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Behind the Blog: Josh Bartelstein’s rise from walk-on to captain

Terra Molengraff/Daily
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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 11, 2013

March 10, Senior Day for the Michigan men’s basketball team, was Ann Arbor’s first taste of spring. As temperatures climbed into the mid 60s, locals ditched their winter coats in favor of short-sleeve shirts for the first time this year.

But as the Crisler Center parking lot began to fill, and the line of student-ticket holders stretched past the Big House, a grey, cloud-covered sky served as a constant reminder that winter hadn’t yet departed. It was a nice day for the beginning of spring, but not like the late-April weekend four years ago, in 2009, when Josh Bartelstein and his dad, Mark, made their first and only recruiting visit to Michigan.

“It was one of those days — the nicest day of the spring — a perfect day for recruiting,” Mark recalled in a phone interview.

It was on that visit that Bartelstein made up his mind; he was prepared to accept a preferred-walk-on offer from Michigan coach John Beilein. Not more than 24 hours after returning home, he had formally accepted it.

Four years later, in his final home game as a Wolverine, Bartelstein didn’t score one last basket. He didn’t get to check in, as the crowd cheered him on, for one final time. His name wasn’t even called over the PA system, except for when he and the four other seniors — none of whom received more than a handful of meaningful minutes this season — were honored at half court 10 minutes before tip-off in a game Michigan would eventually lose to Indiana, costing it the Big Ten Championship.

And since that warm April day in 2009, Bartelstein has scored just six points in 53-career minutes — each of them in games that had long since been decided. He missed 13 of his 15 field-goal attempts and registered more fouls (eight) than assists (four) and rebounds (two) combined. It wasn’t the career Bartelstein envisioned when he turned to his dad and said, “I don’t think there’s anywhere else that I would go.”

But then again, it’s six more points than he ever could’ve imagined he’d score at a Big Ten school when he was in high school and felt a sharp pain in his ankle, or when he had just a few mid-major offers during his prep-school season, or even when he traveled to Ann Arbor for the first time on a trip to visit friends from high school.

Playing basketball at Michigan was supposed to be a pipe dream for Josh Bartelstein. Instead, it’s a dream he’s lived, led and blogged for four years.

Long before Bartelstein shared a locker room with NBA talents like former Michigan guards Darius Morris and Manny Harris, or future NBA players like Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. or Glenn Robinson III, he was sharing a court with some of the league’s biggest names.

Mark, a prominent basketball agent, represents NBA All-Stars like David Lee and Mo Williams, and founded Priority Sports and Entertainment — which also represents NFL stars like Arian Foster and A.J. Hawk. It’s through these connections that Bartelstein has gotten to shoot around with Michael Jordan, or eat dinner with and rebound for Steve Kerr — another one of Mark’s clients — just days before he hit a last-second, game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals to clinch the championship.

Developing relationships with several NBA players went a long way in Bartelstein’s own development as a basketball player.

“Any time you can be around people who are successful, and you see how much work goes into being successful, that’s always a great learning experience,” Mark said. “I think to see how hard these guys actually do work is so beneficial to anyone in any walk of life.”

Each winter, when Mark wasn’t taking Bartelstein to NBA games, or watching games on the couch with him, the pair found itself in Highland Park High School’s gym, where Bartelstein began to “idolize” the varsity players.

Despite being just a 5-foot-6 sophomore, he was handed the reins to the varsity offense in 2005 as its starting point guard.

In a preseason Thanksgiving tournament — his first varsity game — Bartelstein played through a sore ankle and eeked out a two-point victory. While turning a corner around a pick-and-roll he had called for the next day in practice, he felt an “excruciating” pain shoot through his right ankle, the same one that had been slightly bothering him the previous day.

“I’ll never forget the moment,” he said.