When Thomas Botticelli was coming out of Commack High School at this very time last year, his basketball future was in question.
After a lackluster high school senior season (to which he admits himself), the Long Island native only had a few Division III offers on the table. Botticelli was now stuck in a dilemma – did he want to continue his basketball career at a low-level program that he didn’t have his heart set on, or did he want to go to a school that he loved, potentially giving up basketball in the process?
The school he loved? Well, it just happened to be Marist College. And as Will Smith said at the Oscars, “Love can make you do crazy things.”
“My brother came to Marist and my sister went to Vassar [College] so I’ve been around here a lot,” said Botticelli. “I loved the campus and I knew that the education was really good…I always said that if they didn’t send me an offer I would try to walk on.”
Of course, there is never a guarantee that you make the team if you try out. There’s a very small chance that you get the call-up. But Botticelli felt at peace with himself knowing that he would at least have a chance to make a Division I team rather than taking the easy cop-out with the Division III school.
“I would never not do this,” Botticelli said. “I wouldn’t lose anything trying out, so it’s exactly what I was planning on doing.”
With this mindset, Botticelli took his chances, put in his housing deposit, and in mid-August, drove two hours north to attend Marist.
Fast forward to mid-October, and it was time for tryouts. Once he submitted all his medical information, Botticelli was ready to showcase to the coaches what he had on the court. When he stepped onto the hardwood, he noticed that only eight students were trying out.
The participants took on drills for two and a half hours, including cone drills to test their dribbling and shooting drills. They also competed in full-court one-on-one and three-on-three, each testing cardio and to see how the players competed in a game setting.
After this session, Botticelli was gassed and worn out, but he still believed that he had shown enough to squeeze through the final cut.
“There wasn’t a point where I said to myself ‘this isn’t gonna happen,’” said Botticelli. “I always think that there’s a shot, always.”
After saying goodbye and leaving McCann, it was now time to wait for the team’s decision. This was the moment where Botticelli would find out if he could pay off his ultimate goal – believing in himself and making a Division I basketball team.
After not hearing anything for a week, Botticelli received an email from Andrew Metz, the basketball team’s Director of Operations.
“He was just telling me that [John Dunne] wanted to see me,” Botticelli said. “So, I came in the next day and that was when they told me that they wanted to give me a spot.”
The coaching staff was impressed by Botticelli’s 6-foot-4 athletic frame and his jump shot, both tools that the staff believed potentially valuable to the team.
Even after all of this, his spot on the team wasn’t final just yet. They had him attend a few of the team’s practices, and while the coaches were set on their belief that they wanted him to join, this was mainly meant for Botticelli to see if he actually wanted to be on the team.
For Botticelli, there was never a doubt about his desire to be on the team. He knew he wanted this moment, so it was an easy “yes” to accept the spot.
He was officially on the squad. Now his new assignment was to get to know all of the players mere weeks before the start of the season. To his relief, that adjustment process was easy. There was even a player who knew first-hand the obstacle Botticelli was climbing. That player was fellow walk-on graduate student guard Terrence Echols.
Echols was a team manager before he walked on prior to the 2020-21 season. Now, he and Botticelli’s main assignment was to create a lively, energetic bench energy.
“Being on the bench alongside Terrence was always fun,” said Botticelli. “We were being as loud as we could, and always tried to give the team energy regardless of what the scoreboard said. That was really our goal.”
While they were on the bench trying to inspire their teammates, they were also on their heels, as they could be called upon at any second.
For instance, if a player was hurt or on the COVID list, Botticelli would have an expanded role at practice to ensure that the practice was run as if there weren’t any players missing. But there were moments where Botticelli got some in-game action, including his highlight of the season.
The date was February 25. The Red Foxes were hosting their senior night game against the Manhattan Jaspers in the last home game of the season. Marist was blowing out Manhattan, and with about a minute to go, John Dunne emptied his bench.
Botticelli finally had his chance.
“It was a lot for me emotionally,” said Botticelli. “Me playing at this level in front of my family who were in attendance, along with my two best friends who were in the crowd, it meant everything to me.”
Before the end of the game, Botticelli got fouled. The team was in the double bonus, so this meant that he could go to the free-throw line and score not only his first points of the season but the first points of his college career.
The student section at McCann knew that these could be his first points, so everyone was on their feet. Botticelli walked up to the stripe, took a dribble, put up the shot – swish. Everyone went crazy for him, cheering Botticelli’s name, making all the effort he exerted to get to this point all worthwhile for him. This wasn’t it though, as he still had one more free throw. He followed the same routine as before, and luckily for him, Botticelli had the same result as before – swish.
“Just to top off the night with those two free throws, it definitely felt really good,” said Botticelli. “That definitely was the highlight of my season. It was a great moment that I will never forget.”
After the team’s disappointing result at the MAAC Tournament in March, it was time for Botticelli to start getting ready for next season. And with six players entering the transfer portal, and players like Echols, Jordan Jones, and Victor Enoh graduating, Botticelli will be one of the few remaining pieces from this past season’s team.
With all of this going on, he’s still only remaining focused on improving his game, choosing not to focus on a potential expanded role.
“I haven’t talked to [the coaching staff] about a bigger role,” Botticelli said. “I don’t think I should, I believe that I should just show it coming into next season seeing how I improved. I’m going to work as hard as I can over the summer, and I planned on doing that regardless of the team’s departures.”
With his ongoing improvement, Botticelli is going to take to heart everything he learned from his teammates and coaching staff during his freshman campaign. He knows he needs to work on his ball-handling to become a more versatile player, and that’s probably what he is going to work on the most.
The biggest improvement Botticelli made throughout the season? Well, it isn’t something you would exactly notice on the court. It was actually his mental fortitude.
“[The team] definitely improved my mental strength,” said Botticelli. “The practices were definitely way more challenging and difficult than I had ever experienced in high school. They pushed me with that schedule, but they treated me just like everyone else on the team, walk-on or not. Just had to get back up and keep going.”
With his new mental fortitude, Botticelli will look to push himself harder than he ever has in his career for the betterment of the team. And with all of the drama surrounding the team, that’s just what they need from a returning player.
Edited by Christian De Block and Jonathan Kinane
Photo from Marist Athletics