Thursday, August 15, 2013

Throwback Thursday: C.SKRELJA and Brown Hoops '09

The unmistakable loud cling of shot glasses banging together during a late-night toast reverberates from one side of the bar to the other.

The unbridled power of numerous drinks, fireball whiskey shots, and a busload of scintillating Ivy League girls never ceases to surprise me.

All three have the potency to bring together two teams that were hell-bent on beating the snot out of each other on the basketball court just a few hours earlier.

Hometown Brown University and Northwestern are hoisting drinks in the air, guzzling down cold, crisp pitchers of Bud Light in clear cups by the bundles. A slew of young women are enveloping them, as they take dancing matters into their own hands in the breathing room-only club.

Bouncing jokes off each other, collectively skirt-chasing, and sprinkling a little trash talk and hoops lingo in, the two teams stake ownership of the scene. It’s a biting-cold late November night, one of the last to savor before thanksgiving break clears out campus.

The two teams, with players ranging from wiry to colossal, are luring in the females—each girl prettier than the next—as Little Wayne’s “Girls All Around The World” emanates from the speakers.

It’s 2008.

Once a low-scoring, dysfunctional conglomerate under Glen Miller, Brown University has suddenly grown into a tight-knit, balanced-scoring team with an innate feel for each other's game.

Once playing before pin drop-quiet crowds and the sound of crickets after big shots, Brown now sells out Pizitola Sports Center. Finding tickets is no duck walk these days, as a rowdy and ebullient student section mobs into the gym 20 minutes prior to tip-off.

Buoyed by a 6-foot-6 point forward, a sharpshooter, and a versatile forward, Brown is entertaining a new set of aspirations this year. Don’t sleep on them on the court. At the same token, don’t underestimate how hard an Ivy League school gets after it on a Saturday night at Fish Co Bar & Grill in downtown Providence.

 Brews, babes, Irish Car Bombs and scantily-clad peer leader chicks flaunting the seductive side to their prestigious elitist image are flowing.

 At Quinnipiac University, at the oft-popping college party pad of New Haven, you think you’ve witnessed it all in four years.

But the vivacity of a college night in Providence, especially after this core of Bears shut the city down for a 40-minute display of purified basketball—rife with long range shooting, hustle plays, a smooth high-low game, clean picks and suffocating defense —seems incomparable.

Never thought Ivy League cats could shut the joint down like this, but here I am—immersed in a memorable night that I’d re-live any weekend night that ends in Y.

Prior to these festivities, the 6-foot-6 point forward that I speak of was orchestrating the offensive melody, serving as the traffic cop for a Brown team hell-bent on etching its own legacy.

 Chris Skrelja, the Hastings boy, has come a long way since launching jumpers in Gaucho gym in the Bronx and running his mouth during pickup ball at fabled Reynolds Field in Hastings.

Skrelja was once a fixture on these courts, carrying the weight proudly for his era of Hastings hoops. He transferred to Trinity Catholic in nearby Stamford, Conn., his junior year. At Trinity, Skrelja was smothered in talent. Flanked by Craig Austrie (UConn), Dave McClure (Duke), Mike Trimboli (Vermont) and a bevy of other high-profile teammates, Skrelja fed his insatiable thirst for winning.  

In the first half of the Northwestern, Skrelja was content to set up his teammates. Doling out passes, Skrelja empowered his slew of shooters. He located the gunslingers immediately after they rolled of picks, ready to pop.

Skrelja then “grew a pair of balls in the second, eh bud?” as his Canadian, hockey-playing roommate would put it later that night.

As if he was on a one-on-one clear-out at Ferris Ave. in White Plains, Skrelja shredded his man off the dribble and finished hard at the rack. That monstrous take set the tone. From that moment on, Skrelja pursued the driving lanes like a state trooper pursues a tinted-windowed SUV pushing 120 MPH on the highway.

He scored 10 points in 13 minutes. The sea of onlookers, particularly the section of smile-sporting Asian girls wearing Skrelja's replica and practice jerseys, erupted.

Avalanched under a barrage of 3-pointers in the first half, Brown encountered a Northwestern team which entered Wild Wild West shootout with nothing smaller than a rifle.

Craig Moore scorched the nets to the tune of nine 3-pointers (six in the first half) en route to a game-high 31 points. Moore's gun was illegal even in Mexico City in the first half. He sniped in from way, way, beyond the confines of the arc. With a hand draping him thoroughly, there was no stopping his heat stroke. The kid put on a clinic.

Brown minimized the damage in the second half, with a tighter brand of perimeter defense. NW held on, gutting out a 73-64 win. As the rule would have it, win or lose we still booze. The Ivy League is pretty serious about enforcing that rule.

In this edition of Throwback Thursday, we take you back to the winter of 2008, when the Hastings Boy Skrelja and Brown were rapidly changing the culture of Brown basketball.

