By: Bob Carskadon, HailStateBEAT
This week, the Southeastern Conference hosted its annual SEC Basketball Media Days. On Thursday, I joined the Mississippi State contingent and followed them around as Rick Ray, Gavin Ware, Vic Schaefer and Martha Alwal represented the Bulldogs in Birmingham.
Going from room-to-room, I took notes as I went, jotting down exchanges, quotes and observations, but from this perspective, it’s just as much learning about the person as it is the basketball teams they are a part of.
In fact, my biggest takeaway from the day wasn’t an illuminating thought on the motion offense or an impressive defensive statistic, but the way Ray and Schaefer were welcomed at the Westin Hotel throughout the day.
For Ray, who is only entering his second year as a head coach, the relationships he already has are surprising, if not impressive. Every hall he walked down, room he stepped into or person he came across greeted or was greeted by him with a smile, a joke and usually a hug. The ESPN room was five minutes late starting their videos with Ray just because he was talking to everybody in the room, catching up with them and cracking jokes.
Every coach or player who walked by stopped to talk, every SEC administrator saw him, and he apparently knew each of their names. One of the first people Ray waved and said hello to was the young lady who took him around last year at his first SEC Media Day. He remembered her, and of course she remembered him.
Although, I was with Ray last year, and when I waved at her the only acknowledgement I got was her turning around to see who was behind her for me to be waving at, because obviously it couldn’t be her. Such is life.
And Schaefer was just the same, a coach who has been known and respected in women’s basketball for decades, he couldn’t walk 10 steps without someone stopping him for a hug, a hello and a quick kiss on the cheek.
Certainly, basketball media days is a touch different from the football version in the summer, with about 1,000 fewer media members in attendance for basketball, and it changes the mood of the entire event. It’s very relaxed, laid-back and fun, and you would never catch media folks at football greeting coaches with the embraces and kind words offered among the basketball community.
Now, as the four MSU representatives went from room-to-room, they went separately, and obviously there is only one of me, so I trailed one at a time, starting with Ware, the sophomore forward who was Freshman All-SEC last year.
11:00 – Holding Room
When Ware got to Starkville last year, he was around 300 pounds. Now, Ray has told us, he’s down to around 265, something Ware noticed Thursday when he was given the poster bearing his name and a picture of him playing last season.
“I was 285 then,” he bemoaned. “They should get a picture of me now, I’d be looking lean, man.”
In the holding room before the interviews started, Ware and Alwal were treated to a feast of bagels, biscuits and breads with all the carbs an athlete could want. But I noticed Ware only took a couple bites of his chicken biscuit before wrapping it up in the foil it came in and laying it on the table.
“No jelly,” he told me when I chided him for turning his nose up at such a tasty breakfast.
And that may be a valid excuse, but the truth behind it is that he’s shaped his body, shedding nearly 40 pounds of fat while building up muscle in its place. He didn’t do it by wolfing down every biscuit he met.
Another bit I learned from Ware: not a shock to anyone, but with his 6’9” frame, he has to get all his suits (like the one he wore Thursday) custom made, and he’s had to get more now that he’s changed his body so much, bringing his total collection to seven suits made specifically for giants.
11:30 – TV Rooms
Ware’s first stop was CSS for a sit-down 1-on-1 interview with seemingly more questions about last year than the one upcoming. But Ware doesn’t mind talking about being “baptized by fire,” as one interviewer put it.
“When you have veterans,” Ware explained to CSS when asked about the lack thereof in his first year, “they provide motivation to the younger guys. So we had to find motivation within ourselves, and we did that.”
Not to say they don’t get motivation from the coaches, of course, especially now that there are enough players to breed real competition in practice.
“He’s a blessing,” Ware told one reporter when asked about Ray. “Coach Ray tells us, ‘If someone tries harder than you, he’s gonna play more than you’ … Practice is more intense with everyone there.”
After that first room, I asked Ware as we waited how he thought it went.
“I knew my mouth was moving,” he said, “then all the sudden I realized, ‘Oh, I’m actually saying words. What happened?’ I think the media training last week helped, though.”
Then Alwal walked out of the room Ware was about to go into.
“Whoa, Gavin,” she said with a heavy breath as she saw him about to enter, “My heart. I about died. Careful in there.”
Turns out, it went fine and even provided some good insight into the team when the reporter asked Ware who on the roster people should know about going into the season that they may not now.
His answer was freshman point guard IJ Ready.
“I call him the little crumb snatcher,” Ware said while laughing. “I think of me and him as Shaq and Kobe.”
Ware told me afterward about the first time he played with Ready, a pickup game in the Sanderson Center this summer.
“He was just making all these passes and doing everything and I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re on my team.’”
Ware talked more about the point guards to the SEC Digital Network, a bit about the competition and how Bronx native Trivante Bloodman has taken a leadership position.
“New York [their nickname for Bloodman] has been a big brother to I.J.,” Ware told me. He then expanded on the subject to the camera, saying, “They fight every day in practice. They keep a talent chart and track it every day. They push each other.”
