Stanford basketball has made a remarkable rise into the upper echelon of college hoopdom in the Monty era, though I've long felt there was more to this magic than we see on the court. On The Bootleg, we have analyzed and dissected the structure of the defense and the evolution of the offense. We've traced the incremental improvements in athleticism and overall team depth. The recruiting rise has been well documented. All of this in breakdowns of games and practices, in stories and on the HoopsBoard. But there is a hidden component I've sensed that we have missed, regardless of how many games we follow, or how close to the locker room we might venture. This component is the team chemistry built and pervasive off the court between the players, a bond running through each of them that together describes them as not a team, but a genuine family. I've been surprised over the last week at the depth and breadth of this family unit, revealed through conversations I've been privileged to share with several of the players.
It all starts with the quality of the people in the Stanford program, and the environment they are in. Says senior Tony Giovacchini of the coaches' efforts, "It's the type of players they recruit. They make a real effort to bring in good kids, looking beyond just what they can do on the court. I think they take a real pride in the people on the team." But beyond recruiting, the coaches nurture the players and their personal development through other activities. Several players talked about the coaches checking in with them at all times. The leading topic is not surprisingly how they are doing in classes, which is a constant focus for Stanford athletes, but they also check up on non-academic and non-basketball items. Just like any Stanford student, there are stresses and pressures being away from home and in such a dynamic environment.
But that Stanford environment may be at the core of what helps these young men to bond so tightly. "I don't think most schools in the country are as hard as Stanford, but that helps bring us closer together. We build a lot of chemistry getting through it together," opines junior Casey Jacobsen.
Every player I talked to remarked that there are lessons to be learned about what to do, and how to get things done efficiently and effectively at Stanford. The role Casey and the other upperclassmen try to provide to the freshmen is as mentor, giving advice not just in response to difficulties, but getting it up front to help steer clear of difficulties.
With the frosh that just arrived at Stanford, they have received two orientations on campus: the University welcome and that from their teammates and coaches. They are armed with tips on how to navigate administrative offices, Athletic Department resources, student organizations, freshman classes and campus social events. Everything from how to get your books to which parties to hit on which nights.
Some of the most particular guidance they receive pertains to the court, though. A couple of the guys talked about knowing the do's and don'ts in practices, and how to pick up on what it takes for Stanford basketball. There are specific things the coaches look for in practices, which the upperclassmen help point out to steepen learning curves and make for easier adjustments from high school. "You have to work on things like footwork, and certain drills - how to do it well and do it right," says sophomore Matt Lottich. He was sure to add that even heading into his second year, he's still learning and working to get there. Beyond just getting to where Monty wants you to be, the Stanford offense carries a lot of complexity for a freshman. "More than 50 plays," as described by one player.
Tony G remembers from his early days: "My freshman year was tough. I went from a small time high school to the #1 team in the country... there were just too many plays. I remember I was in a game and just didn't know what the play was. But that happens every year, so I just try to give reassurance to the guys." Tony goes on to talk about the mentorship he received: "Mikey (McDonald) and I got really close. Seems that everyone gets close to someone. Through my first three years, Mikey really looked after me. Actually, it even goes back to guys like Pete Sauer, Kris Weems and Mark Madsen. I really benefited from those guys."
The support is needed even for the most confident of freshmen like Casey Jacobsen. "I remember it like it was yesterday. David Moseley and Mark Madsen helped me so much. You come in really nervous, regardless of how good you are. And it's not just the basketball. The school can be intimidating at first. They helped me with that a lot." More impressive to Casey was the help he got on the court from Ryan Mendez, even as they competed for the same position that year. "Ryan Mendez helped a lot freshman year. He could have been a jerk and tried to intimidate me. But he was cool and supportive of me. I don't think that would happen at other places. That's just the type of guys we have on the team."
Some players remember receiving the welcome and care from their teammates before even arriving. Curtis Borchardt got calls from Ryan Mendez and Mark Madsen "all summer." Casey Jacobsen was invited by Madsen to his house in Danville prior to the start of school to work out and get into "Stanford shape." Chris Hernandez emailed with several guys on the team, and noted how quickly and courteously they responded to him.
