dropped two out of their next three conference games.

Ames went nuts.

People started calling for Prohm’s job. They wanted him gone.

The backlash caused Prohm to delete his social media accounts. He had to ignore it. And it’s a good thing he did.

Because things improved.

“It just took some time, because most of those kids had been there, Fred recruited them,” Rowe said. “They’ve been this family unit, and now you have a new dad in town, and his system is a little different, and they’re going to run stuff differently, and they have new personnel. I do think it took time, but I think it went really well.”

It took even more time than a midseason stumble for the team to pull together under Prohm’s watch.

Rowe said it didn’t happen until the conference tournament.

“I think the players started understanding he’s a good coach and [they] can trust him,” Rowe said. “I think they started responding to him in timeouts. I think by the time we got to the Big 12 Tournament we really saw that they had bought in. They were with him, and I think that was great.”

Junior guard Monte Morris celebrates a three-pointer with head coach Steve Prohm during Iowa State's game against TCU on Feb. 20, 2016.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

But even then, the team didn’t feel together.

Prohm and nearly every member of the team will tell you that they weren’t a complete unit until the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Denver.

After all, they did lose in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament to Oklahoma.

“Right when we got to the tournament,” Mitrou-Long said. “Every player will say that’s when we started playing the best. That’s truly when we started clicking the best.”

That’s a long time for adjusting, though. That’s 33 games into the season.

And while he and many other Cyclone fans are surprised that it took Prohm nearly an entire season to take control of the team, Mitrou-Long said he completely understands why it took so long.

“I’m surprised it took that long, but I shouldn’t have been surprised,” Mitrou-Long said. “It’s tough, because it wasn’t his group of kids. You come in and in a couple months you have to build relationships with everybody on the team, implement a new practice plan, implement a whole new playbook, mix in a whole new playbook that he wasn’t used to, put it all together, and head into the season with a top 5 team.”

Yet regardless of the journey it took to get there, fans can’t be unhappy with the results.

“When you come into a place and inherit a top 5 team in the country, you have a lot of expectations,” Mitrou-Long said. “So for him to come in here and soak up the information from the past seniors and then ultimately have a successful season and bring us to the Sweet 16, that’s an underrated task.”

Not all the way there yet

This season, Prohm’s task is different.

He has four solid pieces in Morris, Mitrou-Long, Thomas and Burton.

“They’re really the four mainstay guys,” Prohm said. “I think we have a good trust in one another, and I really believe in those guys. I think they’re really talented players.”

But height-wise, they’re small pieces. There isn’t a true center to take the place of McKay, who dominated in the paint last season.

That isn’t by design.

“I like a good back-to-the-basket guy,” Prohm said. “I think you have to have balance, inside and outside. That’s the one thing. We can really shoot, but we need to still get to the free throw line. We still need to get post touches. So you never turn down a good big that can score.”

The Cyclones may be forced into a “small-ball” situation, which isn’t always favorable in a conference like the Big 12.

But Mitrou-Long doesn’t think that will be an issue.

“It can be [an issue] if you’re soft. I truly believe this is one of, if not the best, conference in the country with how gritty it is,” Mitrou-Long said. “I think if you’re not tough, you’ll definitely get called out for it. But if you have the guards that we have, experienced guys who work, I think that we’ll be ready for any challenge that comes up to the plate.”

Heading into the season, Iowa State landed at No. 24 in the Associated Press Preseason Poll.

And while that’s lower than many Cyclone fans have been used to in recent years, Prohm can’t complain. With the group he unexpectedly had back, it’s better than he could have hoped for.

“That’s what everybody said, that ‘You’re going to go there for one year and lose everybody, the cupboard is going to be bare and then you’re going to have to recruit everybody,’’’ Prohm said. “It didn’t happen like that.”

He hasn’t missed a beat on building his own recruiting classes, though.

In his short time in Ames, Prohm has built a top 15 recruiting class for the 2017 season, picking up 247Sports 4 star recruits Lindell Wigginton and Terrence Lewis.

Had he not been able to return the guys that he did this season, Prohm said the program as a whole would have suffered a lot longer than just this year. It would have damaged his ability to recruit.

“Now, we’ve got a chance to put a good recruiting class together to go along with a couple of young guys we’ve got in the program and try to keep this program at a high level,” Prohm said.

Regardless of what is to come, Prohm said he is nearly settled into his new job. While he still has areas that he wants to improve on, Prohm is much more confident now than he was one year ago.

And that, he said, will be evident out on the court.

“I’m not all the way there yet,” Prohm said. “I’m still making strides, but I’m getting to be who I am and what I’m about, and I think you’ll see that in how the team plays.”

Through the fire

Meredith Burkhall struggles early, but emerges a leader for Iowa State

By Noah Rohlfing
Photo by Jack MacDonald/Iowa State Daily

Through the fire

Meredith Burkhall struggles early, but emerges a leader for Iowa State

Imagine this:

You’re the top-rated player in your home state coming out of high school. You commit to Iowa State to stay close to home and be a part of the family culture that coach Bill Fennelly has cultivated.

Now imagine the player you’re supposed to learn from leaving four games into the Big 12 season.

Imagine having to start conference games as a true freshman against some of college basketball’s biggest and baddest and best, without a true replacement.

Imagine having no adjustment period and having to perform at a higher level than you’ve ever seen before.

It’s only you and four teammates, going up against the imposing forces of 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown of Baylor and 6-foot-4 Vionise Pierre-Louis of Oklahoma as a 6-foot-3 freshman.

An 18-year-old, thrust into the spotlight.

Imagine being thrown into the fire, without a hose to put it out.

Imagine coming out alive and rising to new heights.

Welcome to the world of Iowa State forward Meredith Burkhall.

The high school star

Meredith’s journey to Ames began at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. Even before she played for the varsity squad, her high school coach, Chris Cundiff, knew better than anyone, except maybe her parents, Clint and Stephanie, that there was something different about her.

“She was one that you knew was going to be special,” Cundiff said of the times he spent scouting her at eighth-grade basketball games.

Even then, he had a feeling he was looking at a level of player he had never coached before.

Meredith Burkhall was one of the top high school recruits in Iowa's 2015 class.
Photo by Burkhall family

A starter from the moment she stepped on the court as a high schooler, she was a matchup nightmare. She was taller and better than anyone she faced, and the double and triple teams soon followed.

Since other teams focused their game plans around Meredith, Cundiff was forced to get creative and find new ways to develop his star and involve her in the team’s game plan. At times, Cundiff would have Meredith bring the ball up the court, effectively deploying his wunderkind forward as a point guard. It didn’t help that Roosevelt wasn’t known as a team full of generational ability, but she still averaged 19.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.

As Cundiff puts it: “She made me a better coach.”

It didn’t matter what opposing defenses did, Meredith was simply too strong. She was growing as a player. And her confidence was soaring.  

Naturally, her extraordinary exploits in the Central Iowa Metropolitan League (CIML) and her status as Iowa’s top prospect drew the enamored gaze of Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly. How she wound up in Ames is a story of persistence and a yearning for a basketball family, one that Fennelly was only happy to provide.

Finding a fit

The calls began to come from everywhere. After one year of starting as a freshman on Roosevelt’s girl’s basketball team, schools were taking notice. There was one team, however, that was a mainstay from the beginning: Iowa State.

Iowa State coaches went to a couple of games during her freshman year, and from there, it was game on.

Iowa State went hard for Meredith, sending assistant coach Jodi Steyer to games and Kingdom Hoops tournaments. It wasn’t a rare occurrence to find Fennelly there either.

With Fennelly interacting as much as possible, relationships were formed and Fennelly began to show Meredith his vision. He wanted to keep her in-state and show her what kind of atmosphere she could be a part of if she chose the Cyclones.

Meredith always kept Iowa State on her mind, even when Big 12 rival Oklahoma came sniffing around.

“She had offers from Stanford and Syracuse,” said Stephanie, her mother. “But Iowa State was always on her list. They never left her top three.”

Meredith is a family-oriented person, and when coaches went into meetings to try and sway her, it was absolutely a family affair. In the end, that’s a huge part of what drew her to Ames.

From her younger brother Myles, to her mother and father, there was nothing that she didn’t talk over with her family or with Cundiff, who she still considers a mentor. The two still speak regularly, and Cundiff describes her as “about as close to family as you can come.”

He was there to meet the coaches, and he was blown away by Fennelly, describing him as “very genuine” throughout the recruitment.

Don’t think that she got a big head during the process, either. Her parents wouldn’t let her. Her coach wouldn’t let her. And she wouldn’t let herself.

A little-known gem from the recruitment process: the blossoming friendship that Fennelly formed with Myles. Buddying up with Myles just confirmed to Meredith’s parents that Iowa State would be the perfect fit for her. For Fennelly, Myles was one of the keys to landing Meredith.

“He and my son [Billy] got really connected, It was almost like we recruited Myles to get to [Meredith],” Fennelly said.

“He might have committed to us before [Meredith]. I had to work him a little bit.”

She was in Ames a lot before she arrived, watching practices and interacting with the players. For those who know Meredith best, it was no surprise that she chose the Cyclones.

“She called me on July 2; she committed on my anniversary,” Fennelly said. “I told my wife, [Deb], you just got a great anniversary present.”

She took to Ames like a fish to water. From the instant she arrived on campus, Meredith felt as if she was at home. She had a new basketball family, she was going to learn and grow, and she was the future of the program.

But the fire had yet to begin.

Iowa State sophomore Meredith Burkhall has the ball poked out of her hands as she goes up for a layup against Kansas in Hilton Coliseum on Jan. 8, 2017.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

Without a safety net

January 11, 2016.

A bombshell dropped on the Cyclone program and thrust Meredith into the spotlight.

Starting center Bryanna Fernstrom announced her intentions to leave Iowa State and go to Minnesota, despite losing the second half of that season and the first half of the next season due to transfer rules.

The proverbial safety net for Meredith was gone.

Her freshman season was supposed to be one of learning and providing minutes off the bench. One decision tossed those plans out the window.

Fennelly knew that it was unfair to Meredith so soon in her career.

“We didn’t have a lot of help for her,” Fennelly said. “So we threw her in the deep end and said, ‘Hope you don’t drown.’”

To put her under such pressure so soon into her Cyclones career was difficult. But the team was down to seven scholarship players. There was a massive void in the post, and Meredith was the only one who could fill it. It didn’t matter whether she was ready or not. It was time for Meredith to be thrown into the fire.

She was in a completely foreign situation entering the homestretch of a season that started with promise but devolved into a brutally disappointing finish, with 13 losses in the Cyclones’ final 15 games.

She would either survive and thrive, learning from the experience and progress as a player, or have her development stunted, perhaps never recovering.

For those who know Meredith best, there was no chance she was going to falter.  

Meredith looked at the difficult situation as an opportunity to learn and grow. It was a chance to prove herself on the biggest stage, and she wasn’t about to back down.

This meant games against 6-foot-7 Imani Boyette of Texas, who averaged 2.9 blocks a game in the 2015-16 season, and 6-foot-5 Lanay Montgomery of West Virginia, who recorded six blocks in a single game against Oklahoma State that season.

These were the big guns, the cream of the crop.

Meredith Burkhall struggled against bigger and stronger forwards in her freshman season at Iowa State.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

These games were worlds away from games against Waukee and Des Moines North in the CIML.

“You hear about it, you see it on film,” Meredith said. “But it’s nothing like going in there and actually playing, and then you’re up against someone who’s 6-foot-7. That was an ‘A-ha’ moment for me.”

Mentally, the Burkhalls had no worries. Meredith was ready to go and prepared for the fight. That’s how they had raised her. However, the physicality of the Big 12 took some time to adjust to.

“There were times where she was pushed around like a toothpick,” Stephanie said.

“She was manhandled,” Clint added.

It was difficult. It was, at times, frustrating.

In games against big, physical teams, Meredith struggled. She was inefficient against Oklahoma, shooting 3 for 12 from the field and only scoring seven points against an NCAA Tournament team.

