What if I showed you a picture of a sold out, energetic McCann Center? What if I showed you MAAC standings with Marist on top? What if I said you don’t have to go as far back as Rik Smits’s Marist Red Foxes of 1987 to find success in the men’s basketball program?
2007 was a year for the ages at Marist College for its men’s basketball program. Marist greats Jared Jordan and Will Whittington graced the McCann Center court each night and helped lead the Red Foxes to one of the most successful seasons in Marist men’s basketball history. Shae McNamara, now a certified mindset coach, was a key member of that 2007 Marist team and recalled what it was like to be a part of something so special.
“We really, really bonded,” he said. “We had such a brotherhood that we hung out all the time, we ate all the time. It was organic.”
It had been approaching the 20th anniversary since the Red Foxes had last reached the NCAA Tournament when legendary Smits was anchoring the paint. It was the highest expectations had been since and it felt like Marist’s best chance to reach the tournament in years.
Jordan returned for his senior season after leading the nation in assists in his previous year. Sharpshooter Whittington joined him in the backcourt to make a lethal duo that would both go on to make all-conference teams. Surrounded by other key upperclassmen such as James Smith, Ryan Stilphen, and Spongy Benjamin, the Red Foxes looked the part to end Poughkeepsie’s two-decade drought of a conference championship.
“We were all about winning it and going to the NCAA’s,” said McNamara.
McNamara was yet another key cog in head coach Matt Brady’s deep and loaded system. At 6’8”, the Milwaukee native gave the Red Foxes even more size off the bench and shot over 50 percent from the field in each of his last two seasons in red and white.
“Everyone could literally score 15 or 17 points a game,” recalled McNamara. “There was no scarcity, it was all abundance. It was just a matter of who’s hot, who’s feeling it, and matchups and what not. Everyone bought into that because we all truly wanted to win.”
After a third place finish a year ago, Marist was a unanimous choice to win the conference in the coaches’ preseason poll. Accolades and statistics didn’t seem to intrigue Brady’s squad. It was clear to McNamara and the rest of his teammates that only they knew what they were capable of.
“As far as goals and fear, we knew that we were worthy based on all of our abilities.,” said the former forward. “There was no ego, there was no pride. We came to work every day and just got after it.”
McNamara’s minutes threshold came to a holt late in the season after a hamstring injury caught up to him later in the season. The then junior had challenged teammates Jordan and Whittington to games of one-on-one, another testament to the competitive spirits of the team.
“I said, ‘You guys can’t score on me, I’m the best defender in the league,’” said McNamara. “I was flying. I was in really good, hot form. They were too. I told them, ‘Imma lock you guys up.’ This was before practice and I hadn’t even warmed up yet. Well, it screwed me. But it was in a healthy way of, ‘I want to compete with you, let’s go.’”
It wasn’t until after college when McNamara realized what a special connection it took to reach the heights his teammates and himself were able to reach. The relationships formed were bonds that have lasted well beyond college.
“We loved going on dates together, we loved hanging out together, we did everything essentially together,” said McNamara. “We really had a real natural bond that honored our competitiveness toward each other but also the real bond of actually caring for one another.”
Reflecting on one of the goofier traditions he had with his teammates was something McNamara found to be a telling sign of how tightknit the group of guys were and what it meant to them both on the court and off the court.
“We would come together and we would play ‘Sweet Caroline’ every pregame and would turn off the lights and just have the most geek-out session,” said McNamara. “We always had each other’s backs and that was a recipe for success. It wasn’t from anything but a natural connection that you wouldn’t find at a bar or hanging out with random classmates.”
As the season heated up, a regular season finale for the conference title against Siena was set. It would prove to be the biggest game and crowd the McCann Center has seen for a men’s game in its existence. McNamara vividly recalled the atmosphere prior to the game.
“We get out there an hour and a half early to get some shots up,” he said. “Usually, it’s like 100 people at that point. There was at least 1,000 people in the gym. The student body and the fans were already there. I’m there and they are juiced. This is a Saturday afternoon game and they’re ready to rock. Being part of it and getting out there an hour and a half early and getting your shots up and hearing them all cheer and start mocking the other team, it was just like, goosebumps. This is what every person’s dream is. It was amazing, it was rowdy, it was an ESPN2 game. Everyone had their towels and were waving them. I mean it was, it gives you the goosebumps and the tear in the eye to go, ‘Man, I experienced that.’”
Marist would go on to win in overtime and claim their first regular season conference title since the tournament-bound Foxes of 1987. The celebration was on in McCann and it was a symbolic moment for the Red Foxes as they celebrated the first outright conference title in program history.
“It was Jared and I, we got in the middle and we started dancing,” said McNamara. “And then everyone just swarmed us in the middle and formed a circle and usually that’s my time to dance and do my thing. But I was like, ‘Nah, I want this to be about everyone and not about me.’ We gave the look to the mascot to take the show. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about Jared. It was so symbolic to have the mascot representing all of us being in the middle doing his breakdance. After he did it, the fans and the team ran up to him and jumped around and it was a very special moment.”
That very relationship that McNamara and his teammates had with the fans and classmates was one they had always cherished. They found maintaining that relationship to be equally as important as their ability to shoot a three or make a layup.
“As far as the dynamic of the fans and the brotherhood and sisterhood with the student body, we had that,” he said. “We had fun, we were humble, we hung out with anybody. We had a real chemistry with the fans because we didn’t have a superiority complex.”
Marist basketball taught Shae McNamara loads of life lessons through hard work, relationships, and conflict. But if there is one thing that has always rang true for him since that junior season just 13 years ago, it was this:
“When you have the same focus, and you have the same standards, and you have the same accountability, and you have the same intentions, amazing things happen,” he said. “It’s all based on the foundations of love, respect, and honor towards one another, the team, the program, and yourself.”
Edited by Nick Aprea
Header photo by flickr