I am very thankful for the opportunity I had to work with the Auburn Men's Basketball team. It helped me in a multitude of ways. I loved having the experience of being around the team and being able to travel with them. There were ups and downs, but the experience overall was a unique one. Here's a look at my experience as a Student Basketball Manager.
First a little backstory.
For any of you who don't know me, My name is Jonathan Wade. And among my many fields of interests, athletics is a major one. In my days at Auburn University, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I started as a Computer Science major at a University primarily known for its Engineering programs. Being from a city - Huntsville, AL - that is primarily filled with government engineers, I found it to be a good move, but I never seriously enjoyed it. I enjoyed my first semester, but the programming quickly went over my head, and I knew I needed a change. CS wasn't for me. I decided after a while that I would pursue one of my dreams. I changed my major to Business Administration - hoping to eventually pursue coaching and athletic administration. I had my eyes set on an MBA with a graduate minor in Sports Management. To get back on track after changing majors, I decided to take summer classes.
And that leads to being a Student Manager...
During the summer semester between my first and second years of college, I got an email as I was walking to my car about the Auburn Men's Basketball Team looking for volunteers to be managers. I decided I would jump on this opportunity. It made perfect sense. I played basketball in high school. I wanted to be either a football or a basketball coach one day. I needed to do this - for myself.
I went into the interview expecting to be questioned thoroughly - I was not. In fact, the person who interviewed me showed up late. I was taken down to the team's practice courts and was asked to throw a few passes and grab a few rebounds. I was given a large list of guidelines, and I was sent on my way. The first practice, I remember meeting the players and being awestruck. I'd never seen so many athletes of their size and caliber up close before. As someone who played basketball in high school, I was surprised at some of the shots these guys made and how hard they worked. It was only a pick-up game. I played on a team in high school where I was the only one who truly cared whether we won or lost, and I would do anything to get our team on the winning side. To see an entire team of guys going at it like they were was amazing to me, and just made me want to be out there with them.
But then I realized, it was a job. I wasn't there to play; I was there to work. Our first few practices were tough. I was the one who wiped up sweat, who made and poured drinks, and who had everything ready for the coaches and players so they didn't have to worry about a thing. I remember thinking I was going to be fired during my first practice. I ran out to wipe up sweat after a player fell, and I almost got trampled. The head coach was furious that I had gotten in the way. In his mind, my job was to do all of the dirty work without being seen. I had never encountered a group of people who I felt like had absolutely no idea who I was, didn't care about me at all, and thought of me essentially as a slave. Remember, at this point I was a volunteer. I didn't receive any payment for my first 2 months of work. I thought to myself, "If I can get through this, I can be a coach. That's what matters." That was in June.
Fast-Forward to August.
Every year, my family plans a trip for us to go on a vacation. It's one of the few times a year I get to see my uncle and his family. Well, this year was different. 2 days before we were supposed to leave, I got a call. My supervisor with the basketball team called to tell me that they were going to the Bahamas for a tournament. One of the managers couldn't go, and he wanted to know if I could. Now, of course, the dates were the same as my family vacation - which I am always excited to go on. It was conflicting for me, but I went. I had my sights set on a paid position. Even after 2 months, I barely knew the people I went to the Bahamas with.
I got left behind in the Atlanta Airport, and had to find my own way (that place is confusing). I bunked with another manager, and he barely even acknowledged me. I felt like I was in the Bahamas alone. That being said, I was in the most amazing hotel I had been in in my entire life - Atlantis. It was awesome. I got to eat for free. I got to gamble for the first time in a casino (lost $20 and quit). I went to a water park. I watched 7-foot men eat 50oz. steaks on a nightly basis. I got to see the Miss Teen USA contestants walk through the lobby. I saw Doc Rivers, Kyrie Irving, and Jamal Crawford. I did all of this, and I got paid for it. This was the life. If only I actually knew these people so I could enjoy it.
The trip to the Bahamas got me the job with the basketball team. I loaded everyone's luggage every time we went anywhere - bus or plane. I set up for practices, shootarounds, and games. I made gatorade, poured water, and wiped up sweat. I also ran a camera for each of the games so we had something for film to review. That's what being a manager was.
Once we got back, classes started. The hardest part about being a full-time student manager is being a full-time student.
There were so many early mornings and late nights. The schedules were atrocious - mostly because the managers didn't have a practice schedule. 95% of the time, we were told by text to be at practice within the next hour - while sitting in class with no clothes to change into (of course, we had to wear certain clothes to practices). So, in a sense, we were on-call. On-call for a job that required 40 hrs/wk but only paid for 20. On-call for people who didn't care about whether we passed or failed a class. On-call for people who I never understood. Why they couldn't wipe up their own sweat, film their own practices, make their own gatorade, fill their own cups of water, run across the arena (in a minute flat) to get their own stuff, get their own rebounds, and carry their own luggage?
