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THE PERSON OFF THE COURT: A senior's career out of the spotlight

By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 8, 2012

Corey Person has been Evan Turner. He’s been Kalin Lucas. And William Buford.

Yet, he doesn’t see the floor.

In four years, the 6-foot-3 senior has seen 33 minutes of playing time. His fellow seniors, who walked into Ann Arbor with him, often see 33 minutes in a single game.

Zack Novak and Stu Douglass have reaped the glory of their work. They get the credit for transforming Michigan from a marginal major-conference school into a basketball power.

It’s Novak and Douglass who have their fingerprints all over the Wolverines’ emergence. Corey, meanwhile, has taken his place off-stage, behind the curtains, and that’s OK with him.

His dreams may not have come true, but he was still fulfilled.

What motivates a player that doesn’t get to play? How can you be a leader when you aren’t on the court? What are the rewards for a player that doesn’t get his name in the box score?

Corey has faced all those questions in his four years at Michigan and he’s found a way to answer each of them. The walk-on from Kalamazoo, Mich. came to Ann Arbor to play, but he’s found salvation elsewhere.

The player might have been taken away, but not the Person.

***

It hasn’t always been all work and no glory for Corey.

Kalamazoo Central High School won the conference and the district title two straight years behind Corey. In a school that bred such champions as Derek Jeter and Greg Jennings, Corey established his own star status. He was named MVP of his conference and was a first team All-State selection — both for two straight years.

On the Maroon Giants, Corey was the standout on a team that sent players to University of Detroit, Dayton and Austin Peay for basketball and Cincinnati for football.

Though not a five-star recruit, Corey had options coming out of Kalamazoo Central. He could have gone to Butler — last year's NCAA Tournament runner-up — Western Michigan, Central Michigan and a number of other MAC schools.

Instead, he opted to become a Wolverine, even if he would only have walk-on status. Kelvin Grady, then a two-sport athlete on the football and basketball teams, made a recruiting pitch to Corey. Grady had played with Corey since elementary school and talked up the tradition and way of life in Ann Arbor.

As it turns out, the choice had already been made for him.

“Because Corey was going to be the recipient of the Kalamazoo Promise, which is an academic scholarship,” said Corey’s mother, Kimberly Smith. “My number-one focus and priority was where was he going to be able to go to school to get the best education, understanding that hopefully, he’ll get an opportunity to play basketball.

“But the number one priority was education.”

The decision also marked the end of Corey’s life at home, one that couldn’t have gone better for his mom.

“Corey’s been an all-around perfect child from day one,” Smith said. “He’s an individual who’s given me no problems whatsoever. I’ve never had any sort of issues with Corey, whether in school or outside of school. I’ve never received a call from a teacher voicing any complaints or issues. I’ve never received any calls from any parents, any neighbors, any family.

“He’s always gotten along with absolutely everybody and he’s always been perfect. Absolutely perfect.”

When Corey came onto campus for the first open gym sessions, he immediately bonded with the rest of his class.

“We were a very tight-knit group,” Corey said. “Novak was my roommate for the first summer when I first got here, and Stu and Ben (Cronin) were roommates.”

The four did everything together. From hanging out in the dorms, playing video games, being in the gym and getting rides to and from practice, the freshmen established strong chemistry well before the first game had been played.

“Of course, naturally, my ideas in my mind were that I was going to step right in and play and make an impact with the team right away,” Corey said.

“I definitely saw myself on the same level (as the other freshmen).”

It wouldn’t be too long until Corey’s freshman honeymoon abruptly ended.

***

In early-season practices, Corey found out that college basketball would be a completely different animal from what he was used to.

He was accustomed to being the bigger player, or the more athletic player. At Michigan, he was neither.

When he wanted to score, he was used to making a move off the dribble and creating a shot for himself. It wasn’t that easy in college.

