Friday, May 24, 2013

Rutgers Strikes Gold With Dalip Bhatia

Following five years on staff of fellow class act John Dunne at Saint Peter's, Dalip Bhatia gets much-deserved promotion, joining Eddie Jordan's staff at Rutgers as Scarlet Knights' new director of basketball operations. (Photo courtesy of Saint Peter's University)

If college basketball has taught us anything over the years, it is that anyone and everyone is ultimately equal.  Yes, some programs have more impressive resumes and stronger track records of success than most others, but nowhere else in the world of sports can anything happen on any given night as often or as unpredictably.  This element of uncertainty extends far beyond the ten players on the court for the two teams in battle, even to the staff members and administrations of certain programs.  Just because something appears inferior on the surface does not mean it is not just as good as, or even in some cases, better than, a competitor from an institution of greater recognition.

Look no further than Dalip Bhatia.

Bhatia, a hard-working and perennially enthusiastic 30-year-old up-and-comer in the coaching ranks, was just hired late Wednesday night as the director of basketball operations at his alma mater, Rutgers University, in what goes into the record books as the latest step taken by new coach Eddie Jordan to reconstruct the bridges and terrain that were burned and scarred in the aftermath of the graphic and sadistic conclusion to the Mike Rice regime.  Bhatia returns to the banks of the old Raritan eight years after his graduation, and comes back much the wiser following a five-year apprenticeship at Saint Peter's University; first in the operations director title he now assumes at Rutgers for two years before spending the last three as the third assistant to one of the true good guys of the profession in John Dunne, a man who has taught his young charge well in the fine art of developing something out of what is perceived to be nothing.

Saint Peter's could easily be described as the least regarded of the many college basketball programs here in the New York area, located just across the Hudson River in Jersey City. Their home court of the Yanitelli Center, affectionately known as "The Bubble," would probably be considered among one of the least favorable facilities in the nation, as some high school gymnasiums have received more aesthetically pleasing reviews.  Yet none of that ever mattered to Bhatia, whose approach to serving as a small part on a staff of a program that still gets lost in the shuffle when it comes to obtaining respect; even just two years after winning a MAAC championship and competing in the NCAA Tournament, makes you think he is inside Madison Square Garden, or any other larger and more venerable arena for that matter.

Standing a mere 5-foot-4, just one inch taller than former Charlotte Hornets legend and shortest player in NBA history Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, Bhatia is almost certainly not the man you would expect to find on a basketball court at first blush; but what he lacks in stature, he makes up for in heart and passion for the game, with mounds more to spare not just for himself, but also for his former boss Dunne, as well as fellow assistants Bruce Hamburger and Marlon Guild.  For anyone that has spent enough time around the Peacocks program, the competitive fire that Bhatia exhibits in practice, during games, and even off the court is probably everyone's lasting impression when asked about Saint Peter's University basketball.

Even more than that, Bhatia is an ambassador of the game and his team, a role he takes as seriously as those of his equal parts in-game strategist and player developer, which he honed to perfection over the last five years. When I was finally able to make my first trip to Jersey City last December to see Saint Peter's play arguably their most impressive game of basketball this past season in a convincing win over eventual Northeast Conference champion LIU Brooklyn, Bhatia made it a point to be the first to introduce himself to me; something each of his fellow staff members eventually repeated, commenting on how he was a big fan of this website, which he later informed the rest of the Saint Peter's basketball community about.  At every other Peacocks game I covered, including the MAAC Tournament in Springfield; and even at the MBWA writers' dinner last month, he would always come over and say hello, asking how the season was going through various points of this site's well-documented 120-game odyssey.

That's the kind of guy Rutgers gets with Bhatia. His desire to connect to everyone around him and include everyone in his life's work makes him a perfect fit at a place like Rutgers, which could use a few more Dalip Bhatias to reinforce the belief that yes, despite the mediocrity and negative publicity from the Rice and Don Imus dramas, the State University of New Jersey truly is an institution to be proud of.  On that note, if anyone out there can testify on pride, it is Bhatia himself, who is proud of what he has become and how he was raised; an only child much like yours truly, who strives to honor his mother even a decade after cancer tragically took her from him.

His passion is unrivaled, and has already been chronicled through his tenure as an accountant at the prestigious Deloitte firm before arriving to where he is now, not to mention declining a six-figure salary offer from a New York hedge fund company to enter the much more insecure realm of college basketball coaching.  Such a sharp career change is not unprecedented, though, as thirteen years ago, a then-23-year-old in the marketing department of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly walked away from his own cushy job to accept a volunteer position as an assistant at a Horizon League school in Indianapolis.  Today, that man is still at that institution, now as a head coach in the Big East.  You might know him as Brad Stevens at Butler University.

Dalip Bhatia is no Brad Stevens, at least not yet.  Give him time, however, and with a couple of fortuitous bounces of the ball, he just might be.

His new role at Rutgers is just another stop on the road to greatness and validation for a man who truly deserves everything that comes his way.

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