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Sam Kebede is not a college basketball recruit, but he is about to play one onstage.
On Tuesday, he sat across a table from Jim Calhoun and got a dose of how the recruitment process works, how the relationships form.
“It made it all a lot more real,” said Kebede, who studied at Duke and got a master’s degree in acting from UConn. “He created a lot of hypothetical situations. ‘You’re a point guard, you’re in this position.’ It reminded me a lot of how directors are in the room trying to say, ‘How do you get your mind around this? Imagine you’re doing this.’ And he just put me in those shoes.”
So this week at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, where Calhoun joined the board of trustees last year, there may be March Madness but there is method acting in it. The play is called “Exposure,” and it deals with the effects of AAU basketball and recruiting on a young player who suddenly grows taller and attracts attention. Calhoun, a longtime theater buff, came to rehearsal to offer insight and real life experiences for the playwright, director and cast to work into the production.
“I’m fascinated by this stuff,” Calhoun said during a break in the schedule. “I really am. I’ll come Friday and Saturday. I want to see how they handle it.”
Playwright Steve DiUbaldo, who played 10 games for coach Gregg Marshall on Winthrop’s NCAA Tournament bound team in 2005, got involved with the theater when an assistant coach arranged for players on the team to take an acting class. He began writing and has been at it since leaving college 10 years ago, his work appearing onstage and in workshops in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
In “Exposure,” he tells the story of Eli Gamble, a 6 foot 4 point guard and high school junior who grows seven inches over the summer and becomes a major college recruit, tempted by money and the NBA. In its early drafts, DiUbaldo said, there were more of his personal experiences, but now the script takes in stories he has heard from many sources.
Director Wendy C. Goldberg, winner of the 2010 Regional Theatre Tony Award, who went to Michigan during the Fab Five era, took on the challenge of bringing basketball to the stage.
“It’s very hard to represent sports onstage,
” she said. “And that’s something I’ve long been challenged by. But the issues that they represent, in terms of our cultural fascination, this medium can do that very well. As the director, I’m the person who’s leading this entire team through the process and trying to get some results at the end. I like to think of myself sometimes as the [San Antonio Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich of the American theater. I mean, just trying to put the best people in the room and put the best people in place.”
Calhoun arrived at the O’Neill Center in Waterford on a muggy morning to meet with the cast and crew and provide some context. He told them about his recruitment of players like Caron Butler and Ray Allen to UConn, about meeting David Robinson as a young player before he went to Navy. He shared his thoughts on the NCAA, on academics and athletics and the realities of the game.
His recurring theme: These issues are complex.
“You worry that they won’t understand that 99 percent of what you see is great,” Calhoun said. “It’s still college basketball, but in the midst of billions and billions of dollars, things happen. It’s not the only place, that’s why they have insider trading on Wall Street and a lot of different areas. It’s impossible to truly, truly monitor it the way you like. But it’s still a great game.”
Calhoun spoke for about an hour, drawing upon his 40 years coaching at Northeastern and UConn. The actors around him might well have been recruits in earlier times. He commanded the room.
“I just got a lot of what it’s like,” said Kebede, who will portray Eli. “And the team and family aspects that really is going on behind the conversations. You get snippets of it in the play. It echoes some events that are in the story, where I get riled up, ‘why is everyone turning on me?’ I’m trying to help everyone and they are not aware of all the opportunities at my doorstep, and it just gave me this fuller picture to what’s going on in Eli’s mind and what causes his ego to grow and he turns on his friends in a lot of ways. Coach really gave that to me.”
Calhoun recalled becoming interested in the theater when he attended the ballet in Estonia, and marveled at the athleticism and endurance of the performers. An avid reader of all genres, he has long been a patron at the Bushnell in Hartford. After Calhoun finished with the group, he talked with DiUbaldo, brainstorming on the script while cast members went outside and played you guessed it basketball.
“He’s a legend, I’ve always admired him,” DiUbaldo said of Calhoun. “I wished I was good enough to play at UConn. I’d always heard that he was a really tough coach but that players loved to play for him because they win and he takes care of them.
“This is about those guys who are maybe being promised, one year and you’re out, one and done, you’re going to the NBA,” DiUbaldo said. “And we start to see what happens to their lives when people start to see not what they’re doing now,
but their potential which is a dangerous word.”