Steve Masiello gets congratulatory postgame embrace from Tyler Wilson after Manhattan defeated Iona for Jaspers' second consecutive MAAC championship. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)
Steve Masiello stood alone, minutes before midnight this past Monday, perched atop a ladder inside the Times Union Center, momentarily basking in the glow of what had just transpired.
Here stood a man who, nearly twelve months ago, endured a firestorm that would have brought most to their knees following the discovery of his lack of a degree when he was in line for what would have been a well-deserved better opportunity at the University of South Florida. To his credit, Masiello battled, as he always has. He embraced his personal adversity, even used it as a motivator for his group of players that never got to celebrate what was theirs.
So when the 37-year-old coach, who could personally say he had been through hell and back to get to that moment at the top rung of the ladder, paused before cutting the remnants of the net that will now reside in the trophy case at Draddy Gymnasium; wrapped around the Jaspers' second consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship trophy and fifth overall, allowing himself to savor the experience of proving all the naysayers wrong and living his own redemption, could you really blame him?
Steve Masiello is all smiles after cutting down Times Union Center net in wake of Manhattan's second straight MAAC championship. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone of Big Apple Buckets)
"It was a very proud moment for me," Masiello later went on to tell the throng of writers gathered for his postgame press conference, opening his steely facade to the satisfaction of having triumphed before revisiting the proud, selfless persona that has endeared him to all who are close to him in either a personal or professional sense.
"This is all about my players," he continued, with a focus on his three seniors; Emmy Andujar, Donovan Kates, and RaShawn Stores, a trio of lightly-regarded prospects coming out of high school who joined forces to form Masiello's first recruiting class after he was hired by Manhattan College president Brennan O'Donnell and then-athletic director Bob Byrnes in 2011 to reverse the Jaspers' fortunes and return them to a place he had helped guide the program to as an assistant coach nearly a decade prior, when Manhattan won back-to-back MAAC championships and upset Florida in the NCAA Tournament.
Shortly after the Jaspers won a hard-fought regular season finale against Quinnipiac two weeks ago, the normally stoic Masiello was his most emotional after the win, fighting back tears when explaining how his seniors "believed in me when no one else did," from committing to play for him sight unseen, to the South Florida situation last year; one in which he had the full support of his players, coaching staff, and administration as he righted what he openly admits was a mistake. It was that bump in the road, coupled with some others navigated by the players themselves, that led to Manhattan's "22 Strong" rally cry, explained by Stores as an unbreakable bond between each member of the team, a Three Musketeers-esque mantra in which this band of brothers fights for one another and with one another, not leaving anyone behind, or anything strewn about the field of battle.
"At the end of the day," Stores said before Manhattan left for the MAAC Tournament, fulfilling their destiny through three games in Albany that culminated with the Jaspers' most decisive win over archrival Iona since Masiello took charge, "we're all we've got."
So it was, then, that the entire team came to the ESPN microphone Monday night on the heels of a near-perfect game to wrest a second straight conference championship from their adversaries, the Gaels, doing so at their coach's behest to illustrate the sense of togetherness and family atmosphere that, despite all the hurdles and other obstacles thrown at it in the past twelve months, has emerged closer and tighter from it, like families are supposed to.
"For me to be where I'm sitting," Masiello intimated, bringing Monday night's events full circle, "and to be associated with these young men, I'm the lucky one. I'm the luckiest coach in college basketball, and it's about these kids. It's more than basketball to us, and they're the reason I'm here."
It has often been said that Manhattan's players are a reflection of their coach, and the unbridled competitive fire that Masiello lives and breathes on the hardwood. However, what may be the more accurate correlation is that the coach is an embodiment of the fourteen young men who sit on the bench alongside him, their will to prevail over what is laid out before them serving as an inspiration for the man who guides them. After all, if one thing is to be said about Manhattan basketball over the past several years, it is that the sum of the whole is; and has always been at least since Masiello arrived, greater than that of its collective parts.
"This program rose above a lot of things," he admitted, offering a glimpse into a private world that became public in a way no person ever wants their darkest secrets to. "They took the high road. They handled themselves with class, and the cream rises."
Indeed it does, not just in the players who execute their coach's game plan and trust in him to lead them to success, but also the man that united them all, a battle-hardened leader who now makes a second pilgrimage to the promised land.