Joe Crispin's Rowan team opted out of the 2020-21 season, which has been abbreviated to eight games. (Photo: Rowan University Athletics)
Kevin Callahan (@CP_Kcallahan)
Both John Giannini and Joe Crispin are basketball lifers. The game rattles in their bones. The court is their second home.
For them, though, basketball isn’t bigger than life.
So, as disappointed as they both are, they understand why there is no basketball season at Rowan University this year.
Truly, no one would want to hear the balls bouncing in their Glassboro, N.J., gym more than Giannini, the athletic director, and Crispin, the head coach. They even miss the bad calls by refs and parents yelling to play their kids more.
But even though most of the teams in their league started play in early February, Rowan basketball is shuttered.
“I totally understand why we’re not playing,” Crispin said, “and it’s not just because of COVID. It’s more because of logistics and money and personnel limitations. How many sports can you try to play at once? Where you can at the Division I level, but you can’t at our level with the limitations, with just our trainers alone.
“So, I get it and I really wasn’t questioning it at all,” continued Crispin. “I think one positive [COVID] test, you lose two weeks of your season and the season is only four weeks long, so I get it, but I do feel bad for my kids.
“Just getting them on the court to work out and practice, it’s just hard enough, so good for these other schools for playing, but I don’t know their limitations on spring sports and other stuff.”
In early January, Giannini, La Salle head coach from 2004 to 2018, announced with “mixed emotions” the cancellation of Rowan's winter athletics season, recommending “that we put the health and well-being of our student-athletes and University community ahead of all else.”
To put the health and well being of the players and coaches on the top rung, logistics kept shaking the ladder of priorities.
"You got to worry about bathrooms and locker rooms,” Giannini said. “Is this hallway one-way going down or one-way going back? Just walking down the hallways was an issue.”
And Giannini knows the hallways of Rowan in the dark. He coached the Profs to the 1996 Division III national title in one of three Final Four visits, posting a 168-38 record in seven seasons.
“The people who are trying to do what they love are having a negative experience,” Giannini observed about the teams currently playing.
As a TV commentator, Giannini sees both sides of the ‘to play or not to play’ dilemma.
“I broadcast Division I games and I literally talk to coaches who are playing every day and they cannot wait until it’s over,” Giannini said. “There is no joy in what they’re doing. The kids, most of them were not allowed to go home for Christmas. They haven’t seen their families since the fall. They are afraid to do anything other than leave their dorm rooms and their offices. They are constantly tested and have a lot of anxiety about the results. They don’t know when they’re going to be shut down.
John Giannini (above, at Rowan in 2015) made the difficult decision for Rowan not to participate in fall and winter sports. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“Most teams have gone through long periods of COVID quarantine when they weren’t allowed to play or practice and had to stay in the rooms. You have to look the further than Villanova, Temple, and St. Joe’s. All of them had really long layoffs, playing in front of no fans, so frankly Division I sports are playing so they get the revenue from the Division I basketball tournament and there is really no other reason they are playing,” Giannini continued.
“You can say it is so people can do what they love and they do love it for the two hours that they are on the court, but the other 22 hours they are completely restricted and have anxiety. They don’t love that. They don’t love being shut down for weeks or months at a time and have to literally start their season all over.”
In mid-January, the New Jersey Athletic Conference announced plans for an eight-game season for the women’s and men’s basketball programs.
Under the NJAC scheduling model, teams will play the same opponent on both Friday and Saturday at alternating sites.
Each member institution could choose to play or not. Rowan and Ramapo opted out while Kean, Montclair State, New Jersey City, Rutgers University-Camden, Rutgers University-Newark, Stockton, The College of New Jersey and William Paterson chose to play.
Giannini acknowledged the disappointment for the student-athletes, but noted, “the decision was made only after careful consideration of NCAA safety, competition and travel protocols.”
“The bottom line is whether you’re playing or not playing, this is not a good year,” Giannini said. “There’s no right or wrong. There’s no easy answer to this.
“Division I has given itself four months to get 20-some games. Even Villanova has been shut down for, what, a month and [had] games canceled, but that still leaves one or two months to get the games in,” Giannini said.
“In Division III, everybody decided it wasn’t safe to play fall or winter sports, but maybe at the end of January,” Giannini said. “Let’s give the kids hope. I thought it sounded great.
“In hindsight, we were all wrong because you’re playing a four-week, eight-game schedule. That means one positive test takes away half your season, and of course there’s going to be a positive test, so is it all really worth it to play a couple games in front of no fans? … Personally, I don’t think so.
“If you told me we were going to get eight games, I would recommend that we would do it. I don’t believe anyone’s going to get eight games,” Giannini continued. “A lot of people want to try, and I know and even heard people say to get the kids to play a couple games, it’s a good thing. That’s just a matter of opinion. But how much effort and anxiety do you want to go to the play those few games?”
Ryan Legler (above, in 2019) is one of three seniors on a Rowan squad that has opted out of this season. (Photo: Rowan University Athletics)
Like Giannini, Crispin sees both sides.
“I run these groups and the kids are just a little bit goofier and I think they just need to be a little goofier,” Crispin said of his K-12 camp, clinic and league program, Crispin Basketball. “They don’t have recess, they don’t have free play, they’ve been isolated most of the time. They need this.
“We’ve been fortunate to be able to run stuff that we normally run since July, so I’ve been coaching my own kids and other kids, but if I didn’t have that, I would be struggling way more,” Crispin said. “Because I’m in in the gym, I’m a face-to-face person. I’m like, ‘Let’s teach this game and let’s have some fun.’’’
Crispin—who played 22 games in 2001-02 for the Los Angeles Lakers and then with the Phoenix Suns—said he is hoping to get his Rowan players on the court soon for practice.
“I already have a handful of guys you can get in the gym now,” Crispin said. “They are getting tested now, so as long as they are cleared with negative test we will try to get in the gym two to three times a week just to keep them busy and we can do that through the end of the semester.”
Not surprisingly, Crispin isn’t sure what his roster will look like next season.
“I have some kids who sat out a semester to work and I have other kids who sat out two semesters to work because they’re almost done school and they didn’t want to do it online,” Crispin said. “There are lots of different reasons and a lot of different situations out there.
“As a program we’re going to hit a little bit of a reset button. Like, who’s in, who’s not, let’s start back to square one where we want to be and what we want to stand for as a program. I have a lot of new guys coming in as well, so we have lost some momentum that we have to regain.
“The way I set up our program is kind of like two-year squads,” Crispin continued. “We have like a two-year mentality where we’re going to try to be strong and complete and we did. We graduated five seniors from our [2018-19] championship team and reloaded it. We had some injuries, but we were competitive [last season] and we wanted to take that momentum into the next year. Well, there wasn’t a next year, so it’s just a crazy time, a weird time.”