Loyalty the Name of the Game for Many #NECMBB Stars, Past and Present
The thought weighed on Glenn Sanabria’s mind for quite some time. With a difficult decision looming, he wanted to speak with his coach, Glenn Braica, sooner rather than later. Theoretically, the point guard could’ve waited until the conclusion of the 2017-18 campaign to air his concerns, one that pitted academics and his love for Terrier hoops against each other. But he believed initiating the discussion was prudent.
“His mom wanted him to take grad classes for his fifth year and at the time we talked about it, (St. Francis Brooklyn) didn’t have the grad program that he wanted,” Braica recalled of his past conversation with Sanabria. “And I said ‘look we’ll support you either way.’”
Then entering his fourth year at St. Francis Brooklyn – and third year of eligibility – Sanabria didn’t know if the college situated on Remsen Street would be a fit for him at a graduate level. St. Francis wasn’t offering the Organizational Management program that he desired, and it put him in an awkward position.
Would he stay loyal to Braica, the first coach to offer him a Division I scholarship, or would he become a graduate transfer after the season? Given the Staten Island native’s reputation as a heady, tenacious floor general, the prospect of transferring to a bigger Division I program that offered a graduate degree in Organizational Management seemed inviting.
While some players would’ve left Brooklyn under this scenario, Sanabria is wired differently compared to the average student-athlete. It’s loyalty that reigns supreme for him, even as the allure of competing on a bigger stage would’ve enticed another player in his position in this day and age. He chose to remain a Terrier.
“In my mind I’m confident I can play in any type of situation, but it wasn’t really about that,” Sanabria, who was 13th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, said. “And then even more after the season, I still feel like there’s more to prove here with the team.”
It worked out in the end, as St. Francis ended up adding Organizational Management to its list of graduate programs in time for the 2018 fall semester.
A myriad of factors ultimately aided Sanabria’s decision to stay, but first and foremost, loyalty stood out. That certainly wasn’t a surprise to Sanabria’s former teammate, Jalen Cannon, who lauded Sanabria for his maturity, poise and dedication as a freshman starter, when Cannon was a senior, on a 23-win Terrier squad that won the NEC regular season championship.
A few years prior, Cannon himself had an opportunity to leverage a successful two-year stint – 11.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 55.6% FG as an underclassman – at St. Francis into something bigger. Like Sanabria though, Cannon’s devotion to the first and only Division I coach to offer him a scholarship took precedence over anything else.
“I never even thought about transferring after my freshman or sophomore year,” Cannon, the 2014-15 NEC Player of the Year and all-time leading rebounder in league history, revealed via email while in Italy, as he plays professionally for Fortitudo Agrigento in Sicily. “There were always people back home who tried to convince me to see what bigger schools were out there. I felt I owed Coach Braica everything.”
Junior Robinson, another fellow NEC Player of the Year who was a point guard adversary of Sanabria several times, is grateful he decided to stick it out at the Mount for the entirety of his college career. The multi-faceted 5-foot-5 guard certainly had the athleticism and playmaking skills to call a Power 5 program his home during the latter half of his college career.
Again, it was about staying true to the coach that believed in you first before anyone else did. “He’s helped me really mature, as a player and a person,” Robinson said of Jamion Christian, then the coach of Mount St. Mary’s. “There are times where I would make immature choices on and off the court and he would just pull me to his office and sit and talk with me for hours.”
The tough-love bond Robinson shared with Christian was paramount in helping him decide that staying in Emmitsburg, Maryland was the right decision. And that’s even when the star guard saw a number of his teammates voluntarily defect, for various reasons, over the course of his Mountaineers tenure.
Robinson’s devotion paid off, starting with a trip to the NCAA tournament as a junior, followed by an exceptional senior season – 22.0 ppg, 4.8 apg, 1.2 spg on an 18-win Mountaineers team. To top it off, the North Carolina native is playing professionally for Saenz Horeca Araberri in Spain and delighted fans with a scintillating 20-point performance in his NBA summer league finale last August for the Atlanta Hawks.
While the personal and team accolades are noteworthy in their own right, Robinson’s decision to remain a Mountaineer helped him grow as a leader on a team that had 13 freshmen in his final season.
Speaking via WhatsApp from Spain after practice, Robinson realizes now how much those leadership lessons helped him in becoming the player he is now. Had he moved onto a bigger program and became more of a role player instead of “the man”, it’s likely that leadership training wouldn’t have presented itself.
“He basically forced me to lead that group of 13 freshmen,” Robinson said of Christian. “He made me be the one to always talk to them, to call up group meetings, I had to do all that stuff. It was really out of my comfort zone, because I wasn’t used to that.”
The loyalty of the college basketball student-athlete is becoming more of a rarity these days. With better resources, more television exposure and more opportunities to fine tune your game and body before a professional basketball endeavor, some players are understandably taking their careers into their own hands.