Chris and his fellow freshmen have already in their first couple weeks been struck by the kindness and camaraderie from their teammates. Josh Childress forgot to pack much in the way of socks, but was quickly aided by Curtis, who didn't hesitate to give him ten pairs of socks. Rob Little missed dinner on one of his first days on campus after walking a blind girl to class, but Tyler Besecker brought Rob back to his pad for dinner. Though the season hasn't officially started yet, the entire team has broken up into workout groups, with a heavy regimen of early morning lifting and training. Says Borchardt, "I remember how tough it was to not have a car as a freshman, so we always make sure to offer rides to the new guys and ask them how they're doing."
The freshmen couldn't be more pleased with it all so far. "It's a pretty good feeling. I've only been here for a week or so, but everyone feels so close. We feel like brothers... Everyone has bonded really quick. I don't know how it happened so fast," said Josh. Chris is equally enamored with the team and the Stanford community: "Everybody is so nice. Not just nice, but really welcome. Guys don't just say 'hey' to you. The really care about what you're doing. There are just so many people here that really care."
Josh and Chris both feel that this atmosphere impacted them back in their recruitment, and helped to bring them to Stanford. "I noticed it from the beginning - everyone hangs out with each other. There are no groups. It did leave an impression on me," says Childress. "Everybody seemed tight, and I didn't see any negativity. Everybody was just cool with each other. Everybody made me feel included, not just an outside part. They made me feel a part of the team," recalls Hernandez.
The upperclassmen also remember how Stanford's sense of family positively affected their decision to come to Stanford. Matt Lottich was high on what Stanford stood for, as a superlative combination of basketball and academics, but had his reservations about what life might be like. "I thought it might be full of geeks. I wanted to make sure I could have a good social life." With that focus for his official visit, Lotty was more than a little surprised. "I came out here, and it's just perfect, in a word. People here are different - they're just so nice. I come from Chicago, and it took a little getting used to."
Curtis Borchardt acknowledges how much the atmosphere influenced his decision: "It was one of the main reasons I came here." Casey Jacobsen echoes that sentiment: "I came to Stanford for a reason - these guys are so much fun to be with."
There are some parts of the Stanford team that have stuck year after year, and help define them as a group in the same way that traditions are an important part of any family. For freshmen, they have to endure a few things at the whims of the upperclassmen, but the players look back on those times longingly. Lotty talks of carrying extra bags on road trips, but says he was proud to show his toughness. No big deal. Tony Giovacchini gave me several foggy descriptions of a freshman initiation every year, but was reticent to disclose details. "There are some special things for freshmen, things that happen during the season. It's almost like you wait for them and are not officially a part of the team until you go through them. When I was a freshman, I was terrified of the initiation. But after it happened, I really felt close with all the guys - more than ever."
On road trips, the coaches make sure that every guy rooms with a different teammate every trip. Never twice in one season with the same guy. The players say it's a great way to keep getting closer with all the guys, and a fun part of road trips. If the team comes away from the trip without a loss, there is a tradition they get to perform as a team on the bus or plane ride home. I couldn't get details, but have heard in the past mention of a team song... Whatever cloaked tradition it may be, the guys sure do look forward to road trips and wins so they can do it together coming home.
There is also an intrasquad football game played each fall, with notorious competitiveness despite the lack of football experience on the team. Matt Lottich was a star QB in Chicago, and talks with great enthusiasm and anticipation about this fall's classic. "Last year, some guys were hurt, so I didn't have the speedy receivers. But we'll be healthy this year and score big." Tony Giovacchini described the game as a "constant comedy" throughout, that has guys competing and laughing hard. "It's a great game and always really brings us together."
Random Acts of Kindness
But the more I talked with these guys, the more it became clear that this family isn't just about getting recruits or bringing the frosh along. It's a pervasive attitude through all of their days, through all of their years. And it's a heck of a lot of time they spend together.
"One night, I'm going out to a movie with Nick Robinson and his wife. The next night, I'm out with four of five of the guys racing go-carts. We pretty much do everything together," says Borchardt. Jacobsen, who lives together in a four-man unit with Curtis, Tyler and Julius Barnes, adds, "We see movies a lot, but play video games a lot. We work out so much that we're tired and want to do some things a little more stationary. Playing video games gives us the competitive aspect, as well." For those video game aficionados out there, you might be surprised to learn the favorite game for this group right now: RBI Baseball on the original, old-school Nintendo.
