by Bill Henk
What follows is a story about Marquette hoops and education that I’ve enjoyed telling the past four years. But now that I’m blogging, I can share it with our readers. Hope you like it.
First, though, I have to tell you something about myself, and I promise to be brief.
I absolutely LOVE basketball. Always have. When I was just a little guy, I practiced for hours on end, hoping that the big kids would let me play with them. Eventually they did, and at first they thought it was amusing how a kid my size had game. But later they regretted it, because I started humiliating them.
In the years that followed, the only thing that held me back was my diminutive stature, but in the summer after my junior year, I grew over five inches, and came into my own during my senior season. Then it was off to college on a scholarship to play the game I love. It was probably a pipe dream, but I really thought I’d play in the NBA — at least until I experienced a career ending knee injury after a promising sophomore year. But up until then, for better or worse, basketball was my identity and my life.
The Story Begins
So in my second year here, I was keyed up to learn that some of our Marquette basketball players were going to stop by our Hartman Literacy and Learning Center and read aloud to the children in the late afternoon. Our Hartman kids struggle with reading, and it was thought that having some MU hoopsters stopping by would be a thrill that would increase their motivation. Busy or not, I wasn’t about to miss this visit.
At the time, a former player who continued to work with the team after graduating, Todd Townsend, was asked by Dr. Lauren Leslie, the Hartman Center director, to send some players. Todd had taken some Education courses and even read to the kids himself in the previous year. I thought that we’d get some well-intentioned, but probably lesser known players, but lo and behold, in walked Dominic James, Wesley Matthews, and Steve Novak.
Dominic and Wesley were highly touted freshmen, and Steve figured to have his breakout year as a senior now that the remarkable Travis Diener had departed. The elementary school kids stood in utter amazement when they witnessed the 6’5″ Matthews and the 6’10″ Novak. They found the 5’10″ James less intimidating, and they might have warmed up to him a little more because of it!
The Story Continues
To be honest, I didn’t expect much. The players would be dragging physically after a long practice, and besides, what did they know about education? I figured that they’d be awkward with the kids and would pretty much go through the motions reading their books, hurrying up so they could get out of there.
Wow, was I ever wrong! Talk about a pleasant surprise.
Each one of the players read his book at a comfortable pace and with surprising animation. They made sure that the kids could see the pictures as they moved through the books. For goodness sakes, they even asked questions! They were gentle, soft spoken, kind, and sensitive to the children. Who would’ve thunk it?
Maybe Todd had coached them, but I honestly don’t think so. What came clear is that, from an educational standpoint, the scene could not have been drawn up any better. Here were three fine young men taking the time to be role models for children in need of inspiration.
Some of you probably know that Steve Novak had a well earned reputation around campus of being a really good guy. The Marquettte nation didn’t know much about the two freshmen apart from the fact that Dominic had been runner-up in the hoops-crazed state of Indiana as its Mr. Basketball, and Wesley was Mr. Basketball in Wisconsin. I got to spend time around both of them at a practice and on a road trip, and they certainly seemed like gentlemen to me.
On that day in the Hartman Center, it was Dominic who shined brightest among two other “reading stars.” He talked to the children about the importance of listening to parents and teachers, and how necessary it was to learn how to read and get a good education. Then he spoke to the need for them to achieve good grades, and that he definitely planned to use what he had learned in school when his basketball playing days were over. At the end he said that the odds of making it in the NBA were slim, so he was grateful to the university for giving him the opportunity to obtain a degree that would serve him for a lifetime.
I’m not kidding when I tell you that his remarks brought tears to my eyes. My already solid respect for the basketball program skyrocketed that day. If these three players were indicative of the caliber of young men we recruited to Marquette, then I had even more reason to be proud of this university.
The Story Ends
Marquette basketball fans already know much of the ending. Most importantly, all three did well academically and graduated. In that season, Steve Novak went on to have a first-team All Big East year, and Dominic received Rookie of the Year honors in the conference.
Along with Wesley, and their fellow freshman running mate, Jerel McNeal, the trio demonstrated that the Golden Eagles could be a force in the Big East for the next three years. And were they ever!
Following the season, Steve was drafted by the Houston Rockets in the second round and played there before being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers where he is a reserve on the roster.
Wesley appears to have made the Utah Jazz squad, and is getting about 20 minutes per game and scoring nicely. Rumor has it that the organization really likes his drive and attitude.
Dominic played for the Milwaukee Bucks in the Las Vegas Summer League, suffered yet another regrettable injury, and eventually was released. He received an offer from a Turkish club in Mercin, but I’m not sure if he took it or not.
Let me end by wishing all three of these Marquette alumni the very best, and by saying that I’m thankful to Dominic, Wesley, and Steve for making that one day so special for the College of Education, but most especially, for our appreciative Hartman Center kids.