March 7, 2008
By Jack Wilkinson –
It’s a wonderful tradition, Senior Night. A moment for players to savor, a chance for them to say goodbye, and for fans to express one final, heartfelt “Thank you.”
Thus read a student’s sign behind one baseline Thursday evening, when Georgia Tech gave one last Alexander Memorial Coliseum embrace, a rousing, roaring group hug to its three senior men’s basketball players.
To translate: A-Mo: Anthony Morrow, the 3-point arc angel and sharpshooter. Jeremis: Jeremis Smith, of course, as tough and tenacious a player, as fine a kid and captain as ever set foot on the Flats. Kami-Causey: Matt Causey, the little mop-top senior transfer who, in just one season at Tech, electrified Alexander with his energy and daring and 3’s.
There was no sign for Drew Hamilton, yet it was his Senior Night, too. Drew who? The guy sitting way down the end of the Tech bench, sitting beside – and dwarfed by – Ra’Sean Dickey. The skinny kid wearing a tie but not a suit jacket; it wouldn’t fit over the cast on his left arm, which was secured by a blue sling. Drew who? Drew the senior manager, that’s who.
Two Mondays ago, in an intramural game on the Tech campus, Drew Hamilton took his coach’s words to heart. If only all the Jackets listened as earnestly to Paul Hewitt. “No layups in our gym.” That’s what the Tech coach tells his team. The admonition’s translation: No easy, uncontested, out-for-a-Sunday-drive drives to the hoop.
“I took it to heart,” Hamilton said.
So in a critical game with playoff implications, when an opponent broke free for a seemingly easy, breakaway layup, Hamilton reacted instinctively. He took off after the guy, as his teammate – Tech assistant coach Charlton Young – watched admiringly. At least initially.
“Our team’s called ‘Big Minds,’ because we’ve gotta be smart,” Hamilton said. “C.Y. [Young] is always telling us to be smart on the court. To have big minds.”
So Hamilton, admittedly not the most, uh, defensive-oriented member of the Big Minds, high-tailed it down court in pursuit. “I like to play corner-to-corner basketball,” he said, grinning. “Go corner to corner and shoot the 3.”
Instead, he awakened his inner, defensive D’Andre Bell and closed in on his prey – who plays on a team featuring Taylor Bennett, Tech’s soon-to-transfer quarterback. Bennett was never sacked as hard as Hamilton.
“The guy saw me coming,” he said, “and he faked.” Saw Hamilton in pursuit, and stopped, to let him commit. “I came up on his shoulder and I jumped,” Hamilton said. “And I was coming down and, to brace myself, I put out my hand.”
His left hand, naturally. “I’m a natural lefty, Hamilton said. “I knew right away it was pretty messed up. I heard the popping. I’m holding the elbow, walking off the court. And my dad came up to me and asked, ‘Are you hurt, or are you injured?'”
That’s what Hoyt Hamilton used to ask his sons, Drew and Brad, now a Tech sophomore and an assistant basketball manager, whenever they were banged up while playing Little League baseball or other sports while growing up in Clearwater, Fla. Hoyt – a Jackets basketball manager from 1976-80 while a Tech undergrad – saw Drew get hurt because his son had forgotten his jersey at their Smyrna home and phoned his father to ask him to bring it.
When Hoyt Hamilton spied Drew’s elbow, he knew the answer to his question. “My ulna and humerus were both fractured,” said Drew, who sat beside his father and watched the Big Minds lose in four overtimes and miss the playoffs. “The bones basically went into each other and split down the middle.”
This was confirmed by football trainer Clay Farr, who happened to be in the gym playing basketball himself when Hamilton was hurt. The next morning, Drew’s elbow and forearm were placed in a cast. This was the first time he’d ever broken a bone.
The immediate fallout? “I missed the Duke trip [last week], and I’m missing the Boston College trip,” Hamilton said. “I’ve never been to Boston College [where Tech plays its regular-season finale Saturday afternoon]. I’m kinda bummed out. But I’m still going to the ACC Tournament [next week in Charlotte].”
