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Girmindl's Ghost

A diary of Shaker High School's 2005-2006 basketball season, a retelling of Shaker's fabled 1979-1980 season, and general commentary on high school hoops, updated daily...

"I like sitting in the back row. I found that sitting against the wall is just easier on your back." -Dean Smith, on the comfort of the H-gym bleachers

Interview: Brad Sheehan

On the record with Brad Sheehan: [Note: Just before Christmas break, I had the chance to sit down with Brad Sheehan, Shaker's 6'11" senior center, who is currently the leading big school scorer in Section 2, at 22.5 points/game. Headed to Georgia Tech in the fall to play hoops for former Siena coach Paul Hewitt, Brad is a consensus first-team all-area player and has been a dominating force on both ends of the floor this season. When the interview was conducted, Shaker was 5-1 and had just come off a frustrating loss to Averill Park.]

It was like something out of a movie, or perhaps a daydream.

It's 9:30pm on December 4th of this past year. It's been a long time since you could legitimately describe Shaker's cavernous H-gym as packed for a basketball game. Almost 14 years by my count, dating back to the Shen game in Feburary of 1992. But it definitely is packed tonight. And with 9 seconds on the clock and Shaker about to inbound trailing 46-45, not a person in the place is sitting down.

"Well, the first time we tried to inbound it [from the frontcourt sideline], it was supposed to be high-low, me getting the ball to Griff or just taking it to the hoop, but we didn't really get what we wanted, and we had to call another timeout."

And it had definitely been 14 years since the gym had that buzz. You know, the combination of screaming, stomping, praying, and nervousness during a big, close game that produces an energy you can hear and feel, if not explain.

"There was less time left the second time we inbounded, and coach just told me to get the ball and try to get to the [foul] line."

And it certainly had been at least 14 years since since a Shaker crowd exploded the way it did with 4 seconds left, and then again with no time left in the game.

"I was able to get the inbounds and then get open off the spin on Holle. Then I just hit the shot."

Shaker had just beaten CBA, the defending Class AA champions, 47-46. And Brad Sheehan had just hit the winning basket, a short jumper off of a spin move in the lane. As pandemonuim broke out in the new gym, a jubilant Sheehan jumped up and down at the foul line in celebration along with his teammates and their legion of fans, momentarily denying the TV cameras the interview they now desperately wanted. Two games into the season, Brad Sheehan and Shaker basketball were off to a rollicking start.

"Definitely the highlight of my career so far," Sheehan says, as calmly as he explained the closing seconds of the game moments before. Sitting in a noticeably silent Taft dining hall two weeks later on a Thursday afternoon, I observe Brad's mind wander back to the explosion of sound that night, and I catch my mind doing the same thing. I pop out of it as he starts to talk again.

"Being able to perform at the end of the game and perform in the clutch is something you just have to be able to do to be a great player and have a great team. You have to win close games, you need somebody to step up, and it's just good to be that player."

In addition to winning the game, Brad's shot put the icing on what was perhaps his best all-around performance as a Bison basketball player: a triple double of points, rebounds, and blocks, including two monster dunks and an incredible rejection of what looked to be a breakaway jam by 6' 7" CBA star Greg Holle. Just an incredible stat line. Perhaps the only surprise was the Sheehan was held to just 13 points, almost 10 below his season average. Not that he's worried.

"I'm not really concerend about [scoring 20 or 30 points each night]. It's much more important to me to have a complete game - scoring, rebounding, blocks, assists. I'm not really happy if I score 30 points and have 2 rebounds and 2 blocks. I just aim to have rounded out stats. Besides, I know that if I ever have an off night [scoring], we have a lot of guys around me who can score and pick it up."

And he certainly was pleased to put in such a virtuoso performance against Holle, who is perhaps the toughest competition Sheehan will face down low this year.

"It felt really good, because [Holle's] probably going to go D1 for hoops, and he's really athletic and strong. It's always a good matchup to go against someone with good skills in the post who is able to do everything and it's just a good challenge to go up against him and prove that you really are a good player, and it's not that you're just playing well because you're against kids who are smaller than you or aren't as skilled. It just feels great to have a good performance against someone as highly regarded as Greg."

