- Terra Molengraff/Daily
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. “That’s when I knew, ‘That’s not normal. There’s something very wrong with it.’ ”
Tests found a stress fracture. Initial diagnosis tabbed the recovery period as a matter of weeks, but further testing discovered the need for surgery — two screws in his ankle — sidelining him for six-to-eight months. He eventually returned to the summer AAU circuit, but it wasn’t until midway through his junior year that he felt like himself on the floor.
The injury, attributed to significant wear and tear and the side effect of what would become a substantial growth spurt — over the next two years, he grew nine inches to his current 6-foot-3 — was the first in a string of injuries to his ankle, which has been operated on an additional two times during his Michigan career.
Seriously injured for the first time in his life, Bartelstein was forced to find alternative methods to contribute to the team, including a role as an informal player-coach.
“I think for my ability to lead, it was a blessing,” he said. “That was the first year that I got to sit back … and understand the leadership role.
“There’s no doubt that that year, seeing the bigger picture, I would’ve been too caught up in myself.”
By his senior year, a taller, more polished Bartelstein had grown into an all-area player, averaging 13.5 points, six rebounds and five assists per game — good enough to get recruited by Division III schools, including Emory, New York University and Washington University in St. Louis.
But everything changed after his high school played a prep school, and its coach approached the Bartelsteins about the possibility of him taking a post-grad year.
Bartelstein’s junior year was hampered by the recovering ankle, a hamstring injury and because the growth spurt changed the physical makeup of his body, he was going through what Mark called an “awkward phase” on the court. The prep-school route wasn’t something that Midwesterners, like the Bartelsteins, were familiar with.
Spending a year at a prep school — a more common route for East Coast athletes — would give Bartelstein the chance to improve upon his senior year and get more recruiting attention, especially from the Ivy League.
But while Bartelstein was intrigued, his mom, Sheri, didn’t think the prep-school route was ideal.
“I actually wasn’t in favor of it,” she said in a phone interview. “I didn’t understand why he would want to do that.”
But a phone call from Bartelstein’s AAU coach, Steve Pratt, changed that.
“(He) called me and said, ‘Let him follow his dream,’ ” Sheri said.
Bartelstein eventually settled on Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. Known for its prestigious academics, it also plays in an athletic conference littered with Division I talent. Michigan coach John Beilein, a native Northeasterner, has dipped into this conference several times to snag freshman forward Mitch McGary, senior forward Blake McLimans and former Wolverine Evan Smotrycz.
At Exeter, Bartelstein was named captain of the basketball team for the 2008-09 season. While maturing off the court, he shined on it — averaging 15.5 points and seven assists per game. He set the school record with 52 3-pointers in a season, while shooting close to 50 percent from beyond the arc.
Several Division-I schools jumped in with offers, including San Diego, Detroit, Valparaiso, Harvard and a host of other Ivy League schools.
Penn recruited him the hardest, and for a while, that’s where it looked like he’d end up.
An email, from Exeter coach Jay Tilton to Beilein, threw one final wrench into Bartelstein’s recruitment.
Tilton, whom Bartelstein called a “huge coach Beilein fan,” ran the same two-guard offense that Michigan featured, especially earlier in Beilein’s tenure. Bartelstein wasn’t a Wolverine fan but had several friends from high school at Michigan.
“Michigan seriously came in so late that it was never in the realm,” Sheri said. “That was never part of the plan.”
The Wolverines had also just wrapped up a season that saw the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years. But something else about Michigan caught Bartelstein’s eye; the Wolverines’ two captains, starting point guard C.J. Lee and David Merritt, another guard that saw significant playtime, were both walk-ons.
With Merritt and Lee graduating, Beilein was intrigued by Tilton’s email.
Bartelstein had been to Ann Arbor before to visit friends — “never thinking he’d play basketball there,” as Sheri put it — but on the weekend of April 26, 2009, Bartelstein and Mark spent the day with Beilein and assistant coach Jeff Meyer touring the campus and basketball facilities.
