Brandon Reese did something most ordinary college students can only dream of: he walked on to Syracuse University's Division I basketball team.
Reese was actually a "recruited" walk-on; former assistant head coach Bernie Fine found him in high school and offered him a spot on Syracuse's team without a scholarship.
Without knowing much about Syracuse, the 5-foot-11 Florida native headed to the dome. What followed were arguably the best four years in Syracuse University's basketball history.
Although Reese only played a few minutes per game, he instantly became a fan favorite. Now he's graduated, and he's planning to continue his basketball career abroad.
We caught up with Reese and asked him about his recruitment process, his fellow teammates, what Jim Boeheim is like, and what's next.
- Reese chose Syracuse over Miami and Duke, which were also recruiting him.
- Reese has been playing basketball since he was five. His godmother got him into the sport and he idolized Michael Jordan.
- At 5'11, Reese only weighed 135 his freshman year. Now he weighs 165.
- Andy Rautins is one of Reese's best friends.
- Reese played high school basketball with Pistons guard Brandon Knight.
- Dion Waiters is a surprisingly good rapper; he always thought he'd be the next big artist.
- Now that he's graduated, Reese will probably be playing professional basketball for Israel.
Here's the (lightly edited) interview with Reese:
College Spun (CS): What's your first memory of basketball?
Brandon Reese (BR): I've been playing since I was four or five years old. My godmother got me into the game and showed me basketball on TV. I'd come home and watch and my mom would ask, "What are you doing?"
I'd say, "Michael Jordan! Michael Jordan! On TV!" I asked if I could play and she found a league for me. By the time I was eight I was playing in six or seven different leagues at the same time.
Did you play any other sports?
BR: I've always loved almost every other sport there is, but I put my time into basketball and always wanted to play basketball. I never let myself have time for anything else.
You were a "recruited" walk-on. What was that high school recruitment process like?
BR: I definitely was trying to play in college; I've never given up on the dream to play professional basketball.
My senior year, I was being recruited by a range of Division 3 and lower-level Division 1 teams. One of my high school teammates, Brandon Knight, plays for the Pistons now. He was getting so much attention back then -- it's one of the reasons I went to that high school, to play with him.
All these coaches start watching him. And I'd have good games. One of the coaches watching was Bernie Fine. He knew one of my trainers in Florida and he offered me the position to come up to Syracuse as a recruited walk-on. He said, "You have the chance, you're on the team, you don't have to tryout, everything is already set up and taken care of for you. But there's no scholarship involved."
I was also offered that at two other schools, Duke and Miami.
Why did you choose Syracuse over Duke or Miami?
BR: I started following through with Bernie. I planned a trip up there and went with that.
Syracuse said there was a possibility I could get a scholarship, but there were no promises. I came in the first year and worked hard and got it for my sophomore, junior and senior years.
The scholarship was a real blessing. I really only have one year of college loans. It's a real, real blessing.
But, to be honest I didn't really know much about Syracuse. I knew it won the national title in 2003, but I didn't really know what I was getting into. I went in blind just saying I want to play basketball. I told myself, "I'm getting an opportunity to play, I'm starting out at the bottom really, I'm just going to make the best of what I'm going into."
Do you ever wish you had gone to a school where you would have had more playing time?
BR: Of course. The hardest thing is to sit there and not be able to complain. You're playing behind four other guys who have future contracts with the NBA. To demand playing time when you come in as a walk-on isn't something you're in the position to do; just out of respect you wouldn't do that anyway.
I would have gone to play somewhere else if there had been the opportunity. But I just took my opportunity at Syracuse and made the best of it -- I looked at it as a four-year internship. I got to play with three or four of the greatest guards, I got to learn from some of the best coaches in the country, and I got to play against the best competition. All of that only made me better.
What was it like stepping onto the Carrier Dome court for the first time during a game?
BR: Oh it was really crazy (laughs). Everyone asks, "Are you nervous?" But I would say I was more worried about messing up for Coach Boeheim. You want to make sure he's happy so he doesn't take you out of the game with the little time he does give you.
My first time walking out there was a rush. You have to cancel everything out. Like, "OK I'm in the game. I've been sitting for an hour; I'm cold and I'm not stretched, but now I have to jump right into it."
You have all these people yelling at you "Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!" They all want to see you score. It's just a matter of canceling it out and honing in on what you have to do. But it's exhilarating. You hear all those people yell at you and still be there to cheer you on; you don't want to let down the people who are still at the game.
Your freshman year there was the famous six-overtime game against UConn. What was that like from a player's perspective?
BR: It was incredible -- just being in Madison Square Garden, in New York City, in a prime time game everyone's watching and knowing you can be a part of it. You work with these guys every day in practice to get them there, then you get to see your hard work being put into a game.