She only managed four points on 2-for-7 shooting against Texas, a team that ran rampant in the 2015-16 season, and she struggled with foul trouble in games against West Virginia and Oklahoma.

Against Oklahoma State, she allowed the Cowgirls’ star center, Kaylee Jansen, to go 12 for 16 from the field for 27 points in an overtime loss.

In those moments, it seemed like she wasn’t quite there yet, and her inexperience showed.

Even with the little things, as her parents explained, there was room to improve.

“She never wore a mouthpiece at the beginning of the season,” Stephanie said.

“But a couple weeks after [she began to start games], she already told us she had started wearing one. She was always learning.”

But the team surrounded her with support, and Meredith said the team “never missed” Fernstrom on the court. It was full speed ahead.

By the end of her first Big 12 season, there was a noticeable difference in Meredith.

In her second of three games against Tech that year, she scored a season-high 19 points and had two blocks and two steals. That marked her second-straight game leading the Cyclones in scoring. Her parents saw growth.

“By the end of the year, she was getting stronger than when she came in,” Stephanie said.

“She was adapting, and she became someone [her opponents] had to deal with in the post,” Clint added.

It might not have been the best situation for her, but Meredith stood firm and took the punches.

“She never complained one time, and she took our hard coaching,” Fennelly said. “We were really demanding of her and we didn’t feel sorry for her, so she never felt sorry for herself.”

“She loves those challenges,” Cundiff said.

Keeping in contact with Cundiff throughout her freshman year and receiving constant encouragement from her support base, Meredith never lacked confidence that she would come out strong.

A brighter dawn awaited after the smoke cleared.

The next step

There’s no hiding it: Meredith has become a leader for the Cyclones.

With a new post presence and a freshman in Kristin Scott that Fennelly called a “Meredith clone,” it’s clear that Meredith’s impact on Iowa State is growing. Now a junior, the time is right for her to use the natural leadership skills her parents always saw in her.

“She’s a no-nonsense type of person,” Clint said of her on-court attitude. “She’s a gym rat and a very loyal teammate.”

Having gone through the ringer and not having a post player to learn from her first two seasons, her parents see her taking on a larger role and taking the freshmen under her wing.

Meredith feels the same way.

“This is my third year here. I’ve been through a lot of adversity,” Meredith said. “It’s a chance for me to use my leadership role to teach Kristin how to do this.”

Scott is already learning from Meredith, who she calls the “go-to” for lots of players.

“If you need anything, she’s always there to help you,” Scott said. “She’s a really good teacher.”

Meredith’s positive attitude reverberates throughout the team. The self-described “encourager” of the team, there’s nary a practice where you will not hear Meredith’s voice.

“If you go [to practice], she’s always talking, she’s always upbeat,” Fennelly said. “She’s a very vocal kid.”

There’s always two voices heard at Cyclone practices: Fennelly’s and Meredith’s. She’s always trying to get the best out of her teammates.

Meredith Burkhall felt a lot more comfortable in her sophomore season, but she still has work to do to become a dominant post player.
Photo by Jack MacDonald/Iowa State Daily

After her turmoil-filled freshman year, it was like a switch had been flipped. She came through the fire and emerged on the other side a stronger player.

She established herself in her sophomore year as one of the starting forwards for the Cyclones, averaging eight points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

During the offseason, she worked hand in hand with the Cyclones’ strength team to improve her ability to get physical in the low post. She’s been working on post defense and moving quicker on the defensive side of the ball.

Post work is just the tip of the iceberg for Meredith. She plans on making this season one to remember.

She wants to make the leap.

Adding another dimension to her game, Meredith has done lots of work this summer hoping to expand her shooting range. For her, it’s about adding more versatility to her game and finding new ways to make an impact on the offensive end. She only took 17 three-pointers last season, hitting five for a 29.4 percent clip.

She’s improved so much over the summer that, when asked who would start this season at the team’s media day, Fennelly only mentioned two names as surefire starters: Bridget Carleton and Meredith.

It’s not just on the court that Meredith is making strides, either. Meredith has been looking toward her future, and the Child, Adult and Family Services major may not have all of her future plans figured out, but she knows one thing: She wants to help people in need.

“I want to help kids. Even if it takes me out of the country,” Meredith said, mentioning her desire to help charities and to help those who have suffered from natural disasters, such as the victims of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

Perhaps Fennelly described it best when asked what his experience has been with Meredith.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever had a kid that cherishes wearing the Iowa State uniform like [Meredith],” Fennelly said with a smile on his face.

“There could be a sitcom, Everybody Loves [Meredith]. Because everybody does love [Meredith].”

Wise Beyond Her Years

Iowa State freshman symbolizes 'Iowa State Way'

By Garrett Kroeger
Photo by Sarah Henry/Iowa State Daily

Wise Beyond Her Years

Iowa State freshman symbolizes 'Iowa State Way'

On paper, former Greenfield-Central coach Doug Laker could have been just another run-of-the-mill coach that Iowa State freshman Madison Wise had throughout her basketball career.

But Wise and Laker’s relationship is much more than that.

They have a special bond.

“Just a special bond, that we always and will have,” Laker said.

Laker is like another father to Wise. If they can’t talk over the phone, they text each other. Not only that, but Laker plans on coming to see Wise play and practice at Iowa State several times this year.

“I’m just so proud of her,” Laker said.

Wise always knew Laker would have her back no matter what. If she was in search for advice, Wise would go to him to sort things out. They talk on the phone every week, even while Wise is in Ames.

And last summer, Wise had Laker’s back when it mattered the most.

Madison Wise is one of the best high school girls basketball players to come out of Indiana.
Photo by Wise family

Embodiment of “The Iowa State Way”

Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly can name plenty of reasons why he recruited Wise.

She is athletic. At 6 feet, Wise can play any position from point guard to power forward.

She can score and rebound. In Wise’s high school career, she scored 2,109 points and grabbed 1,091 rebounds, making her just the fifth girls basketball player in the state of Indiana to surpass 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career.

But the biggest reason why Fennelly recruited Wise was that she embodies what he calls “The Iowa State Way” of doing things. Players who live “The Iowa State Way” respect themselves, their coaches, their teammates, their university and their community, and they do things for the Iowa State community, he said.

And Wise lives that way.

“Absolutely. In every way, shape and form,” Fennelly said.

End of an era

Wise is a serious, driven individual. She is almost a perfectionist in Fennelly’s eyes. In practice, Wise strives to get everything right the first time. However, underneath that serious, hard-working attitude, Fennelly sees a person who cares about everyone she meets.

Laker first saw Wise play basketball when she was in second grade. He knew she was good, but he didn’t know how good because she was only a second grader. But in her seventh- and eighth-grade years, Laker knew for sure that Wise would have a future in basketball.

“She would dominate,” Laker said. “When she could go behind her back in eighth grade in traffic, lay it up and in and do a euro move, you knew she was special then.”

Not only did Wise have the talent to be special, but her work ethic also was unquestionable. She was in the gym every day, grinding. Wise worked on her jump shot, ball-handling and conditioning.

What ultimately caught his eye was character. It’s why he knew Wise would someday blossom into a once-in-a-lifetime player.

She was the ultimate teammate. Wise wore her heart on her sleeve. She was compassionate with her teammates and cared deeply about Greenfield-Central High School.

“You don’t get those type of players that are the best player on the team and an above-and-beyond great teammate,” Laker said. “They don’t come very often in this day and age.”

During her time under Laker, Wise became one of the best basketball players of all time from Indiana. In Laker’s mind, Wise is easily one of the top 20 players to come out of Indiana, and he could make an argument that she is one of the top 10 players, because the statistics back it up.

Wise also became Greenfield-Central’s first Indiana high school all-star since 1989 and was a finalist for the 2016-17 Miss Indiana Basketball Award.

She credits a lot of her success to Laker. Not out of fear of him potentially chewing her out for making a mistake, as he’s been known to do, but out of respect and gratitude for pushing her to accomplish her goals.

After 129 wins in nine seasons as Greenfield-Central’s varsity girls basketball coach and seven winning campaigns, including a school-record 23 wins, Laker said he had a 90 percent approval rating among his players. But it was that 10 percent non-approval rating that did him in.

In early April 2017, after Wise’s senior season, Laker was forced to resign from Greenfield-Central. His resignation was centered around three speculative charges, according to the Greenfield Reporter, the local newspaper.

The first was that he did not wear enough Greenfield-Central apparel. The second was the administration heard he was telling players they can’t play like JV players their whole life and need to start making varsity plays. The final reason was he used degrading language.

By his own admission, Laker knows he can be abrasive, but he is adamant that using vulgar or demeaning language is not in his character. A Type-A personality to the core, Laker demands the best from his players, and they have expected that of themselves — and they respect their coach for it.

“I would say, since I played for him for four years, I knew him for a long time,” Wise said. “I grew up watching him coach.

“[He’s] one of the greatest high school coaches I have been around, probably the best,” she said. “He is a hard-nosed coach. Some people just can’t handle it. Soft people. He was a great coach, great person.”

With that in mind, Wise knew she had to do something.

A thorough decision

During last year’s early signing period, the last day to sign was Nov. 16, 2016. That was the day Wise decided to sign with Iowa State.

“It drove me crazy,” Fennelly said. “I still remember, I was driving to the student-athlete, academic thing on the last day she could sign in the fall. She called me at five o’clock. So, we were scrambling to make sure we got it done.”

Every player goes about their commitment a different way. Some commit early and some make a big show about it. The way Wise decided to commit to the cardinal and gold speaks about her character and personality.

“It’s like [Wise’s] personality -- very analytical, methodical, going to make sure [she] pick[s] the right choice and [she] do[es] it right,” Fennelly said.

Wise also generated interest from Arkansas, DePaul, Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan State. She could have decided to go to one of those programs instead of Ames.

In today’s recruiting, it is not uncommon for recruits to decommit, but that does not sit well with Wise. She lives by the motto that if someone treats her right, she will treat them right. That is why she did not want to be one of the prospects who decommits after pledging herself to a school. So decommitting was never a thought that crossed Wise’s mind.

Madison Wise took her time to commit to Iowa State and for good reason. She was a five-star recruit out of high school and was highly touted.
Photo by Brian Mozey/Iowa State Daily

“I just prefer to be thorough in my decision,” Wise said. “That is why I did wait. I’m really happy that I did because you never know where you’ll end up.”

Wise ultimately decided on Iowa State because of its playing style and family atmosphere. But Fennelly was a big factor as well.

Wise said she thinks Fennelly and Laker are almost the exact same coach. They care about their athletes as people first, instead of a player on the court. Plus, Fennelly is known as a hard-nosed coach, and Wise thrives on playing for coaches like Laker.

In her short time in Ames, Wise has made a strong impression on the coaching staff and her teammates. In fact, Fennelly believes that she will remind Iowa State fans of star guard Bridget Carleton once she masters the college game.

“[Wise] is not as good as [Carleton] yet, but she can score in a variety of ways,” Fennelly said. “She has a physicality to her that she can take the ball to the basket. She can play a lot of positions. We have tried her at a lot of spots. She is going to play a lot here.”

Carleton is known for always coming to the gym early and staying late to work on her game.

Wise has the exact same drive.

“She is a kid that likes to be in the gym,” Fennelly said. “I think she has that Indiana basketball DNA, where they grow up and you got to love basketball in Indiana and she has that. Her high school career, she was very well coached in high school.”

Although Fennelly thinks Wise came to Ames more ready for the collegiate game, it will take some time before she reaches Carleton-type level of success.

“[Wise] came here a little more ready for the college game than some kids,” Fennelly said. “So her adjustment will be easier than most, but it will take some time.”

Standing tough

Shortly after Laker’s resignation was accepted without contest by the school board, Wise and her teammates handed out shirts featuring the Greenfield-Central’s logo. It also read: “All in.”