I whimsically ask him if he thinks he can beat anyone in section 2 in the post. Sheehan breaks into an extended and contemplative smile before quietly admitting, "if I get it one on one, yeah, but I'm usually not one on one. It's more about being able to find people when they're open, and when I am one on one, realizing it and being able to make a move."

And that strikes me. I've known Brad for all of 10 minutes at this point, but I'm quickly developing a sense that for all his intensity, talent, and sucess on the basketball court, he's actually an incredibly quiet and humble person, genuinely in awe of what he's become as a basketball player. That's refreshing. Intriguied, I shift the convesaton to his emotional approach to the game - how does such a quiet person become such an intense competitor?

"My personality is pretty drawnback and sort of withheld," Sheehan says calmly. "Controlling your emotions during the game - not getting too high when things are going well and too low they are going badly - is a big part of basketball. Getting through the bad parts and being able to keep the strong runs going."

Of course, Sheehan has to deal with a few more distractions than most players - namely dozens of opposition fans serenading him with endless variations of "Over-rated!"

"I don't do anything special to get ready, mentally, for the games. I just try to get into the mindset and block out the crowd, especially this year with all the chanting.

Does that mean Sheehan doesn't hear the 6th man?

"Well, at home games I listen to it," he admits, "cause it's sorta funny, listenting to the crowds go back and forth. But at away games I know it's going to be mostly negative twoard me, so I just try to block it out. Sometimes it can fire you up, but they're never going to stop [the over-rated chant] no matter how well I do. If I scored 35 they would just say I should have scored 45, so it doesn't really matter what I do. I just have to remind myself that they don't really know what they are talking about."

And they certainly don't know, if college recruiters are any measure. This past summer, after a breakout AAU league season playing for the Albany City Rocks and an impressive performance at a number of high-profile summer camps, Sheehan was the subject of one of the fiercest recruiting battles section 2 has seen in years. And he became the most sought-after Bison player since Sam Perkins '80 and Tim Cain '81 a generation ago.

"The first night they could call, I think I got 20 phone calls, 10 the next day." For some college prospects, that might have been annoying, but for Sheehan it was a confidence boost. And it also cemented in him the idea that he could play college basketball at the highest level.

"It was good to see that people had noticed me and had seen what I could do. I guess I wasn't completely sure [that I was ACC material] until Coach Boeheim [of Syracuse] and Coach Hewitt [Georgia Tech] showed up and started talking to me about scholarships. It was just the realization that I really was good and that I really could play at that level. That I was important enough to them that they would come sit in my living room for two hours and tell me why I should play for them."

Prior to last summer, Sheehan had attracted interest mainily from mid-major conferences, particularly the Ivy league.

"I'm a good student," he says, with much more pride than most high schoolers have in that fact, "and the colleges knew that. It's one thing that attracted them to me. And it's one thing that my mom was really focused on, going to a good academic school."

Once the majors starting knocking, however, Brad seized the opportunity to find the best of both worlds.

"After the bigger schools started offering - especially the schools with big-time basketball and very good academics like Georgia Tech and UVA - I called the Ivies and told them I wasn't really interested anymore. To me, it was the choice between getting a really good education and playing the highest level basketball or getting an amazing education and playing in a mid-major or lower level program. Throw in that the Ivies don't have athletic scholarships, and it was a pretty easy choice."

Unlike Perkins or Cain, Sheehan made his decision - Georgia Tech - during the early signing period, ending the possibility of the Shaker gym turning into the second home of various famous college coaches this winter, as it had in 1980 and 1981. Nevertheless, Coach Hewitt dropped in for the Columbia game a few weeks back to check on his recruit.

"It definitely pumped me up to play in front of him. Just to show him how much more I've developed since he saw me over the summer. I wasn't really nervous, it was more of an excitement, it gave the whole team a lot of excitement to be playing in front of a coach that knows a lot of people. If they play well he might mention their name to somebody else and help them get to play in college."

