PHILADELPHIA – When he arrived on campus at Florida Gulf Coast University three years ago, Chase Fieler had kind of an embarrassing problem.
He couldn't dunk off two feet.
In fact, he could hardly jump off one.
Yes, this is the same Chase Fieler who last Friday night became the mayor of Dunk City when he converted a wild alley-oop pass from Brett Comer to put Georgetown away. Yes, the same guy who owns the dunk of the NCAA tournament had to learn how to properly jump.
The other dunking sensation on the team is Eddie Murray. He scored 11 points as a freshman. Not 11 points a game; 11 points total. His claim to fame had to do with dunks, but not in a good way. At a tournament in City of Palms, Fla., Murray made the finals of a dunk contest and found himself pitted against Brandon Boykin, who is now a safety for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Murray did a lovely through-the-legs number that got some home-state cheers. Then he watched helplessly as Boykin "jumped over 40 people" and brought the house down. (It was actually three, but still.) Boykin's showcase now has more than 150,000 views on YouTube.
Leading into Friday night's huge upset, the question on most people's minds was: Where is Florida Gulf Coast? Now, as the Eagles became the first 15-seed in NCAA tournament history to advance to the Sweet 16, the question is: Where did all these guys come from?
The out-of-nowhere stories are kind of staggering. Every YouTube clip has a Hollywood tale behind it. Sherwood Brown, now the Atlantic Sun player of the year and the team's pulse, was a walk-on. Comer, the bulldog point guard who led the conference in assists, said he had no idea how to play the position when he arrived in Ft. Myers. Guard Bernard Thompson, who was high on coach Andy Enfield's wish list when he took over in 2011, shot awkwardly (almost like a chest pass) and got interest only from other mid-majors. Christophe Varidel came to America from Switzerland to play basketball, attended prep school in Worcester, Mass., and took FGCU's offer to move to Ft. Myers. He says he's never lifted a single weight, and only does push-ups and laps in the pool.
The stunning aspect of both weekend upsets was FGCU's athletic dominance over athletic teams. Georgetown's Otto Porter Jr. is headed to the NBA. So is San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin. And their teammates were quick and strong. Yet, both their teams lost by 10 points to a group who didn't even know how to fill their own roles when they got to the southwest Florida campus. In fact, a few were so far out on the fringe of basketball that they didn't even belong on FGCU's roster. Murray freely admits he nearly quit basketball altogether because he was so deep on the bench.
So how the FGCU did this happen?
Two word answer: Andy Enfield. The head coach gets credit from players and administrators alike for putting together an atmosphere that was part high school classroom, part family dinner table, part CEO's office. He used his personal background, his business background, and his NBA background to turn also-rans into a band of ballers on the run.
Enfield grew up in Pennsylvania with two teachers as parents. Bill and Barbara Enfield raised three kids – two boys and a girl – who were both competitive and inquisitive. One of Barbara's favorite stories is how Andy and older brother Mark would play paper football and the cat would swat down field goal attempts. But in one of her most revealing stories, she talks about the encyclopedia the family kept near the dinner table so a new word or term could be investigated whenever one came up during a meal. Curiosity was fostered and stoked.
The Enfield kids were sharp – Mark now runs his own real estate management company – but not showoffs. Andy learned from his parents that the best students are those who want to learn. Three decades after those family dinners, Enfield took that knowledge to recruiting. It seems the players on his current team have little in common, yet they all thirst to understand the game. By now, you may have heard the story of Enfield recruiting players while his wife was delivering the couple's third child, but what the coach actually said during those calls is significant. Phoning Eric McKnight from his wife's hospital room, the coach asked a simple question: "Do you want to get better?"
McKnight, who had languished behind NBA-bound Royce White at Iowa State, said, "Yeah."
Enfield shot back: "I'll make you better."
He's made everyone on the team better.
Sometimes it's been through the tiniest of details, like telling Fieler to rotate his left thumb slightly on his follow through. Other times it's been a simple injection of confidence. He gave Murray a chance to earn a spot on the team even though he basically had no basketball résumé at all. He told Comer, flat-out, "I want you to be my point guard for four years" even though Comer's job at Winter Park High was to make way for Austin Rivers.
The court was refuge for Comer, who lost his father to a hellish onslaught of lung cancer, yet he only got more comfortable in Enfield's system. So did Fieler, who taught himself to jump off two feet in his gym back in West Virginia by strapping cords to his waist and leaping over and over again. Enfield believed, and he had an NBA résumé, so the players believed, too.
It's possible this story couldn't have happened at a bigger school, where coaches and players would have been pulled in more directions. Enfield leaves all his practices open, and his wife watches his kids run around the gym as drills go on. The head coach's two daughters sit next to Fieler and Murray on bus rides. Until just recently, the glamour team on campus was the women's hoops squad, in part because they were simply better and in part because they played at earlier times. The mostly-older fans in the Naples area would come to Alico Arena to watch the women, then go to dinner or to bed when the men took the court.
So it's not like Enfield had a ton of media requests or rubber-chicken circuits. The players, who all live in the same building and took a trip to the Bahamas together, were hardly planning pro careers. Instead, they all went out to Mo's for a burrito or Stoney's in the local country club for pasta. Big men on campus? Not exactly. "People just thought I was tall," Fieler said.
The confidence, then, comes from hours forged in empty gyms preparing for non-televised games. The Eagles played for each other and for their coach because nobody else much cared. Why not throw alley oops and flex for the fans? Who was there to judge?
Yet there was always a serious sense of purpose, too. That's the side of Enfield that isn't readily apparent. Both he and his mother have an ultra-earnest look they give when discussing something important to them. Enfield gave it Sunday night when asked what parts of his Wall Street background informed his coaching strategy. The easy smile and quick wit gave way to what amounted to a boardroom speech.
"I think as a Division I basketball coach you need to be the CEO of a program," he said. "You have to give responsibility to your assistant coaches, director of operations, your video coordinator, your managers and you have to oversee that. You have to hire good people … And then the other thing is, I think you need to engage the surrounding – the administration, the students, the community, and you have to all be in this together."
That's the truest testament to Enfield's way. He led without micromanaging. He taught without yelling. He was the CEO, always in charge, but never far spiritually from the classrooms where his parents taught. The Eagles, even when losing twice to Lipscomb, were all in this together.
In that crucial sense, even after becoming America's overnight darling, nothing has changed.
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