Early in the Fall Semester of the 2011-12 school year at Indiana University, freshman Devan Blair got a call telling him to report to Assembly Hall.
Blair, like many incoming IU students, aspired to be a manager for the school’s history-rich men’s basketball program before he even arrived on campus. He ran into Indiana coach Tom Crean during his initial visit to IU. He’d already attended an initial call-out meeting at Cook Hall with 40-60 other students in late August, where Graduate Assistant Mike Santa talked about what it would take to be a manager and Head Athletic Trainer Tim Garl tried to scare the group and weed out those that didn’t have what it took.
Blair had already made it through the interview process and the trial runs that followed during the team’s practices. Only 10-13 candidates remained standing. But on this night, Blair’s phone wasn’t ringing because he was needed for rebounding duties at practice. This was a phone call Blair hadn’t prepared for.
All of the remaining candidates for the student-manager positions were called to meet atAssembly Hall to play pickup basketball.
“‘And oh by the way, Calbert Cheaney is going to be playing with us,'” Blair recalls. “Little did I know that being an IU manager meant that you had to be able to play basketball at a pretty high level. So here I am, a freshman in college having just started classes, being asked to come play in Assembly Freakin’ Hall to secure a manager position. Needless to say, I was a nervous wreck, and my play reflected that. I honestly don’t even think I hit any part of the goal on any of my five shot attempts.”
Two days later, Blair got another phone call he hadn’t planned for. This one was to inform him he hadn’t been selected as a manager for the men’s basketball program. IU suggested Blair head to the women’s side and serve as a manager for their program. It wasn’t what Blair wanted to hear. Far from it. He admits now that he was furious at the time.
But Blair never lost sight of his initial goal. He certainly wasn’t ready to quit. Little did he know at the time that there were four other students on campus that, while coming from different backgrounds and with different personalities, shared the same goal. Little did he know that all five of those students — himself included — would not only work together as IU basketball managers, but would land jobs in the NBA after graduation.
This is the story of those five student managers, the NBA talent developed by Indiana’s basketball program that you haven’t heard about. This is the story of The Managers.
If At First You Don’t Succeed …
If there’s one thing The Managers learned along the way, it was that there was no such thing as a normal path to becoming an IU basketball manager, and there was no such thing as a normal day once you became one. In many ways, that’s the beauty of this story.
Just like the team Crean put out on the floor, he knew he needed his off-court staff to be just as versatile with a number of different areas of expertise. Some managers were former high school basketball stars, so they made good scout team players. Others were good with numbers and computers, making them good for analytics and video work.
At Indiana, Crean believed in maximizing each individual’s strengths, no matter what position that individual filled in the program.
“I’m a very average to sub-par player, so being a member of the scout team was very rare for me,” said Brendon Yu, 25, a 2014 IU grad now working for the Cleveland Cavaliers. “But with my degree in finance and knowledge of [Microsoft] Excel, I was pretty useful doing analytics and video work.
“Having that experience doing video, practice, stats, along with the administrative/dirty work involved really helped make us versatile in the future. I know some places where the managers aren’t as involved, but under coach Crean, we were given a lot of responsibility and had to come through just like anyone else.”
Yu’s path to becoming an IU basketball manager was fairly straightforward. He was a manager for Jack Keefer and Lawrence North in high school, and he earned the same role at IU as a freshman in 2010. Steven Klei, 23, now with the Utah Jazz, also joined The Managers as a freshman in 2011.
For the other three, the path wasn’t quite as clear.
Aaron Weaver, 27, spent much of his high school senior year building a relationship with Kelvin Sampson and his staff in hopes of earning a spot as a manager when he arrived in Bloomington as a freshman.
When Sampson was fired and Crean was hired following the 2007-08 season, Weaver had to start from scratch.
“I reached out to coach Crean’s staff right away and expressed my interest in working camp, or anything else over the summer so I could get noticed and potentially become a manager,” Weaver said. “I don’t remember exactly what the response was, but basically due to NCAA rules, I couldn’t work camps right out of high school. They advised me to apply in the fall, which I did. After going through the interview process – which included an on-court workout – I was not hired.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Weaver’s story is remarkably similar to Devan Blair’s story. But unlike Blair, who went to the women’s side, “kicked ass”, and got hired to the men’s side when the women’s season ended in March, Weaver found an even quicker way in.