While those positives do exist for the past Northeast Conference stars such as Matt Mobley (St. Bonaventure), Marcquise Reed (Clemson), Cane Broome (Cincinnati) and Josh Nebo (Texas A&M), it’s the other transfers that aren’t necessarily looking to move up; instead, they opt to leave a situation that hasn’t materialized to their liking. In some cases, they’re leaving in the face of adversity.
According to Verbal Commits, there were 877 transfers in Division I after the 2017-18 season. More specifically, less than half of those transfers went back to a Division I program, with the remainder either going to Division 2, NAIA, or 2-year colleges. The data illustrates that while the up-transfers have generated much of the attention at the mid-major level, it’s the players who leave after a lack of playing time as underclassmen, and subsequently transfer down, that’s become more prevalent.
This player movement is all fine with Greg Herenda, even though he’s seen his fair share of transfers – up-transfers and the like – over the course of his six-year run as Fairleigh Dickinson’s head coach. He understands the mentality of a player’s decision to transfer, and the positives that decision may provide. But he’s also indebtedly thankful that his current seniors, Darnell Edge and Mike Holloway, are around as 4-year players when either could have left as underclassmen, for different reasons.
“I think it goes way beyond basketball,” Herenda explained at NEC Social Media Day this past October. “It shows them in life – and our mantra is C.P.A., commitment, persevere and achieve – it goes way beyond basketball, that these young men, instead of looking at the grass being greener or just things don’t go well and they jump ship, that in life they’re going to stick with and commit to something. And then when things aren’t perfect, like the end of (last season) right here in Brooklyn was very hard [Fairleigh Dickinson lost to LIU Brooklyn in the NEC tournament semifinals, 78-77], but guess what? You have to persevere through it.”
Herenda then went on to discuss a couple of his players, past and present. “And I applaud Marques Townes (who transferred to Loyola Chicago), I’m a big Marques Townes fan, but guess what, that was his path. And in this day and age, everyone’s paths in life and in basketball vary, but I just think Darnell Edge punching the clock and putting that (NCAA free throw shooting statistical champion) plaque on our locker room and putting (up) an NCAA appearance and now being the face of our program just shows so much about the individual.”
Edge didn’t see much of floor as a freshman, blocked by a talented backcourt that featured Darian Anderson, Stephan Jiggetts and the aforementioned Townes. His playing time as a result wasn’t consistent and fell to a little more than 9 minutes per game over the team’s final seven games. Nevertheless, Edge trusted that if he put the work in, the playing time would eventually come.
And it did. As a junior, Edge earned a spot on the All-NEC third team after leading all NCAA Division I players in free throw percentage (94.4%). He averaged 14.5 ppg and led his team in 3-pointers made (60), steals (40) and minutes played (34.1 mpg) en route to a well deserved team MVP award. At NEC Social Media Day, Herenda called Edge “an incredible leader on and off the floor.”
Holloway, like Cannon before him, likely had the chance to up-transfer after two successful seasons at Fairleigh Dickinson. With his 6-foot-11 brother Rashaan playing in the Atlantic 10 at UMass, Holloway was certainly cognizant of the brighter lights he could be exposed to, so to speak.
“Honestly my brother would tell me all the time, you belong at a bigger school,” Holloway said when asked about the influences he encountered after his sophomore year. “Sometimes he’d say you belong bigger than where I’m at.”
Rashaan was, of course, looking out for his brother’s best interest, but in the long run the younger Mike wanted to be at the place where he was most comfortable. “I still decided to stick it out because I believe I belong in a FDU Knights uniform,” he said.
Holloway also has forged a critical partnership with his head coach, even if getting there has been, well, bumpy at times. “Honestly, the guy, he’s crazy,” Holloway said with a smile when asked why he remained loyal to Herenda. “He gets on my nerves, but he’ll push you to play harder and to push his team to win and that’s honestly the two best things I love about him.”
Comfort, paired with staunch loyalty, can be credited as a driving force much of the time when NEC players want to be a part of their respective program’s history. Holloway is very much aware of that, as is his cousin and fellow All-NEC preseason first team recipient, Keith Braxton.
When Braxton explains his reasoning for not transferring from Saint Francis University after a stupendous start to his collegiate career, he always goes back to loyalty, comfort and community. It’s the least he could do after Rob Krimmel and the Red Flash emerged as one of the only Division I destinations for Braxton to consider after his preparatory season at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.
“I just wanted a chance and that was it and they gave me more than that,” Braxton said when asked about his noteworthy loyalty. “You know they helped develop me, they made me a better person here.”
