You could find just about any type of person imaginable in New York City during Super Bowl weekend in the first weekend in February of this year. What with this country’s biggest sporting event merging with its biggest city, there was no shortage of questionable, charismatic or downright crazy characters.
But walking those busy streets was nowhere near as shocking as sitting next to an Italian reporter inside a half-filled Madison Square Garden watching a mediocre Marquette team take on a sputtering St. John’s squad on Super Bowl Saturday. Why would this man, on assignment to cover the Broncos and Seahawks for the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport, bother to watch pretty poor basketball?
Massimo Oriani knew nothing about Marquette and very little about Big East basketball in general. But he knew Diener and he wanted to know more about the program that produced him.
Sitting next to an Italian writer here for the Super Bowl. He says thanks for Travis Diener. #mubb
— Paint Touches (@PaintTouches) February 1, 2014
Travis ingratiated himself with Italians to such an extent that he was able to represent them in the Eurobasket 2013 after obtaining Italian citizenship through his wife’s family.
Heck, if my Italian serves me right, with a little help from Google translate, they are even planning on keeping the No. 12 Diener wore with his club Dinamo Sassari off limits. It’s not simply for Diener, as there was a mix up with a previous retirement of that number, but his 1,500 points and MVP award only bolstered the case that the No. 12 should not be worn.
“It was extremely humbling. I had a great, great four years over there,” Diener told Paint Touches. “I played for a great organization. I played in front of great fans and they were very supportive. I’ve always tried to as a player, play as hard as I can, and I think if you give everything you’ve got, people respect you, whether you’re really good or not, they respect how hard you go about your job.”
That was then. This is now.
Diener has hung up his sneakers for good, taking the plunge onto the other side of the court, becoming director of basketball operations at Marquette. A simple congratulatory text to newly minted head coach Steve Wojciechowski morphed into something much bigger, he told the Journal Sentinel, when he was unexpectedly offered a position on staff. At only 32 years old, Diener was ready to follow the coaching family footsteps. Sort of.
“I took this job to really get a better understanding of what it’s like and to learn. I really want to learn. There is so much different from being a player,” Diener said, adding that he’s enjoyed the experience so far. “The first few months on the job have been exciting and challenging. It’s been fun. I think this is the path for me. I’m not 100 percent, but in life, I don’t think anyone is 100 percent in any decision they make. Basketball is in my blood and it’s always been a major part of my life. I couldn’t see basketball not being a major part of my life going forward.”
The qualities that made Diener so beloved at both Marquette and Dinamo will serve to propel him to the next stage of his career. As director of basketball operations, Diener is expressly forbidden from recruiting and being on the court during practices. Instead he will tasked with maintaining relationships with the players and doing work behind the scenes.
More importantly, he will be Wojciechowski’s bridge to the past.
“I want to connect the past, present and future at Marquette,” Wojo told Jay Bilas. “I am reaching out to those that have made wearing the Marquette jersey an honor. They are part of what we are doing, and the past is connected to what we’re doing today and what will prove to be sustainable into the future.”
While the Buzz Williams administration did have past players coming back to workout in the Al and speak to players at times, there wasn’t a concerted effort to keep them as part of the current program. More importantly, the reaching out was almost always limited to players who had played for Buzz. Think of Lazar Hayward coming back for life lessons or Jimmy Butler hanging around campus.
According to Diener, Wojo is thinking bigger.
“He (Wojo) wants everyone to feel like Marquette is their home, no matter what coach they played for. Whether they played for coach McGuire, coach Deane, coach O’Neill or coach Williams or coach Crean. It’s Marquette. It’s not about who you play for, it’s about this being their home.”
Talk can be cheap, particularly from a new coach on his honeymoon period ingratiating himself to his new environment. Wojo’s actions, however, are speaking loud and clear. He’s spoken at Bo Ellis’ golf outing, hosted a myriad of former players during the annual Marquette BBQ and most visibly, hosted a mini camp of former players that currently play professionally. (We will have an in-depth story on this later this week).
“He’s been very adamant about connecting with the former players. He’s done an absolute wonderful job of doing so,” Diener said. “That’s been a point of emphasis for him, and I think the former players really respect that. I know if I was still playing and a coach from Marquette reached out to me that would be great. These guys really respect that.”
Don’t just take Diener’s word for it, either. Paint Touches reached out to former player Dan Fitzgerald, who had nothing but praise for the current administration.
“So far the whole staff has been great to me. They’ve made it clear that they’re invested in the relationships with past players,” Fitzgerald said via email. “It feels great to be welcomed back and I’m impressed by the staff coach Wojo has built.”
The school, not just the program, has undergone a bit of a facelift. Although Diener had family in the area, he didn’t get many chances to visit campus when he was back in town the last few years.
“I was actually in awe of all the changes that had been made in here. I hadn’t had the chance to come back very often because I was overseas. It’s been very refreshing,” Diener noted. “If you walk around campus, it’s cleaner, it’s prettier. There’s newer buildings. I think the campus is extremely beautiful now. Not to say that it wasn’t when I was there, but the advancements that have been made are incredible.”
Inside the Al, the relatively new building has seen lots of work this summer with a renovation of Kasten Gym and the locker rooms as well. And while Diener did get a chance to use it during his playing days, the way it is being used has greatly improved.
“When I was lifting back in college, it was more just get on the bench and lift as much weight, or get on the leg press. Now, there’s a science to it. People have spent a lot of money and a lot of time dissecting what helps basketball players: what movements, what lifts.”
Through all that change, the Marquette name has stayed the same. That is the message Diener has been charged with spreading. Though he says he will miss the laid back nature of extra long meals in Italy, he is excited to be close to family and transition into full-time coach mode with all the extra responsibility that entails.
“I’m trying to help our players as best I can with the knowledge I have from going to school here and playing here, and all the stuff that I’ve gained in the 32 years of being on this planet. I try to help out coach as best I can as well, I work for him. Whatever he asks of me I have to do my best job doing that.”
For now, Diener is a liaison from the past to the present. A damn good one at that.