A week or two after he’d been told he wasn’t hired, Weaver got a call from Brian Barone, Indiana’s Director of Basketball Operations at the time. Barone knew Weaver had been let go, but he was looking for some help in the video room and saw potential in Weaver.
“That same evening, I attended my first IUBB practice at Assembly Hall,” Weaver said. “That was the first of many, many long days, but I was doing exactly what I wanted – working for the Hoosiers.”
|Name||Years as IU Manager||Current NBA Team|
|Aaron Weaver||2008-2013||Indiana Pacers|
|Brendon Yu||2010-2014||Cleveland Cavaliers|
|Tim Dather||2011-2015||Indiana Pacers|
|Steven Klei||2011-2015||Utah Jazz|
|Devan Blair||2012-2014||Houston Rockets|
Unlike the other four, Tim Dather didn’t arrive at IU knowing he wanted to be a basketball manager. Dather, 26, knew he wanted to coach, but wasn’t sure at what level. He also wondered if it was something he could really make a career out of.
“There was part of me that was almost scared to pursue it as a career,” Dather says. “I would make excuses to myself not to chase it.”
Dather, who was coaching a 6th grade team back home in Fishers, Indiana during the summers, finally decided before his junior year at IU that he wanted to try to coach at the collegiate or professional level.
“I knew of the manager job and thought it would be the best way to learn, even though I didn’t have a clue what the actual responsibilities were,” Dather says. “I simply wanted to watch how these coaches worked and taught, and to see if I could pick up techniques or information along the way.”
They all took different paths to get there and brought different skill sets to the table, but all five of The Managers eventually ended up where they wanted to be. Starting with Weaver in 2008, The Managers all found their way to Crean’s program, where all five worked together from 2011-13. Four of the five (excluding Weaver) worked together from 2011-15.
“That’s super rare, especially when you consider we all made it to the NBA,” Blair says. “There are multiple other former IUBB managers in the league, and I’m sure there are some I don’t even know about. But our group is unique because we all worked together at the same time and then made it to the league.”
‘I Had No Idea What Was In Store’
Weaver was the first of The Managers, joining Crean during his first year with the program for the 2008-09 season. Yu came on board for the 2010-11 season, Dather and Klei for the 2011-12 season, and Blair near the end of the 11-12 year.
Weaver served a sort of example for the younger managers that came on board. Just like the players during Crean’s first three seasons, Weaver established a culture of hard work, sacrifice and dedication that others would later follow. Because there was so little turnover among The Managers, each one grew into a model for younger managers to emulate.
“To have daily interactions with the coaches and players as part of your job was truly incredible,” Weaver said. “My journey at IU was unique because I was able to be part of the program’s biggest turnaround ever. From going 6-25 in the first season to my final year as Big Ten champs, there was never a boring day.”
That doesn’t mean there weren’t many stressful days – and nights. There most definitely were. To a man, The Managers say now they had no idea what being a manager for Crean’s program would be like before they started.
An example? Crean didn’t believe in hiring a full-time video coordinator when he first got to IU. All of the video duties fell on the shoulders of The Managers and graduate assistants.
“I don’t think the average person understands the time commitment and sacrifice most guys put in,” Yu said. “They see the perks of getting gear or being on the sidelines for games, but they don’t realize that every Saturday football game, when people were tailgating, we were at practice or setting up stuff for recruiting visits. Friday night, going out? Maybe every now and again, but you might have to be in the gym rebounding or in the film room cutting tape. Coach Crean liked to keep people on their toes so we never really had a set schedule.”
Added Weaver: “I had no idea what was in store. I certainly did not realize how big of a role IU basketball would play in my life during and after college. It was the camaraderie amongst us managers that kept me coming back after even the toughest days.”
‘My NBA Jobs Have Been A Piece Of Cake Compared To What I Did At IU’
Most of The Managers estimated they worked 60-80 hours per week on top of their course load, which sometimes reached as many as 18 credit hours. The Managers had to attend every practice whenever they didn’t conflict with class. Each one had a different responsibility relating to film and video breakdown, and then they were often asked to do various tasks for the program at any time, day or night.
Blair, for example, served as Victor Oladipo’s personal driver for much of his time at Indiana.
“He didn’t have a car on campus, so anytime he needed a ride to class or to Chipotle, I was the guy,” Blair says. “To this day we are still pretty close, and it’s always great to see him when he is in town or we’re in OKC.”