These guys get out plenty, though. Just a few weeks ago, they went to the opening football game against Boston College. There has been quite a bit of soccer attended lately, as well. Some of that soccer affinity might extend back to last spring, when the team had special practices and workouts to prepare their summer trip to Australia. Apparently, those workouts overlapped and put them side-by-side with the women's soccer team, who according to one team member "started talking trash." One thing led to another, and soon a challenge was given to pit the men's hoops team against the women's soccer team on the soccer field. Kyle Logan was a key star on the field, pulling from his high school playing days, while Jason Collins was en fuego in the goal. The women argued that the addition of two team managers to the hoops team was a stretch, but necessary according to the guys, who needed to field a full team. Though the women charged one of the managers as a "ringer," the final and official result gave the hoopsters a victory on the field. It was a huge victory and a great time together for the guys.
Another great time the team has had together was on that Australia trip. The time they spent in a fascinating country, both on and off the court, gave them a "head start" on team bonding and unity for this fall season, according to Giovacchini. "We had guys bungee jumping off mountaintops together. That trip was the experience of a lifetime, and we spent it all together. It was amazing."
Just in the last week or two since school started, the team has gone to Coach Russell Turner's house for an outstanding dinner cooked by Russell's wife. This past weekend, the team all gathered at Monty's house for a team barbeque. Tony G also just had a BBQ at his place for his teammates.
Some of the most impactive moments in these young men's Stanford careers haven't come at a dinner, on the soccer field, or even on an Australian mountaintop. The sharing and giving of each other has said far more about how these guys feel about each other. Giovacchini remembers a couple years back when the team traveled to Los Angeles to play Auburn in the Wooden Classic over Thanksgiving. It's a little tough with Stanford basketball regularly playing holiday tournaments and events, but this occasion was in Southern California and close to some of the players' families. Monty gave an extra day off for people to see their families in the area. Those further from home weren't left out, though. Tony, along with Ryan Mendez and David Moseley, went with Mike McDonald to the McDonald household for Thanksgiving dinner. "Being included in someone else's family really opened my eyes to how close this team is."
Matt Lottich felt the same impact last year, when he and the guys on the team got together to help freshman Nick Robinson. Nick had a tough time getting around campus, between classes and practices and more, as a rare Stanfordite without a bike. So the team pitched in and bought Nick a bike for Christmas, and classmate Lottich was struck. "I thought 'wow.' Even though it wasn't directed at me, it really impressed me how tight this team was."
In reflecting back upon what these young men are gaining from the tight family at Stanford, they don't mix words about how positive it has been for them. Curtis Borchardt was home with his family this summer, but missed Stanford and the team tremendously. "I had a great time home over the summer, but I was really looking forward to being back at school, just to be here with the guys again." In the big picture, Curtis has even stronger feelings. "This was probably the best decision of my life. I've never, never regretted my decision to come to Stanford. There really is the best of both worlds here - a sense of family and a lot of great friends."
Matt Lottich feels that this group uniquely helped him to adjust and adapt so far away from his home. "It was tough coming from Chicago, where everybody knew me. I came here and had to start all over - nobody knew me. But these guys accepted me from day one. Tony and Mikey took me out the first day. We hung out and stayed up all night."
Perhaps one of the strongest testaments to the impact of this family comes from Casey Jacobsen, who had a difficult decision last spring in deciding whether to return to Stanford or head to the NBA and millions of dollars. Was leaving his teammates a major factor in that decision to return? "Absolutely," says Casey. "I have so much fun at Stanford. It is a place that you don't want to leave at any age. The guys on this team make me want to play basketball at Stanford forever."
Hearing these stories has made an impact on me, as well. I am not ashamed to admit that each March in Maples Pavilion, when Senior Day comes and a group of young men are recognized before their final home game at Stanford, tears come to my eyes. I well up with emotion because of how much those individuals have meant to me over the last four years, and the countless memories they have given me. But from this season forward, I will tear up for an entirely new understanding of just how much these young men mean to each other. They are far more than just teammates - they are brothers and best friends who share something truly extraordinary for their four years. Each other.