“Watching on TV, you think it’s a certain way,” Corey said. “But once you get out there, you start to see that things are a little bit faster, guys are more athletic.

“There were times that I would go to the basket and I would think I would have a layup, and there would be a big guy that would come over from the weak side and be able to block my shot. At first, you just think it’s a one-time occurrence, but then it repeatedly happens.”

It started to become clear that Corey wouldn’t be a factor on Michigan’s 2008-09 squad.

While Novak and Douglass competed for a starting spot, and Cronin saw playing time before hip injuries derailed his career, Corey was stuck at the end of the bench.

“It was definitely a frustrating period,” he said. “It’s frustrating because you’re used to being able to do certain moves and you can’t do it.”

Corey’s college basketball experience was nothing like he imagined it would be.

Instead of gearing up to play on game days, he would have to gear his teammates up. Instead of helping his team on the court, he would settle to help by cheering from the sideline. Instead of getting his name in the box score with numbers, “Corey Person” ended up next to “DNP.”

But just as Corey had to pick up his teammates during games, it was his teammates that picked him up during the rough year.

“There were plenty of nights where after practice, C.J. (Lee) would drop me off and talk to me for an extra 15, 20 or 30 minutes about just staying positive and don’t doubt myself,” Corey said. “He constantly talked to me, he kept my spirits up. He was a big help my freshman year in not getting t0o down on myself.”

Lee, who was a senior that season, formed an instant bond with Corey. Both were originally from Saginaw, Mich., and Lee could identify with what Corey was going through.

After hardly playing at Manhattan College and transferring to Michigan, and then not starting as an upperclassman at Michigan, Lee sought out the freshman.

“When you see someone that’s going through the situation that you’ve gone through,” said Lee, now the Administrative Specialist for the program, “you want to reach out and you want to encourage them and let them know that they are not alone, and they will get through it, and if they have the right attitude, they can succeed.”

Lee stressed to Corey that the most important thing an athlete can have is confidence in himself. He encouraged the freshman to stay positive, and continue to have faith in his abilities.

“It’s an adjustment for the majority of all Division I athletes,” Lee said. “They were a star on their team and you go from dominating the basketball and playing all the important minutes to not dominating the ball and not playing the majority of the minutes, so that is an adjustment that the majority of us have to make.”

***

When Corey returned to school the summer before his sophomore year, he came with a different mindset.

Players not knowing their roles can decimate chemistry and bring down the team. That wasn’t going to be Corey.

Knowing that playing time would still be a long shot, he started to dedicate himself to helping the team win in other ways. A big part of that came through his dedication to the scout team.

The scout team prepares the rotation players for the next opponent by mimicking plays, mannerisms and styles of the players and teams.

Again it was Lee who made an impact. Corey saw how Lee, who was co-captain with David Merritt, was a vocal leader on the scout team and how that lifted the team’s spirits. Corey credits Lee and Merritt’s leadership with Michigan’s run to the 2008 NCAA Tournament, which ended a 14-year drought.

With Lee graduating, Corey saw his opportunity the following year to make a difference on the scout team and be a leader through that role.

“Once I knew he was leaving, I just saw that regardless of if I was going to play or not, that was something that I wanted to bring to the team because I saw how much of a difference that it made,” Corey said. “I saw it as, even though it’s behind the scenes, it’s something that can make or break a team.”

During that summer, Corey became more vocal and started to push teammates in workouts and remind the team to keep up its intensity in practice. That empowered Corey to take pride in his work on the scout team.

Corey typically plays as the opposing team’s best guard or wing player on the scout team. He’s become players like Turner, Lucas and Buford. And he’s helped Michigan beat each one of them.

The scout team watches film of its opponents to prepare and pick up the tendencies of their best players. And then, in just a 10-minute span in practice, the scout team learns the main plays of the next opponent and goes through those plays a few times.

Sometimes the actions, ball movement and offensive sets are more important than the individual players, and sometimes it’s players that matter.

