Mark this moment in Villanova basketball history, maybe the only time Jay Wright, reciting reasons for a postseason victory, gave a “Shout-out to Big Al the Masseuse.” Talking up in New York earlier this month, Villanova’s coach gave a similar shout-out to the team chiropractor who had rushed up to Manhattan during the Big East Tournament to work on Jermaine Samuels, back spasms the issue.
It takes a village to get a team to a Final Four. This Villanova season, it also takes a knee surgeon, orthopedists, a strength and conditioning coach who doubles as a nutritionist, a trainer working 24/7, team docs who are suddenly COVID-19 specialists.
“Every team is going through it,” Wright said after the regular season. “We’ve just had a crazy year with injuries and illness and diseases — foot-and-mouth disease, whoever heard of that [stuff]? It’s just one of those years.”
A year that includes urgent text messages to Big Al the Masseur, part of the tale. Let Collin Gillespie start telling it.
“We’re walking out to warm up [before the Big East quarterfinal], Jermaine’s like, ‘I can’t move right now. I don’t know if I can play. You might just have to hold it down for us.’
“I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ ”
Alan Kravetz, aka Big Al, only travels to Villanova’s postseason games, and isn’t part of the official travel party. Nobody is getting massages in the locker room. Maybe back at the hotel.
“I get a ticket, there to enjoy the game and watch my team,” Big Al said of that Big East quarterfinal against St. John’s.
Between quarterfinal Big East sessions, the seating area at Madison Square Garden was closed off for a little cleanup.
“I may as well grab a bite,” Big Al said. “I got a hot dog and a soda.”
He stood at a little table eating, his phone in his back pocket, so he didn’t hear it ringing. When Big Al grabbed the phone after the hot dog, he saw a slew of messages. Get-down-here-ASAP-type stuff.
“I went to the usher, ‘I need to get down to the team.’ ”
“We can’t let you down there.”
Villanova’s director of basketball operations Joey Flannery came up with a credential. This was maybe an hour before the game.
“I walk into the [training] room, Jermaine is one of the training tables,” Big Al said. “I could tell he was in agony.”
At one point, Big Al remembers, Flannery popped in, asked Samuels if he’d be good to go. It was time for an official starting lineup. Samuels said no, put Caleb Daniels in. Samuels explained to Big Al that earlier that day at the hotel, he was in the cold tub.
“He must have been sitting in an awkward position,” Big Al said. “When he went to go up, he felt spasms. Going to warmups, he felt spasms, had issues walking. I palpated the spots he was showing. I think his left side was in total spasms. His spinal erector muscles, lower and mid-back.”
Big Al remembers working on Samuels for a few minutes.
“I still felt there was something that he needed,” Big Al said. “He tried doing a few stretches. I got him up moving around a little bit. There was another room there, I put him on still rings. Trying to hang him [from the rings], thinking he needed some decompression. Had him hanging on the rings a little bit. I brought him back to the table … he started getting some relief.”
He remembers Samuels saying, “Let me get a ball.” He moved around the room. They got out to the court, where, like most teams, Villanova has an exercise bike.
“The game already had started,” Big Al said.
After five or 10 minutes, “he looks at me, says, ‘You know what, I think I’m ready to go in.’ I literally sat down there in exhaustion.”
On the court, Samuels wasn’t moving great.
“The first couple of minutes, I could tell he was a little stiff,” Big Al said. “Oh my God, he’s going to come back out.”
By the second half, Samuels was a big part of things. He played 26 minutes, had seven points and eight rebounds. Chiropractor Jonathan Kropf earned his Jay Wright shout-out by getting to Manhattan to work more on Samuels, who had 21 points and 12 rebounds in taking over the Big East semifinal game against Connecticut, a performance that kind of stunned his own coach.
“It’s unbelievable,” Wright said right after the UConn game. “These guys will tell you, he couldn’t go through walk-through, couldn’t stand long enough to go through walk-through. I’m amazed at [Samuels]. But once he gets going — he’s done this in his career with injuries. He played with a broken finger last year. Had surgery. Missed the whole summer. ... But he played with a broken finger. He’s a tough kid and a great competitor.”
Samuels gave his own shout-out to the folks who had worked on him.
“For a very long time, I just saw it as, if I was feeling achy or hurt, it was like, just get over it, go play, get warmed up, go play,” Samuels said the day before the NCAA South Regional win over Houston. “Didn’t really see the importance of consistency in taking care of your body.”
Going to see Big Al was a requirement, days before or after games, part of the muscle-recovery process. Big Al specializes in active isolated stretching.
“Al has been there the whole time, even way back, and I didn’t even pay attention to it,” Samuels said. “This year, I wanted to take it upon myself to see him as much as possible. Even before I had all those spasms, I would see him all the time. He’s a big part of why I’m in one piece right now.”
Big Al is not really big.
“He’s a small guy,” Gillespie said, holding his hand close to the ground. “He’s yay big.”
“I’m 5-foot-3 — these guys are all 6-foot plus,” Big Al said, remembering that it was former assistant Patrick Chambers who first brought Villanova players to the place where he works in Bryn Mawr, almost two decades back. (“He looked at me, he almost laughed.”) Randy Foye was one of the first players he saw. Big Al had grown up in Northeast Philly, graduated from George Washington High, actually had been a freelance sports photographer, including for The Inquirer, before switching professions. He’s just down Lancaster Avenue at Maximum Performance International in Bryn Mawr, so he said it’s easy to hustle over to campus when needed.
Injuries have been a huge part of the Villanova story lately, with star guard Justin Moore now out after tearing an Achilles tendon last weekend and freshman reserve Jordan Longino out after his knee injury just before the NCAA Tournament required surgery. A shortened rotation is a reminder that even most ‘Nova players still playing have been through medical travails, and sometimes it takes a village to get a ballplayer just to the bench.
“He just appeared on the bench,” Wright said of Samuels in that Big East quarterfinal. “Whenever he appeared, I just put him in the game.”