During the school board meeting, there were moments of contention between the public and the board on whether Wise should be allowed to talk since it was her dad who formally requested to make a statement. But the board decided to allow Wise to speak for five minutes.

Madison Wise walks off with Doug Laker, her high school coach.
Photo by Wise family

Wise read a message about Laker’s accomplishments and the support for him.

She was heartbroken to see her mentor, role model and her “five-star” coach, as she called Laker, get treated this way.

“He pushed me to be my best,” Wise said. “He treated everyone fairly. He made people better on and off the court. It just wasn’t right what they were doing to him.”

Wise was on the brink of tears as she read her message. Once she started reading a former player’s message, who went unnamed, tears began to flow.

In the anonymous player’s letter, it talked about how she came from a low-income, single-parent family, how her life was not easy and that playing on the basketball team kept her out of trouble and helped her become the woman she is today.

Wise talked about how the player and her mother debated whether to transfer to another school, but in the end, they decided she would stay at Greenfield-Central because of Laker, who she described as her first-ever male role model.

“One of the greatest high school coaches I have been around, probably the best,” Wise said.

The aftermath

Despite standing up for what she believed in, Wise didn’t get Laker his job back. He’s taking the year off from coaching to figure out his future.

In the days after she defended Laker, Wise appeared on Dan Dakich’s nationally syndicated radio show in Indianapolis. During that interview, Dakich raved about how mature she was for not backing down on something she believed in.

“I mean, you are talking about a 17-year-old kid going on a nationally syndicated radio show and supports people she cares about,” Fennelly said. “She did it in the school, she did it in the school board; most adults don’t want to do that, let alone a young person.”

Madison Wise dribbles the ball during women's basketball media day in October.
Photo by Sarah Henry/Iowa State Daily

The way Wise supported Laker speaks of her character, upbringing and just what type of person she is, Laker said.

“That tells you everything about her,” Laker said. “She is an incredible young lady. It was one of those things that you are never going to get approval from everyone. It wasn’t fair, but life isn’t fair. The way she handled herself up there, in front of the school board and with the school board trying to cut her off, she just kept going. She is just an incredible, incredible young lady.”

In her four years at Greenfield-Central, Wise left her mark as a role model and as the ultimate teammate. Now, she hopes to do the same at Iowa State.

“She is just going to be a great player for the Cyclones, but they got an even better person,” Laker said.

Learning to Lead

Emily Durr goes from star on the court to star off it

By Jack MacDonald
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

Learning to Lead

Emily Durr goes from star on the court to star off it

Emily Durr had walked into the Sukup Basketball Complex hundreds of times before, but this time it was different. This time it was more than practice. This time it was a meeting about her future at Iowa State.

She was a heralded recruit out of high school who dominated in every facet of the game — that is, of course, in high school. College was a new reality, a reality that became a gut check.

For two years, Durr played sparingly at Iowa State, and change was needed. More shots needed to go in, more hustle was needed defensively and more leadership needed to come out of her.

That meeting in the spring of 2016 changed her path. The path that Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly gave her had three directions: be a leader and forever engrave ‘Emily Durr’ into Iowa State history, be a role player and watch freshman play in front of you, or leave.

For Durr, the choice was easy. All she had to do was remember what her father once told her. “I remember my Dad saying, ‘You can't quit. We don't raise quitters,’” Durr said.

Easy — Durr was staying at Iowa State.

But that’s not the beginning of her story.

Emily Durr was a star at Notre Dame High School as early as eighth grade.
Photo by Durr family

Household game

The year: 1998.

The court: Notre Dame High School in Utica, New York.

That’s when and where 3-year-old Emily Durr first broadcasted her basketball talents to the world -- a small audience, but an audience nonetheless.

Her father, Mike, was the head varsity coach of the boy’s program at the private school in upstate New York. It was there that the youngest Durr would put on a show during halftime of the varsity games, only to be driven off the court as the teams filtered out of the locker rooms to resume the game.  

“I used to have this little basketball, and during timeouts or halftime, I'd go out there and have my little ball and I'd make everything, everybody said,” Durr said. “The cheerleaders would get mad because everybody would be watching me on this end, and the cheerleaders are trying to do their cheer on the other end.”

From a young age, she knew basketball was her true love. She had four older siblings to battle against on mini hoops at their home in Utica. But those sibling battles progressed, and so did Durr’s talents, which led her parents to sign her up for organized basketball.

Not long after playing in second and third grade, she was playing up with fifth- and sixth-graders. But that didn’t surprise anyone. She did have three older brothers to toughen her up and Kate, her sister.

“Her brothers used to knock her around in the driveway and everything, and that didn't hurt her at all,” Mike said.

It wasn’t just basketball that the youngest of five kids excelled at, but rather another calling: softball and baseball.

“She was the best Little League pitcher in our area,” Mike said.

Nonetheless, Mary Ellen, Emily’s mom, and Mike had a budding basketball talent in front of them. And there was evidence to back it up.

During a third- and fourth-grade game, Emily caught the ball at the top of the key near her own basket as the seconds ticked closer and closer to halftime.

“She threw it in from half court,” Mike said with little surprise. “I think back then you kind of knew she was going to be something special.”

From there, Emily continued to develop into a basketball star, but it was in eighth grade that she finally had a chance to prove herself.

Mature beyond her years

The skills of 13-year-old Emily had landed her on the varsity team at Notre Dame High School. She was a year away from high school, but she was already there in a basketball sense.

She was never far from her father at Notre Dame either, but if she was, Mike Plonisch, the girl’s coach, was right there, almost as an extension of her father.

Before being an assistant coach for her father for two seasons, Plonisch played for him at Notre Dame from 1996-1998, and it was Plonisch who quickly remembered little Emily shooting the ball as the varsity team ran onto the court.

Maturity was never a question when she jumped up to a team filled with girls almost four years older than her. To Emily, it was just another basketball game.

“It's different when you have older kids on the team and you're an eighth grader, but the kids really understood what she brought to the table and her talent,” Plonisch said.

Emily Durr struggled to win a state championship in her high school career, but she never gave up.
Photo by Durr family

Emily didn’t just fit in with the team, she was the star of the team. She was so feared in New York, opposing coaches took notice of her and used the guard as motivation ahead of matchups.

That season, fifth-seeded Notre Dame played fourth-seeded Waterville in the second round of the sectional tournament. It was a win-or-go-home contest for Emily and the Jugglers. A tale from the Waterville locker room was leaked to Plonisch after that game that a Waterville coach wrote on a board: “Don’t let an eighth grader beat you.”

What did that eighth grader do? She backed her team to an upset of Waterville with 10 points. Then the Jugglers upset Bishop Grimes, the No. 1 seed. In the Section III championship game, Emily scored a game-high 18 points as Notre Dame knocked off second-seeded Thousand Islands.

From then on, Notre Dame was a basketball powerhouse, at least as long as Emily stayed healthy.

During her freshman year, Emily and Notre Dame dominated the opposition once again, even though it had been moved to a higher class bracket. Emily led the Jugglers to the sectional finals before losing to the No. 2 seed by nine points. In four games during that sectional, she averaged 26.75 points, highlighted by a 35-point performance against Canastota in the first round.

After back-to-back sectional championship appearances, the Jugglers looked on track to have a real shot to capture a state championship title. But then Notre Dame ran into South Jefferson in the sectional quarterfinal game.

Emily had just racked up a whopping 31 points in an 81-51 win against Bishop Grimes in the second round. That performance notched a date with South Jefferson, the second seed, which beat the Jugglers and kept them from a state championship that season.

Three tries, zero state championships. The years were ticking by and all of a sudden Emily only had two more attempts at that coveted state title.

Again, just like her sophomore season, her junior season had so much promise for a team that she had now led for three seasons. Heading into the postseason, the Jugglers were ranked seventh in the sectional, which wasn’t ideal.

But for Emily that didn’t matter. Nothing was going to stop her from inching closer to a state championship. Not even a high fever in their second-round game against No. 2 Westhill at Westhill’s gym or a fractured elbow in the middle of the season.

“They had to take her out just toward the end; I think they were up by three and then Westhill came up,” Mary Ellen said. “[Emily said], 'Coach, I'm going back in,’ put her in, hit a 3, the game winner.

“And then she just collapsed out there on the court. But that's her. I mean, she will play. She loves to win.”

Fennelly was in the stands to watch a 20-point win in the Section III championship game, but that year they bowed out in the first round of the state tournament.

Four tries, zero state championships.

Finding a new home amid one final shot

For four seasons, Emily had chased a state championship title, and for four years the Jugglers couldn’t get over the hump. But before she and the rest of her Notre Dame teammates embarked on one final trek, Emily had embarked on her own trek, one that would lead straight to Ames.

The connection to Iowa State started well before her senior season. It started after her sophomore season when Billy and Bill Fennelly were in Nashville on a recruiting trip.

Emily’s AAU team, the Albany City Rocks, were in the Music City playing against a Texas team that featured a player the Cyclones were targeting. But Emily being Emily, she took control of the game and finished with 21 points, her mom said.

Luckily for the Durrs, Billy was in attendance and immediately took notice of this lengthy player from New York. Billy phoned his dad and demanded that he come over to the court to see Durr play.

“My initial thought was, ‘Billy, she lives in New York, what are you talking about?’” Bill said.  “He was like, 'No, Dad, we gotta try, we gotta try. She fits what we're about, she's our kind of kid.’”

And much to his father’s dismay, Billy kept pushing and pushing until Bill finally made his way to the court to see Emily play for the first time. It helped that Billy was a young coach who had yet to get burned in the recruiting scene.

“That's the thing with Billy,” Bill said. “When you're young and you haven't been burned as many times as I have recruiting, you don't care.”

From there, a connection was formed with the Durr family. It helped that the women’s basketball family is a tight-knit group, considering her dad has 42 first cousins on his side of the family. But the real tickler of the whole recruiting process was when members of the Iowa State program sent a puzzle to the Durr household.

Each envelope included three puzzle pieces and each piece added to a puzzle. When finished, it was Emily on the court in an Iowa State jersey.

“She really got a kick out of that,” Emily’s dad said.

The game in Nashville, the puzzle and Bill watching Emily dominate a sectional game ultimately led to a scholarship offer and an unofficial visit.

“I first heard that Iowa State was recruiting me, I still remember this. My AAU coach told me, and I go, 'Ohio State?’” Emily said. “[Being from] New York, we're kind of focused on the Northeast, and I knew of Iowa State, but it was just a little different because they are so far from New York.”

Emily Durr is one of the most chronicled high school players in New York girls basketball history.
Photo by Durr family

Mike, Mary Ellen and Emily made the long trip from Utica to Ames for an unofficial visit during her junior year on spring break in mid-April. For Mike and Mary Ellen, it was just a visit to explore options.

It was different for Emily. She knew it was home. She knew she wanted to spend four years in the town nearly 1,200 miles from Utica. So Emily took it into her own hands. She committed to Iowa State University without even giving a hint to her parents.

“She did it without telling us, but that's typical Emily,” Mary Ellen said.

It was a simple car ride to Hilton Coliseum. Mike and Mary Ellen in one car, Emily and the coaches in another. Once at Hilton Coliseum, Emily exited the car and walked over to her parents and said five words.

“She said, ‘I told coach I’m coming,’” Mary Ellen said.

A surprise to everyone. Her dad nearly passed out at the news. His daughter just committed to a school halfway across the country without a heads up.

“I just asked her, ‘Is this really what you want to do?’ And she said yes,” Mary Ellen said.

And just like that Bill had a commitment and Emily could play her senior season without the stress of recruiting.

A stress-free season was crucial. It was her last shot at a state championship and maybe her best shot yet. She was also coming off an injury to her elbow during her junior season.

“I think her main focus was she just wanted to win a state championship that year and she put her heart and soul into doing that,” Emily’s dad said.

That season, Emily broke the Section III all-time points record of 2,367 of Breanna Stewart, a former standout player at Connecticut and current Team USA player. Not only did she break it, she did so by almost 100 points, ultimately finishing with 2,445.

