Thus although I've passed through the Barn many times, the weight of history, the specters that sometimes seem to haunt old buildings and places, and the echoes of the past never seemed more alive to me than when I went there this past Sunday night for the opening round of The Star Ledger College Summer League at The Barn (as it's officially billed). Here I would finally be getting my first chance to find answers to questions that had been on my mind for awhile. After all, the entire Rutgers team was dispersed throughout the rosters of all six teams comprising the league, so I expected to get a chance to see everyone over time.
How would they all look, I wondered? The first game would provide some immediate answers, as AXA Advisors took on Devco. AXA has Anthony Farmer, JR Inman, and perhaps the most anticipated player in the entire league, freshman Hamady N'diaye. Devco, meanwhile, features Marquis Webb and Jaron Griffin. In the second game between Aeropostle and Bignell Planning, I would get to see Jason Cherry, Frank Russsell, Ollie Bailey and Courtney Nelson – whose debut might've rivaled N'diaye's in anticipation.
I saw pretty much what I expected to see: Anthony Farmer showed the results of a full first year of Div. 1 play, looking tough, strong and solid, and like he's ready to take the next step in his development. Inman simply looks like he's ready to emerge as Rutgers best player this year and potentially one of its best ever. So smooth and fluid for someone his size! N'diaye (or maybe I should call him Hamady, as I think he'll be one of those guys that get's referred to by their first name more than their last) is everything we've expected: athletic, very coordinated, and raw. One thing I didn't expect, however, was the nice form he displayed on his shooting stroke. He should not be a liability at the foul line. And boy, can he block shots.
Marquis Webb continues to improve in every way, and I couldn't help but think to myself, as I saw him warming up with Jaron Griffin, how appropriate it was that Rutgers' two wing players, senior and sophomore, were paired together on the same team: "Yep Griff, do the things Marquis does", I thought. "Work hard like he does, follow his lead, and you'll be more than OK". The game itself was highly entertaining, but I no doubt found it so because I'm a Rutgers fan. It definitely resembled more of a pick-up game as there wasn't much tough defense played; the final score was something like 106 – 84, AXA, and aside from a stretch where Hamady was on a roll blocking shots, the thing I remember most was the somewhat odd sight of Hamady jumping center against Griffin on the opening tip-off. (Hamady won)
In addition to Courtney Nelson's debut, the second game saw Frank Russell do his best Shaquille O'Neal imitation early-on, scoring his team's first two baskets on dunks - he had three in the first half. One couldn't help but wonder why he didn't see more playing time last year. Jason Cherry looked the hard-working walk-on that he is and played well, and the imposing-looking Ollie Bailey seems like he's primed for a break-out season. When I shook his hand I felt like mine was being completely swallowed by his. I didn't stay for the end of the second game, so I didn't see Courtney Nelson sustain his injury. Prior to leaving I was impressed by what he showed: great quickness, penetrated easily, always looking to pass. His shot was not falling, however, and he and his teammates were out of synch. Rustiness, I guess.
So upon returning on Tuesday there were still three RU players left to inspect. Byron Joynes, Adrian Hill, and Shayle Keating. Turns out Joynes will not be playing, as he continues to rehab from shoulder surgery and hyperextended toes. Shayle Keating started for his team and played quite well. Adrian Hill, meanwhile, looked - and played – like someone completely healed from knee surgeries. At one point when Ollie Bailey walked past and they exchanged greetings, I thought of how far Rutgers has come in upgrading its talent. After all, neither might start this year, and the thought that players such as these two might actually be coming off the bench for Rutgers would have seemed utterly inconceivable in previous years. (For those who remember: Jamal Phillips, RU 1991-95 - Ollie Bailey and Adrian Hill look like Karl Malone compared to him)
But I didn't see Courtney Nelson, didn't know of his injury, and didn't know why he wasn't playing. When I finally saw him he was up in the bleachers with Jaron Griffin -and Quincy Douby. I had heard that he was there on Sunday, but there he was again. The man who the very next night would be hearing his name called by David Stern, and become Rutgers first 1st round draft pick since Roy Hinson in 1983. I was briefly in awe of the moment. I introduced myself and told him that he knows my sister, who works for Rutgers. A smile creased his face: "Tell her I said 'Hi'", he said. I asked him how the workouts were going, he said fine. He said he worked out for 17 teams and was told he'd be picked anywhere from 14th to 25th. (Turns out he was told pretty accurate info, going 19th) He said he'll be a combo guard in the NBA like Jason Terry.
It was then, as I stood there in the balcony talking to him, alongside Jaron Griffin and Courtney Nelson, that the past seemed to come to life and merge with the present – and the future. Here was the greatest Rutgers basketball player of the last 25 years - one night away from the biggest moment of his life - back for one more night of watching his now ex-teammates one more time. It seemed as if Phil Sellers and Eddie Jordan and all the rest, whose exploits stirred the crowd to cheer so loudly that paint chips would fall from the rafters of the old gym, should've been there with us, as we watched JR Inman and Hamady N'diaye. Indeed, for that brief moment, it felt like they were.