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Two Hoosiers and a Whisper: In the land of basketball giants, how two young men became Wolverines

Sam Wolson/Daily
Juniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, both from Indiana, are expected to take on roles as team leaders this season for the Wolverines. Buy this photo

BY CHANTEL JENNINGS
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 1, 2010

A constant whisper once surrounded talented high school athletes across the country. It was the whisper of expectations and dreams for a community. Those whispers acted as a blanket in the tough reality of a world, We are here for you.

That whisper was drowned out by professional athletes and by competitive traveling sports teams. Suddenly it was not as important for athletes to take their community with them. The idea of community was lost and with it, the whisper.

But in Indiana that whisper lives on. It charges through the rows of golden corn and bounds off the new high tech buildings those cornstalks back up to in the cities until it resonates and roars, filling the spaces that most people allow silence to fill.

In his 1997 book 'Where the Game Matters Most,' William Gildea wrote that Indiana high school basketball "is as universal as the freight whistle there."

“The game binds people and places," Gildea wrote. "They’re all Hoosiers.”

And in the Indiana towns of Carmel and Chesterton that whisper is as loud as Bobby Knight was fierce. It fills newspapers and feeds coffee talk from town to town.

In Carmel’s massive gymnasiums, 12-year-olds shoot with one thought in their heads.

I want to shoot like Stu Douglass.

And 160 miles northwest in Chesterton, the city still knows Zack Novak simply as Zack — there’s no need for last names of high school stars who started signing autographs as freshmen in high school. Young kids approach Novak’s old coach and ask, “What do I need to do to be as good as him?”

And while those whispers of Stu and Zack in Indiana are murmuring votes of confidence, the whispers in Big Ten basketball circles concerning the Michigan basketball team are a defeatist inquiry: What in the world are you going to be able to do this year?

And for the team’s two junior co-captains: Where are you going to lead this team?

They smirk. They’re one step ahead of you. You don’t have to talk about the low expectations most have for this team or the fact that they, as juniors, are the oldest and most experienced players this year.

Because it doesn’t matter. They know that and they’ve moved past it.

Both have been the underdog before. They know what it feels like to be overlooked, and they refuse to be rattled by the expectations of others. Rather, they’d love to silence the critics and allow those Indiana whispers to travel a little farther north.

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We’re standing in the tunnel of Crisler Arena when Stu asks me whether I know how to start this story. Absolutely not, I tell him.

He throws back his head, laughs and tells me he has the perfect start for the story.

Would that work? He asks me with a crooked smile after telling me an inventive tale that clearly could never be printed.

Stu is the one whose emotions are written on his face, the one who smiles with his eyes. His high school coach Mark Galloway described him as a coach’s dream — he had an ability to set high goals and against all odds, achieve them.

Whenever Stu wouldn’t succeed Galloway would tell him, “You can get bitter or you can get better.”

He would always get better. He always pushed the envelope. He always stepped back once more to see if he could hit the shot when it was just a bit farther out.

But four years ago, before Stu signed with Michigan, Galloway told Stu that his goal of playing Big Ten basketball was too big of a dream — he was too small, he wasn’t an Indiana All-Star. Galloway was all for Stu setting high goals but he wanted them to be realistic. Stu could settle for a smaller Division II school or Harvard, which he had also visited, where his talents would be of immediate impact.

Stu could understand where Galloway was coming from. But when his mother told him that he should set his sights lower, he decided he had heard enough from the “realists.”

“I was like, ‘There is no question, Mom. I’m playing at Michigan’,” Stu tells me.

He had faced this kind of skepticism before. After a less than impressive freshman campaign on the varsity basketball team at Hamilton Heights High School, Stu’s family moved and he transferred to the affluent Carmel High School, one of the best schools in the state, both academically and athletically, with a student body of more than 4,000.

Galloway put him on the JV team his sophomore year. By his junior year he’d earned a starting spot on the varsity squad, and when his senior year rolled around, he was known across the conference as a kid whose shot was dangerous anywhere past half court.