On top of that, she was a leader, one that didn’t need instruction from Plonisch on what to do. Her previous four seasons had prepared her for the state championship that year. It was just another business trip for the Notre Dame girls, and Emily wasn’t going to be denied for a fifth time.

In the first three games of the sectional tournament, Emily scored 24, 24 and 20 points, respectively, all game highs. Her last chance for a trip to the state tournament came down to a game against Westhill, a team that the Jugglers had not lost to in the playoffs since Emily joined the team.

It wasn’t about to be her first either. That game, which the Jugglers won 46-39, brought that state championship even closer.

“We checked into the hotel room, and you saw all these teams there playing for all classes for the state championship, and they're all giddy,” Plonisch said. “She had our team so focused it was like a business trip for them, and we didn't have to really do anything to keep them under control, because they were under control because of her and some other seniors on the team.”

Under control by Emily, the Jugglers marched to a state championship and throttled Bishop Kearney 71-36. In typical Emily Durr fashion, she dropped 29 points against the defending state champions.

She was also named the Class B Player of the Year and then led Notre Dame to New York State Girls Basketball Federation Tournament of Champions title and a 24-3 record. In that game, Durr finished with 27 points and another trophy to add to her shelf.

“[Winning a state championship] was her goal, and they succeeded,” Mike said.

Mission accomplished. Next stop: Iowa State.

Iowa State senior Emily Durr celebrates a teammate hitting a 3-point shot early this season.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

This isn’t high school

Emily arrived in Ames as someone who had been a high school star for five seasons. But this was college basketball, not high school basketball in upstate New York.

“I was slower, and the pace in college, I was like, 'Holy cow, this is fast. I need to get a lot faster on defense,'” Emily said. “I think that was the moment when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a lot different.’”

And right from the get-go, things were different. That first year in Ames, she played in every game, but it wasn’t the typical role she had at Notre Dame. It was a bench role where she averaged only 15 minutes per game and just less than five points. She scored in double figures just four times after recording nearly 30 points in her last high school game.

“They're all all-stars and you have to put that away,” Mike said. “It's a whole new environment, it's a college basketball team, this is Division I, it's big time and you know you got to find yourself and see where your weaknesses are and see where you fit in and play to your strengths.”

Times had changed, and a change in her skill set was needed. It also didn’t help that the Cyclones were guard-heavy, deep in talent with the likes of Nikki Moody, Seanna Johnson and Kidd Blaskowsky.

Emily had gone home that summer and admitted that she wasn’t sure if she could play. She even admitted that she had some work to do, but she went back to work and returned for her sophomore season.

“I think she started to doubt herself a little, but like my husband said, 'It's your freshman year, there's a lot to get used to; just go back, give it 110 percent and see how it goes,’” Mary Ellen said. “And she did, and I'll tell you, she loves it there.”

But that sophomore season wasn’t much better. She appeared in all 30 games again, even getting the starting nod twice, but it was still a smaller role from her high school days.

A lot of people in her situation would consider transferring and several from that recruiting class did transfer. It’s just Emily and Claire Ricketts left from that class, but Emily knew she couldn’t leave. She had to suck it up, wait her turn and get better.

Not once did her mind drift away from Ames; not once did she consider leaving.

“I knew I had to tough it out; there were tough times, and I'm not going to say there wasn't,” Emily said. “I never had any doubt that I wasn't going to play for Coach Fenn for four years.”

She was 1,000 miles away from home and going through a rough transition. But Mary Ellen knew it was homesickness and being so far from her close-knit family. But there was another family that had always had her back, and that is Iowa State.

During her sophomore season, the team finished 13-17. Fennelly knew a change had to happen for the Cyclones, and that change had to involve Emily.

The meeting and last go-around

It was finally time for that meeting with Fennelly at the Sukup complex. And it was simple — the purpose was to ignite Emily and let her know the options she had.

But for Emily, she knew what was needed, and the meeting was just reinforcement to the work she needed to put in.

“[Coach Fennelly] just told me not what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to hear, and it really gave me a springboard to really work on my game and work on the player and teammate I wanted to be and remembered by,” Emily said.

The meeting changed her path that had been in the making since 1996, but it was almost as if the meeting wasn’t even needed. Fennelly and Emily think in similar ways.

Emily’s dad has a similar coaching style to Fennelly — a straightforward approach with no holding back. So she knew what was about to be hurled at her, and it was up to her to decide on how she would spend the next two years in Ames. Was it going to be a minimal role, was it going to be a leadership role or was it not even going to be in Ames?

The answer: a leadership role. And it showed from day one of her junior season. Emily went home that summer and worked as hard as she ever had to come back the next season and make an immediate impact for a team that had just missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.

She went home and got faster, she got smarter and figured out her defensive style.

And that junior season featured a new Emily Durr. She earned a starting role toward the end of the season and was fourth on the team in points, averaging 8.6 per game. Her minutes were up, her points were up and her morale was up. That is, until a freak injury.

Four games before the Big 12 tournament, West Virginia came to Ames. During that game, Emily drove the baseline and got tripped up, resulting in a fall. She landed on her elbow — the same elbow she had needed surgery on when she was 3 years old and the same elbow she had fractured during her junior season in high school when she attempted to split two defenders.

 

Tommy John surgery — a procedure primarily done on baseball pitchers — was needed, and after so much progress, Emily faced an offseason of rehabbing. But not once did she look at it as something that was lost, but rather a chance to come back stronger than ever.

Three years old, her third year of high school and now her third year of college. Something about the number three doesn’t make sense, but what does make sense is that she came back from two of those three times to do something special.

At age 4 she was back draining shots at halftime of her father’s game.

Her senior season of high school, she won a state championship.

Her senior season at Iowa State? That script has yet to be finished, but a certain someone who knows her doesn’t doubt her at all.

“She'll be ready,” her mom guaranteed. “Don't you worry about that.”

A Wonderful Masterpiece

Bill Fennelly's long path to building a program

By Luke Manderfeld
Photo by Jack MacDonald

A Wonderful Masterpiece

Bill Fennelly's long path to building a program

Robert Carlson has been a Cyclone fan for most of his adult life and a season ticket holder for more than 20 years. He has been through the ups and downs that longtime Iowa State fans know all too well.

One of the lows he remembers was Iowa State women’s basketball’s 1989-1990 season opener against Illinois State.

Carlson was one of the few fans in the seats that night at Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones had gone 15-13 in the previous season, which would be the last winning season for seven years.

Then-head coach Pam Wettig was in her sixth season at the helm of the program. Fan support was underwhelming. The average attendance for that season was 635, a slight uptick from 579 the season before. The attendance would dip under 500 two years later.

So it was no surprise that on this day, despite the thrill of a new season hanging in the air, not too many Cyclone fans were at Hilton Coliseum. The biggest group of fans was packed behind the Illinois State bench, and it felt large in comparison to the smattering of Iowa State fans.

To an outsider, Illinois State and Iowa State’s brands are almost indecipherable. Both have birds for mascots. Illinois State’s school colors are almost the same as Iowa State’s cardinal and gold. Even the abbreviations are the same: I-S-U.

The Iowa State cheerleaders, like always, led the crowd in a series of chants, but the cheers quietly reverberated around the almost empty arena and were picked up by Illinois State Redbird fans.

“Almost all of our cheers could have worked for Iowa State or Illinois State,” Carlson said. “So our cheerleaders were basically leading cheers for Illinois State, because they were the ones cheering quite a bit because they were winning [for most of the game].”

The Cyclones did win the game that night, but Carlson and the rest of those loyal fans would have to wait almost a decade before the program changed in a way that wouldn’t allow something like that to happen.

That change was spurred by now-legendary coach Bill Fennelly, who at the time was just starting his head coaching career at Toledo. An Iowa native, Fennelly would eventually come home and change the face of the Cyclone program forever.

A bigger challenge

Fennelly was ready to do it again.

He and his wife, Deb, who he credits with most of his accomplishments, had already done it at Toledo. They had built a program from the ground up and pushed the Rockets into national relevancy. They made three NCAA Tournaments in Fennelly’s seven-year stint and won the Mid-American Conference regular season title three times as well.

But a phone call in 1995 beckoned him home.

Then-Iowa State athletic director Gene Smith was in search of a women’s basketball coach after then-coach Theresa Becker resigned. The team had won just 18 times in the previous three seasons.

Ames was a comfortable place for the Fennellys. Bill, who grew up in Davenport, Iowa, and Deb met at William Penn in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Deb was raised in Iowa and played 6-on-6 women’s basketball when she was in high school. Their kids, Billy and Steven, were in the fifth and first grade, respectively. While Toledo was a nice city, they didn’t want to raise young children there.

So when Smith called, the Fennellys were interested, but they wondered whether they could do it again — build a program from the ground up.

“When you leave a good fan base to go to a place that doesn’t have fans, you are still always thinking, ‘Can we do this? Can we do it again?’ Bill wanted that challenge,” Deb said. “It’s exhilarating to try and build another program up. It’s exciting to try, but yet you always come in with some trepidation with how it’s going to go.”

Smith and then-Iowa State President Martin Jischke were integral in getting Iowa State into the newly formed Big 12 just a year later. They had a vision for the athletics program that would bring Iowa State to national heights.

That vision fed right into Bill Fennelly’s important desire: winning.

“Dr. Jischke kept saying, ‘I want to win. I want to win,’” Bill Fennelly said. “He must have said it, God I don’t know how many times he said it. It was a chance to come home.

“We took the job when Gene gave it to us. We took a pay cut to come here. I told Deb, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to Davenport and I’ll tend bar or something. My brother owned a bar in Davenport, and I’d figure out something.”

It didn’t take long to realize that it wouldn’t be an easy task.

Bill Fennelly doesn’t keep a lot of memorabilia, but he does keep the box score of his first game coaching at Hilton Coliseum. It’s in a glass frame in front of his desk in his office that’s tucked away in the back of the Sukup Basketball Complex.

The attendance was 310 people. Bill Fennelly mostly remembers the yellow tape that surrounded empty sections to make clean-up after the game easier. It looked like a crime scene, he recalled. It had to go.

“I went home a little numb,” Bill Fennelly said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be harder than I thought.’”

Bill Fennelly embraces former player Lexi Albrecht during the 2016 season.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

Grip and grin

Longtime Iowa State fan David Orth remembers how quickly the ascension came.

When he bought season tickets for Iowa State women’s basketball in 1997, the number of season ticket holders had already jumped from about 500 before Fennelly’s hiring to just under 3,000 three seasons into Fennelly’s tenure. A season later, season tickets were being sold in the balcony.

“It surprised me, for sure,” Orth said. “It was just fun. It was just growing. I worked for the Alumni Association at that point, so I did a lot of the pregame parties for the Big 12 spirit rallies and stuff like that. You could just tell it was exciting. It was the thing to do.”

The Fennellys were doing it again.

When they arrived in Ames late in the summer of 1995, they focused on two groups of people — elementary schools and retirement homes.

Their children attended Fellows Elementary School in north Ames. They started the Little ‘Clones Club, which gave kids perks, such as a media guide, for a fee. But the kids couldn’t get to the games by themselves, the Fennellys figured. Their parents would have to take them.

“A 10-year-old isn’t going to drive himself to the game,” Fennelly said. “So mom and dad had to come.”

The focus on retirement communities happened because Fennelly had a connection to the Green Hills Retirement Community. Kathryn Engel, who was a large donor to Iowa State, was at Green Hills. She bought tickets for women’s basketball games and left them on the front desk.

It soon became so popular that the retirement community had to use buses to get people to the games. Fennelly made frequent visits to the retirement community and talked to members at the games.

“So, literally, in the same day sometimes, I would be talking to senior citizens and would be talking to first graders,” Fennelly said. “That was how it started.”

He got the players to buy in, too. They went out into the community to help with charity work and embraced the Fennellys’ family atmosphere. They signed autographs, met with fans and children. They were just as big a factor in the process as the Fennellys.

