Enjoy this season, Rutgers fans. It’s going to be special.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know what’s going to happen. The Scarlet Knights men’s basketball team can be very good, or maybe there’s an injury and the season derails. This is not an article about the potential of the team.
It’s an article about the way this team carries itself. How, over the course of the last four years, we have gotten to know this coach and these players better than perhaps any team that has graced the floor of the RAC in the past two decades. Steve Pikiell has cultivated a group of mature, smart and friendly individuals who not only took on the challenge of turning a long time basement dweller into an NCAA team, but also one who embraced an embattled fanbase. This team—Geo Baker, Paul Mulcahy, Ron Harper Jr., Caleb McConnell, Cliff Omoruyi, Aundre Hyatt, Mawot Mag, Jaden Jones, Jalen Miller, Oskar Palmquist, Ralph Gonzalez Agee, Dean Reiber, Luke Nathan, Logan Stephens, Aiden Terry, and Andrew Fulin are people that the fanbase has gotten to know. Even the players that came before, like Myles Johnson, Nick Brooks, Jacob Young and Montez Mathis have always reached out.
Case in point, every year since he’s been here, Steve Pikiell has run an open practice for Season Ticket Holders and Rutgers Court Club members. The practices are hard, tough and fun and Pikiell always speaks to the crowd as the team goes through the drills. There was just one three weeks ago, held at the Barn. We got to see how fast and organized the team is. The crowd got to make snap judgements on who will be really good this season.
But that’s not the special part, no, the special part comes afterward. In the pre-COVID days, Pikiell would then invite the fans on to the court for a photo opportunity and a chance to shake hands with the players. I always bring my son Ben. From when he was just five years old until now, he’s grown up with this team. Jacob Young sought him out after practice to give him a nerf Rutgers football. He’s taken photos with Pikiell and the entire team. He has all their autographs.
And, though we couldn’t go on to the court last month after practice, we did get to do something just as special. If you know the Barn, you know it’s an old building with one narrow staircase that leads out to the parking lot. After practice, everyone filed down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs was Steve Pikiell, fist bumping and thanking all the fans. And in the doorway across from the stairwell, the team was waiting to leave. As we were coming down, Pikiell stopped the line at Ben and me.
“Let the team come out,” he said.
Now, I don’t know if he did this on purpose because he saw a nine year old or we just got lucky, but it worked perfectly. Because as the entire team left, Ben held his hand up and high fived each one of them. Pikiell then fist bumped both of us and said, “Go see them outside.”
Listen, the team wanted to get on the bus and go home, so I didn’t want to bother them, but we had to see Geo. It’s definitely Geo’s last year here and he’s Ben’s favorite. So I politely asked Geo if we could get a picture. He said it would be no problem. And then he looked at my son and made his day.
He said to the kid, “You’re Ben, right?”
He knew who Ben was.
It’s such a small touch, but a great one. These players know the people who follow them. Maybe not everyone. Maybe just the loud, annoying ones on social media. But you feel like they care about the fans. Ron Harper and I have gone back and forth on Twitter a few times. Nick Brooks is always willing to chat, even doing an absolutely brilliant interview on the RU Screw Podcast.
And now with Geo moving on in April and not yet knowing who will take their extra COVID season, this is the season to really appreciate these guys. In a way, we as fans have grown up with them.
It’s not like a pro sports team where players are chess pieces. Yes, we still root for laundry in a way, but we know these players and care about them. From Geo’s NIL crusade to the social justice stances to Paul Mulcahy’s Gratitude Foundation. To little things like knowing names of your fans.
To the special moments we’ve had with them through the special moments that will undoubtedly come.
What a ride it’s been. Keep it going.