Viewpoint The power of the hug still felt at Fairfield ... and beyond
Fairfield’s dazzling freshman Neftali Alvarez saw it. Really, how could he have missed it? Sydney Johnson. Tyler Nelson. This was the hug seen and felt around the college basketball world.
This was the hug between a coach and a player that burned up social media and melted hearts.
As the pages of the 2018 calendar run out, it is as good a time as any to reflect on how deep, genuine emotion can hit us in the flash of an Internet second. How it can influence us — calloused adults and high school athletes alike — in ways we might not have thought possible.
Maybe even be a deciding factor in college recruitment.
We talk about it all the time, don’t we? The superficiality of social media. The inane banter. The baiting for baiting’s sake. The lack of decorum. The loss of civility. The only time we seem to hear a collective “awwwww” these days is when someone posts a picture of puppies. Even that moment can be ruined by a Grinch like Slate writer Ruth Graham, who last week bad-mouthed President Bush’s service dog Sully.
And then, in a flash, something like the embrace between Johnson and Nelson comes along in March at Times Union Center in Albany and bam, you feel the power of emotion … and of social media.
“First and foremost, I love Tyler Nelson,” Johnson said Friday. “I have relationships with players, past and present, that will stay with me the rest of my life.
“I think people got a snapshot of the joy it is for me to have the job I have and the relationships I have. Maybe some part of us want to have those relationship in all areas of our lives.”
With 19.3 seconds left in the MAAC championship game, with Iona at the free-throw line and pulling away for an NCAA bid, Johnson sent Jared Harper in and brought Fairfield’s all-time leading scorer out for the final time. Johnson met Nelson, who had scored 25 points, at the scorer’s table. He went in for the hug and almost never came out. Ten seconds … Johnson was crying on Nelson’s shoulder … 15 seconds, 20 seconds. Finally, Johnson released his grip. His eyes were redder than the Stags’ uniforms.
“Oh, that right there was so impressive,” Alvarez said. “That is a great relationship between player and coach.”
Alvarez, the No. 1-rated point guard in Florida and one of the top 50 guards in the country, was home in Miami that March night. In May, he would pick Fairfield above 20 Division I schools. Wichita State, Purdue, Virginia were among the interested. His mentor and AAU coach, Art Alvarez, has a strong relationship with Fairfield assistant coach Tom Parrotta. Fairfield was a place he could play immediately. On Friday, Alvarez talked about the fast, attacking style suiting him. He talked about how Johnson and assistant Tyson Wheeler were successful college guards and how he can learn from them.
So while it would be a stretch to say Alvarez picked Fairfield in May because of a video gone viral, the message sent was a powerful one.
“It was meaningful to me,” said Alvarez, leading the Stags in assists and steals through 10 games and tied for the team lead with an average of 14.3 points. “Every single player wants to go to a school and have a great relationship with the coach. Not just on the basketball court but outside, too. I saw that.”
Think about it, UConn fans.
Akok Akok, UConn’s highly anticipated 2019 recruit, doesn’t smile much, but he breaks into a broad grin and eagerly talked about seeing Dan Hurley rushing into the stands to pull out Josh Carlton in the opener. James Bouknight, the other big 2019 recruit, talked about loving what he saw on that video of Hurley. One moment can have a huge impact. Either way. It’s crazy.
Johnson said calls poured in after the hug. The new attention to the school was good. The affirmation from those who knew what Fairfield and Johnson were about was gratifying. There were AAU and high school coaches, eager to point out they may have the next Tyler Nelson.
Often in the recollection of a moment people cannot recall what was running through their minds. Games are spontaneous. Competition is instinctive. This is not the case here.
“People who know me very, very well — I don’t show all of me to everybody — those people know I’m an emotional guy,” Johnson said. “I feel deeply. I care about this game. I care about what I’m trying to put into the game. It has given me a lot. I remember everything about (the hug).”
Johnson pauses for a moment. Nine months later, he suddenly is fighting his emotions.
“I’m trying to hold it together even now,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want that moment with Tyler to come. I knew what I had to do. I had to take my senior, the best player I ever coached, out of a game we spent four years trying to get to and win.
“And I had to take him out in a moment where we lost. I didn’t want that moment to come but I knew it had to.”
Alvarez, who starred at Miami Christian, arrived in the U.S. from Puerto Rico as a junior in high school. Earlier this year, Art Alvarez told Hearst Connecticut Media: “Neftali loved that (hug). That was one of the neatest things that I’ve ever seen and I’ve been in this game for four decades. And Neftali needs that, he’s a family kid, he came from Puerto Rico to the States with no family and that’s why we knew that Tommy and Sydney, it would be a family thing.”
The Stags, who face Boston College on Sunday, are off to a 2-8 start. But get this: They have lost five games by three or fewer points. Five losses by a total of 11 points.
“Obviously a possession here or there and it would be different,” Johnson said. “Jerome Segura and Tyler Nelson were senior guards who made a lot of things happen for us that new guys have to learn. And they are. We’ve really improved the last 4-5 games. The wins are going to come.
“One of the things that is bandied about a ton is that winning cures all. Winning is the greatest cologne or perfume. The truth is there are so many wins and successes in smaller, quieter moments. I do feel good about that. We’re doing really good things with our basketball program and phenomenal things are happening at this university. Maybe it’s not noticed as much because we haven’t run off a run like Gonzaga. But we’re on the cusp and it’s good to be noticed for what we’re doing and developing guys to go out into the world and be leaders.”
Sometimes, in one of this year’s most stirring moments, they are sent off with a 20-second hug that melts the Internet.