WASHINGTON — At some point, Vander Blue was going to have to trust someone.
It was clear that he had issues. He was the youngest of three children, born to a single mother, haunted by the hole of no father-son relationship, trying to learn how to become a man.
He knew he had fallen short of the hype that had accompanied him to Marquette three years ago.
He had the same expectations for himself.
“I can’t lie, it was hard for me,” he said. “Every freshman wants to come in and have that impact and potentially go one and done and be that next person to make their dream a reality. So it was really hard for me.”
When the coach who brought him to Marquette, Tony Benford, left to coach at North Texas, Blue was altogether lost, disappointed with how his career had played out and struggling to figure out his place.
Then, last spring, he got a text from a number he didn’t know.
It was Isaac Chew, who had just been hired as an assistant by Marquette head coach Buzz Williams that May.
“I didn’t have his number saved,” Blue said.
In the message, Chew told Blue that he was the first person he wanted to sit down with. He said they should meet up for lunch.
Blue, leery, suggested a Qdoba nearby.
“I didn’t talk much to him at first,” Blue said. “I was just checking him out seeing what he had to say.”
Eventually, Blue started to tune in.
Chew told him that if he was to get where he wanted to be, he was going to have to become a leader.
He had heard it before.
The Golden Eagles had players, from Jimmy Butler (now with the Chicago Bulls) to Jae Crowder (Mavericks), who put the team on their shoulders.
Blue was starving to be next in line.
“It fuels my fire that people assume that I can’t lead a team, that I’m no good,” Blue said. “Coach Chew was the first person to tell me that leadership was going to be my key.”
Part of what’s helped Blue become Marquette’s centerpiece (he averaged 14.8 points and earned second-team All-Big East honors) and push the Golden Eagles to an Elite Eight matchup with Syracuse on Saturday is the culture of trust built outside of basketball.
It wasn’t just Chew’s message that left an impression on Blue.
It was Williams, the equally intense but cerebral coach who manages to squeeze potential out of players even when they stop seeing it themselves.
“He could’ve easily gave up on me,” Blue said. “Now I’m in an actual spot where I have a chance to lead this team to a Final Four. That just means a lot.”
There’s nothing that Williams can’t turn into a test. When Trent Lockett transferred from Arizona State, he learned as much.
No one understood Lockett’s personal circumstances more.
He had lost his father to cancer when he was 3, and when he found out a year ago that his mother had been diagnosed with it, too, he chose to transfer to Marquette to be closer to her.
In talking to Williams, he felt comfortable with the decision.
“He has an innate ability to just relate to people in general, whether it was my mom when he was recruiting me, my AAU coach, my mentor,” Lockett said. “He’s just very in tune to what each person, each situation needs, and I think, as a player, we all buy into that because we know that, at the end of the day, he cares about us as people more than players.”
But there was a clear line drawn between life and basketball. Since Lockett was coming in as a senior and a veteran, he was going to be asked to contribute right away. But Williams wasn’t going to confuse immediate minutes with Lockett having things handed to him.
During Marquette’s “boot camp,” the preseason gauntlet of physical and mental conditioning that’s the core of Williams’s philosophy stretching players’ limits, Lockett was isolated.
He did the exercises by himself. The rest of the team watched. He did the same drill for 30 minutes, falling out, having to get back up again.
But at the end of it, Lockett had the respect of all his teammates.
“He’s just testing you,” said sophomore Juan Anderson. “Testing your faith, testing everything you have inside of you, whether you’re going to break or not.”
In the same breath, Williams will say that if his two sons turn out to be anything like Lockett then “my wife and I have done a good job as parents” and then say that for as compassionate as he is off the floor, “I have zero compassion on the floor.
“Off the floor, I’ll do anything that I can to make sure that our kids understand that I love them and care for them, not as a player but as people,” Williams said. “I think my relationship with Trent is along that line. I mean, I don’t holler and scream at him any different because of the nature of where he transferred to Marquette than I holler and scream at Steve Taylor, who is a freshman. I holler and scream at ’em all the time, it’s an equal opportunity deal.”
But his players understand it and appreciate it. In a way, it helped them learn how to lean on each other. Their first two tournament wins both came down to one possession. They bullied Miami out of the tournament, running on emotion and execution.
“We’re able to relate in the fact that no one has a perfect life,” Lockett said. “No one is worry free. The fact that we all come from different backgrounds, but at the same time have experienced similar things in our life, we’re able to relate and I think that brings us closer as players.”
The young players, like Anderson, look to players like Blue not because of his numbers but because of what he’s been through.
“A year ago today, everybody was sleeping on Van,” Anderson said. “Nobody really respected him in regards to being a basketball player like they do today. He’s just always on me, he’s always talking to me about things in life like, ‘Your life can change in one year.’ That’s what he did, he changed his life.”
More than buying into a system, the Golden Eagles have managed to exceed expectations by buying into each other.
“You’re going in the fire with these guys,” Anderson said. “You can’t make it through a lot of the things we do alone. So at some point, you’ve got to lean on somebody else and trust them to help you get through it, and at some point they’re going to have to lean on you.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.