Then came Ware’s biggest smile of the day.
“What do you expect in year two,” the reporter asked him.
“When I get asked this question,” Ware told him, “I get so excited, because it’s gonna get intense. The crowd is gonna get what they came for. People flying around, offense, defense…it’s gonna be fun.”
The final room I entered with Ware was ESPN, where he was told as he stood outside the door, “They’re probably gonna put makeup on you.”
“Oh, no, I’m good,” he responded.
Three minutes later, he held still as the producer dabbed the makeup on his face.
In a couple of the questions asked, we learned a bit about something important to Ware.
“My favorite part of game day is the fans,” he said. “When the fans get into it, we get into it.”
“My favorite moment last year was the Ole Miss game when we won at home, just attacking the crowd with open arms.”
“OK, Gavin,” the producer said, “say this sentence and fill in the blank: ‘I want to be…’”
“I want to be legendary,” Ware confidently told the camera, makeup and all.
12 noon – Rick Ray on TV Circuit
I came out of that ESPN room with Ware and found Ray standing there talking to a player I didn’t recognize from a school I’m not sure of. But it seemed like as good a time as any to follow the head coach around, so I joined him for the tour.
As we waited on the next room, I told him about Ware’s ‘Shaq and Kobe’ quote about him and Ready.
After the first guffaw, Ray said, “Yeah,” kept laughing, then all he could get out was, “OK.”
“Gavin was a natural choice for this,” he said as we talked about the morning. “Other guys would be good, too, but he really enjoys this stuff. He just better not enjoy it too much and forget to play basketball.”
In the first room I ventured to with him, Ray sat in front of the camera, answered a series of questions and made plenty of jokes.
The most interesting may have been his expectations for year two.
“We haven’t had to teach and coach effort,” Ray told the camera. “They’ve learned that, so now we can actually work on basketball.
“Development is the key to our program, guys getting better year-to-year.”
On Ready, who Ware spoke so highly of, Ray offered similar praise, calling him ‘The Little General’ and expressing his excitement about what he can do for the team.
In the same room, Ray ended up part of an interesting conversation on the state of the SEC and college basketball in general.
“We have to have veterans who are really good for this league to advance,” he said.
In other words, more good players who stay in programs for a full career.
The second visit was the first ESPN room, the same one Ware had visited not long before.
“I gotta do makeup?” Ray asked.
“Let’s just call it anti-shine,” the producer told him.
“Good. That’s a little more manly.”
The crew asked him the same series of random questions they had asked Ware, including a query wondering if Ray had any game day superstitions.
Apparently, his primary one is listening to music when he shaves and showers.
“I’m a big hip-hop fan,” he told the room. “Old school stuff. Wu Tang, Dre, whatever gets me excited.”
And when asked to fill in the same “I want to be…” blank as Ware, Ray took a different approach.
“I want to be a role model,” he said. “That’s why I got into this business.”
A room or two later, Ray and the group were walking to the final ESPN room, the last TV visit before the main media room.
As he turned the corner of the staircase, Ray ran into Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, one of his closest friends in basketball.
After a quick hug and hello, Martin told him a short story about one of his interviews.
“They asked me if I feel sorry for Rick Ray. I said, ‘Heck no I don’t feel bad for Rick!’”
The pair laughed loudly as Ray responded.
“And you weren’t lying!”
“I told them you’re getting it right,” Martin conceded.
Once he reached the ESPN college basketball studio, greeted by Jimmy Dykes outside the door, Ray’s reach became clear, as the room full of analysts all welcomed him with hugs, stories, questions about life and a couple words of excitement from those who told him they’ll be making the trip to Starkville this season.
“Coach, thanks for joining us,” the producer eventually said as a means of getting the work started.
“I don’t think I had a choice,” Ray wittily responded, “but it’s good to be here anyway.”
The jokes and chatter did eventually calm down enough for the interview and taping to start.
12:45 – Main Media Room
On his way to the final stop, Ray moved slowly, stopping to do a live interview for ESPN’s broadcast of the day, then a quick chat with another ESPN national writer who lives in Chicago. I’m not sure I heard either say a word about basketball as they talked about their favorite places to eat in the Windy City.
At this point, Ray walked into a big room, stepped up to his chair on a raised stage, looked ahead and saw about a dozen of the faces he sees all year long – the local media. With others interspersed, of course.
Much of the discussion has been covered already as preseason practices have started, but a few comments stood out, including this one about sophomore guard Craig Sword, who has put on 14 pounds this offseason.
“I want to treat him like an NFL running back,” Ray said. “We want him strong and powerful, but to still have that quick first step.”
A sports fan in general, Ray loves talking about other sports when gets the chance.
Then, finally, the day was brought full-circle, for me at least, when he was talking about Ware and how, with the help of strength coach Richard Akins, he’s transformed his body.
“He’s really taken on that responsibility and sense of pride,” Ray said of Ware. “We can’t be around him 24 hours a day to monitor his caloric intake.”
I smiled to myself, remembering the barely-touched biscuit from hours before.
Good thing there wasn’t any jelly.