And if any of those tactics didn’t work, the Fennellys channeled their inner-politicians and went out into the Ames community to make their faces known. They went to local coffee shops and got involved in the community.

“It was grip and grin, and put your face in front of them, and ‘you’re the coach and you seem like a decent guy, I’ll come to a game,’” Fennelly said. “It was literally that way. That’s kind of how it was for the first couple of years.”

They noticed the fruits of their labor starting to take shape. The average attendance in his first two seasons hovered around 1,700, but during the 1997-1998 season, it jumped to 3,775.

Another move helped the attendance that year.

When Fennelly first came to Iowa State, Iowa wasn’t on the schedule. Fennelly said the Cyclones were so bad that the Hawkeyes weren’t interested. One of the first things he did was call Iowa and get the Hawkeyes on the schedule.

After Iowa State lost at Iowa City in 1996, the Hawkeyes were scheduled in 1997 for the first showdown in Ames between the two rivals in six seasons. The Cyclones beat the Hawkeyes 74-57 in front of a record crowd of 5,844.

“It was our third year, but that was kind of the first big thing that people started to come to,” Fennelly said.

From then on, the groundswell took over. Word of mouth carried news of the women’s basketball program to people around Ames and central Iowa. Orth originally heard about the rising program from a friend, and when he got more involved, he passed it along to his friends.

“Once I think the groundswell was there, it just built on itself,” Orth said.

Later in the 1997-1998 season, Iowa State hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament after finishing the regular season 24-7 and finishing second in the Big 12. The fourth-seeded Cyclones beat Kent State in the first round, setting up a date with fifth-seeded Rutgers in the second round at Hilton Coliseum.

The fans came out in droves, breaking a record with 9,705 people in attendance. The game stayed close until the final minute. Rutgers freshman point guard at the time, Natasha Pointer, hit two free throws with under 10 seconds left to give her team the lead and eventual upset over the favored Cyclones.

It was a heart-breaking defeat for Fennelly in his second NCAA Tournament appearance in Ames. But as he and the team walked off the court, they received a standing ovation from the Hilton Coliseum crowd. For the next week or two, the Fennellys couldn’t go anywhere in Ames without getting congratulations from fans.

“At that moment, I was like, we haven’t arrived, but we’re in the building,” Fennelly said. “People now sort of care, and we lost. That, to me, was when I realized that this fan base was crazy, fanatical, tremendous.”

The 1997-1998 season was one the first stepping stones into something special, and Fennelly knew it. The attendance nearly doubled in the 1998-1999 season and reached more than 10,000 in the 1999-2000 season.

Bill Fennelly salutes the crowd after beating then-No. 22 Kansas State in early 2017.
Photo by Jack MacDonald/Iowa State Daily

Sustaining his legacy

Now in his 23rd year coaching at Iowa State, Fennelly’s program has more than arrived. It has become a national story.

The attendance numbers at Iowa State have consistently ranked in the top five nationally. Just last year, Iowa State slotted in at No. 3 in the NCAA behind South Carolina and Tennessee, with an average of 9,106 fans per night. That’s almost 300 more fans than Connecticut, and about 8,000 fans better than the Division I average.

It’s also a far cry from the 310 fans that attended Fennelly’s first game at Hilton Coliseum. Sometimes, the Fennellys marvel at what they’ve done.

“Bill sometimes goes, ‘Oh my gosh, babe, would you ever expect this?’” Deb Fennelly said. “We’re just kind of there, and you do sit back and kind of just go, ‘Wow.’”

Part of sustaining his fan base has been continuing to be accessible to the public. The players still connect with a community in a way that few other programs do.

Senior guard Emily Durr saw it right away when she came to Iowa State. Her teammates talked about fans like they were family. She has some favorite fans of her own. When Durr’s grandma died last year, she met an elderly woman named Hazel Hogue.

“It’s the coolest thing ever, talking to an old person and hearing what they’ve been through,” Durr said. “We go out to lunch sometimes, and she writes me cute little letters.”

Durr was also part of a group of players that made a big difference in the life of longtime season ticket holder Pam Hallenbeck, who ended up in the hospital in April. Durr visited her, along with teammates Bridget Carleton and Meredith Burkhall, and Josh Carper, the program’s director of operations.

Hallenbeck said it shows what kind of program the Fennellys have built and how the players have continued to buy in.

“That’s the kind of girls they are,” Hallenbeck said. “Bill does teach the girls to be part of the community. They do meet a lot of people in the community. Bill never fails to thank the people who got there and all of the fans. That really does go a long way.”

It’s that kind of culture that has gotten Bill Fennelly to where he’s at now, and he doesn’t plan on changing much.

His time at Iowa State may be coming to a close in the near future — he has brought up retiring more than a few times in the last few years — but the legacy he has built will live on through the loyal fan base he and his wife have created.

“It’s probably greater than I thought it could be,” Bill Fennelly said. “My goal is that people think Iowa State has a lot of great things going, and on the list is the women’s basketball program. If we can do that, then we’ve done what we’ve needed to do.”

The Fennelly Coaching Tree

From the beginning, Bill Fennelly found and nurtured the next generation of coaches

By Jack MacDonald
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

The Fennelly Coaching Tree

From the beginning, Bill Fennelly found and nurtured the next generation of coaches

Chris Kielsmeier walked into a meeting with Bill Fennelly in the spring of 1998 with no preconceived notions of what would happen. Kielsmeier wasn’t a basketball coach or a player, and he had never been around the women’s basketball program.

He was an Iowa State cheerleader.

But he was at a crossroads. He knew he wanted to coach, but he was unsure how to get into the field.

Cue Bill Fennelly, who, at the time, had only been at Iowa State for three seasons. Kielsmeier walked out of that meeting with an offer that changed his life forever.

“The thing to me that was unique about it was he had absolutely no reason to meet with just some young college kid that was reaching out wanting to talk to him and get advice from him,” Kielsmeier said.

Advice was just the beginning of what Fennelly had to offer. He provided Kielsmeier with the keys to the rest of his life.

And it hasn’t just been Kielsmeier whose life he has changed. Fennelly has his hands in many people’s lives in and out of women’s basketball.

I was just a college kid

Kielsmeier was a senior at Iowa State then, his first of two senior years. He was a sports management major and knew he wanted to be a coach, but he had just finished a course where he observed a kindergarten class and a high school physical education class. He knew something was wrong.

“I just knew that wasn't for me,” Kielsmeier said. “So I thought, 'Gosh, well if I can't teach at the high school level, I'm probably not going to be able to coach.’”

Yet coaching was what he wanted to do. Confused, he scheduled a meeting with his adviser to discuss his future, and it was his adviser who suggested he schedule a meeting with Fennelly to discuss possible paths in college athletics.

Taking the suggestion, he called Fennelly’s office and set up a meeting. As he was making the call, a thought kept going through his head.

Chris Kielsmeier (bottom right) was a cheerleader before he joined Bill Fennelly's coaching staff.
Photo by Chris Kielsmeier

“I’m thinking, ‘This man’s not going to want to talk to me. I don’t have nothing I can give him or anything,'” Kielsmeier said. “What am I going to tell him, what am I going to say? This is a naive college student; I was like, this will be tough.”

Going into the meeting, Kielsmeier was expecting nothing more than conventional wisdom from a coach who was in the middle of proving himself at the Division I level.

Then the meeting happened.

“It was like he met with me like I was somebody really important,” Kielsmeier said.

He explained his situation to Fennelly, and Fennelly recognized the drive that Kielsmeier possessed and the dreams he aspired to fulfill. He offered an internship to this random college kid who had grown up a Cyclone fan, which worked out perfectly because he needed an internship to graduate in the spring.

“He was like, ‘Man, well I'll give you an opportunity here and let you help out,'” Kielsmeier said.

The two even worked out a schedule where Kielsmeier could still cheer at most games, but when practice came, he’d be right back with the team trying to fulfill his goal of becoming a collegiate coach.

The first two

Long before the meeting with Kielsmeier, Fennelly made another hire that is arguably the most successful of the coaches he’s groomed.

“I think I was just a sponge, and I learned so much in those four years that I was at Iowa State,” said Brenda Frese, now head coach of the women’s basketball program at the University of Maryland. “But, I will say, year three, four, from just observing coach Fennelly … I started to really feel … that I could be a head coach and wanted to test the waters.”

Frese was three years removed from a career at Arizona that ended prematurely due to injury in 1992. But, rather than dwelling on the injury, Frese jumped into the coaching field.

Her first job was at Pima Community College during her senior year at Arizona in 1993. Then, for the next two years, Frese hopped over to the Mid-American Conference (MAC) as an assistant coach at Kent State.

That was when Fennelly spotted Frese while he was coaching at Toledo, also a MAC school.

“We had a lot in common and I loved how he coached,” Frese said. “He wore the suspenders at Toledo and [had] tons of energy ... so it kind of started from there.”

Fennelly needed two high-quality coaches when he was hired as the head coach of Iowa State’s women’s basketball team in 1995. At the time, the program had not seen success in years.

He hired Frese and Katie Abrahamson-Henderson.

“You look at [five-star players], can't-miss [or] whatever, you could tell that in [Frese and Abrahamson-Henderson],” Fennelly said.

The process of moving the women’s basketball program into a successful operation was one of the many things Fennelly put them through to prepare them for a head coaching future of their own.

“I just knew [Frese] had that kind of drive and passion,” Fennelly said. “She and Katie really balanced each other out and did a great job. There was no doubt at some point they were both going to be very successful head coaches, and that's what they are.”

Frese took over a Maryland program that was in similar waters to the Iowa State program when Fennelly grabbed hold of the reins.

Abrahamson-Henderson has driven the ship at Central Florida for one year, and the Knights ended with a 21-12 record. Before UCF, she started her head coaching career in 2002 at Missouri State and then moved on to Albany in 2010. She had two assistant coaching gigs in between those two stops.

These two were groomed by Fennelly and they are like family to him. To an extent, it’s a bittersweet feeling to see his former players, managers or coaches move on to other programs.

“It’s like a proud parent, to be honest with you,” Fennelly said. “I think you never like to see good people leave, but with almost all of those that have gone on, you knew when they came here, part of the reason they came here was to leave.

“And when they do leave, you hope that the relationship that you had was good, which we've been blessed to do that, but also if they're leaving to get a head coaching job, then they probably did a good job while they were here, so everyone benefits.”

Success from all angles

It’s not just assistant coaches who go on to have success, but also former players, interns and even managers. It’s no secret that Fennelly is a big reason why those people go on to have careers at all levels of basketball.

It takes more than luck to find coaches that fit in with Fennelly, and he has proven it. The biggest thing he looks for in potential coaches is if they have the drive to represent the program with what Fennelly calls “The Iowa State Way.”

“For me, you need people that understand what this place is about, what we try and do, how we do things, and luckily, over time, we've been able to find those people,” Fennelly said.

And in college basketball, it’s all about connections. All you have to do is look at Fennelly’s staff right now to see that. Jodi Steyer was on his staff at Toledo and joined him a year after he arrived in Ames; Latoja Schaben played for Fennelly at Toledo; and, of course, there is Billy Fennelly, his son.

The connections don’t stop there.

Brittany Lange, a former assistant, is now the head coach at the University of Omaha. Kelly (Kebe) Kennedy, a former assistant, was in charge at Akron. Ben Conrad, a former manager, won a national championship at the junior college level with Johnson County Community College.

These are just three people from a laundry list of names who have grown from the “Fennelly Coaching Tree” and have had a wealth of success.

“Some of them came in for different reasons; some of them, I think you look at that list and be like, 'I'll do it,’” Fennelly said. “They weren't walking in thinking they wanted to be coaches, and some of them that's what they wanted to do. It's more about the fit, kind of people and what could we do to help them move on and kind of head to the next phase of their life.”

Robin Pingeton is a good example.