In the midst of his tough decision last offseason on whether to stay the course at Saint Francis, one thing became obviously apparent to Braxton: “I was talking to a lot of guys and the culture that they build up here in Loretto, everybody up here is family, everyone is close, the coaching staff, the players and you know it’s just a community around here. You just always have someone to talk to, whether it’s alumni, current players and coaches. That’s the kind of bond I wanted when I was looking for a school.”
Braxton is positioning himself as one of the all time greats, not just at Saint Francis, but also within the NEC. The junior currently stands with 1,323 points, 792 rebounds, 284 assists and 139 steals and has the opportunity to become the first conference player to score 2,000 points and corral 1,000 rebounds in league history.
Former LIU Brooklyn great and three-time NEC champion Jamal Olasewere appreciates where someone like Braxton is coming from. He understands what it means to build your entire career at one institution. He stands as LIU’s all-time leading scorer with 1,871 points and, perhaps more importantly, was a significant part of the Blackbirds unprecedented three-year dynasty as NEC tournament champions and NCAA tournament participants from 2011-13. Even if one player – Olasewere, Kyle Johnson, Julian Boyd, Jason Brickman, CJ Garner – from that spectacular core decided to test the transfer waters, then the dynasty likely never happens and history is never made.
For Olasewere, he’ll never forget about being part of LIU Brooklyn and NEC lore, but building those relationships that last a lifetime takes the cake. Especially when he goes back to the LIU Brooklyn campus every summer during the offseason of his professional career.
“I was able to cement myself as a legend in that school, not just with basketball, but off the court,” Olasewere confirmed from Italy, where he is a professional player for Remer TVG. “You make so many friends with professors, faculty, staff, you know you go there and they just remember you. You’ve been there for the four years, I’m not even just talking about the basketball, I’m just talking about the relationships you’re able to garner from staying in that school. And those kind of things are the things that go on for a lifetime.”
The NEC is fully aware that loyalty, comfort and community serve as the main reasons for past and present players staying within the league. The conference’s recent All In, Ball Out campaign has focused on bringing out these core values by enhancing the overall experience for student-athletes, primarily in men’s and women’s basketball. While these initiatives were specifically rolled out at the latest NEC Social Media Day, this was actually the second part of a multi-year process the league has undertaken. In truth, this has been a priority long before transfers were a major storyline of the college basketball offseason.
With basketball officially at the forefront of the league’s attention over the past two years, NEC Commissioner Noreen Morris and her colleagues have made a concerted effort in retaining their student athletes. “There was a plan and we attacked it from all different perspectives, but all with the intention of elevating the level of play and also elevating the atmosphere around our games so that our student-athletes are getting a better experience,” Morris said.
Initiatives that revolve around optimizing non-conference scheduling, improving game promotions and activities, and requiring programs to add on-campus fueling stations for their players are just some of the examples the league’s programs have willingly implemented of late.
The All In, Ball In rollout comes at an ideal time, with eight of the league’s top 11 scorers in their third, fourth or fifth season at their respective school. This is a departure from recent seasons, when the leaderboard would be littered with upstart underclassmen or former transfers.
This year, those top scorers populating the list such as Raiquan Clark, Romone Saunders, Sean Hoehn, Edge, Braxton, Adam Grant, SaBastian Townes and Jamaal King illustrate what hard work and perseverance will bring the NEC student-athlete if they’re fully committed to their basketball program. A few of them were even part of the All In, Ball Out media campaign that began this preseason.
While it’s difficult to determine how much this campaign has helped in retaining talent, Morris is optimistic that the opportunities presented for upperclassmen will work to the league’s benefit. “I think we’ve built up a nice community of student-athletes and they feel like a part of something, so we’re trying to build on that,” she said.
Clark was a former walk-on who easily could’ve jumped ship until Jack Perri offered him a scholarship as a sophomore. Saunders has seen several teammates over his five-year tenure transfer, yet he decided to stay with Bashir Mason and Wagner even though his bruising, 6-foot-3 body would’ve been an asset in a bigger program’s backcourt. Through a work ethic that’s second to none, Hoehn has progressed from a role player to an efficient volume scorer. Edge and King could’ve determined their programs weren’t a fit after one season of light playing time and opted for a change of scenery as sophomores. Grant and Townes could’ve used the recent coaching change at Bryant as an excuse to explore what else was out there on the Division I landscape.
For each of them, loyalty, comfort and community likely played a role in their decision. And while student-athletes are putting their own collegiate careers into their own hands, and sometimes rightfully so, it’s refreshing to know that these core values aren’t lost on all of them. The Northeast Conference has had their fair share of recent successes of four and five-year players and will continue to do so moving forward. And the league is hopeful their efforts from a school and conference level will be fruitful from a competitive standpoint.
As the former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell once said, “Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty and persistence.” The NEC has plenty of college basketball student-athletes who are living by this mantra everyday.