With time to spare before their flight home, father and son took a seat along the first-base line at Ray Fisher Stadium to catch the end of an Indiana-Michigan baseball game.
“He turned to me and said, ‘Dad, I’m going to Michigan,’ ” Mark recalled, laughing.
He tried to slow his son down — even making Bartelstein sleep on his decision before committing — but the decision was sealed.
“I was just like, ‘I don’t think there’s anywhere else that I would go,’ ” Bartelstein said. “After being shown around, it was just obvious that this was a dream come true.
“It’s Michigan. How do you turn down Michigan?”
The next day, Bartelstein called Beilein to formally commit.
By that time, Northwestern had also entered the picture, tendering Bartelstein the same preferred walk-on offer as Michigan. Evanston is just a half hour away from Highland Park, and the Wildcats, a team often predicated on mid-major caliber recruits, may have given Bartelstein a better opportunity to see the floor. The Wolverines had just made the tournament in Beilein’s second year, and though the team wasn’t as talent-laden as it is now, the headman was honest with the Bartelsteins.
“They told me right away that nothing was going to be guaranteed,” Bartelstein said. “ ‘You’re going to have to work really hard for everything, you’re going to have to play better than any scholarship player, and if you and a scholarship player are even, you’re not going to play. You’ve got to be above him, but you can do it. Look at C.J. and Dave; I’m not going to say you can’t do anything, but it’s going to be really, really hard.’ ”
The first time Bartelstein saw his jersey, No. 20, illuminated under the lights of his old locker in Crisler Arena, he snapped a picture and sent it to family members.
“He’s always been a really, really good player, but the day that he sent the photo, it was — there’s no question that you take a deep breath and go, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s actually playing for Michigan,’ ” Mark said. “It’s an overwhelming thing.”
“I was happy that I guess,” her voice trails off, seeped in emotion, “that he made it, that he was living his dream.”
Against Northern Michigan in Michigan’s first game of the 2009-10 season, Bartelstein — playing the final four minutes of the Wolverines’ 97-50 win — penetrated a crease in the paint. When help-side defense came, he dished what he still contends was a “really good pass” to former forward Eric Puls for what should’ve been his first career assist. But Puls bobbled it out of bounds, and it wasn’t until his high-school coach called that Bartelstein found out he was credited with a turnover — the only non-foul stat he recorded all season.
“If you go back and look at the tape, you would realize that it was really just a —” he paused to laugh, not wanting to throw a teammate under the bus, “ a miscommunication.”
His playing time has been few and far between since. There was an ankle surgery his freshman year and another this season — he injured it during a two-minute outing in the opener against Slippery Rock — both on the right ankle, and a concussion that sidelined him for a significant stretch of his sophomore season.
He missed his first six shots before finally draining a 3-pointer in an 80-57 loss to Purdue in his sophomore year. His only others points, another 3-pointer, came in a blowout loss to Ohio State in last season’s Big Ten Tournament. The prolific shooter who tore up the prep league has shot just 13.3 percent from the field in his career.
Still, former guard Stu Douglass insists that when healthy, Bartelstein is a different player in practice.
“A lot of times in practice, he would kill us — just not miss a thing,” Douglass said in a phone interview.
Bartelstein, who’s admittedly not the most outspoken person, has become the team’s unofficial spokesperson.
Bartelstein’s first blog was titled “The Wolverines Abroad: Player’s Perspective.” Written Aug 22, 2010, it was a part of a seven-part series of blogs — each by a different player — chronicling the team’s offseason trip to Europe. When the concept became a hit back home with the fans, a team official approached the team asking if any players would be interested in writing a season-long weekly blog; Bartelstein was the only volunteer, and the “Bartelstein Blog” was born.