Robin Pingeton coaches a game with Bill Fennelly. Pingeton has gone on to have success at the University of Missouri.
Photo by Iowa State Athletics

Pingeton came to Ames in 2000 as an assistant coach and helped the women’s basketball program continue its relatively new success.  She helped lead them to a NCAA Sweet 16 appearance and a NCAA Second Round appearance.

From those quick three years, Pingeton took what she learned from Fennelly and applied it to her coaching style at Illinois State. In her first season at Illinois State during the 2003-2004 season, Pingeton was named the Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year, and, just one season later, she guided the Red Birds to the NCAA Tournament. In her final season in Normal, Illinois, she capped off the season with 28 wins and a stop at the Women’s NIT semifinals in 2010.

“If anything, I wanted coach Fennelly to say, ‘You know, I want you to stay,’” Pingeton said. “I think as much as maybe he wanted me to at the time, I think he did, but he just knew it was so important for me to spread my wings.”

Then off to Missouri she went. Once again, Pingeton sprinkled her coaching knowledge on the Tigers and turned them into an above .500 program within two years.

“That's the great thing about sports, your family and your connections,” Fennelly said. “There's tentacles everywhere, because whether it's their husbands and wives and kids and then they hire someone that you know, it just kind of keeps going.

“And when you do it for as long as I've done it, that gets pretty wide.

Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly talks to members of his bench after Mississippi State makes a shot during a game at Hilton Coliseum in 2016.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

College kid finally finds success

Kielsmeier’s first stop after leaving Iowa State was at Howard Payne University for the 1999-2000 season. His role was no longer that of setting up or tearing down things for practice. Now he was the assistant coach of a women’s collegiate basketball program — ever so close to his ultimate dream of being a head coach.

And after just one season, that dream became a reality. Kielsmeier credits Fennelly for that.

Seven seasons after being named the head coach, Kielsmeier hoisted the Division III National Championship trophy after he guided the Lady Jackets to a 33-0 record in the 2007-2008 season.

“I knew getting the initial job at Howard Payne … was having Iowa State tied to me and having that D1 experience,” Kielsmeier said. “Having coach Fennelly and just the Iowa State basketball family, that was a significant part of it.”

That success carried over to his current job at Wayne State College, where he has etched himself into the record books of college coaching. His 10 seasons at Wayne State included five trips to the NCAA Division II National Tournament, four Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference regular-season titles, and he coached the Division II Player of the Year in 2012.

That player of the year? Ashley Arlen, an Iowa State transfer that found a home at Wayne State because of the Iowa State connection.

Kielsmeier said he does things today that Fennelly taught him in his one year as an intern.

But what Fennelly is unable to teach is how to win a national championship. It’s something only coaches like Brenda Frese and Chris Kielsmeier themselves can achieve.

“Players go onto success, they graduate and they're pros; well, we also have coaches that have been here and worked here and they're successful,” Fennelly said. “So, there must be something in the air here or the water that allows for some level of success.”

It’s not the water in Ames that’s churning out successful coaches.

It’s Fennelly.

He gives them what they need most: a chance.  

A Canadian Dream

Bridget Carleton strives for 2020 Olympics

By Brian Mozey
Bridget Carleton will be a key factor for the Cyclones this season.
Photo by Lani Tons

A Canadian Dream

Bridget Carleton strives for 2020 Olympics

Bridget Carleton was sitting on Team Canada’s bench when she heard her coach shout.

“Bridget, get ready to go in.”

Bridget smiled, but the nerves tossed and turned deep down. This was her first game with Canada’s senior Olympic squad.

As she stepped onto the court, her coach told her to shoot it if she was open. Bridget relaxed. She felt at home in her Canadian jersey.

Two minutes in, one of Bridget’s teammates dished her the ball. She was in the corner on the 3-point line: her favorite spot on the court.

Bridget didn’t hesitate.

As she released the 3-point shot, she thought, “Don’t let it be an air ball.” She didn’t want to be embarrassed.

Swish.

Bridget scored the first points of her Olympic career.

Granted, the three points were in the middle of the game and they didn’t mean much to the outcome, but the Canadian bench erupted. Her teammates wanted to support her attempt to achieve her lifelong dream of playing in the Olympics for her beloved Canada.

“Definitely my favorite memory,” Bridget said. “We went to France and Spain with them, and I took my first 3-pointer and made it. The bench went wild, not that it was an important 3 at all, but it was still exciting to get my first three points as a senior team player.”

Even though Bridget didn’t fulfill her dream of playing in the Olympics this summer — she was cut before the final roster was set — her sights are set on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity, and hopefully next summer I can build on that,” Bridget said. “I kind of wanted to be like [my mother] when I was really little. I wanted to follow in her footsteps. She was my role model growing up.”

Bridget has loved the game of basketball for as long as she can remember. Her mother, Carrie, played at Grand Valley State University, a Division II school in Michigan, and helped Bridget with her love for the sport. Ever since Bridget truly committed to pursuing basketball, that mother-daughter relationship has grown.

Carrie remembers watching Bridget’s basketball games in high school and when she participated with the Canadian national team at 15.

When Bridget tried out for the Canadian 16U team, she impressed the coaches with her ball handling and shooting ability and was asked to join. She has been on every squad leading up to the senior team.

That’s a system that Canada uses to develop its players, so once they’re old enough to be on the senior team, they can excel. The order consists of the 16U team, 17U team, 18U team, 19U team, development or Senior-B team and the Senior-A or Olympic team.

That experience with Canada translated to success in high school. She became one of the top basketball prospects in Canada coming out of her senior year, but she knew her future college would be in the United States.

The competition level was important to Bridget, and the United States had the NCAA Tournament and other competitive levels that Canada didn’t provide.

Iowa State provided that competitive spirit she was looking for at college.

Photo by Lani Tons

Bridget found out about Iowa State through coaches, specifically Bill and Billy Fennelly. The duo had been focusing more on international recruits, so they made sure to speak to Bridget, one of the top Canadian prospects.

She also made her trip to Iowa State during the recruiting process and fell in love with Hilton Coliseum, the atmosphere, her teammates, and the academics.

Fennelly told Bridget to focus on her dream with making the Olympic team. He wanted to do anything he could to help her achieve this dream at Iowa State while helping the Cyclones reach their goals in the NCAA Tournament. Her family and Bridget appreciated the fact that she wasn’t just coming to Iowa State to play college basketball, but also had a focus on the continuation of her dream.

Her family and Bridget knew that Iowa State was the right place.

Carrie remembers watching Bridget play her first game as a Cyclone. When Bridget was announced for the first time to the Hilton Coliseum crowd, Carrie looked down the row of family members and almost everyone was in tears.

The Cyclones were playing Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Dec. 13 and Bridget played well. Carrie was excited to see her play, but didn’t expect that kind of performance from her. She made six 3-pointers and scored 22 points in the end. She also collected three rebounds and two assists.

After the game, the family met her on the court to give her hugs and congratulate her on the win. The Carleton family made fun of her for missing certain shots or not getting a certain rebound. Carrie said their family loves to joke around, so it’s a common thing for them to act that way after a basketball game.

“It was a moment that me and our entire family will never forget,” Carrie said. “I can’t wait to watch her again at Iowa State this season and hopefully at more venues in the future.”

While Bridget played at Iowa State, she continued practicing with Canada in the summer before college, which helped her prepare for the (collegiate) competition level.

Then Bridget got the phone call she had been waiting to receive for more than five years. She had been called up to the Canadian senior Olympic team. Bridget immediately called her parents.

That conversation started with Bridget sounding overly excited about making the senior team and then Carrie’s questions started. Carrie is the type of person who’s excited for the person at the beginning, but then needs to know all of the information before making a decision.

“There’s a lot of emotions when you watch your kid play a sport she loves,” Carrie said. “Hearing the Canada national anthem and seeing her in the Canada jersey still brings tears to my eyes.”

Bridget was one of the youngest players invited to the senior team, which allowed her to learn from some of the best Canadian basketball players who play overseas or in the WNBA. Her favorite player, Kim Gaucher, a 32-year-old guard who plays in France, helped Bridget with techniques to improve her basketball IQ and overall skills.

Bridget knew it would be a challenge to make the Olympic team because of the chemistry between among most of the older players. She said she was even surprised to make it as far as she did, because she thought it would be only a month or less until the team cut her.

It’s a four-year cycle and it’s hard for a player to put herself into that cycle in year three. All of the players on the Canadian national team had gone through the four-year cycle together.

She understood the decision and she’s ready to come back to Iowa State with new tools in her toolbox.

Iowa State's Bridget Carleton grew as a player over the summer when she competed with the Canadian National Team.
Photo by Max Goldberg

“I think my basketball IQ has grown a lot over the summer,” Bridget said. “I think I have just more confidence in myself.”

She also is bringing back improved skills, coach Bill Fennelly said.

Because Bridget is taller than most guards, she had a hard time guarding the smaller, quicker guards. Fennelly jokingly said she must have learned how to defend this summer because he never saw that from Bridget last season. He saw plenty of improvement from her freshman year to her upcoming sophomore year.

Bridget averaged 33.8 minutes per game as a freshman last season — third on the team — which forced her into a leadership role. Fennelly and his coaching staff said they have seen her leadership skills develop through this fall, both on and off the court.

“Bridget is probably one of the hardest working players on this team,” Fennelly said. “You don’t need to keep eyes on her because she’s always out there working on something to become a better player, not only for Iowa State but also Team Canada.”

Bridget has two goals this season. She wants to help get Iowa State back into the NCAA Tournament and compete at a high level in the Big 12. She also wants to make the senior team this summer and start that four-year cycle, so she can be a part of the World Championships in 2018 and the Olympics in 2020.

Fennelly said she can easily obtain those two goals, and her chances of playing after college are in her favor.

Bridget Carleton dreams of playing for the Canadian Olympic team in the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen

“Carleton has a good chance of being drafted in the WNBA or playing overseas,” Fennelly said.

That’s what Bridget wants after her Cyclone and Olympic dreams are fulfilled. She hasn’t lost that love for basketball and wants to continue playing until the feeling disappears.

“I love the game of basketball so much, it’s what I love to do,” Bridget said. “I have never not loved the game, and I don’t get tired of it ever. I want to be the best I can and get as far as I can.”

But Bridget isn’t focused on four years or even two years from now because she can only control the present. Right now, she wants to do her part for the Iowa State women’s basketball team and help lead her team to a successful season.

The team didn’t receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament last year after finishing with a losing record. It’s been rare for Iowa State to not be in the tournament since Fennelly took over the program. Fennelly’s teams have been in the NCAA Tournament 16 times during his 21 years at Iowa State.

Fennelly also was an assistant coach for the U18 team for the United States in 2008, 2009 and 2011. He won gold each year and understands the expectations and commitments needed to win a gold medal. More importantly for Bridget, he wants to help her win one for herself.

Bridget has appreciated Bill’s hard work toward helping her with becoming a better player for the Iowa State program and also Team Canada. It’s a process that is longer than Bridget expected, but she knows that it’ll be worth it once she puts that Team Canada jersey on and is able to represent her country.

“I think growing up, I mean every athlete’s dream is to play for the Olympics one day, and I mean that dream had kind of gotten stuck in my head,” Bridget said. “I know with hard work and dedication it’ll happen. At that time, my dream will finally come true.”

Family First

Seanna Johnson forced to put family ahead of basketball

By Brian Mozey
Seanna Johnson become the fastest player to reach 800 rebounds in Iowa State history during the Cyclones’ season-opening game against California-Santa Barbara on Nov. 11.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Family First

Seanna Johnson forced to put family ahead of basketball

Seanna Johnson pressed the phone to her ear. All she heard was sniffles and crying from her mother, Tanisha.

The first thing Seanna thought of was her brother, Jarvis, who had been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy the year before.

A quick silence was followed by her mother saying, “Your dad had a stroke.”

At that moment, Seanna wasn’t worried about the 37-point loss that happened at Baylor earlier that day — Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016 — but rather played the scene leading up to the phone call over and over again.