Clearly, there’s a dominant managerial gene in the Hamilton family genetic pool. “I was here during Tech’s transition to the ACC,” Hoyt said. “The 0-14 [season of 1980-81]. We had a lot of fun, but it was a struggle.” He served as a manager under Dwane Morrison, the answer to a trivia question: Who was Tech’s basketball coach before Bobby Cremins?
Those were the years of Brook Steppe. Tico Brown and Sammy Drummer. Lee Goza. “The thing I remember is when we beat Ralph Sampson and Virginia,” Hoyt said of Tech’s first ACC victory, 62-61, on Feb. 9, 1980.
“I wouldn’t trade my time [as a manager] for anything,” Hoyt said. “And I hope Drew feels the same way.”
“Oh yeah. My kids will do it, too. No question,” said Drew, a management major. “If they come to Tech, they’ll be managers. When I decided to come to Tech, well, my father says he forced it upon me. But I wanted to do it. He said his best moments in college were as a manager.
“This is the best decision of my life,” Drew said. “Some of my best friends are in that locker room.”
And not just his brother or other fellow managers. “Jeremis has always been good to me,” Drew said of the senior captain from Fort Worth, Tex. “My parents have basically adopted him. He understands, he knows what we [managers] do for him. If he asked me anything, I’d jump through hoops for him.”
A manager’s job description? “I guess we do all the nooks and crannies you don’t see on the court,” Drew said. “Everything from setting up practice, doing laundry ’til late at night. Rebounding for the guys [in practice]. We set up things early. This year, we had a lot of 5:30 a.m. practices. We’re here at 4:30. Just all the little things.
“For the most part, our players really respect what we do,” he said. “Coach Hewitt, in the first meeting of each year, always makes a point of telling [the players] that we work for him, not them. They know not to call us to take them somewhere. But anything that’s asked of us, we take care of.”
Don’t think that Tech players, Causey in particular (“Hey, you hobbitt, get back to the shire!”), are the only crowd targets on Tobacco Road. “A lot of people give us a hard time, especially on the road,” Hamilton said. “People who don’t know what we do, who think a manager’s a glorified waterboy.
“But look at me. I get to go on the road with the team,” said Hamilton, who is on nearly a full scholarship this year. “Last season, I got to spend eight days in Hawaii without spending a dime of my money. This year, we got to go to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. A lot of little things we get are just awesome. We [managers] get priority registration” so their class schedule will dovetail with their basketball responsibilities.
Not that all the job requirements are fun. Hardly. “Laundry is up there,” Hamilton said. “Nobody enjoys doing laundry. But it has to get done.”
And into every manager’s life, a little Duke must fall. “They’ll heckle us on the road,” Hamilton said. “I always have a habit of standing up and yelling during games. You’ll hear, ‘Sit down, waterboy!’ Duke is the worst, no question. And I’d say Clemson and Vanderbilt, too.”
But in his heart of hearts, Hamilton loves it all. “Deep down, I just always hoped we’d win an ACC championship,” he said Wednesday, the day before Senior Night. “Realistically, I’d have loved that. We were close my freshman year [when Tech lost to Duke in the ACC final on a controversial phantom foul in the last minute]. That’s the one thing I’d always hoped and prayed for. We’ve still got one more chance. If not, I can always hope Brad does it in his next two years.”
In anticipation of Senior Night, Hamilton said, “Hopefully, we’re going to manage to pack the house. We haven’t in awhile; if you’re a Tech fan, you should be at every game.”
And as for his emotions? “I’m not gonna cry, but I’ll definitely be emotional,” Hamilton said after Wednesday’s practice. “It’ll really hit me tomorrow night: everything I poured my heart into the last four years, and then it’ll be over and on to the real world.”