It was demanding, to be sure. But it’s for that very reason The Managers were so marketable in NBA circles when they completed their time at IU.
“My jobs in the NBA have been a piece of cake compared to what I did at IU,” Blair says. “If something was wrong or we screwed up, it was all on us and we got yelled at just like any player would. There was no margin for error. With as much film as coach Crean watched, all of our shit had to be tight and perfect every single time. If you proved time and time again that you weren’t able to perform at a high level, you were fired. It was that simple. Regardless of where you were, you were expected to perform at a high level at all times, and if you didn’t, you would be lit into like no other.
“It was that kind of high stress, high pressure environment that has allowed me to thrive in my current job and in my previous NBA internships.”
For several of The Managers, the lessons learned while working in Crean’s program extended well beyond the basketball court.
Weaver, for example, was interviewed by an NFL General Manager for an Operations job on staff, even though he had no prior experience working in football or professional sports.
“This GM basically said that he admired coach Crean and knew the expectations he has for everyone within his program, top to bottom, so he felt comfortable giving me an interview after working for five years under Crean,” Weaver says. “Coach Crean has always been known as one of the hardest working coaches in the game, and I felt that his work ethic impacted everyone else, trickling down even to us managers. The successful managers were able to feed off of Crean’s energy and grow in the business, while there were many, many, many others who never bought in and therefore didn’t last very long as a manager.”
Working for Crean, The Managers agree, taught them how to succeed in life – not just a career in basketball.
“I think that being a manager has shaped the way I think and work, and not just on the court or about basketball,” Dather says. “The main thing that separated Indiana managers under coach Crean for future jobs was demand. A lot was demanded, and because of that responsibility, we learned many things that could help us obtain jobs.”
Landing In The League
As Crean’s tenure at Indiana progressed, he established something of a path for his best managers to follow. Just as his best players aspired to make it in the NBA, so too did his managers.
Most of The Managers stayed on for an extra year or two to serve in a Graduate-level position within the program. From there, Crean did what he could to help those that wanted to work in the NBA with setting up interviews, getting a foot in the door, etc.
Usually, The Managers started their search by networking during the two NBA Summer League sessions in Orlando and Las Vegas.
“You kind of figure out which teams have openings and who to send a resume to from there,” Yu says.
Yu almost immediately landed an internship in the Cavaliers’ Front Office, and he has
been with Cleveland ever since. For some of the others, it wasn’t quite that simple.
Klei, for example, went months without a single NBA offer. He interviewed with countless NBA video coordinators about video intern positions, but didn’t get one.
“That was extremely difficult to deal with, but it gave me an appreciation for how hard it is to break into the NBA,” Klei says.
In late August or early September, Klei got a call from Yu about a basketball operations position with the Cavaliers’ DLeague team, the Canton Charge. Yu was tasked with helping to fill the vacant position, and recommended Klei for the job.
He got it.
“I spent my first season out of college working for the Charge, and gained extremely valuable knowledge and experience over the course of that season,” Klei says.
Klei interviewed for a video position with the Jazz during the Las Vegas Summer League following that season, and he started working for the Jazz full-time just two weeks later.
It’s those kinds of anecdotes that make The Managers’ story so special. Even now that they’re IU days are over, they still look out for one another whenever they can. When Blair started to explore NBA openings, he reached out to Weaver for advice. Weaver suggested Blair go after a scouting internship with the Pacers, and Weaver helped make that happen.
The Managers forged an unbreakable bond during their time together at IU, a bond that each of them still talks glowingly about to this day.
“We were there more than anyone – more than the players, more than the coaches,” Blair says of The Managers’ time at IU. “We were there more than anyone, and without any of the glamour or reward.”
Added Klei: “I am not going to lie – there were days it was tough. But I like to think of the whole ‘boiling water hardens an egg and softens a potato’ line when I think about my time at IU. If you make it through four years as a student manager, it says something about you. It means you can handle yourself in high pressure and stressful situations. It means that you are able to adjust and adapt without a problem. It means that you have a great work ethic, especially when you factor in that we were all full-time students on top of our manager responsibilities. It means that you can put your head down and work for hours upon hours, even though you know what you do will come with little recognition. And it means you love basketball more than just about anything. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Tom Crean, the assistant coaches, my fellow managers, and the Indiana University men’s basketball program.”