Berkeley, CA --- Cal's men's basketball team, ranked in the Top 15 nationally, is subject to high expectations by fans and alums this year. In his second year at the helm, head coach Cuonzo Martin has landed a top-5 recruiting class, and great things are expected of the team on the court.
So it was only natural to talk to returning players from last year's squad about the "new kids", forwards Ivan Rabb, Jalen Brown and Roman Davis. What was unexpected was the responses from returnees Sam Singer, Stephen Domingo, and senior Tyrone Wallace.
Their replies did not focus on the exceptional basketball talent of the three freshmen; instead, all three veterans spoke of the unexpected maturity, humility and depth of the newcomers. Singer said that the incoming class of recruits was "way more mature than we were; we were goof-offs by comparison". Domingo said, "They are super-mature, they can carry off conversations outside of basketball."
When pressed a little further and asked how they knew so much about their new teammates, Singer first spilled the beans, explaining that there was a regular event on Sundays, in the locker room, after breakfast. Led by Director of Basketball Operations Marco Harris, the team gathers to discuss a specific subject for the week, although the conversations can stray afield.
When the assembled media asked what the topics were, the players were reluctant to give any specifics, saying they were "topics of importance in today's world". When Singer was asked to be more specific, he seemed at a loss for the right words, so after a few seconds, Domingo, who red-shirted after transferring from Georgetown a year ago, jumped in. The exchange was quite instructive.
"Well, for instance," Domingo said, "we talk about what it means to be a man." Domingo then demonstrated his knowledge of that subject by turning to Singer and apologizing for answering a question directed to Singer.
The players said the sessions, known in a previous century as "bull sessions", were moderated by "Coach Harris", and that the players viewed them as a team-building activity. Known as "Real Talk", the sessions are conducted in the locker room, with the occasional "accidental" attendance by Martin and other members of the coaching staff. Martin was very clear, however, that during the sessions, he's "just another guy offering an opinion", and that there are no right answers to the questions being posed. What matters most is participation, learning to listen to one another's views, learn about the lives that formed those views, and going through the process.
Domingo explained, "Jalen, Ivan and Roman are wise beyond their years; they can talk about any controversial issue. I don't want to say any of the issues."
This seems to be a little bit more than the unwritten rule "What you say in the locker room stays in the locker room." The young men seemed to be reticent to acknowledge that they were discussing matters rarely, if ever, touched on in the classroom. Matters of life, of survival in the modern world where everyone you see has the ability to record your words and actions and publish them to the world before you get home from a party, for instance.
It is instructive to remember that Cal has had problems with graduation rates over the past decade. It was heartwarming to hear Wallace, who could easily have entered the NBA Draft after last season, explain why he returned for his senior year. The reasons included "coming back to be with my teammates for another year", "having a chance to win here at Cal", and "I wanted to finish my degree." Maybe someone schooled Wallace in giving just the right answer, but if they did, they taught him so much earnestness and openness that his next career might be on Broadway rather than Coliseum Way. It's hard to believe that the level of sincerety he showed could easily be faked.
Wallace talked about his responsibilities as a senior, "never going easy on the freshmen, don't let them get away with things on the court or off."
Martin followed his players to the dais, and when asked if the coaching staff had a routine they followed to integrate the new players into the team, or if they preferred to let the team work that out on their own, he was clear. "I think your best teams are when the older guys control the locker room," he said. "You make sure the young guys, the new guys, know what's at stake, what level you need to play at, what the coaching staff expects.
"Of course, you want your young guys brought in slowly, having fun, not making anything personal. I'm not one of those coaches with a lot of signs and slogans in the locker room - those things fade over time. I think the test is how we do our day-to-day coaching, on and off the floor."
Martin started the Real Talk sessions when he became head coach at Missouri State in 2008. "It's about life, Martins explained, "not basketball. There are 30-40 topics, life topics. How to be a man, how to survive a family crisis -- we have a book we've developed. More life skills, dealing with adversity. Rarely do we talk about anything involving sports."
The assembled reporters were insistent on trying to link this activity with basketball success. Martin demurred just a bit, instead pointing out something else - a reason to be proud that extends well beyond a nationally-ranked basketball program.
"The programs I've been associated with," he said, "again, everybody makes mistakes, it's not like we don't make mistakes...but, those things are minimized in our program because we give those guys content ahead of time, saying that 'this might happen', so when you are going through life situations, (you have some guidelines). I think, if you never talk about it, if you've never been through it, some guys make mistakes. I think, as a coach, it's your job to address this, because eventually he will become a man.
"We can umbrella their mistakes in our program, once they become men they become exposed, they are their own CEO, so we try to protect them in as many ways as possible, so that when they leave our program, they are equipped for life. It doesn't mean guys don't make mistakes and don't break laws, but we've had a great track record."
Martin then issued the disclaimer, "Now, anything can happen, so don't call me tomorrow and say 'Coach, you said this (wouldn't happen)'. I'm not saying that, because these are young men, and they will make mistakes. I tell our guys, 'Grown men make mistakes'. We want to put these guys, 18-22 years old, on a pedestal. A mistake, we learn from it and keep moving."
Martin knows that it's hard sometimes for players to speak their mind in front of the coaches, so he is adamant that if he speaks, he prefaces his comments by pointing out he's speaking as a person, not as their coach.
We always hear how sports teaches life lessons, and builds character. Personally, I don't think either of those things are inherently true. Sports reveals character; LIFE builds it. And while it may be possible to absorb the occasional life lesson from adversity on the field or court, it's a far better thing to have coaches who see it as their responsibility to present those lessons in a way that engages young players and gets them to develop their own ethics, ethos, and honor.