He admitted he didn’t think it would ever catch on, but since he wrote the first one on Oct. 15, he’s written at least one in nearly every single week of the past three seasons.
Writing about a variety of topics, Bartelstein gives fans unique behind-the-scenes access on a variety of topics, ranging from updates on the team’s fantasy football season, to stories about getting locked on his apartment’s porch by roommates Jordan Morgan and Tim Hardaway Jr., and how Mitch McGary needed to be rescued from a New York City hotel elevator — using a dialect that mom says is “exactly how he talks.”
Bartelstein receives more than a hundred emails each week from fans responding to entries and asking questions he’ll answer in future blogs, while other fans, even students, approach him on campus and at games about it.
While he says the fan interaction is his favorite part, he plans to aggregate the 77 blogs he’s written — with at least a few more coming in the next month — and turn it into a book, highlighting his time at Michigan.
“When I look back at what I wrote my sophomore year, I can see how far we’ve come,” he said. “It’s really rewarding for me because it’s kind of a journal of my years at Michigan.
“Between the blog and being a captain, I probably am more well known (than most walk-ons), but I enjoy it. I love interacting with people.”
Living with Bartelstein has its perks, Douglass — Bartelstein’s roommate for two years — says.
Douglass and Novak lived in an off-campus apartment with Bartelstein during their junior and senior seasons, and Morgan, Hardaway and Jon Horford have moved in since.
Bartelstein has a wealth of information regarding the business side of the NBA that he’s picked up from his dad, along with a multitude of stories his dad has gathered through the years (Indiana Pacer forward Danny Granger, one of Mark’s former clients, became former forward Colton Christian’s favorite player after Bartelstein told teammates about Granger’s plans to build a Batman-style Batcave beneath his New Mexico home).
While NCAA regulations prohibit agents from interacting with student-athletes, Mark’s situation is a unique exception — though he leaves the business side of his profession out of his son’s apartment.
“We just don’t go there with that,” Mark said, adding that he treats Bartelstein’s roommates no different than the roommates of his daughter, a University freshman.
When Bartelstein moved in with Novak and Douglass, Douglass realized he could take advantage of Bartelstein’s knack for taking around-the-house responsibilities, letting trash and dishes pile up so that Bartelstein would eventually clean it up. But even before living with Bartelstein, Douglass saw his teammate as a friend he could lean on, something that only magnified when their rooms were next door to each other.
“He was the perfect roommate for me,” Douglass said. “From the cleaning to the stories and the helping me out, I couldn’t ask for a better roommate or a better teammate, honestly.
“My parents weren’t always there to talk to, or I wouldn’t always want to talk to them on the phone, so I’d go to Josh. He’s genuinely one of the greatest guys I’ve ever been around and one of, if not the best teammate I’ve ever been around.”
Douglass said he first saw Bartelstein take on a significant leadership role on last season’s scout team. Despite not being a prototypical, floor-general leader, Bartelstein found other ways to lead from the sidelines and off the court.
“He’s not going to get in your face, but when the time comes, when the moment comes for him to say something, he’s going to say it,” Douglass said. “He’s very good at sitting back and reading a situation, looking at a situation, and looking over all the information and aspects of what’s going on on the court, off the court, and then being able to talk to somebody.”
After Ohio eliminated Michigan from last year’s postseason, ending the careers of former captains Novak and Douglass, Beilein approached Bartelstein and Burke moments after the team plane landed in Michigan.
“He said, ‘Stu and Zack are gone now. You two are probably our two most natural leaders.’ (Becoming captain) was going to be a goal of mine anyway, but even when coach Beilein recruited me, he said, ‘You’re going to have to be a leader,’ and now it’s my turn,” Bartelstein said.
Beilein noted that it’s a rarity in his career to nominate a captain who rarely sees the floor, but that Bartelstein was the “natural” selection.
“That is the most selfless, team-team-team guy that I may have ever coached, and as a result, it was natural,” Beilein said in November. “That young man has the ear of this locker room and also he has the ear of the coaching staff, as well.”