Hours before Thursday’s 7 p.m. tipoff, well before they opened the doors to Alexander, Jeremis Smith’s Senior Night began with a walk out onto the court in the virtually vacant coliseum. His classmate and close friend, Morrow, had beat him to the spot, working on his jump shot from various spots on the deserted court. Smith walked to midcourt, and then lay down in the center circle to think about the moment, and all that had transpired on that floor in four years. Then he chatted with Brad Nessler, the superb broadcaster who has worked Tech games for a quarter-century and coined the nickname “The Thrillerdome” for Alexander in the glory days of Cremins.
“Gloomy. I would’ve really felt gloomy. Honestly, like a failure going out in my home court losing,” Smith said Thursday night after scoring 13 points and grabbing seven rebounds in Tech’s exhilarating 80-75 victory over Clemson that had Alexander rockin’.
Before the game began, Smith and A-Mo and Kami-Causey had walked onto the court, accompanied by their parents and to the roar of the crowd.
As did Drew Hamilton, on the arm of his mother, Sheryl, and his dad. While the three senior players received their game jerseys framed for posterity, Drew and Chris McClune of Roswell, the fellow senior manager who’d graduated in December, were presented with framed team photographs.
Then Hamilton took his seat on the Tech bench. What is the sound of one one-handed man clapping? That’s Drew Hamilton, slapping his open right palm on his thigh after most every Tech basket. During each full, one-minute timeout, he walked to the scorer’s table as he always does and got a small piece paper, to let Hewitt and his staff know which five opposing players would be back on the court.
And when Tech, down 13 points early, rallied to tie it and then went back and forth down the stretch with Clemson and finally down to the wire once again, Hamilton turned to McClune and said, “Well, we’ve seen this enough all year. What’s one more?”
This time, though, was different. Wasn’t bittersweet. This time, Tech won on Senior Night. “This season has taken four or five years off my life,” Hamilton said afterward. Never mind that his mother, fighting the flu, had to leave the game early in the first half and drive home.
Never mind that his left elbow and arm are a mess. Never mind that he’s not in Boston this weekend. As senior moments go, Senior Night was just right for Drew Hamilton.
“It was nice, he said afterward, in the giddy, happy players lounge outside Tech’s locker room. “My four years here, my tenure here, it’s been one of the best experiences of my life.”
Senior Night was sweet for others, too. For Thomas Davenport, 12, a Marist seventh-grader and, for the last three seasons, a Tech ballboy. There’s a three-year shelf life on that post, though, and Thursday’s game was Davenport’s last.
His keepsake: A pair of Jeremis Smith’s size-16 sneakers, which the captain – unsolicited – untied and took off while walking off the court and handed to the wide-eyed ballboy.
“I’ve gotta give him something for helping us out,” Smith explained later. “He wiped up the floor a lot after us.”
Senior Night was sweet for a senior citizen: Jarelle Bullock, Tech’s ever-professional game clock operator for the last 22 seasons. During that time, the gentleman from Acworth had also run the clock at ACC Tournaments, SEC Tournaments, numerous NCAA Tournament games that Tech had hosted, as well as his personal “trifecta”: The 1996 Summer Olympics men’s gold-medal game, two men’s Final Fours in the Georgia Dome and one women’s Final Four.
Bullock wanted no special attention Thursday, however. In a Feb. 5 courtesy letter to Tech assistant sports information director Mike Stamus, Bullock wrote, “Please honor my request [that] no one on the table crew be notified until the last home game (Senior Night)…How do I put 22 years of fun, love and acquaintances of my Tech friends, living and deceased, in one letter?”
And Senior Night was especially sweet for the one-armed manager on the home team bench. “I’m definitely sad I’ll never get to walk out of the tunnel [leading to the court] again in my life,” Drew Hamilton said. “It’s sad. But this was a great time. I loved walking out with my parents. Georgia Tech basketball is a family experience for the Hoyts. A night like tonight, I can’t imagine it by myself. That’d be selfish. It was wonderful.”
And as for the rest of this season, however long it may last with his arm in a cast and a sling? And then for the rest of his life? How will Hamilton handle March, and all those Marches to come? He’ll do what he’s always done.
He’ll manage. Just fine.