When Eric Ayala came out of the locker room to warm up for his first game for Maryland men’s basketball as a freshman last season, he was shocked to see a group of young fans standing under the basket.
In addition to the team’s managers and graduate assistants, a few lucky kids get to help rebound balls for the team before each game. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the tradition started, but it’s been a staple in College Park for quite some time.
“It was new for me just seeing the little guys out there,” Ayala said. “It’s a Maryland thing, you know, as a whole program, as a university.”
This season, the Terps have taken the tradition a step further. Before each game, players consciously go out of their way to allow those kids to defend their shots and dribble with them, providing an impactful moment that allows each young fan to feel like a part of the team.
There wasn’t a talk about it or some big decision made. It was simply something that “felt right,” as the players realized the connection they could share through basketball.
“It’s unreal. I remember me watching college basketball as a child and how much of effect those guys had on me,” Ayala said. “I don’t think it settles in yet how much of effect I have on them. I’m kind of just in the moment, but hopefully I think they’ll be able to remember one of those little drills or something that we did or them dribbling the ball with us for the rest of their life.”
Head coach Mark Turgeon doesn’t come out to the court until right before game time, so he had no idea his players were doing so until being told at a recent media availability.
“Oh that’s awesome. That’s good to hear,” he said when asked about it, cracking a grin. “It doesn’t surprise me. We recruit good kids. They know they’re in a position to be a role model or help people and encourage people. So that’s good to hear, probably doing some early recruiting for us too.”
As Maryland fan Steve Metzger was playing basketball with his 3-year-old son Rhodes in the basement of his home earlier this year, he noticed that his boy was wearing sunglasses inside.
So naturally, the father asked his son what he was doing.
“He said that he was Stix and he was playing basketball,” Steve told Testudo Times. “And I thought, ‘Well, that’s the cutest thing I’ve ever heard.’ And so I said, ‘Hold on, say that again, real quick. I’m going to film you.”
And thus the viral video of a curly blond-haired young boy pretending to be 6’10 Jalen Smith was born. Sporting striped pajamas and black sunglasses, Rhodes flings a bank shot into a Little Tikes toy basketball hoop. Steve then asks, “Can you dunk it like Stix?”
The 3-year-old takes off the sunglasses and responds, “No, I can’t.”
After the video blew up within the Terp fanbase online with retweets from Smith and the team — which Steve, a high school business teacher, said his students were going crazy over — the athletic department reached out to ask if it could use the clip for a promo video.
Steve figured his son would be one of many kids in the video, just playing a small part. That was, until his students ran into his classroom shouting, “Pull up Maryland basketball. Pull up Maryland basketball. Your son is on a promo video.”
He pulled up the video for his class and sure enough, the promo was just of Rhodes and Smith. He immediately starting cracking up at how cute the whole thing was.
“I’m not one that cares a ton about likes and retweets and all that stuff,” Steve said. “But it was neat that my little boy, who brings so much joy to me, that everybody else got a kick out of it.”
And another surprise came the family’s way nearly five hours before the Terps faced Nebraska on Feb. 11 as the athletic department called to ask if Rhodes wanted to be the tipoff captain for the game. He of course said yes.
And during warmups that evening, the duo finally met face to face.
The team was promoting a ‘Stix Specks’ night, so Rhodes had traded his black sunglasses for a mock pair of recreation goggles just like his idol’s. The 3-year-old’s eyes widened with his mouth gaped open in joy and disbelief as Smith picked him up, lifting him high in the air above his head. Smith was all smiles too.
After bringing Rhodes back down, Smith took a few minutes to talk with him and the pair exchanged a fist bump.
“Thank you for the video,” the sophomore forward said as Rhodes nodded along. “I watched you play basketball. Good job, buddy.”
“It was amazing just getting to meet Rhodes for the first time. Pretty much from now on, the rest of life, we’ve got a bond over that,” Smith said. “It’s just amazing knowing that I put that type of inspiration in kids because people did that to me when I was younger. So it’s just amazing to be able to return it.”
The bond is certainly there. Though such an experience is hard for someone his age to fully comprehend, Rhodes now walks around telling people, “Stix is my best friend.”
“For [Smith] to be real and tangible and friendly and sweet and giving of [his] time — as parent, you want your kids to look up to good people,” Steve said. “Stix was certainly just a very good guy to my boy.”
Before the Terps’ matchup against Northwestern on Feb. 21, Aaron Wiggins came up to a group of ball boys standing under the basket getting rebounds and pulled one of them — 12-year-old Blake Graham — aside to let him join in on his pregame routine.
“My ball,” the sophomore guard joked as the pair walked together to the right corner of the arc.
