M elo has a decent country accent. There’s room for improvement, but it’s pretty good for a guy from Baltimore.
I’ll be at my locker and I’ll hear Carmelo before I see him. He’ll walk up behind me and do his best impression.
“I’m Ronnnnnn Bakerrrr … from Kaaansas.”
Then he’ll walk around in the locker room pretending to tip an imaginary cowboy hat. It’s always good for a laugh. I gotta give it to Melo — his accent is much better than Kyle O’Quinn’s. (Kyle, yours needs some work, man.)
I’m used to being known as the guy from the Midwest — the guy who grew up on a farm in a town of 200 people. The other day, though, something really caught me off guard. I heard some of the guys talking about college basketball … and I heard someone say two words I don’t hear very often in New York: Play Angry.
In case you don’t know, Play Angry is the motto of the Wichita State Shockers, my former school. It caught on during our Final Four run in 2013. By now, some basketball fans outside of Kansas are probably familiar with it. But you have to understand how strange it was — how strange it still is — to hear someone outside of my home state say, “Play Angry,” and know that they’re talking about the Wichita State Shockers. It makes me proud.
But it always sneaks up on me. As proud as I am to hear those words, I’m even more surprised.
I still can’t believe how many people all over the country know who the Shockers are.
It’s March and the Shockers are back in the NCAA tournament. This is my favorite time of year.
And I need to ask you for a favor.
I’m not going to ask you to pick Wichita State in your brackets. (I trust that you are a wise and decent human being with impeccable taste.)
I need you to tell me — and please be honest — what you think about that commercial that I did last year with Fred VanVleet and Evan Wessel, two of my former Shockers teammates. Sounds weird, I know, but bear with me: We were featured in a TV ad for our favorite Wichita establishment, Carlos O’Kelley’s Mexican Cafe. The commercial is still on TV in Wichita, and they show it on the big video screen at Shockers home games.
It’s pretty embarrassing … but hold on, I don’t want to cloud your judgment. So just check it out, and I’ll meet you on the other side:
I’ll be honest: I’ve gotten mixed reviews on my performance. Family and friends tell me it’s good, but they’re basically required to say that. Shockers fans seem to be pretty into it. (They’ve been to Carlos O’Kelley’s … they know about the excellent quesadillas.) I still get people who send me screenshots of the commercial whenever they see it. Then there are Internet commenters … well, you can probably guess what they say. And some people literally shout to me about it from across the street, and it’s not always clear whether they liked it or not.
I’m not trying to sell more enchiladas. I just want to point out something special about the ad. We shot it in the actual restaurant that my teammates and I used to go to after games. But more important, all the people seated in the restaurant behind us? Those are our real, actual friends. We texted a bunch of them (“Want to be in a commercial?”) and they showed up.
To me, that’s what stands out when I think about that commercial — all my friends laughing and pretending to be actors. (What you don’t see? The unlimited queso.) It brings back all my memories of being a student at Wichita State and reminds me how fortunate I was to call it home for five years. It makes me really miss the place.
Even if you’ve never been to Wichita, I’m willing to bet you have a place, or a memory, that makes you feel this way — maybe it’s the town where you went to college, or your hometown, or somewhere else special … a place that when you go back to, it feels like you know everyone. A place that reminds you that you’re always connected to a community even after you’ve left it behind for somewhere else.
For me, that’s Wichita State.
Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports
When Fred VanVleet and I were juniors, Coach Marshall did something that really impressed us: He asked us to be the “pitchmen” when recruits visited campus.
It’s pretty normal for college players to meet recruits, but that wasn’t what Coach meant. He wanted us to be the first people to meet a recruit and his family when they came to campus. He literally wanted us to have a sit-down meeting with each recruit — even before he toured the campus and met with the coaching staff or the academic advisors. It seemed like a big responsibility. But Fred and I were actually excited about it because it meant Coach Marshall really trusted us.
But that was junior year. As a freshman, I’d had a hard time figuring out what Coach Marshall thought about me. Right away, he had suggested that I redshirt, which I hadn’t planned on doing. I thought maybe he didn’t see any potential in me — or worse, that he didn’t like me. My whole freshman year, he kept telling me the same thing: “I want you to play like you’re back home in Scott City.” I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant. I didn’t know what basketball skills I’d left back home.