Seanna didn’t have her phone with her during the plane ride from Waco, Texas, but when the team landed in Iowa, the basketball coaches had five missed calls from Tanisha. Assistant coach Latoja Schaben called Tanisha back and realized the situation was serious. Seanna needed to talk to her mother.

Seanna didn’t think it was a big deal because Tanisha calls and texts her almost on an hourly basis, but she took the call.

“My emotions didn’t hit right when she told me the news because I didn’t think it was that serious,” Seanna said. “Once my mom told me [my father] needed immediate surgery, then I knew it was serious.”

All Seanna knew was that her father, Curtis, had bleeding in the brain. The official diagnosis for Curtis was that he had a hemorrhagic stroke, a stroke that includes aneurysms.

After his stroke, Curtis Johnson didn’t wake up until a week later, but Seanna Johnson and her family were by his side the entire time.
Photo by Seanna Johnson

Seanna wanted to go home to Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, that night to be with her family. Both coach Bill Fennelly and Tanisha demanded that she stay in Ames that evening because it was 11 p.m. and she was filled with emotions.

She respected the decision, but didn’t get much sleep. When the sun came up, Seanna was in her car and driving three and a half hours home.

She never stopped at her house. She went directly to the hospital.

When Seanna walked into her father’s room, he wasn’t awake. He hadn’t been awake since the stroke.

The only thought going through Seanna’s head was a repeat of the scene with her brother last year.

The only positive thing coming from walking into the room was that her family was there and she had someone to lean on.

“Nobody was crying, and the atmosphere seemed like we’re going to get through this,” Seanna said. “It already happened once with my brother, and with our faith in God, we knew things would be OK in the end.”

Curtis didn’t wake up until a week later. When he did, Seanna was sitting by his side. A sigh of relief came over her, but she knew it didn’t mean much in the whole process of recovery.

After he woke up, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and had another surgery. The family knew it would be a slow recovery. But Seanna knew she had to go back to school at some point.

She missed the next two games of the regular season, but it was a battle for Fennelly to keep her with the family. Seanna called Fennelly the morning of Feb. 24 to let him know that she could come down hours before tip-off to play against Kansas State.

“I told her that basketball isn’t [her] first priority right now,” Fennelly said. “You should be focused on your family and making sure your father is recovering well.”

Family is the most important thing to Fennelly, and that’s what made Seanna and her entire family interested in Iowa State during the recruiting process. Tanisha said Fennelly was the only coach who spoke about family being a first priority, and that’s what made the Iowa State program special to Johnson’s parents and Seanna.

After being home for about a week, Seanna decided to go back to school and play in the last regular season game against West Virginia in Ames. She said she played one of her best games and recorded a double-double, but Iowa State lost to the Mountaineers that evening.

She also played against Texas Tech in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament in Oklahoma City. The team lost 89-84 and didn’t advance. After the team returned to Ames, Seanna headed back home to check on her father.

“We knew that she needed to go back home and be with her family,” teammate TeeTee Starks said. “That’s what was most important.”

The Johnson family is close. The family contacts (one another) consistently and they all are passionate about basketball.

Tanisha remembers watching Seanna play at De La Salle High School. After every game, Seanna and Curtis would go over plays that went well and the ones that needed improvement.

Tanisha said that everyone had a piece to the puzzle with helping Seanna during her high school basketball career. Seanna appreciated having everyone come watch her games and support her in high school and then help her transition into college at Iowa State.

“It means the world to me to know my entire family has my back at any point that I need them,” Seanna said. “Now, the focus needs to be on my dad and his recovery to make sure he’s back to normal soon.”

Seanna Johnson attended De La Salle High School and was one of the top recruits out of high school.
Photo by Lani Tons/Iowa State Daily

Seanna said the recovery process for Curtis has been slow, but there continues to be more improvements than setbacks. He’s still in a rehab facility, but he’s being transitioned into a home that will teach him how to walk and do other daily activities.

Seanna said her father has some memory issues, especially with backtracking on events that happened in the past, but he’s going to therapy every day to help him with his memory and other physical movements.

“He’s been working hard at his therapy and rehab to get back to normal, and it’s pushing me to become a player for my final season,” Seanna said. “This season is dedicated not only to my brother, [Jarvis], but also for my dad, [Curtis].”

Seanna dedicated her 2015-16 season to Jarvis, after all of the health problems he went through. This year, the season is mostly dedicated to Curtis because she wants to make her final season at Iowa State count.

Seanna and Tanisha said Jarvis is doing well healthwise. He had a pacemaker placed inside his chest that has helped him avoid any more heart episodes. He is still on the University of Minnesota basketball team, but isn’t able to play.

Last season, the Johnson family wasn’t able to make it to many of Seanna’s games because they had to be there for Jarvis and monitor his health.

“[Curtis] was really excited and blessed to hear that Seanna was dedicating this season to him,” Tanisha said. “We’re excited to get to Ames for the first game and cheer her and the Iowa State team this entire season.”

Seanna Johnson missed part of the tail end of the 2015-16 season after her father, Curtis, suffered a stroke in Minnesota.
Photo by Seanna Johnson

Tanisha said she was worried the first couple of years with Seanna being at Iowa State because she didn’t know how she would transition in a new state and new atmosphere.

She doesn’t worry about Seanna any longer because she’s become more mature through the situations she’s gone through and has developed into the leader that Fennelly needs on and off the basketball court.

He’s happy that Seanna is healthy during this preseason, but also knocked on wood because she’s never been healthy during a preseason at Iowa State.

Fennelly said she has the ability to leave her mark in Iowa State history. Seanna could break a few school records such as the all-time rebounds, points and double-doubles marks.

“You want [a healthy season] for every kid, but especially the seniors,” Fennelly said. “For [Seanna Johnson], special could be really special.”

Even though this will be Seanna’s last year at Iowa State, Fennelly thinks this could be the beginning of a successful basketball career. Fennelly believes that Seanna has the passion and desire to play at a higher level such as the WNBA or in Europe.

Tanisha explained the situation to Seanna as simply as she can.

“You only have one life to live, so if you want to do basketball, take that opportunity and enjoy the experience,” Tanisha said. “If you want to start a career right away, your family will be behind you no matter what path you choose.”

Tanisha and Curtis agree that they can see Seanna moving to the next level. If Seanna decides to enter the WNBA Draft, Tanisha hopes her daughter gets drafted by the Minnesota Lynx, so she can be home.

Seanna Johnson has professional aspirations after her playing career at Iowa State. Seanna’s mother, Tanisha, hopes Seanna is drafted by the Minnesota Lynx, so she can be at home.
Photo by Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

As for Seanna herself, she hasn’t made the decision yet on whether she wants to take that next step in her basketball career. She wants to focus her attention on giving everything she has to her final year at Iowa State in hopes of doing well in the Big 12 regular season, Big 12 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.

She’s excited that there are different paths she can take after her years at Iowa State, but she doesn’t want to think about them until the time comes.

Tanisha talks to Curtis about Seanna’s future all the time. It makes him happy.

He always wants Seanna to be successful, but for her to have the ability to be successful in the sport she loves would be a dream come true.

Curtis and the entire Johnson family will try to make as many basketball games as possible because they know it’s the last time they’ll be able to see Seanna in an Iowa State jersey. It’s difficult for Seanna to describe how much it means to her to have this amount of support from her family.

“My dad means everything to me,” Seanna said. “He’s helped me through everything, and all I want to do is have a great final season for him and the rest of my family.”

Over the Ocean

Women’s basketball plunges into international waters

By Sean Sears
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

Over the Ocean

Women’s basketball plunges into international waters

The Iowa State women’s basketball team has four incoming freshmen this season, nothing out of the ordinary for a school that graduated two seniors and had another player transfer.

But Iowa State has never had an incoming class like these freshmen.

Of the four Iowa State newcomers, three are from a different country, with Nia Washington being the lone player from the United States.

Sofija Zivaljevic, Adriana Camber and Aliyah Konate are the international newbies. While they all come from different countries — Montenegro, Sweden and Germany, respectively — they all have one thing in common.

They all committed to Iowa State on their first and only visit to Ames.

Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly reeled in three recruits from Europe for the 2016 class. One of them, Sofija Zivaljevic, has already made an impact this season.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

While the players were seeing Iowa State for the first time, they heard all about the school and the respected basketball program coach Bill Fennelly had built. The process Iowa State’s coaching staff has taken to start recruiting overseas was something that started a few years ago.

“It’s one of those things where it takes a lot of time, and you have to build that trust with the people over there,” Iowa State assistant coach Billy Fennelly said. “But if these girls can have a great experience, and we can bring new recruits to talk to them, it can really help us in the future.”

Billy and others on the staff had seen interest in international players for some time, and their first success was with sophomore guard Bridget Carleton, a native of Chatham, Ontario.

As a freshman for Iowa State last year, Carleton averaged 12 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, while also working out with the Canadian Olympic team this summer. The Canadian put together one of the best freshman seasons in Iowa State history, and gave the coaching staff the confidence to pursue other players from outside the United States.

While Carleton panned out well for the Cyclones, not all players can make the jump as well as the second-year guard did.

“The game is a bit more physical here,” Bill said. “And they don’t play a ton of defense, so the style of play is a bit different, but their skill level should translate well to our style of play.”

Billy agreed with his father and said that difference in the style of play is the reason he wouldn’t want “an entire team full” of players from overseas. In Europe, basketball has more of a focus on ball movement and organization, and while a player could be talented, that doesn’t necessarily transition into the American game.

“These kids are used to grabbing five girls on a court and just playing,” Billy said. “So when we start teaching them the playbook, it can be difficult to grasp.”

Iowa State basketball involves more plays attacking the rim, creating a shot as opposed to passing to find one, and the defensive intensity in the United States is more than any of these women have ever experienced.

European basketball requires its players to use more finesse and create openings for teammates by passing to score points.

Each one of the players has shown a great interest in furthering their basketball careers, and each has a desire to get better, Billy said. It’s the main reason the coaching staff has been trying to make its name known in the international game.

That being said, making a place like Ames known to a student in Montenegro is not easy. Creating contacts and trust with people from other countries takes time.

How the coaching staff became aware of some of the players comes down to sheer luck in a few cases, while some players have been on their radar for a few years.

Recruiting players from out of the country is still a somewhat newer experience for Billy and this staff, and even with experience, it isn’t an exact science. It can be hard just getting players who are a more than 10-hour flight away for a visit, which can only be 48 hours long like any other recruit.

The process to get these kids to Iowa State is far more intricate than bringing in a recruit from the United States, so Iowa State subscribes to a few recruiting services that have scouts all over the world.

Iowa State uses these recruiters to find the top out-of-country prospects and to create a list of players the team wants.

These services are essential to recruiting overseas for Iowa State, but other programs in the country have access to these services as well, making it harder to stand out at times. It’s why connections are extremely important.

It’s how Camber found herself on the Iowa State roster.

Adriana Camber is a Swedish guard who has the ability to play the wing for the Cyclones.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

A Swedish product, Camber was discovered by Billy after he was tipped by a former co-worker via Facebook.

“It was strange,” Billy said. “A manager for me at Maryland was from Sweden. He sent me a Facebook message about Adriana, and we followed up on it and brought her and her mother [to Ames].”

From there, Camber and her family fell in love with the campus and the facilities. Camber was already confident in the basketball side of things, after multiple Skype sessions and numerous phone calls, but it was her education her family was concerned about.

“My family always says, ‘School first. Basketball second,’” Camber said.

And after spending time in Ames, she and her family were convinced that Iowa State would satisfy both of those needs.

Of course, some recruits are discovered by more traditional means.

The lone representative of Germany on the roster, Aliyah Konate was on the verge of moving to Minnesota in 2015. After some paperwork fell through, Konate was forced to stay home another year.