His freshman year at Michigan, Stu started 23 games and unsurprisingly his best stats in most categories came in the biggest and most pressure-driven games of that year. In a close loss to then-No. 1 Connecticut, Stu scored a career-high 20 points and was 6-for-8 on three pointers. In a huge upset over No. 4 UCLA at Madison Square Garden, Stu got five assists and in the second round of the NCAA Tournament he had five rebounds.

He showed up big when realists didn’t expect much of him, when the whispers around Ann Arbor were dismissive, when his team was the underdog.

“It’s a position that I’ve grown to love,” Stu says. “Especially freshman year, I loved it, because of the opportunity it gave us to surprise people and just without any expectations — that’s what I love, that’s how I love to play. My best teams have been like that.”

During this long offseason he spent substantial time in the gym trying to alleviate the pain of his sophomore year that witnessed the struggle of streaky shooting. He spent time at the Champions Academy in Zionsville, Ind. working out alongside 2010 NBA draft picks Gordon Hayward and Patrick Patterson on skill and strength training.

Those who don’t know Stu well may wonder what his junior year will bring, but not Galloway. He says he’s never coached a shooter like that, never had the honor of having another player who could create a shot for himself like Stu could. And when Stu decides something, you better not be in his way.

But the better person to ask would be Galloway’s 8-year-old son. He can be found in the gym with Stu’s style of baggy shorts. Still, three years after the departure of the Carmel star, he continues to watch reruns of Stu’s senior season.

Why?

He wants to shoot like Stu.

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I get off the highway and start driving down a two-lane road before turning right onto a small street lined with houses and small businesses. A sign points to the YMCA Building down the road — a building resembling an old warehouse.

Just blocks later I’m driving through fields of corn that despite having died due to the recent burst of cold air still continue to feebly stand up against the desolate grey sky. I pass a small church on my left before coming upon an enormous athletic complex.

The expansive practice and competition fields encroach on the cornfields surrounding the school, but the corn probably doesn’t mind. They were able to witness the development of a player that changed the way Chesterton loved basketball.

“What kind of a player was Zack?” I ask Chesterton High School coach Tom Peller as we sit in his gymnasium, just a part of the school’s beautiful athletic campus, a common feature throughout Indiana — another testament to the significance of high school athletics in the state.

“He learned at an early age the most important thing: how to compete and how to compete the right way,” Peller said. “Not dirty, just play hard and play smart and do it the right way. He didn’t want to lose no matter what it was — if we were playing a little three-on-three game or if we were playing Valparaiso in the championship.”

Peller points to the corner of the stands where Zack’s dad, who was his first basketball coach, sat at every game. He motions to the sidelines and talks about the intensity Zack brought to the bench when he, very rarely, had to be there.

He tells of the summer before Zack’s freshman year of high school when he approached Peller and asked: What do I need to do to be a starter on the varsity team in the fall?

Zack not only made the team but started as a freshman on varsity averaging 15.9 points a game and setting the Porter County record for freshman scoring. Zack quickly became well known and respected on his team as both the best player and the hardest worker.

“He may not have had the most talent but he got the most out of his talent,” Peller said. “It’s just one of those stories where you have a special kid and he worked to maximize what he was given rather than sit on his laurels.”

Nearby Valparaiso University quickly noticed Zack's talent and potential and offered him a scholarship. He didn’t commit, but he also didn’t not commit — he wanted to wait longer to see if he would be noticed by any Big Ten schools.

By his senior year he was averaging 26.9 points per game and had shattered Chesterton’s all-time leading scorer record by more than 500 points. He was the third-highest scorer in the state of Indiana that season.

But still, no offers, and when he decided to accept Valparaiso’s offer, it was no longer available.

Valparaiso had given away the scholarships to other players who committed more quickly and told Zack that he could play one year as a walk-on and secure a scholarship as a sophomore.

He considered walking away from his dream of playing college basketball until Tom Peller got a call from Michigan basketball coach John Beilein, who wanted to see Zack play.

Beilein showed up at a Chesterton High School practice one day and asked Zack to take a step behind the three-point line and shoot 10 shots.

He was on fire.

Near the beginning of Zack’s senior season of baseball, he signed on to play Michigan basketball.

