Sunday, October 23, 2022

As Perez and Masiello look to bring Manhattan back, their bond has already eclipsed the game and brought out the best in each other

Jose Perez and Steve Masiello share postgame embrace after Manhattan defeated Iona in regular season finale last March. Both player and coach return this season with renewed outlook and bond that, like most parts of Jasper program, is bigger than basketball. (Photo by Jaden Daly/Daly Dose Of Hoops) 

He appeared on a Monday morning for a routine practice, but you didn’t have to look closely at Jose Perez to see something had changed since Manhattan’s budding superstar was last seen seven months prior.

His ever-present smile and engaging personality? That hasn’t left, rather, it has only grown wider and stronger. The innate, almost naturally God-given talent that has kept him afloat on his long and winding road in basketball? Still there.

Wait, who’s that wearing number zero?

“You see this?” Perez joked before practice started, as he switched numbers in the offseason, sacrificing his No. 15 from last season to newcomer Omar Silverio, perhaps a friendly condition in the latter’s transfer into the Jasper program.

“Just trying to be a good teammate,” he quipped.

The levity in Perez’s game has always been refreshing, reminding us all that no matter how serious the task at hand is, you can still have some fun with it and make it enjoyable in the process. But what has really changed for Perez, about to enter his fifth year in college basketball — his last before making it to the professional ranks — with a Manhattan team intent on returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, has been the approach with which he has opened the coda to this section of his career, grounded in the moment and devoted to turn his passion into a livelihood.

March 3, 2022.

Manhattan had just upended Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference favorite Iona, 74-72, with Perez scoring the game-winning basket in the final seconds to send the Gaels off the Draddy Gymnasium floor equal parts stunned and disconsolate, as Iona head coach Rick Pitino fielded just one question in his postgame press conference before walking out less than two minutes later. Immediately in the aftermath of the team’s highest point of the year, Perez disputed the rumor that he had just played his last home game.

“It was not my senior night,” he declared. “I’m coming back next year.”

Perez retained that mindset, but seven months later, revealed that the decision was actually not as easy as it had seemed in the glow of victory on that March night.

“Honestly speaking, I didn’t think I was going to come back just because I reached a peak individually,” he said. “But that’s not what I was thinking about. It’s not about that, it’s about the people around you. We’re family, and everybody decided to come back. I know we’re one of the oldest teams in college basketball, but honestly, college basketball’s just old in general. Everybody has 22, 23, 24-year-olds right now, it’s not like it’s one-and-done kids. I watched the Houston coach (Kelvin Sampson). You have to be experienced to win games in college basketball. Right now, I know we have our backs against the wall and I know what it’s going to take to win this year. That’s one of the main reasons why I came back.”

“He had pro offers, and he could have gone,” head coach Steve Masiello added. “We had a long talk this offseason, and I said, ‘if you’re not going to change, the best thing for you to do is leave. You’re really talented, and I’m saying this because I love you. If you want to win and be a pro, and do it the right way, come back. If not, you can go make some short-term money.’ He took some time, he made a decision, and he was all in. And he’s been all in. So I’m really proud of his maturity, I’m proud of his growth.” 

A common refrain from Perez’s and Manhattan’s critics and detractors last season was that the Bronx native was too selfish, a ball hog who made sure every possession was all about him. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as Perez was also the MAAC leader in assists for the majority of last season on top of pacing the conference in scoring, showcasing his teammates and helping the Jaspers to their best record in seven years. But one area in which the charismatic and enigmatic star has grown most has been channeling the unbridled emotion with which he plays, a credit to Masiello reaching him where very few have been able to, be it at Gardner-Webb, Marquette, or anywhere else along Perez’s journey.

“We had a lot of talks about everything under the sun, from being a teammate, technical fouls, leading the conference in scoring and assists, being player of the year,” Masiello shared. “We spoke about everything, and I think what’s so special about him is he’s getting in three workouts a day, religiously. So he’s as good as I’ve coached. There’s no doubt in my mind he can play in the NBA, and I think that opportunity will come for him. I’m really excited about his year.”

Now in his 12th year as head coach at Manhattan, Masiello has always prided himself on, and been lauded for, the bonds he has been able to build with all of his former players. But with no disrespect to anyone else in the Jasper program, the relationship he has with Perez is just transcendent, and he even concurred.

“I think the most special thing I have in 12 years of doing this — and I’ve said this with Rhamel (Brown)’s wedding, Emmy (Andujar)’s son, RaShawn (Stores) having a child, Tyler (Wilson) working for me, Rich Williams — I’ve had some really special relationships,” Masiello recalled. “Every one is different, but Jose and I have a special bond. When my daughter sees him, he’s an uncle. So we have a special, special bond.”

“I spent some time with someone this summer up in Rhode Island who is a 93-year-old, very successful man, and he gave me five tips. One of them was, ‘don’t be critical,’ another one was, ‘be patient.’ It’s helped me a lot, especially with Jose, and it’s not that Jose needed me not to be critical. Jose needed to be understood.”

Last season, there were several instances during games where Perez and Masiello engaged in intense conversations that were far from arguments. Rather, it was the two-way communication that was on full display, with player and coach imparting words of wisdom to one another, a dynamic Masiello described as “two crazies love crazy.”

“I think it actually allows me to coach him really hard,” Masiello said of his relationship with Perez. And he’s had success. I think Tim Craft did a great job with him, I think (Steve Wojciechowski) did a great job with him, but I don’t think he’s probably been coached this hard. It’s only because we have a relationship and trust. I trust him and he trusts me, so everything I say to him, I know he knows it’s for the betterment of him. And everything he says to me, even though it might not always be said the right way, I know it’s for the betterment of us, and that’s big for me.”

For Perez, Masiello has been a godsend just as much off the court as he is on it. With his father having not been around and his two brothers in the military, Masiello has filled the role of the male role model that gives young men much-needed direction and purpose in life, and came to him at a time where he was honestly unsure where to turn.

“He’s changed my life, honestly,” Perez said, unwrapping a wide grin in the process. “It’s a different type of bond we have. I feel like he has my back no matter what, we joke around, we can talk about everything. I never really had a father in my life for real, so he’s taken over that part. At one moment, I was really alone in life, and he was one of the only people I could really talk to.”

The feeling is somewhat mutual for his coach, an only child who views his star player as something he never had growing up, but now gets to show the way to while teaming up in the process with the newly crowned MAAC Preseason Player of the Year.

“That kid’s like a little brother to me,” Masiello gushed. “I love him dearly. The growth he’s made behind the scenes, off the court, is what I’m most proud of. His GPA is the highest it’s ever been, he’s going to graduate this year, he’s down 18 pounds, he’s living right. It’s the reason he came back.”

“When you get to know Jose and you get to know what his intentions are behind things, all he needed was some guidance on how to communicate those things, because his intentions are pure. He wants to do the right thing, and he’s as loyal as a kid as I’ve ever coached. There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do for him.”

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