It’s no secret that reaching out to past players and making them feel welcome is one of coach Steve Wojciechowski’s main goals for the Marquette basketball program.
For Wojo and staff, having an open door policy wasn’t enough. At a meeting with the staff, he approached Travis Diener, MU’s director of basketball operations and former standout point guard, to try and get as many players as possible still playing professionally together on campus at one time. The staff wanted to host a mini-camp for them, allowing them to work on their game before the seasons started up and get a chance to know the current staff a bit better.
“He wanted to start this, and then it was my job to get as many guys that were still playing pro basketball back for a mini camp,” Diener told Paint Touches. “It was my job to get in contact with these guys and see how many guys could come back.”
Cold calls from strangers can be a bit intimidating, and can make for some awkward conversation. That’s where Diener played a key role.
“I think when I gave them a call they knew of me from going to Marquette and I think they had the respect because I played here,” Diener said. “It made it easier for me and them because they knew I was going to tell them how it was and what we were going to do. They were real excited about it. It just took off from there.”
The two-day event consisted of individual work and drills overseen by the current staff and usually culminated with games of 5-on-5.
“It was really fun to see all the pros together on one floor, and competing with and against everyone was a blast,” Dan Fitzgerald told Paint Touches via email. “We also played some pickup against the current guys, which was fun to get to know them and see them compete as well.”
Although it came together at the last minute, Diener said he was happy with the way it went and the number of players that came back.
“I thought the turnout was great. It was kind of last minute, but to have guys like Wes Matthews and Jimmy Butler and Steve Novak and Vander Blue, those guys are NBA players. not to mention guys that are still playing over in Europe.”
(The full list: Steve Novak, Dan Fitzgerald, Wes Matthews, Jerel McNeal, Dwight Burke, Mo Acker, Jimmy Butler, Vander Blue, Jamil Wilson and Davante Gardner.)
This isn’t a one year stunt, either, Diener noted. He said the camp will definitely be an annual occurrence, and hopes that having the initial one turn out successfully will drive up turnout even more.
Besides the high level of competition that can’t always be found in the doldrums of summer, the camp provided the older alums a chance to catch up and to get to know the younger ones a bit more.
“During the summer I now live in Milwaukee, but I haven’t seen a lot of my old teammates in a long time. It was great to play with guys like Mo, Dwight, Jerel, and Wes,” Fitzgerald noted. “Steve (Novak) lives locally so I get to workout with him during the summer, and it’s great to have Travis back in town. And it was fun playing with Jamil, Davante, Vander, and Jimmy for the first time.”
Diener was in the same boat.
“I had a real good relationship with Wes, I had gotten to know Jimmy. Vander not so much,” Diener admitted. “Being overseas I didn’t get back very often, so to get those guys I hadn’t really gotten close to like Vander, Jamil, Davante, guys who I didn’t have much of a relationship with, for them to come back and get those relationships with the new staff was big. I think it’s huge for the overall success of a program going forward.”
One player that has NBA experience yet has been off the radar of late and did not make it back was Lazar Hayward. Diener did reach out to him, but Hayward was in the midst of signing a deal to play overseas.
“I had a really good relationship with Lazar. I heard that he’d been off the radar, but leading up to the mini camp I talked to him numerous times,” Diener noted. “Unfortunately he wasn’t able to make it, but he seemed in good spirits. I had good conversations with him and hopefully in the future, I told Lazar that he was one of the greatest players to come through here. It would be very important for him to get back.”
At the end of the day, Wojo’s goal of connecting past players and making them feel part of the present was welcomed and appreciated by the former players.
Fitzgerald: “It was nice to get to know him a bit more and welcome him and his family to Milwaukee and the Marquette family. 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. It feels great to be welcomed back and I’m impressed by the staff coach Wojo has built.”
Said Dwight Burke via email: “I previously never met coach Wojo or anyone on the new staff aside from Travis. After meeting and interacting with them, I think they are all good guys. The staff is young and very easygoing and they seem really hungry to get Marquette basketball back to where it needs to be.”
He continued, saying: “While we were there, the coaching staff wanted us to feel like Marquette was still home. That was accomplished, and I think all of the guys appreciated the gesture, and it continues to promote the family atmosphere that Marquette basketball is known for.”
Added Diener: “He’s got back with the former players. I think the response from former players has been incredible. I think the alumni are extremely excited. Right now it’s been really good, and we hope that momentum can keep going.”
(For a full gallery of pictures, be sure to check out the Marquette basketball Facebook page.)