Everything I was hired to do for this team, I did for myself on my high school team. But I did what I was told to, because that's what you do when you have a job.
There are moral issues that takes place in these locker rooms that no one is allowed to speak of. There are issues with treatment of employees. There are issues of how athletes are treated versus the average student. Athletes are treated like they are above everyone else. All of that said, this is about the managers - the ones who are walked on verbally, physically, and mentally. All for experience and small paychecks that don't compensate for the work they do.
Practices were only part of the job. Games soon occurred. Gamedays were long days. Heaven-forbid you miss a rebound in the shootaround or forget to lay a uniform out correctly or talk while the coach happens to be speaking (or yelling). During the games, everyone wanted to be working the camera. Everyone hated to be on the sidelines because it just meant we'd be yelled at and nagged every 10 seconds, whereas if we were filming, we got to do our jobs in peace.
Among all of the practices and games, the most memorable things that I look back on to this day are the relationships I had with other managers, going 1-for-1 from the NBA 3-point line at Phillips Arena (Atlanta Hawks) after shootaround then leaving, driving a (NICE) rental car through Florida's campus by myself to pick up a coach from the airport, driving a rental car to pick up starbucks in Baton Rouge and downtown Atlanta only to be told the coach didn't want coffee, staying in a Ritz Carlton for the SEC Championship, meeting NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley, talking to coaching-legend Sonny Smith on the bus, and dunking on the court used for the SEC Tournament in front of half of the team while the players went crazy cus a 6' 1" white guy - who they don't consider and athlete - just dunked.
Despite the hard work, the late nights, the early mornings, the terrible schedule, the bad compensation, the horrendous treatment, and a lot of time spent feeling like you were alone during everything you did; I made some lasting friendships, made some great memories, got great experience, went new places I never thought I'd be, and did so working for the university that I loved.
The moment I didn't want to go to practice anymore, I knew I wasn't doing the right thing.
I was stretching myself thin. I was tired. I was physically and mentally worn-down. My relationships suffered. My education suffered. I was skipping classes constantly. I wasn't studying hard enough. I just knew that I was in a bad place, and something needed to change.
At the end of the season, a coaching change occurred. The coaching change was the most interesting part of my job experience. I didn't know whether I had a job the next day. None of the managers did. Honestly, I didn't really know if I wanted to keep it. Auburn subsequently brought in a man by the name of Bruce Pearl. My first day working for Coach Pearl was amazing. He talked to me person to person. He gave me advice on perseverance. He spoke to me about his time as a manager and how he turned his time with the team into a marketing device. He told me about how much he valued managers. The guy truly is genuine. He hired a former Auburn great as his assistant coach - Chuck Person. Coach Person treated managers like they were players. He even put us through workouts. Not only did they treat us well, but they let us know when the practices were. You have no idea how much knowing that impacted how I felt about these coaches.
All-in-all, I only worked for Coach Pearl's staff for about 4 weeks before I decided I needed to quit. The experience wasn't worth the hardships I had gone through in my personal life. Thank God my girlfriend - who is now my wife - stuck with me through all of it. Being a student manager is the hardest job I have ever had.
If I was simply a full-time manager, it would be easy, but I was a full-time student.
I was on a winding road that would ultimately lead me in a different direction. One that I am still following passionately to this day. The Lord works in mysterious ways. My experience with the basketball team was an amazing one. One that took me to amazing places and to meet amazing people. One that opened my eyes to the fact that what I saw on TV was not what was real. One that made me realize that athletes are regular people. And one that made me realize that anything is attainable if you work hard enough.
I still follow the team to this day. I keep up with all of the players' and coaches' careers that I met along the way. I still root for everyone I worked with and still love to have been a part of the program.
So next time you watch a game - any sport - watch for those who are working to be unnoticed. Watch for those who sprint full-speed to hand out a water bottle. Watch for those who put out chairs for the basketball players in the games. Watch for those who are getting the rebounds in warmups. Watch for the people who are going through it all to get the experience they need to move up in the world. I know it may sound easy. I know it may be something that doesn't sound like great experience. I know it may be a position that people think of as a glorified waterboy, but I've been in the position. Being a manager is one of the most important positions in athletics. They do the hard work that others think they're too good for.
If you think it's easy, I'll have you wipe sweat off the floor during a full-pace scrimmage with a towel in one hand and a drink in the other while players trample you, coaches scream obscenities at you, your career is on the line, and 2 finals tomorrow that are worth 30% of your grade.
And don't forget... you missed a spot.