Basketball wasn’t even that big a deal in Scott City. My dad was a farmer until I was seven, and my mom’s always been a school teacher. I spent my summers as a kid working odd jobs on my grandpa’s farm — fixing fences, clearing weeds, cutting down trees. In between, I played a little basketball. I guess that makes us “blue-collar,” but in western Kansas, that’s just everyday life. That’s everyone.
In 2013, my second year at Wichita State (the year after I redshirted), I learned what Coach had meant by “play like you’re back home.”
It happened during a film session at the end of that season. The entire coaching staff was there sitting in the dark, rewatching our Final Four loss to Louisville. I sat down and started watching. But it was funny — Coach would fast forward past all the times I scored (I had 11 points in the game). He only paused the film when I was playing defense or when I was doing something like breaking the press.
He paused the film and pointed to the screen — wagging his finger at Louisville’s Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, two of the best college guards in the country that year.
“You should use this game as confidence,” he said to me. He meant that I had played well. Sitting there in the dark room, I couldn’t have been prouder.
Coach’s words that day carried me through the rest of my college career. He wasn’t talking about skill — what he cared about was effort and hustle. Just like on a farm: You earn whatever you work for.
I still think of his words today.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
My junior year, Coach had his eye on two big recruits: Markis McDuffie and Landry Shamet. Those guys are on this year’s team, but back then they were top 100 high school players. Lots of other good college programs were recruiting them.
As pitchmen that year, Fred and I were supposed to meet with potential recruits — Markis and Landry were our primary targets. They came on different visits, but the pitch to each guy was the same.
Fred and I each had our different strengths.
Fred liked to apply a little bit of reverse psychology right off the bat: he told each guy the things they wouldn’t get if they came to Wichita State — how we didn’t have a football team … how we were in the middle of nowhere … how everything in town closes down early … how Wichita didn’t always make the best first impression.
And right when they were looking at him like, Does this guy even like it here? Fred would warn them not to judge a book by its cover. His message to the recruits came down to this: Don’t come here for the extras.
“Want a winning basketball culture?” he’d ask them. “You can compare our wins, and our tournament success, with any program’s in the country.”
Then it was my turn. My pitch was a little different. I talked about what it had been like for me when I came in as a freshman: I wasn’t the most skilled guy ever, and I wasn’t a top 100 recruit, but I worked hard. I told the recruits how they were already more skilled than I was at their age. With Coach Marshall’s guidance, they could become great players.
I summed it up with the biggest lesson I had learned in my first two and a half years at Wichita State: Choosing a basketball program shouldn’t come down to where you’re from, or how skilled you are. It should come down to who you want to surround yourself with.
Less than two weeks later, both guys committed to play for us.
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports
Which brings me back to Play Angry.
The Shockers motto.
It’s really more of a mindset than something literal. It’s hard to describe in one word, so the best way to Play Angry is probably just to tell a story.
It’s about one game. Actually, it’s about one play in one game. It happened so fast that I bet some Shockers fans may not even remember it.
We were playing Kansas in the NCAA tournament in 2015. It was the second round and we were a seven seed. KU was a two seed. We were underdogs. But we were used to that.
In the second half, there was a loose ball near midcourt. Two players ran to grab it: Zach Brown, a freshman at the time, and Kelly Oubre Jr., one of the Jayhawks’ best players. Both guys went all-out … a freshman playing in his first NCAA tournament and a Kansas player who was going to the NBA in a few months … and that’s when it happened ….
Zach beat him to the ball.
Then he picked it up and dribbled in for a dunk. The arena went crazy.
That play right there says it all. In five years of being at Wichita State, there were a lot of memorable plays, but that one sums everything up for me.
That’s how you Play Angry.
Play Angry isn’t about playing dirty, or playing mean, or playing out of control.
Play Angry is: You’re not going to beat us to a loose ball.
I actually don’t have a lot of advice for this year’s Shockers team. I don’t have to tell you to Play Angry. You’ve already learned how. And I know I don’t have to make sure you’re ready. Coach Marshall will be all over that.
I just want to wish you good luck in the tournament this month. I know you’ll make all the fans and alumni proud.
You already have.