“I was very happy and excited because I wanted to give him a showcase of what I could do. And it was fun playing against a college player,” Blake told Testudo Times. “I look up to them a lot because they’re my inspiration because I grew up with the University of Maryland. And to know that I kind of have that bond with the players is nice.”
Wiggins playfully pump-faked the ball and dribbled it in between his legs as Graham mirrored his every move, hoping to impress the Terp with his quick feet and active hands.
At one point, the 12-year-old nearly forced a steal, but the sophomore guard got control back and put up shot against his fan’s outstretched arms. After the ball swished through the net, Graham gave Wiggins a handshake as if to say, “Good shot.” The Terp nodded his head as he shook the boy’s hand, smiling ear to ear.
“Is it my turn?” Graham asked.
“Nah, I scored,” Wiggins said while giving him a playful pat on the shoulder, as if they had been hooping together for years. He was intent on making Graham feel like a part of the team, and that meant nothing was coming easy. Plus, he knew there were other young boys eagerly waiting for a try.
“I used to look up to guys who were in college, guys who played in the NBA, and I’d want to do anything I could to be just like them or to play against them or anything like that,” Wiggins said. “So being in this position where little kids can look up and they want to strive to be like some of the players who we have on our team, it’s awesome to take any time out and just talk with them, play with them, have a little fun with them.”
Anthony Cowan Jr. is the kind of player who likes to completely lock in when it comes game time. But while shooting free throws over an hour before the Terps faced Nebraska on Feb. 11, he noticed some young fans out earlier than usual and decided to switch things up.
Each time he received the ball from a student manager, Cowan made sure to pass to one the kids, letting them throw the ball back his way before he put up the shot.
Rep after rep, the sequence repeated. It didn’t matter that it slowed down the process. What mattered was the impact he knew he could have on each of those young fans.
“Soooo fun,” 7-year-old Bella Ressa told Testudo Times of the experience. [It was cool] seeing how they warm up and getting to meet my favorite player.”
After he was done putting up free throws, the senior guard made sure to hug each kid and take a photo with them. He also told Bella — who wore baggy red shorts that draped down her legs and a white No. 1 jersey — he liked her outfit and gave her a high-five.
“It was really cool,” her dad, Carl Ressa, told Testudo Times. “The fact that they take that moment when they’re getting ready to play a game.
“And yes, they’re amateurs, but it’s still a business and have to take their job seriously. The fact that they can take that time to engage with the kids — even as little as just bouncing a ball or just talking for a brief moment, taking that picture — it shows a lot for them as players and for the organization to be able to really put that out there and allow them to do that.”
Ressa said that since getting to warm up with Cowan, his daughter has been drawing every players’ jersey and insisting on hanging them up around the house. Every time she watches Maryland play on TV, she calls out each players’ name and cheers loudly for them as soon as they touch the ball.
Cowan has garnered quite the fanbase in his four years at Maryland. After all, he currently stands as the eighth leading-scorer in program history, is tied for the third-most triples made and now holds the record for most consecutive starts (127) — just to name a few.
At this point, one might think the senior guard would be used to the fandom, or even tired of it. But Cowan takes pride in stopping to take photos with young fans that come across his way, as well as bringing them into his pregame routine. And he’s still taken aback whenever he sees videos of little kids pretending to be him online.
“That’s huge. I’m not even one to be like this, quote on quote ‘soft guy,’ but that really gives me a little weird feeling in my stomach,” Cowan said of his reaction the video. “Just to see that you’re affecting people off the court. I think that’s the biggest part.”
As Morsell was stretching along the baseline before the Northwestern game, he noticed two young boys hovering in the distance, clearly too nervous to come up to him and say anything.
So Morsell motioned them over and had one of the boys grab his hand and help lift him up from the ground, making him feel trusted and important all at once.
The junior guard then sat down on the courtside seats, shook their mom’s hand and proceeded to talk with both of them for several minutes.
“We was all that little kid at one point in our life, so we just try to be good role models for younger kids,” Morsell said. We’re out there just having fun. I actually, like literally, genuinely enjoy those moments. They out there hustling down our rebounds and stuff like that, so it’s just good to give back to them, get to talk to them a little bit and let them know that we actually care about them.”
A few games before that, Morsell let another young fan guard him on the perimeter as he put up shots. He hesitated to shoot for a bit, moving the ball around and around as the little boy swiped at the ball, eager to produce a steal.
At every single game this season, Maryland men’s basketball players have taken the time to make little kids feel like they’re a part of warmups.— Lila Bromberg (@lilabbromberg) February 12, 2020
Says a lot about the character of this group. pic.twitter.com/x0sBkTqhBV
Every home game without fail, Maryland players go through similar sequences with their young admirers. It might just be the secret to the Terps’ home success.
“It settles like the idea that we’re about to go out there and play a big time basketball game,” Ayala said. “It kind of just relaxes you, and we can just play.”