As a freshman he started as a two guard before promptly moving to the four spot where he’s been ever since. He started the final 22 games of the season and before his freshman campaign ended, several coaches, including those at a few Big Ten schools, approached Peller telling him what a mistake they’d made in overlooking the 6-foot-4 Indiana boy.

Like Stu, Zack spent last summer reworking his shot into a more compact style and prepared himself to return as a starting guard, which for at least one Big Ten forward, is a positive thing.

"He's always feisty, you know, he's always battling for rebounds. On film they always talk about how every year he's got a couple rebounds over me. My coach makes fun of me about it,” Illinois forward Mike Davis, who has five inches on Zack, said of Zack’s play. “He pushes you and he fights you. He plays better than he is."

And in Chesterton, the bars pay for the Big Ten Network so they can watch Zack play on TV. Kids ask Peller, what do I need to do to be as good as Zack?

His response: You’ve always got to try to be better than you are.

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It’s not as though Stu and Zack are the first to come from Indiana. And while being a Hoosier separates them from others in some ways — they're not the kids who grew up playing in the streets of enormous cities — in a much bigger way, being a Hoosier bonds them to those who came before them and led as great players and coaches.

Players like Larry Bird, who grew up in rural Indiana, playing on unpaved driveways, shooting baskets when the rim was crooked and attached to a garage. A man who faced adversity only to become known as one of the greatest shooters ever in the NBA.

Stu and Zack grew up during the Michael Jordan/Larry Bird era, where finesse faced off against hard-nosed play. Michael Jordan was the epitome of flashy court play. Bird was never that, he never jumped the highest or ran the fastest. His photos don’t appear on any kind of brand names but his blue-collar work ethic made him one of the most recognizable athletes, and men, of his time.

And by the time Larry Bird left for the East Coast in 1978, a new face had taken over Indiana basketball and what it stood for.

While Bobby Knight was an Ohio native, he embodied the passion and drive — in his early years — that Hoosier basketball desired to be. He was “The General,” a man who demanded perfection.

But most important, they come from the home of the late John Wooden. A man who revolutionized what it meant to be a collegiate basketball coach — a man who held true to his Indiana values when he was in the middle of Los Angeles.

He told his players: Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

And for Zack and Stu, maybe the whispers remind them of that. The whispers they hear every summer when they return home. When their parents and coaches tell them that a young kid asked about them or they realize just how far they’ve made it, how their dream of playing Big Ten basketball seemed so far away such a short time ago.

It is this humility and passion that will, like their Hoosier background, bind them and separate them from the leaders who have come before them in Crisler Arena.

As freshmen they watched and learned from C.J. Lee as he took a team that had finished 10-22 in the previous year and led them to unthinkable heights. Lee was not the prolific scorer, averaging less than 2 points a game that year. But his presence was an undeniable force that led that team to a place they could not have reached.

“They have a chip on their shoulders,” Beilein said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt both of them came here to prove that they could help us win at the University of Michigan.”

In an arena where so much weight is put into the wins and losses, a young team will be led by two young men who have seen what basketball has done in their lives and their hometowns. They’ve changed where they came from and seen how single players have changed Michigan.

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When Zack entered high school, Chesterton had won two sectional championships in 50 years.

According to Peller, Zack's performance during the season, on and off the court, changed all of that.

“He helped elevate everybody’s perception of basketball around here,” Peller said. “It was an exciting time around here and we hadn’t had that. Besides being a good leader on the floor, he was an example to a lot of the younger kids. He just elevated the game.”

And in the Carmel High School locker room there’s a framed 8x10 portrait of Stu in one of his first games at Michigan. It’s one of the last things the players see before they walk out on the court that Stu once ruled.

And so the whispers continue to get louder as the season approaches.

The Big Ten will be the strongest conference in the country. Michigan is young and inexperienced. The Wolverines will be the underdog in almost every game.

Stu and Zack aren’t going to say anything. They’re one step ahead of you. They smirk. The whispers they want heard are the ones they carry with them from Carmel and Chesterton.

Let the whispers of the underdog persist, they say. A whispering dog still bites.