Jan. 27, 2017
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Saturday afternoon is going to be a day of celebration at McCamish Pavilion and for Georgia Tech. There will be celebrating regardless of the outcome of the Yellow Jackets’ game against No. 10 Notre Dame.
It’s the annual Letterwinners’ Game, a celebration of Georgia Tech basketball’s past. Think basketball’s version of Homecoming.
Following the Tech-Notre Dame game, more than 50 alumni of the Georgia Tech men’s basketball program’s storied history will lace `em up. The game is as much about Georgia Tech’s historic past on the site of McCamish Pavilion, formerly Alexander Memorial Coliseum, as it is on the future direction of the program.
The game and the weekend are as much about family as it is basketball.
“It’s something special to bring all of our guys back together,” said Marvin Lewis, Tech’s current associate athletic director for finance and administration, as well as a four-year starter for the Yellow Jackets from 2000-04. “It’s really important to try to get as many guys back and kind of build that family culture that we not only talk about but we actually want to have. It’s a chance to be around family, so anybody that CAN come is excited to re-connect and to see what people are doing. Everyone’s excited.”
Count first-year Georgia Tech men’s basketball director of player personnel Mario West as one of them.
“Georgia Tech is a special place and special people that have made it a special place,” said West, class of 2007, a former walk-on who’d work his way to captain in 2006-07. “We have some Georgia Tech legends that have done some amazing things on and off the court, and any time we can all gather up from all the different eras, that’s just a wonderful time for us.
“They are the ones that actually created the culture and created the legacy and the tradition behind Georgia Tech,” he added. “Guys like myself, who saw that growing up or heard about those guys, to sit and chat with those guys to reminisce about the experiences that they had, that I had, that’s just a wonderful thing. That’s something we don’t take for granted. We always look forward to seeing those guys that have paved the way for guys like myself, that carried the torch and the legacy of winning and holding Georgia Tech to the highest standard on and off the court, even beyond their career at Georgia Tech. It’s just amazing to have everyone come back.”
What the letterwinners bring back when they come back for Letterwinners’ Weekend are the memories of their days donning the white and gold. It’s something they can feel the second they step on the floor.
“A lot of the jokes and the times when we were in the locker room or times we were in practice and funny things happened, it brings up those types of memories,” Lewis said. “Those memories feel good now that you’re on this side of it. Going through some of the trials and tribulations of being a student-athlete sometimes weren’t the best but being able to look back and go, `Man, that was a great experience’ and, be able to laugh about it is important.”
“That [familiarity] never goes away,” West agreed. “You can appreciate it even more now. You reminisce about all of the blood, sweat and tears that you put into practice and just going out there battling. You miss that and you have a greater appreciation and respect. It’s a priceless moment and something that I look forward to every year, as do all the other letterwinners. You also have a great moment of, whether you’re passing the ball and you see them smile after you’ve made a shot, you pick up on things that they used to do back then. You know where his favorite spot is on the court, his favorite shot, just little things. It’s truly a great feeling.”
The list of players, coaches and managers that have confirmed for Saturday goes as far back as the 1950s, under Coach “Whack” Hyder, through the Bobby Cremins years (Cremins will be in attendance), and the Paul Hewitt years.
Touching the past was exciting for West.
“I played in the one last year. I was just in total awe of the people that were there. I got to see `Lethal Weapon 3,’ Dennis Scott, Kenny Anderson and Brian Oliver, Malcolm Mackey came back,” he recalled. “There were so many guys, so many GT legends that have paved the way and done some amazing things in their careers when they were at Tech and even beyond Tech. Getting to see Coach Cremins and just playing the game, being back on the court and seeing some of the fans, just kind of reminisce of my days of when I played, it was a great feeling.
“This year there are a lot of people, especially with my new role at Georgia Tech, that I’ve reached out to that I’ve never even met before,” he added. “Like Harvey Webb, was one of the first African-American basketball players, I think he was either on the varsity team or he lettered at Georgia Tech. With Black History Month coming up next month, I thought that was pretty cool that II was able to get in contact with him. So I’m looking forward to meeting him.”
Other alumni expected to attend the game are Roger Kaiser, Malcolm Mackey, James Forrest, Kenny Anderson, Jarrett Jack, B.J. Elder, and Isma’il Muhammad. Another alumnus coming to this year’s Letterwinners’ Game, in a very different capacity, is former Yellow Jackets football player Todd Stansbury, Georgia Tech’s new athletics director. Celebrating the Georgia Tech brand and keeping Jackets’ alumni engaged is a big deal.
“That’s what Georgia Tech is all about,” West said. “I’ve heard Todd speak a couple of times and he emphasizes that you’re branded with something bigger than you could have ever imagined, being branded with the Georgia Tech brand.”
Lewis recalled family always being an important part of the Georgia Tech athletics experience, even back in his playing days.
“Our team that went to the Final Four and played in the championship game, on our championship rings we put on there `Family,'” he said. “Even at that time we recognized coaches change, adminstrators change, people around the program change, but one thing that you can’t take away is that brotherhood, that family environment and that family feel. It’s that important, especially when you’re taking a kid from 18 to 22 that’s leaving, maybe, their immediate family. You want to be able to create an environment for him where they’re moving into family where they feel supported and cared for. That’s what we’re trying to create here.”
Lewis realizes now just how important the Letterwinners’ Game was in getting him reconnected to his alma mater.
“This will probably be my fifth or sixth [Letterwinners’ Game],” he said. “Right out of school, when you’re working hard, trying to figure out what you’re going to do with your life, I was disconnected for a couple of years. I didn’t realize how important it was to make sure I came back and was a part of this.”
West feels it’s as important to keep alumni that weren’t necessarily student-athletes involved in the program.
“It’s extremely important. It feels great to know that we had some success when I was at school, and it was a time that people remember,” he said. “When you have someone that they were kids at that time and now, as adults, they still think back to that being one of their best experiences. It’s very important that alumni are around, whether they’re letterwinners or non-athletes. We all can come together and build that community that people feel like Georgia Tech needs to be, is and will continue to be.”
“Family” will be the over-riding theme and there will be lots of laughs and reminsicing, but there also will be a game being played. With competitors of all ages on the court, that means there will be a winner and a sibling rivalry will take over.
“The competitive juices start flowing,” Lewis said. “Maybe the first half of the game is all fun and games but when you start to get to that third and fourth section of the game, that’s when you can see folks start playing serious and get a little disappointed if shots don’t fall and things like that.
“If somebody gets crossed-over or somebody makes a shot in someone’s face, you best be sure that they’re going to talk about it after the game.”