Strotman: Thank you for everything, Chris Otule

Chris Otule will go down as one of the all-time Marquette fan favorites. (Photo by A. Martina Ibanez-Baldor)

Chris Otule will go down as one of the all-time Marquette fan favorites. (Photo by A. Martina Ibanez-Baldor)

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Early in the 2009-10 school year I had been asked by three fellow students to write for MarquetteScout.com, and I jumped at the opportunity. As a sophomore majoring in journalism, the chance to cover the school’s major sport in a, more or less, official capacity was a no-brainer decision, and my first assignment was covering media day.

So there I stood, on the Al McGuire Center floor on Oct. 9, 2009, wondering where the hell I was supposed to begin.

Beat writers, columnists, TV personalities and Marquette officials whizzed by me, racing over to seniors Lazar Hayward, Maurice Acker and David Cubillan to speak with the players who would ultimately define the season.

I froze, wondering whether the tie I tied was long enough, hoping no one would notice my partially wrinkled slacks and praying I could figure out the buttons on the voice recorder I had just purchased for this occasion, as soon as I got the courage to go speak with the players who, months earlier, I had cheered for in the Bradley Center student section.

After a few deep breaths, I wiped the sweat off my palms, adjusted my tie (which went about three inches past my belt buckle) and headed over to speak with the one player who somewhat looked like was in the same position as I.

Fellow sophomore Chris Otule had played just nine games the year prior, suffering a broken foot that kept him out until mid-December before playing 60 minutes for a Golden Eagles team that thrived on guard play.

I introduced myself to the 6-foot-11 center, who seemed relieved to no longer be the only scholarship player without any reporter speaking to him. I asked the questions I thought I should, inquired with a few follow-up questions and, after maybe 3 or 4 minutes, thanked him for his time and went on my way, having just completed my first ever “real” interview. I wound up writing this story on Chris, 707 words of jumbled, AP Style-nightmare copy on the player who wasn’t supposed to really do much that year, let alone his Marquette career.

As my luck would have it, Chris didn’t do anything that year, appearing in just three games during his second year, suffering another broken foot after 25 minutes of solid play against Marquette’s November cupcake opponents.

Buzz Williams has the utmost respect for Otule, and for good reason. (USA Today Images)

Buzz Williams has the utmost respect for Otule, and for good reason. (USA Today Images)

Chris came back strong in his third season, playing in 37 games while averaging career-highs in all major categories as the Golden Eagles advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the Dwyane Wade era. And during that year, I learned a valuable lesson.

Sports journalism is the greatest profession on earth. My two passions in life — outside of the essential family, friends and religion — are writing and sports. Those two passions can intertwine beautifully, but cheering for teams is unfortunately put on permanent hold. I can admit that I have never cheered for (or against) Marquette since the day I walked into the Al as a sophomore in 2009; more Marquette wins meant more opportunities to write, travel and earn valuable experience, but I never sought it out as a “fan.”

But this profession also allows us to cheer for the individuals and their stories. Buzz Williams has verbalized countless times that he looks for players who have taken the long road to get to where they are as basketball players and people, and that’s great for a person like me who loves writing human-interest stories and features. But Williams’ philosophy also meant being able to root for those players, and Chris exemplified that.

So when he went crumbling to the Madison Square Garden floor in Year 4, it crushed me. A torn ACL for the kid who worked his way back from two broken feet and one eyeball; Hollywood couldn’t have written that better, pardon the cliché. I did my best that night, Dec. 9, 2011, to toe the line between reporting on Marquette and cheering for Chris. I wrote that I knew he eventually would come back better than ever, but really I was just hoping for the best.

A little less than 2 months after he suffered the knee injury — later revealed to be a torn ACL — Chris agreed to an interview with me, his first since going down. That day he had just finished a rehabilitation session, and fittingly we spoke on the Al McGuire Center floor, the same floor we spoke on two years ago for the first time.

In that interview Chris was candid, honest and optimistic, admitting he thought about quitting basketball a few days after the injury before realizing his story wasn’t over. I wrote my story on how he was becoming a teacher from the sideline, helping Jamil Wilson learn the interior side of Marquette’s defense and providing a contagious smile that infected his teammates in the locker room and on gamedays. He was still important, and he knew it. We all knew it.

Nine months later Chris was back at Marquette Madness, prancing around the Al doing karaoke on “Some Nights” and even scoring a few buckets during the scrimmage, bulky knee brace and all. That afternoon before Madness, I spoke with him at media day that afternoon, and something happened that I won’t ever forget.

Thanks for everything, Chris.

Thanks for everything, Chris.

As I approached Chris, he smiled, gave me a hug and, before I could say anything, asked how I was doing. He had wondered why he hadn’t seen me around campus (I graduated that May) and, once he found that out, wanted to know all about my job in Chicago. We spoke for a few minutes about the Bulls team I was covering, how I would handle writing on Marquette in my spare time and how life post-college was — yes, we inevitably joked that he may never know that feeling.

That may not seem like a lot to you, but it has stuck with me ever since. Every one of those players at media day are in attendance to answer questions; our job was to ask them. But that personable side to Otule was something of which I had experienced only one other time (Jae Crowder), and it spoke volumes to who he was as a person, as if I needed any more convincing (I didn’t).

That season, Year 5, Otule was as good as ever. He averaged 5.1 points on 63 percent shooting, and though his rebounds and blocks were down he was vital to a Marquette defense that advanced to the Elite Eight. During that year I wrote the piece I’m most proud of to date, documenting Otule’s incredible recruiting story, and I was happy that if this was his last year in Milwaukee, I had written a piece of which we could both be proud.

But in April, days after Louisville cut down the nets in Atlanta, that cheer-for-the-player side of me kicked in. I wrote an open letter to Chris about how he needed to finish his legacy and return for a sixth and final season. I truly believed what I was writing — that one more year could cement his Marquette legacy — but selfishly I wanted to watch him play one final season in a Marquette uniform.

Chris made that decision to return for a sixth season, one that he admitted to me wasn’t all that difficult. He knew he was going to come back, if for nothing else than to put together two healthy years that would look better to a European team wanting to sign him later this year.

And so here we are. At the time of this piece’s publishing, Chris has just completed his final regular season home game at Marquette. His journey has been an incredible one, to put it incredibly lightly. His numbers won’t go down in Marquette history — though his block totals rank in the top 5 all-time — and no one may ever recount a single game in which he truly took over. That’s not the kind of player he was, and he didn’t need to be.

But I’ll remember it all. His defense on Kyle O’Quinn in the Paradise Jam Tournament. His 9-for-9 outing against Longwood. His perfect afternoon against Notre Dame last year. His first career double-double in a March Madness win against Davidson. The way he saved Marquette from a road loss to DePaul last month.

We haven’t even touched the fact that Buzz Williams said at this past media day that, outside of being a husband and father, he’s most proud of being able to say he coached Chris Otule. You can re-watch Williams’ teary-eyed speech to jog your memory. I’ll also toss in here that Otule has been one of the most active participants in Buzz’s Bunch, an event which my younger brother attends every year.

But more than anything, I’ll remember that interview in 2009. At the time there wasn’t anything I could do for him — there probably still isn’t. But he answered the questions the same as if I were writing for ESPN or CBS, and it set in motion a working relationship that I have cherished the last six college basketball seasons. We all know there isn’t a player easier to cheer for than Chris, and it’s been an absolute privilege to cover him and, yes, root him on this entire time.

From a stumbling student writer in 2009 to now, and everything in between, I say:

Thank you, Chris, for everything.

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