It’s always been a thing at Rowan University. Recruit the best team possible for men’s basketball but also have open tryouts on campus. You never know. Except, usually you do know.
“I coached a lot of years,’’ said Joe Cassidy, who ran that tryout last season. “A lot of players tried out. None were ever 6-foot-8. They were all 5-foot-8.”
Cassidy, now retired, was an assistant last season under Joe Crispin, after years as head coach of the Division III Profs. Crispin had him do the tryout session. They had gotten a heads-up that this tall guy from the track team was going to try out.
“Where has he played?’’ Crispin remembered asking.
“Nowhere,’’ he was told.
Why did Diante Bah try out in the first place? He’d played club basketball for Rowan, Bah said, had a little success doing that, playing club teams from other colleges. It was fun. He’d always loved the game. He just didn’t play at Rancocas Valley High.
Bah was not the type to say, hey, I’m better than those guys on the team.
“I didn’t know how to play basketball,’’ Bah said.
By that, Bah means … “I didn’t know how to rotate, how to post up. My shooting form was horrible.”
His hoops experience: “It was just pickup.”
Crispin talked to Cassidy after the tryout. There was a full team practice later that night. Crispin said to bring the guys you need to bring. A couple of guards, Cassidy told him, and the tall guy.
The conversation, Crispin and Cassidy said, was along the lines of “You can’t not bring him. … It wasn’t like, you have to see him.”
Cut to a year later. Rowan goes into a New Jersey Athletic Conference first-round playoff game Saturday at Ramapo on a five-game winning streak. The 6-foot-8 Bah is the starting center. He was this week’s Philadelphia Small College Basketball Association Sam Cozen player of the week.
A year later.
The learning curve?
“Oh my God,’’ Bah said after he was presented the award Monday at a luncheon. “Every day, I had to learn things it took guys years to learn.”
Bah had run track, but that tryout, he said, “he ran us to the ground.” Then Cassidy said the real practice would be that night. Bah remembers calling home, telling his father, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this.”
“Drink water,’’ his father told him. “Relax.”
“Little did I know the next two hours would change my life for the better,’’ Bah said.
“He was so energized to improve from the very beginning,’’ Crispin said. “He’s just a sponge. Sadly, a lot of kids, they get to college basketball, they’re kind of burned out. Their energy has been sapped by all the basketball they’ve played.”
They started Bah off slowly last season, Crispin said, but they can remember saying, “We’ve got to get him in a game.” They had a couple of players injured for a game, so they put him in. “Four minutes in, he gets poked in the eye, has to go to the hospital. Has an eye patch.”
They tried again a couple of weeks later. Crispin just remembers this “ridiculous inbounds dunk over somebody. We just started him.”
It worked pretty quickly. With Bah’s “incredible rim protection ... he changes the game defensively," Crispin said. "We’re able to do things that others can’t do. I tell my team, when Diante is out of the game, you can’t take as many risks.”
Last season, Rowan won the NJAC and a couple of NCAA Division III playoff games. Crispin is convinced that even with some real talented guys, it wouldn’t have happened without the new guy.
“On offense, we kept things super simple,’’ Crispin said. “He didn’t remember any plays. Now, he’s got a couple. Last year, it was real simple. ‘Diante, on offense, you’re setting ball screens and diving to the rim. … If they switch [on the screen], get out of the way; if they don’t, do it again.’ That’s all he knew. I did not call a single play in the NJAC playoffs.”
Somebody said to him, no plays? Crispin told him they have plays.
“When your starting center who you need doesn’t know any plays, you’re not going to call them,’’ Crispin said.
Even now, Crispin said, while Bah is a real sharp guy, he doesn’t have the bank of knowledge most players have. He’d never played in front of a crowd. The senior can sometimes get in his own head, and doesn’t know about time on the clock, whether to take a jump shot with three minutes left, that kind of thing.
So Crispin will say, “Where are you right now?”
Bah will give the correct answer, the name of the gym. Not what Crispin is looking for. On the court, Bah will say. Nope, wrong answer.
“We’re in the rec center,’’ Crispin will tell him. “Play like you’re in the rec center. If I go over to the rec center right now and play this game, we’re never losing. Forget all that info you’ve heard and go play. Use your instincts.”
Crispin plays a lot of guys — most getting entirely different instructions — so Bah averages 24.9 minutes. He scores 8.5 points a game, leading the team with 7.2 rebounds (third in the NJAC), plus two blocks a game (first in the NJAC). Bah’s 67.9 field-goal percentage also easily leads the NJAC and would be sixth nationally if he took a few more shots.
Not that they’re asking him to do that. By knowing what he didn’t know and putting that behind him, Bah didn’t just change his own life. Those two hours changed the fortunes of two straight Rowan seasons.
“He’s been awesome,’’ his coach said.
And yes, they had another open tryout this season.