And Sheehan was definitely able to show Hewitt a thing or two. He scored 28 points, grabbed about a dozen rebounds, and had 7 or 8 blocks in Shaker's 72-63 win. Perhaps more importantly, he showcased his mid-range jumpshot, consistently knocking down jumpers in the 12-17 foot range.

"I feel comfortable shooting the ball," he explains. "I feel like I have a really good shot, and it's one of the things a lot of college coaches really liked about me, my ability to shoot. I think it will give me the opportunity to play more, being able to play 4 or 5 [forward or center] until I get stronger and can play the 5 down low at the ACC level."

Although he believes greater strength will be the key to his college career, Sheehan is clearly not waiting till he arrives in Atlanta to start getting bigger. The most striking thing about him from a physical standpoint - once you get over walking down a hall with someone who has to duck under the doors - is that he's no longer all skin and bones. He seems to have really put on some muscle weight since last season, and it shows in his game.

"I lift during the off-season and two days a week during the season. I definitely feel stronger this year. I feel like I'm able to get better position, and I'm not getting pushed out as easily. I'm able to better hold my position on rebounds. Every once in a while I get pushed out of where I want to be. I just have to get to the point where that doesn't happen."

Although the thought of next year definitely crosses Sheehan's mind regularly - he concedes to occasionally daydreaming about playing at Duke or in the NCAA tournament - he's much more conversationally interested when we turn to Shaker basketball, here and now.

"I feel like we're one of the top five teams in section 2, but I also feel like we can be the best team if we come together and play a complete 32 minutes. We have trouble keeping our intensity up and keeping our execution going for the entire game sometimes. I definitely feel like we have the parts - the starting five, the role players, the bench - to play with anyone."

There's a slight tone of regret in his voice, clearly related to the previous night's overtime loss to Averill Park, Shaker's first of the season.

"It was frustrating. The fact that we couldn't get a stop when we needed it. It was getting to me a little bit. We weren't really executing well, and we weren't playing well when we needed to at the end of the game. It's something we need to do better, and I felt like we shouldn't have been in the situation to begin with because we were up so big in the beginning of the game. We could have put them away early, but we let them come back. We just didn't play well at the end. It's frustrating because I know we could have won the game, and we probably should have won it."

There are certainly high expectations for this Shaker team - both from its fans and from the players themselves - and Brad carries a large portion of that expectation on his shoulders. But it's not somethiing he shys away from. In fact, he seems eager to take on the challenge of being the go-to guy on the court.

"I know I'm the first look in the offense this year. Last year I was getting the ball a lot, but Marcus [Bradley, last year's leading scorer] was a scorer, so that's what he looked to do. This year, it's more focused on me, and Coach Holmes stresses getting me the ball, and I know I want the ball at the end of the game. I want the ball throughout the game, and I want to give us as many chances to score as possible."

Still, I can't help but feel like Sheehan buys into the "team" concept much more than other superstars of his magnitude. He comes off in many ways as a coach's dream - smart, talented, and willing to work hard toward a common goals. He certainly seems to get along well with Shaker coach Jeff Holmes.

"We have a great player-coach relationship," he offers. "I just try to play hard and do what he tells me and I try to execute the plays he draws up for us. It's really important to work within his system because I know that if we're all on the same page and do what he wants, we're going to be able to win."

Throughout our conversation about college, recruiting, and his own play, Sheehan came across as mature beyond his years - knowledgable about his future, specific about his objectives, and disciplined in his efforts to succeed. That's not how most teenagers operate. It wasn't until we started talking about the current Shaker team - as a group of boys - that the teenager in Brad finally came out.

"Game day isn't really any different than other days for me, except for the dress clothes. Since we don't have to get on the bus till 4:30, I usually just go home and relax. Vernon usually comes over and we play video games till we have to come back to school. On the bus, we usually listen to rap music or our warmup tape on Tom's ipod, cause he's got speakers for it. We'll get to the gym, and I'll have a piece of pizza for dinner or something, and then we'll watch the JV game."

Ahhh. Pizza, video games, and rap music. Sounds good to me.