Bartelstein recently put together a résumé, and as soon as the season ends, his job hunt will pick up steam.
Michigan assistant Bacari Alexander tweeted at Bartelstein earlier this year suggesting he should pursue coaching — something he shot down at the time, but he’s now seriously contemplating.
“I don’t want (the assistants) to hear this, but the more I’m around those guys, the more I do want to coach,” Bartelstein said. ”If you ask me what I’d ultimately like to do next year, it’d be to give back and be an assistant at my high school in Highland Park.”
Sheri was quick to note that volunteering as an assistant is “not a real job,” but admits that before he has a family to provide for, “maybe he should do that for a few years before he has any real responsibility and see where it takes him.”
When asked where he sees himself in 10 years, Bartelstein said he hopes to be “owning some big real-estate firm” and coaching high-school basketball in his spare time. While his interest in coaching hasn’t extended to the college level — he’s not fond of recruiting — he’s also interested in a job with an NBA team and hasn’t completely closed the door on becoming an agent, a profession that will always have a spot for him as long as his dad runs one of the largest agencies in the business.
But Bartelstein is hesitant to do anything that would be considered riding his father’s coattails — just as he earned his spot on Michigan’s roster based on his hard work, not his father’s.
“So many people feel like he had the opportunity because of Mark,” Sheri said. “He didn’t want that and he doesn’t want that when he’s looking for a job now. He really wants to get a job without using his last name and without people saying, ‘Oh, your Mark Bartelstein’s kid, I’ll give you this opportunity.’ ”
Added Bartelstein: “I’ve just got to work really, really hard, and once people can respect you for that, then the last name is just a last name. But there’s no doubt at first, you’ve got to prove to someone that you’re not just there because someone hired you because of your last name.”
Despite a 24-6 first-half run and 16 second-half points from Burke, Indiana — like Purdue the year before — spoiled Michigan’s senior night.
“It was special beforehand,” Bartelstein said. “But it was all about the game and winning a Big Ten Championship, so…” his voice trails off. “You just have to have perspective.”
With no more than a month left in his Michigan career, perspective is something Bartelstein has thought about a lot across the past four years.
It’s the perspective that, as a self-proclaimed huge basketball fan, he’s “lived an unbelievably lucky life.”
He knows that if he went to a mid-major program, or perhaps even Northwestern, there’s a higher likelihood that he could’ve been more of a centerpiece on the floor — and not just in a senior night pregame ceremony.
It’s something Bartelstein has discussed with his dad, who admitted it’s a question that will always “hang over your head a little bit.”
“You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think about what it’d be like to play,” Mark said.
Bartelstein had a teammate from Highland Park, Chris Roblewski, who went onto become a four-year starter and all-conference player at Cornell in the Ivy League, a conference full of teams that actively pursued Bartelstein.
“It’s hard not to think about it, just because there’s nothing like being in the zone and making four threes and diving for a loose ball,” Bartelstein said. “As good as that is in practice, there’s still something about the crowd yelling and just being in that moment.
“There’s nothing like it. So do I miss that? 100 percent. But would I trade away a Big Ten Championship? I wouldn’t.”
Peering out the window of the Ross Academic Center — a building he’s spent countless hours in as a student-athlete, but where his hours remaining are numbered — he smiles, remembering a phone conversation he had with Beilein while walking into the Exeter dining hall nearly four years ago.
“He said, ‘Why do you want to come here? You have these scholarship offers? You can go play for Northwestern, so why do you want to come here when you’re not guaranteed anything?’ And I said, ‘Coach, I want to be a part of something that’s bigger than myself.’ He didn’t say anything for a second.
“When I said it, I didn’t even really realize how big this place was, and not to take anything away from all the other places I could’ve gone, but they’re not Michigan, and that myth and that brand. That’s why I would never change it for the world.”