Watching every game is a good feeling but that game in particular, and seeing the team being able to hang in there condition-wise for a four hour game, was incredible.
What's it like being on a D-1 sports team? Anything surprising?
BR: There are so many sacrifices. There are also all kinds of great things, like being a little celebrity. People recognize you when you go somewhere and they're thanking you. They see you and know you and stuff,. It's always a great experience and you appreciate that.
As for the schedule, basketball is year-round. Whether you're up there for the summer or not, you've got to train. You've got to push yourself and make sure you're getting in the gym every day.
You get back to school and it all starts a week after. We have team workouts with running and conditioning, and we're also playing pick-up every day. Practices start around Halloween, the first week of November, and from then on you're trying to play all the way until April. It's year-round, every day, every hour of the day. Even on days off you've got to work out, stay in shape and stay strong.
Especially me, I'm not only 5' 11", but I'm only 160-165 lbs, playing against these guys who are 200 lbs. It was worse at first. I was about 135 lbs when I first came in.
Who's your best friend on the team?
BR: Definitely Andy Rautins. He was my roommate for my first two years. He's a great guy. I remember when I first came to Syracuse, Bernie told me I'd be roommates with this redshirted senior. We had no idea who each other were but we hit it off right away and became great friends.
He helped me right when I got there, pushing me to the next level. I'd look at him playing 25-30 minutes and it made me want to push myself to get where he was. I admired and appreciated that, and you still see him doing that now, playing professionally.
Tell me something I don't know about Dion Waiters.
BR: He was my junior year roommate.
So you've got a lot of dirt then.
BR: [Laughs]. People can say, "I love the game more than anybody," but that's a guy who breathes, bleeds and is basketball. He's a great guy and a great competitor; very hard working.
But, something you don't know? I think he's since retired from it, but he used to think he was going to be the next big rapper. There still may be some videos left on YouTube.
Let's talk about the future of Syracuse. What are your thoughts on the Orange moving to the ACC?
BR: Tradition-wise, it kind of sucks. Leaving the Big East, the whole idea of the Big East Tournament, and all of those rivalries...But the ACC is as good a conference as the Big East and competition-wise it won't be a loss for SU.
You were part of, arguably, the most successful years Syracuse has ever had. What was it about that group of players that allowed for so much success?
BR: The two years before my freshman year were when the team was screwed out of a spot in the NCAA tournament. Johnny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins had the mentality, "We don't want that to happen again."
I remember freshman year when we were something like 27 and 6 going into the tournament and still those guys were worried about getting in!
It was all about learning from the past. We thought, "Let's not even put ourselves in the position where we could not get into the tournament."
So it was great leadership and great prior experience.
What's Jim Boeheim like as a coach?
BR: My experience was good. He kept it very business-like: we're here to play basketball. You're the player and I'm the coach. There is never a misconception. You have to know what you're doing, from the walk-on to the manager to a starter for the team. You know what your job is and you know what you're expected to do.
Jim doesn't need to remind you every day, but if you're slipping up and not doing your job he's going to make sure you know [laughs].
That's when you see him yell and scream and get on you. But even if he is yelling at you everyday, you're working hard and you know this guy thinks that highly of you and appreciates you, so you take it as a positive thing. It's a good growing process and learning experience.
You may not have gotten the most playing time, but you were a fan favorite. How did you resonate with the fans without much airtime?
BR: I think it was my determination. Coming in at the end of the game, no matter if its only a minute-and-a-half, I'm running end to end, contributing as hard as a can, trying to score, trying to get a guy an assist, trying to steal and trying to play like I'd play if I were in the whole time with that same high energy.
You don't necessarily expect to see that kind of energy at the end of the game. Then all of a sudden this short guy comes in. I think people just appreciated seeing that and enjoyed it.
What's next for you?
BR: I'm just trying to keep doing my dream. When you're young and people ask you what you want to do and you reply, "I want to play professional basketball," they laugh and say, "Yeah well..."
It's not even to prove everybody wrong, it's just to fulfill the dream for yourself. So I want to keep playing basketball as long as I can, for as long as my body can hold up and play at that competitive level.
I'm looking at a couple of teams in different countries and different leagues. It's a whole process and it's an exciting experience. You have an agent and people talking to you; you have to handle money. That's the biggest thing I learned at Syracuse from Andy and the guys that did go pro. Even from Coach Boeheim, how to handle things at a professional level in a professional position, it helps with everything now.
I'm going to end up in Israel most likely. It will be a good starting point for my playing professional basketball.
And after basketball?
BR: After that, I'm not really sure yet. Coaching is something I have always wanted to do. I want to stay within the game. My life has been basketball for 18 years now and I want that to continue, whether it's as a player or a coach, however it may be.
[Image via Brandon Reese]