Don't be fooled, though. Sheehan is all business on the court. He plays with a quiet intensity that obviously matches his personality, in retrospect. Don't get too high when things go well or too low when they are going badly. Occasionally, you can catch him in exhuberent celebration - after the shot against CBA, or when he waved to the opposition fans at Burnt Hills - but rarely before the game is over. And although he's never impolite or out of line, you can sometimes see him shaking his head and saying a few words after the ref misses an obvious foul call or gritting his teath with anger after a poor decision by a teammate or - more often - himself. But these are exceptions. And his calm demeanor keeps him pretty zen about it all, especially the reffing.

"I try not to get annoyed at the refs. I've been getting more calls this year than last year, partly because I'm a senior and also because I'm recognized more now. Sometimes though, once in a while, a ref won't give me a call, probably because I'm bigger," he laments before adding, "but it's almost understandable." He pauses, and then perhaps not sure about how that's going to sound in print, throws in, "I know they're not going to be able to look away from it the entire game. They're going to start calling it, and then the other team will back off."

And like a superstar should be, Sheehan's a huge fan of his teammates.

"I've known all of them for a long time. Griff, Duc [Tom Duclos], and I went to Blue Creek together. Most of the other guys I've been playing ball with since junior high school. I love Griff's game because of how hard he plays and the emotion he shows. He's just all over the place, and he's so strong that people just get out of the way. But Tom's probably my favorite player on the team because he can just jump out of the gym. He's just so athletic. Sometimes he makes plays that are just unbelievable. Amazing."

Still, he's hesitant to talk about individuals, prefering to keep the focus on the team, and in particular on the night's matchup with Burnt Hills.

"It's always tough going on the road," he says matter-of-factly. "We just have to bounce back from Tuesday [the loss to AP]. It's good to have [a makeup game from an early season snow day] tonight, we don't have to wait till the middle of next week [after Christmas break] to get back on the court." And bounce back they will later that night, whipping Burnt Hills, 54-40.

Brad also seems to bring a lot of school pride to his game, and he also enjoys the buzz and noteriety that comes with it.

"It's good, being able to represent the school and being known around the school. And the fan support is great. We don't have a lot of Friday night home games, and that keeps the attendance down a bit. But I definitely think there's an excitement this year because we're pretty good."

I begin to wind down the interview by asking Brad about his long term goals. He wants to get stronger next year at Georgia Tech and then hopefully contribute a double-double over the course of his college career. He hesitates to talk about basketball beyond that, but doesn't think pro ball is out of the question.

"I know that I probably have enough skills to be able to do it, but I really just have to see how much more I develop in college and go from there." After that, he quickly returns the converstation to the matter at hand, I guess rightfully so.

"Our only goal right now - my only goal - is to win the section 2 title. We want to be able to come together, play well, peak at the right time, and win the section."

I press him on that one - you never think about the state title?

"Well, yeah, I do," he concedes. "But then I think about Mount Veron [the perennial powerhouse program from Westchester, currently ranked #1 in the state and in the top 10 nationally]. They're amazing, just a team full of D1 prospects," he says, slightly depressed but more in awe. The realist in Brad Sheehan has been unearthed.

I reach into my binder and show him some clippings from the 1978-79 Shaker team that lost to Mount Vernon in the state semifinals. "Yeah, Mount Vernon, they're always good," he says wistfully as he shakes his head. Maybe the state title is too much of a stretch to contemplate.

I think about showing him the clippings from the following year, 1979-80, when Shaker - not Mount Vernon - was the #1 team in the state and a top team nationally, but was defeated before the state tournament even started. For a second I want to let him know that basketball Goliaths can be slayed, that this year's Mount Vernon team can be beaten, that it's all happened before, right here in his own gym.

But then I look up at Brad and I can see his mind wandering again, perhaps back to the CBA game but I think elsewhere. I decide not to pull out the other clippings. It's not necessary. He's already seeing it in his head:

It's 9:30 on a Saturday night in mid-March. Six thousand fans are packed into a gym. You can feel the buzz, and the place is ready to explode. Shaker is down one with a dozen seconds to go. And Brad Sheehan wants the ball.
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