“The team’s depending on you not to mess those plays up and run them as good as possible,” Corey said. “There’s a lot of pressure there because you know that the team is depending on you to get them as ready as possible.

“Because if the (opposing) team comes in the next day and they run something that either you didn’t run as well or that you didn’t do, sometimes you feel like, ‘Dang, I didn’t prepare the team as much as I should have.’ ”

In addition to learning the ins and outs of the opposing teams, players on the scout team must also stay up-to-date on Michigan’s changes in its sets and strategies in case they’re called upon.

Corey will also replicate how certain players play defense and guard the Wolverines’ top guys.

“He’s tireless in his scout-team defense,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “He guards Tim Hardaway religiously every day, as hard as he can be guarded.”

“Coach Beilein talks to me all the time,” Corey said. “He tells me, ‘You have no idea how important you are to this team.’ ”

***

It was also during that sophomore year that Corey began to do what he is perhaps most well-known for.

Before every game, as the lights go out and the starting lineups are announced, Michigan huddles around Corey, swaying back and forth in a circle. With Corey in the middle, dancing and pumping up his team, all eyes are on him.

“Sometimes I know what I’m going to do,” Corey said. “Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I know what I’m going to say, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it’s just a spur-the-moment thing, sometimes it’s a planned-out thing.”

With the lights off and the attention on him, Corey’s smile is as wide as the arena’s lone spotlight on him. He’s either reminding the team to stay positive, barking about defending home court, or urging the Wolverines to play hard for 40 minutes.

Corey’s role before the games doesn’t surprise Camerron Cheatham, Corey’s best friend from Kalamazoo, who now plays defensive back for Cincinnati.

“Corey always likes to dance,” Cheatham said. “When we would go to parties, he would be the only one who would dance.”

Cheatham caught himself.

“He wouldn’t be the only one who would dance. He was the only one who actually could dance. The rest of us would just be chilling.”

Corey’s laid-back, social nature has made him well liked by the team. His attitude allows him to command his teammates’ attention when he has something to say.

“He’s a people person,” Cheatham said. “He can talk to anybody, he can get to know anybody. He’s a fun person to be around in that there’s never going to be a dull moment. He’s a good guy.”

After Corey’s pre-game gig commenced during his sophomore season, it’s taken off ever since. He’s done it full-time the last two years and he’s added to it. During starting-lineup introductions, he executes a choreographed embrace with each starter. These include Novak’s “discount double-check” belt flash and Hardaway’s shirt-ripping Superman move.

“That just came with my interaction with the guys,” Corey says. “I’ve always been the outspoken one, the goofy one, the silly one. I’ve always been the one that interacts with everybody the most, so it just came from having handshakes outside when we see each other walking around campus to just being silly in the locker room.”

***

Through Corey’s rapport with his teammates, he has established a leadership position the past two years. With no seniors on last year’s team, Corey started to become even more vocal his junior year, and that has continued through this season.

Though Novak and Douglass are the official co-captains, Corey has taken on the role in many ways. He is loud in practices, workout sessions and games, telling teammates what they need to do, how they can improve, or just lifting their spirits.

“What I’ve learned over the years is that you just have to learn that a certain situation calls for certain ways to interact with certain players,” Corey says. “Some people react certain ways to you getting in their face. Sometimes that’s not always the best method because sometimes a player can shut down and you might make the situation only worse. So, over the years, I’ve learned that I have to take it within the moment and with each individual player.”

Corey’s leadership style mimics that of the team’s captains when he was a freshman. He incorporates Lee’s vocal nature, talking every day in practice and making sure his voice is heard throughout the season.

But he also channels Merritt’s style by providing the more profound motivation and getting the team geared up before games.

“He definitely is the one that you hear in practice every day,” Lee said. “But he’s someone that you can count on to bring you messages at the appropriate time, whether it’s in practice, whether it’s after the game, whether it’s before the game. You’d hear him doing a mixture of those kind of styles.”

