Seton Hall’s seniors stayed on the Prudential Center court for at least ten minutes after their Senior Night win over Butler two weekends ago, not to soak up the limelight and their final moments on that hardwood, but to thank fans and sign autographs.
“I tried to sign every autograph I could,” said Brooklyn-bred senior Khadeen Carrington.
“I tried to take every picture I could, but then they needed me to be back (for interviews). To the fans I didn’t get: I’m sorry.”
“Just ‘Thank you for everything’, ‘Thank you for the four years’, they love me, things like that,” said Carrington of what words were exchanged. “(They were) showing me a lot of love.”
“Knowing they support us every game. Not missing a game, you see the same fans every game. It’s loyal, you know?” explained an emotional Bronx born Desi Rodriguez.
Desi was speaking not long after the entire arena was chanting his name with seconds remaining on the clock, practically begging the injured senior to check himself into the game.
They had to settle for an embrace with his fellow seniors at the scorer’s table.
“So you’ve got to show the same respect they show you, the same love they’ve got for you, we show back. We need a crowd, they get us going. When we’re struggling, they get us going. You’ve got to show love back.”
“The fans have always had my back,” added Newark native Ismael Sanogo, a fan favorite for his stalwart defense and hustle plays.
“They’ve always shown tremendous faith in me when I didn’t believe in myself. With people like that, you just have to show them respect and thank them. We have some of the best fans in the world. … If you show me love, I have to show you love back.”
When Sanogo pledged his future to Seton Hall on his birthday at lunch during a sticky July afternoon nearly five years ago, he started his speech with this.
“The expression ‘go where you’re loved, not where you’re liked’ ran through my mind.”
As many fans can attest to: the Senior Night post-game routine was far from a first. The extended showing of gratitude was four years in the making.
Thinking back prior to the arrival of this senior class in the summer of 2014, it was a rarity for Seton Hall’s players to mingle with fans post-game, shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries, and taking pictures with younger Pirates fans.
Let alone sign and give away the game-worn shoes off their feet to grade schoolers.
All of that has become a regular occurrence over the past four seasons. Many of you have already made note on social media how you or your child has been graced by a similar interaction with this class.
The origins are slightly murky, but the intent has been clear, and the impact felt.
“It started their sophomore year when a couple of kids in the tunnel asked for the guys’ shoes and could they sign it. It was all younger kids,” recalled Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard.
“And all the guys came back in the locker room and had no shoes on. And I was kind of looking at them like ‘Where’d your shoes go?’ and they said ‘Well, all the young kids wanted them and Coach, we’ve got to give our shoes to young kids.’”
Fast forward a couple of years, and that rare showing of reciprocated gratitude has raised the bar which gauges the sense of community between the players and fans — which is essentially what collegiate athletics is all about.
The kind gestures have even ventured their way onto the court when Seton Hall invited Will Cody to sit on the bench as an honorary captain for a game each of the past two seasons, a local kid who is battling leukemia.
“All the guys were excited to have Will back and kind of see how he’s progressed and see that he’s doing well,” said Willard after a January win against Providence; the team is 2-0 with Will on the bench. Willard jokingly said he’d fire assistant Fred Hill and hire Will. Twice.
“I think it’s important for our guys to understand there’s some kids out there— there’s people dealing with some really serious, tough stuff, and being part of the team technically as Will was, it’s a good experience for him and it’s great for our guys.”
The life lessons that their coach has preached seem to have connected with this group.
As shown in the attached photo gallery, fan-facing altruism became routine for Seton Hall’s seniors despite handfuls of other encounters flying under the social media radar.
Like an injured Desi Rodriguez slapping hands with a young fan at Madison Square Garden before Seton Hall’s game with St. John’s last month. The kid was too far from the tunnel to be noticed by the rest of the team after they jogged to the locker room following warm ups, and looked disappointed he missed out.
But he caught Rodriguez’ eye, who gave him a few seconds of his time while in a walking boot.
The kid’s father captured the whole moment on camera. Both looked over the moon.
There are dozens upon dozens of similar fan run-ins over the past four seasons (I encourage you to share yours in the comments), and the odds are gentle giant-like Angel Delgado has taken a photo holding your youngest minutes after posting a double-double and smiling for every second of it.
“It became a tradition where I think my guys really appreciate and understand what it’s like to be a role model and to have younger kids looking up to them,” elaborated Willard.
“I think they really like it but at the same time they really started taking it as a responsibility to make sure they took the time to talk to these kids and not just blow them off and to make sure they pass down the tradition of being a good person.”
Although the aforementioned shoe signing started three years ago, Seton Hall’s seniors had some experience giving back after they saw early success in January of 2015 as freshmen.
“I think it started freshman year. I remember we had a big week here, we beat two ranked teams here and we just jumped in the crowd,” recalled Carrington.
“Those people that sit on the sidelines, (and) those boosters, they’re cool people, we know them, we have a lot of events here. We give them love after the every game. It wasn’t planned.”
Their on-court legacy in post-season play is still to be written, but this senior class and their young understudies have etched in stone what should be remembered as a fan-friendly, grassroots group that genuinely cares when off the court.
Sophomore Myles Powell and freshman Jordan Walker have both quickly caught onto the post-game crowd routine, and will surely follow in their teammates’ footsteps.
“It messes with the media afterwards, it messes up team meetings,” said Willard of his team’s outgoing nature.
“But it’s great for the fact that they take the time and they understand the impact they can have with someone young and it just shows what great kids they are.”
“It’s just the people we are,” said Ish Sanogo after sitting out a well-earned senior night.
“We’re all great individuals when it comes to showing fans love. They come out and support us and it’s the least we can do is sign autographs and win games.”
But let’s get back to the origins of how game-worn shoes made it into the hands of young fans.
This recollection begins similarly to Willard’s: comically.
“It started because I was over-piling my sneakers in my locker. I’ve got about 40 sneakers,” said a giddy Desi Rodriguez, grinning ear-to-ear.
But couldn’t be more sincere.
“I was like ‘I’ll wear these and then I’m going to sign them and give them away’ but then kids running up to you and looking up to you like that, you want to give them a gift. You want to give them something to be happy for.
“Them running around screaming your name. I never had that coming from where I’m from. I’m just an example for my neighborhood. These kids, they uplift me a lot, giving them a sneaker signed, that makes them happy, that makes their day.”
I’m sure it has made more than their day, Desi.
This senior class has made a whole lot of days and should be remembered for that, for many to come.