Alyiah Konate came to Ames from Berlin, Germany. She was set to attend Minnesota before paperwork fell through.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

But while in Minnesota for a few workouts, Konate caught the attention of programs around the area, and the interest started to grow. As Konate started to gain attention, a few coaches who had former players come to Iowa State mentioned the program to the German, and they eventually reached out to Billy about the 6-foot-4 center.

The two parties touched base, and soon she was on her way to visit Ames. Konate’s large frame and Iowa State’s lack of height made the two a great fit. But for Konate, it was the culture the program had cultivated.

“I just felt like everyone here was so nice and welcoming,” Konate said. “It made me feel like I was home.”

And then there are players that fill a need, like Sofija Zivaljevic.

Iowa State was aware of the Montenegro guard, knowing it needed to add some depth to the point guard position, but hadn’t scouted her. However, another team had been recruiting her, but had a different recruit commit late in the game. This school backed out, but tipped Billy about Zivaljevic.

Once Iowa State caught wind of Zivaljevic, Billy quickly reached out to the staff to inquire about the Montenegro guard.

Sofija Zivaljevic came to Ames from Montenegro, a small European country in the middle of the Balkans.
Photo by Emily Blobaum/Iowa State Daily

“The team basically gave us their entire scouting report on her,” Billy said. “It was months of work we now had without having to do almost any of the work.”

So with the newly acquired information, Iowa State felt it had a great understanding of who it would be getting in Zivaljevic. She came on a visit with her mother, toured campus like the rest and picked out classes.

“I got to campus, met some of the coaches, and I made my decision right then and there,“ Zivaljevic said. “The coaching staff made me confident I would do well here.”

This freshmen class is rare, Billy said, because most schools would try to avoid taking this many international students at once. But the coaching staff made an exception for these three.

“Ideally, you’d like to get one or two [international players], and it kind of all just felt right with all three of them,” Billy said.

As for the transition to the United States, the hardest part hasn’t been finding a role on the court or getting along with the players, but the American diet.

“I do not like the food,” Camber said. “You [Americans] eat almost nothing fresh.”

All three of the foreigners have made it known they are not the biggest fans of the American diet, complaining of the fried foods and lack of fresh items.

Most European foods are prepared with fresher ingredients, more fish and chicken along with fruits and vegetables. But almost none of it is frozen or precooked, making most of the foods in an average college diet borderline repulsive to these three.

Luckily, the three are currently living together alongside American Nia Washington, who has been essentially a lifeline for the three international students.

Washington arrived earlier to Iowa State to take summer courses. She also has a car, so she was able to show the other three around campus, take them to buy groceries and show them how to use the bus system in Ames.

And while she was a key person in their transition, Washington thinks she is learning more from them.

“They have taught me to share more,” said Washington, who is an only child. “It’s something I wasn’t used to, but has made me become more open to the idea of sharing.”

While these three newcomers may all come from different backgrounds, and may be raised differently, they all have the common ground of loving basketball.

“In the beginning we were all like, ‘Will you talk in your language?’,” Buckley said with a laugh. “But now it’s nothing new; they fit right in and they’re all ready to contribute.”

Women's Newcomers

New Players

By Jack MacDonald

Women's Newcomers

New Players

Sofija Zivaljevic

Height: 5’9’’
Position: Guard
Hometown: Podgorica, Montenegro
High School: Montenegro U20 National Team, Zkk Buducnost Bemax (MZRKL League)
Recruiting Class Rank: 4-star recruit by BlueStar Europe

HS/College Career

  • Averaged 8.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists while competing for Montenegro’s U20 National team
  • Led club team, Zkk Buducnost Bemax to MZRKL league title
  • Won National Cup and National Championship with club team
  • Was the fourth member of ISU’s 2016 recruiting class

Heather Bowe

Height: 6’0’’
Position: Forward
Hometown: Eau Claire, Wisconsin
High School: Regis High School
Recruiting Class Rank: N/A

HS/College Career: N/A

  • Spent three seasons at Vanderbilt, while starting in 55 career games for them
  • Averaged 6.1 points for the Commodores and scored a career-high 19 points against ETSU in 2013.
  • Names Associated Press Wisconsin Player of the Year as a senior
  • Set Regis High School scoring record with 1,797 career points and led Regis to state championship in 2011

Nia Washington

Height: 5’7’’
Position: Guard
Hometown: Stafford, Virginia
High School: Riverdale Baptist High School
Recruiting Class Rank: 3-star and 95th best Point Guard

HS/College Career:

  • Started three years at Colonial Forge High School and scored in double-figures each year
  • Brought home the conference player of the year award, all-conference and all-state honors her junior year after averaging 18.0 points
  • Transferred to prestigious Riverdale Baptist for senior season and was a McDonald’s All-America nominee
  • Led Riverdale Baptist to 39-3 record and number six ranking in the country

Adriana Camber

Height: 5’10’’
Position: Forward
Hometown: Lund, Sweden
High School: Katedralskolan Lund
Recruiting Class Ranking: 5-star recruit by BlueStar Europe

HS/College Career:

  • Member of Nordic Championship national team in 2013 and 2014
  • 4-time all-star in the Swedish Championship
  • Competed in U20 European Championship in the summer of 2016

Aliyah Konate

Height: 6’4’’
Position: Forward/Center
Hometown: Berlin, Germany
High School: Mildred Harnack
Recruiting Class Ranking: N/A

HS/College Career:

  • Member of Germany’s 3-on-3 national team at 2014 Youth Olympics
  • Competed for club team ALBA Berlin
  • Scored 48 points in her first WNBL game
  • First ALBA Berlin player to be named to the national team in 2013

A Frozen Tradition

What does a Clone Cone mean to you?

By Emma Blickensderfer
The Clone Cone is a frozen tradition in Hilton Coliseum.
Photo by Drew McMahon

A Frozen Tradition

What does a Clone Cone mean to you?

As iconic as the Zodiac, Lancelot and Elaine or even Cy himself, the Clone Cone is a nine-year tradition to all of those who have experienced Hilton Magic.

For just $5, Iowa State fans can get a sky-high helping of vanilla ice cream from portable concession stands in Hilton Coliseum. During men’s basketball games, attendees can get these vanilla cones from five different locations. Women’s basketball games host four stands, and there is at least one stand at any other sporting event at Hilton.

We asked students, alumni and devoted fans to recount their first, favorite and habitual moments with the cardinal and gold swirl.

“I had only been to one home Iowa State basketball game before I was a student here. Clone Cones aren’t cheap, and as a college student that’s a lot of money for ice cream, but I absolutely love ice cream, especially if it’s in Cyclone colors. I’ll try to do it about two, maybe three times a year, almost always at the beginning of halftime. I’ll get up the stairs as fast as possible so I can get it, get back to my seat, eat it, and usually when it’s time to start the second half, it’s all gone because I don’t take my time when it comes to the Clone Cone. For one, I love ice cream, huge ice cream fan. It’s kind of a rite of passage. You have to have a Clone Cone at least one time when you’re a student if you’re going to basketball games … I wish they had them at football games! Marketing idea, we’ll have to send that over to Jamie Pollard and say, ‘Hey let's put some Clone Cones out at Jack Trice.’” – Cole Staudt, Iowa State Student Government President and senior in political science and public relations

“It was the first game of the year, and I hadn’t had a Clone Cone for almost a year. It was always a tradition for me to get one 20 minutes before tipoff. I went and ordered it, and it was really exciting because the girl kept laying on the ice cream. It was so tall, and when she put the cone on and handed it to me, I was so excited and grabbed it kind of funny, and it all tipped over into my hands. I caught it, but it was all over me. I regained it into the bowl and proceeded to take a basic insta pic of it.” – Drew McMahon, junior in mechanical engineering

Abi Meekins, senior in public relations, enjoys a Clone Cone in Hilton Coliseum.
Photo by Abi Meekins

“It was probably my second basketball game, and my friend and I had these coupons for a free Clone Cone. We had never had one before, and the lady serving them overheard us and shouted, ‘Oh, we need a big one!’ She watched the one before ours get made, rolled her eyes and made mine towering.” – Abi Meekins, senior in public relations

“The first time I saw it, I thought it was sherbet so I was kind of bummed, but I like ice cream so I was happy either way. I used to get a Clone Cone at every basketball game, but I would have to get it 60 minutes before the game started so I could eat and digest it before I went crazy.” – Kyle Ticer, 2016 ISU alumnus

“The Clone Cone is such a huge part of the Iowa State experience. It's so cool that it's a tradition for everyone who has attended the school. I faithfully attended every basketball game that I could physically be at during my time at Iowa State, and I usually started the season with a Clone Cone and ended the season with a Clone Cone. I personally could never finish one on my own, so I liked to split it with my friends and then with my coworkers when I was working for the Athletics Department.” – Lauren Vigar, former intern for the Iowa State Athletics Department and 2016 ISU alumna

“I usually go to women’s basketball games with my father-in-law, a season ticket holder, when my mother-in-law is gone for work. Toward the end of one game the line was short, so we decided to get Clone Cones. I was joking around with the guy saying he should really load it up for me. He said he would only do it if I gave him a big smile and my number. I told him that I could give him the smile but that I was married so I couldn’t give him my number. He said, ‘I guess that’ll have to work for now,’ as he proceeded to pile it up high.” – Stephanie Cook, daughter-in-law to Susan Lamont, distinguished professor of animal science

“I was always afraid to get a Clone Cone because I didn’t want to be shown on the Jumbotron eating one, but one evening I took a little girl and two teenage boys I was watching to a game, so I thought that was a great excuse to get one. The little girl ended up spilling it all over, and all of the season ticket holders around me were giving me the dirtiest looks, but the little girl was happy, and I finally got to taste one.” – Teisha Knutson, 2014 ISU alumna

“For the last two years, my friend and I have gotten one at halftime, and we split it in the middle. I always get the top and the cone, and he gets the bowl and spoon.” – Annie Gustafson, graduate student in business administration

“I used to work at Hilton, and one time when I was working in the stand, a girl dropped a bag of the mix, and it hit the ground and exploded, so everything was coated within a five-foot radius.” – Hugh Hutchison, junior in pre-business

“I am in the pep band, so during a women’s basketball game, my piccolo friend and I convinced our director to let us sneak away for a minute to get a Clone Cone during halftime. We came back after the second half had already started so we were running back because we were supposed to be playing. We got back and laughed and continued to eat our Clone Cone while we were playing.” – Elijah Gebler, junior in computer engineering

“You have to get a Clone Cone at least once a game. I remember the challenge was trying to eat it all before it melted because they load it up. It was my reward for standing in line outside of Hilton for as long as I did.” – Matt Paulaitis, senior in marketing and finance

“Last year my roommates took me to my first basketball game ever. At halftime they suggested getting a Clone Cone, and of course, I had no idea what that meant. I bought one and it was huge, so I had to take a picture for Instagram. I started eating it, but then the game started, so I was trying to jump around, hold up the three and eat all at the same time. After that game, I went to every game for the rest of that season and kept getting more Clone Cones.” – Alberto Lara, 2016 ISU Alumnus

“One of my friends got a Clone Cone when we went to the Texas game last year. I thought it was sherbet, but it’s vanilla. It’s pretty expensive, but it was as big as his fist, so I couldn’t believe he ate that much ice cream. Ever since then, I get one before tipoff so I don’t have to take it into the crazy student section.” – Tanner Adams, senior in child, adult and family services

“I usually get them at basketball or volleyball games. When I do, I usually get them in an upside down cone with a dish and then share them with someone. You can’t beat a Clone Cone, and you can’t get one just anywhere. A Clone Cone at Hilton Coliseum during a big game is definitely a must!” – Allye Bodholdt, senior in pre-business

“I always got a Clone Cone when I went to the women’s basketball games with my family. My parents are big ISU fans, especially women’s basketball, and my youngest sister aspires to play for our great school one day. We had season tickets all throughout my time at school, and it was pretty typical to get a call as I was walking home from class asking if I wanted to catch the game that night. Can’t say I could resist.” – Abby Jones, 2015 ISU alumna