His leadership role is even more impressive given that he’s not spending time on the court. He derives his authority from somewhere else, outside of being one of the team’s go-to players.

“I believe my teammates respect the work that I’ve put in each day in practice,” Corey said. “When your teammates see that you’re out there working hard and putting everything on the line — blood, sweat and tears — out there just as much as they are in practice every day, you gain a respect. When you’re in those trenches each and every day in practice with each other, and you guys go through those battles in practice and you go through those battles each game, they gain the respect.”

Corey has the power to call a team meeting or speak up in the huddle. And when he talks, his teammates listen.

“You have to have respect of your teammates to do that without playing, and he does it,” Beilein says.

It’s a far cry from where Corey was his freshman year. Stuck on the Michigan roster without a role and without the promise of playing time, he couldn’t help but think of what his life would be like elsewhere.

Though the thought of leaving Michigan crossed his mind, Corey said he was never close to taking any action.

“Certain days, of course you think about it when you’re frustrated,” he said. “But I never seriously played with the idea or never pursued the idea of transferring.

“My family, one of the main things that they pride themselves on, they’re never going to quit, they’re never going to give up. My dad never let me just quit things when I was younger or just give up on things.”

***

With the air long removed from Crisler Center, Corey Person stepped onto the court.

Michigan, down 15 points to Purdue on Feb. 25, was just a few foul shots from dropping its first home game of the season. The Maize and Blue faithful knew that the outcome had long been determined, but wanted to savor the last moments of home basketball until November.

The two icons of the Wolverine program had already received their due. Left were a couple fleeting moments of apathy, mixed with the stinging disappointment that the two Indiana natives, who returned Michigan basketball to relevance, were leaving Crisler with a whimper.

Novak and Douglass were already whisked off the floor for their obligatory senior-night ovations, and Corey was the lone senior remaining in the game.

For the last minute and 14 seconds, the roles from the last four years were reversed. It was Novak and Douglass riding the pine while Person had the ball in his hands.

And much like the last four years, Corey’s work went unnoticed. It was Novak and Douglass who got the royal exits — the honorary substitution late in the game so the crowd could acknowledge what the two had done.

Corey received no such treatment. He was working while the attention was elsewhere. He played the remainder of the game and walked off the court in anonymity.

It was a fitting scene, given the last four years.

But it was also that game where Corey would put forth the best performance of his career.

In just 1:14 of time, Corey doubled his scoring output from his previous three seasons. With a minute left, Corey took the ball on the left wing, streaked through the defense and laid it in off the glass. With that, he matched his point total from the rest of his career.

And in the final possession, Corey grabbed an offensive rebound, turned around, put the ball in the basket, and that was it. Four points, a career-high.

It wasn’t Novak or Douglass that scored the final points in Crisler of their four years. It was Corey. After four years of putting in work away from the bright lights, he finally got his moment.

But it should come as no surprise that this didn’t matter to Corey. Michigan had lost.

For the past four years, Corey has given everything to make sure that Michigan would win, and they didn’t this time.

“Obviously, we wanted to win,” Lee said. “And I know that’s all Corey is about.”

“His motivation is just ‘team,’ ” Beilein said. “He wants to be on a winning team and he wants to help us in any way that he can.”

Corey has since topped his February performance by scoring seven points in garbage time in a blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, but he has long come to terms that his name won’t be in the Michigan record books. Young fans won’t run up asking for his autograph. He won’t see a maize No. 32 jersey in the crowd.

But that’s not what’s important to Corey. It’s not what drives him.

Three years ago, he discovered that his role was elsewhere.

“Even though the fans might not see it, if you ask the staff and the players that are in there with us every day, I feel like I have made enough of an impact. Even though it’s not on the court, it’s just as important to the team,” Corey said.

“I know a lot of people might not see the things I do behind closed doors. But I believe that I have left a mark.”