Actor Sam Kebede went to rehearsal hoping to get some insights about what it’s like to be recruited by a big-time college basketball coach. Hall-of-Famer Jim Calhoun, the former Huskies men’s head coach, was happy to assist.
The coach who led UConn to three national championships before retiring in 2012 is serving as a technical adviser on the production of a new play, “Exposure,” which is being performed this weekend at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.
Kebede portrays a player experiencing the world of AAU basketball and recruiting.
Playwright Steve DiUbaldo played Division I basketball at Winthrop under Gregg Marshall, now the coach at Wichita State. Director Wendy Goldberg grew up in Michigan and watched her friend, the now-retired NBA star Chris Webber, deal with choosing a college before he wound up at Michigan.
But both sat in rapt fascination with the cast and crew for well over an hour prior to rehearsal Tuesday, as Calhoun answered their questions and regaled them with stories, drawing on more than a half-century of experience in basketball. He offered insights and opinions on the NCAA, the recruiting process, shoe companies, players, parents, other coaches, and even fans (“They love you, win or win,” he joked).
“It made it all a lot more real,” said Kebede. “He just put me in those shoes. He gave me a fuller idea of what it means to be a recruit.”
Calhoun talked about forming personal relationships with recruits and their families, showing them the formula he used to help players like Ray Allen and Kemba Walker fulfill their dreams. But he also addressed the game’s flaws.
He talked about the struggles the NCAA has governing institutions as diverse as Harvard and Alabama. He told the ensemble about coaches who thought they were doing things the right way by only giving players “used cars,” and teenagers who feel entitled to fame and riches because they’ve “worked hard all their lives for it.”
“All your life? You’re 18,” he said.
“Have I ever been offered, ‘You give us this, and we’ll give you that?’ Yeah,” Calhoun told them. “I always said, ‘I’m never going to own a kid, but a kid is never going to own me.’ It was never worth it, ethically, morally, or otherwise to do those things.”
Calhoun said he tried to get across that basketball can’t be portrayed in black-and-white terms – good guys and bad guys. It’s about human beings, relationships, mistakes, and trying to do what’s right for the players and doing it the right way, he said. And, he added, there’s a lot of gray areas.
The vast majority of college basketball, he said, is great, “but in the midst of millions and millions of dollars, things happen.”
DiUbaldo said, “Something that I found enlightening was how much [Coach Calhoun] loved his kids, and how much the game is at the base of basketball. And amidst all this stuff that will make us cynical with the recruiting process and other things, at the end of the day we love the game and we love the kids that play it.”
The playwright said he hopes all of that comes across in his play.
Calhoun, who sits on the board at the O’Neill Theater, said being involved in the production is exciting for him as a longtime fan of the performing arts. He said he marvels at the athleticism of dancers, and the discipline it takes for actors to learn how to portray a character.
He also sees a lot of parallels to basketball – the ensemble feeling, the work ethic, and the joy that comes from pulling off a great performance.
“I’ll come Saturday and Sunday nights to see it,” he said. ”I want to see how they handle it.”
See more photos on the UConn Athletics website.