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.