When sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter made the crucial three-pointer to send the national championship game against Texas Tech into overtime, it was deja vu for senior student manager Ben Buell.
“The amount of times we’ve all rebounded a corner three from ’Dre, it’s just thousands and thousands of times,” Buell said. “All that repetition and it pays off in that big moment, it’s something special.”
Buell and Justin Maxey are two of the senior student managers — along with Faris Wasim — on the Virginia men’s basketball team and have been through it all with the team. To witness Hunter’s legendary, 27-point explosion in the championship game after going through redshirt workouts with him just two years earlier made the moment even more special for them.
Buell and Maxey were also both at the UMBC game last year and saw the team’s remarkable resilience despite all the criticism they faced last year and in the build-up to their run this year.
“It was incredible to win — that moment was unforgettable,” Buell said. “But what I almost take more joy in is the journey to get there and seeing the criticism of our program over the past year, and the criticism of our players and Coach [Tony] Bennett specifically that we all know is unwarranted.”
As student managers, Buell and Maxey are part of a group of nine this year — the number typically hovers around 10 — that does the behind-the-scenes work to make Virginia basketball run.
“They do a little bit of everything,” Associate Head Coach Jason Williford said. “From as simple as grabbing lunch, to jumping into drills from time to time when it’s practice, to helping set up for film. As much as recruiting is the lifeblood of a program, those guys are just as valuable in making this machine run as anyone. They do it all.”
The job is demanding for a student — six days a week, two to three hours per day or more. The managers have to be willing to sacrifice a normal college experience, but it is also a rewarding experience that allows students to become, as Maxey puts it, “part of something bigger than myself.”
“No job too small, kind of take that mentality,” Buell said. “Realize that we’re all working towards the same thing, and sometimes it takes doing what people don’t want to do.”
With multiple managers, each manager is able to specialize in a different area. While they all help with tasks like setting up for practice, rebounding work, food orders and other travel logistics, they also have unique, individual roles.
Buell does a lot of the day-to-day operations work crucial in keeping everything afloat, and Maxey does a lot with video and helping with opponent preparation.
Maxey has ambitions of continuing to work in the basketball business in the future — he has hopes of being a college graduate assistant, video coordinator, video intern or a front office intern in the NBA next year and plans to stay in the business beyond that. He credited Williford for his development towards this end goal.
“Coach Williford has been really helpful to me, just in terms of giving me different tasks to do that help me grow as a potential coach, or a potential worker in this business, so I’m very appreciative of him,” Maxey said.
Williford remarked on Maxey’s sacrifice for the program and his potential for working in basketball down the road.
“[Maxey has] a basketball mind,” Williford said. “He’s a hard worker. He’ll do anything for the program. He’s a go-getter. You don’t have to give him a whole lot of instructions.”
While Buell and Maxey have more behind-the-scenes roles with the basketball team, junior student manager Grant Kersey is more directly involved. Through his role in playing with the scout team, Kersey helps with learning and executing new plays to get players prepared for games. This year, however, he has taken his role to a new level. After the practice before the first game of the year, Kersey found out he was also dressing for Virginia — the team he had rooted for his whole life.
“After the practice, Coach Bennett talked to me and was like, ‘We notice all your hard work, we just want to reward you,’” Kersey said. “‘So we just ordered you a jersey, we’re gonna dress you for the home games.’ I was speechless. I was freaking out.”
After trying out for the basketball team and not making it for two consecutive years, Kersey’s dedication and commitment paid off. He has played in nine games this season and had some magical moments — including a buzzer-beater against Marshall to lead the Cavaliers to 100 points for the first time during Bennett’s tenure.
In addition to playing for the scout team and performing other managerial duties, Kersey’s bond with the players has given him other privileges — including dyeing junior forward Mamadi Diakite’s hair one time.
Diakite — who came up with one of the most memorable moments in Virginia sports history when he made a buzzer-beater against Purdue to help the Cavaliers advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1984 — had his hair dyed blonde throughout the NCAA Tournament. Kersey helped him keep it blonde, despite no prior experience in dyeing hair.
“One night, [Diakite] was just like, ‘I need your help,’” Kersey said. “I didn’t know what was about to happen. Then he just started mixing the stuff together — he was like, ‘Here, just do it.’ And I was like, ‘Mamadi, I have no idea what I’m doing.’”
In addition to moments like these and their varied everyday tasks, the managers have some fun on the court together. It isn’t just Kersey who gets the opportunity to play basketball. The managers have their own basketball team that plays teams of other student managers. Despite not having great success this year, the student managers enjoyed the experience.
“The [student manager] team wasn’t so successful this year,” Maxey said. “We had, I think, only one win. We get really competitive. The players come and watch and cheer us on.”
Bennett is crucial in making the managers just as much a part of the basketball team as the coaches, trainers and players. He has five pillars that make Virginia basketball a great team on and off the court — humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness.
“The pillars that he preaches run top to bottom,” Kersey said. “There’s been times on the road where we’ll be the last ones in the dinner room and he’ll be coming down to eat, and he’ll just sit with us and talk.”
Bennett, Williford and the rest of the coaching staff and players appreciate the help from the student managers, and the way the managers are woven into the fabric of the team demonstrates the unity pillar.
“Everybody feels welcome, everybody feels part of the family on and off the court,” Kersey said. “Everybody knows how they’re able to help the team. It took all of us to get it done.”
In no moment was this more evident than when the managers climbed the ladder to cut down the nets in Minneapolis.
“Unreal,” Maxey said of the experience. “Definitely special.”