 For Brown University senior Chris Skrelja, the road to success has been about as smooth as a Providence-bound trip up I-95 in snow-blanketing conditions. Fuck, it’s been about as smooth as driving through Fargo-like conditions.

Skrelja, a 6-foot-6 point guard, has gone from frustrated freshman to significant senior starter.

“As a freshman, I honestly thought this point would never come,” said Skrelja, once the callow, unsung backup to sharpshooter Damon Huffman.

“A lot of things went wrong for me that year. I think it was a combination of me struggling with the new surroundings and also being a little homesick. My passion for the game really just wasn’t there.”

Skrelja remembers being on a short chain with then-coach Glen Miller (who has since moved on to perennial Ivy power UPenn) just like he remembers averaging a meager 3.3 points and playing just 13-14 minutes a night. He remembers the freshman jitters, the intense rushes of pre-game anxiety and the lofty expectations immediately heaped on the then 17-year-old.

There were a few bright spots. The night he erupted for 19 points and 12 boards in a signature victory over Harvard resonates. There was his Ivy League Rookie of the Week selection that followed. For the most part, however, freshman year was a struggle.

After establishing himself as a three-point rainmaker at vaunted Trinity Catholic High School (Stamford, Conn.), getting acclimated to the up-tempo, speedball brand of basketball took time.

“The game is just so much faster in college,” said Skrelja. “So, it was almost like a rude awakening for me.”

Fast forward to three years later.

A second team All-Ivy League selection who posted 8.4 points, 7.6 boards and 4.1 assists during the 2007-08 campaign, Skrelja has evolved into the face of the program. He’s a team captain now, synonymous with versatility, and the guy they want with the ball in crunch time.

A big picture of Skrelja, skying to the basket with his heart speeding and eyes burning, is emblazoned on the cover of the team program.

Tremendously similar to former Holy Cross guard Torey “The Mayor” Thomas (who, like Skrelja, grew up in Westchester County and starred at Trinity Catholic), Skrelja lives out his senior year like the star of his own sitcom.

He engages in conversations with just about everyone – the hot dog man, security guard, and a 10-year-old fan – en route to his first home game of the season. The student fan base knows Skrelja like a surrogate family member. After games, a big entourage of them wait around for the rangy Albanian kid, who played for the NYC-based Gauchos on the AAU circuit.

Students in the stands sport a replica of his no. 22 jersey. Off the court, Skrelja invites people to games with the mindset of an event promoter.

He even manages to get the anti-athletic bookworms into the seats of the Pizzitola Center. He lives about 25 feet from there and never fails to put in post-practice hours there. It’s a good life.

Having undergone the metamorphosis from off guard/small forward to point forward, Skrelja is funneled into a leadership role this year. The role of point forward usually demands playmaking antics, control of the tempo, and Skrelja has subscribed to this niche.

“Being a senior, coach trusts me with the ball. My role is to basically be a facilitator. This year I’m going to be more of a scorer than in previous years. I’m still going to have to be a well-rounded player, grabbing rebounds, finding the open man, playing tough defense,” he explained.

Skrelja is averaging nine points and five boards while shooting 49 percent from the floor this season. The transition to game manager role has allowed Skrelja to refine elements of his game and add new compartments to it.

The point forward has become a presence in the running game, operating an offense that features sophomore sniper Peter Sullivan, 6-foot-8 forward Matt Mullery (14.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg), and sophomore Adrian Williams. Williams, the son of Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, has surfaced as a go-to-guy this season.

In an 80-73 win over Army, Skrelja erupted for 15 points while doling out a career-high 11 assists.

“Chris faces a lot of pressure. He has to dribble the ball and make all the right decisions,” said Brown coach Jesse Agel.

He made the right decision against Army. He whipped a pass to Matt Mullery for the go-ahead basket and sealed the deal with a pair of free throws. He had four assists down the stretch and scored on a crucial lay-in.

Skrelja’s sophomore year was marred by injuries. Skrelja suffered a stress fracture in his left foot prior to the first game of the 2006-07 campaign. It hampered him throughout the rollercoaster season.

During his junior year, Skrelja shot less and passed more, handing out assists like a frat house hands out cups of jungle juice.

He rectified a free throw shooting problem by switching his form up completely. Skrelja began shooting his freebies with one hand, bringing back a lost art mastered by guys like Don Nelson Sr. and former New York Knick Anthony Mason.

This summer, Skrelja was once again bitten by the injury bug. Two herniated discs in his back prevented him from logging any game action at all.

“You just get so frustrated,” Skrelja said. “You don’t realize how much you love the game and how much it means to you until you’re away from it.”

Following a 3-5 start, Brown will look to resuscitate itself as the Ivy League slate inches closer. If anyone is ready for the challenge, it’s Skrelja. The elder statesman underwent a self-revelation prior to the season, one that reinforced the fact that this is the last hurrah.

While Skrelja’s got no crystal ball, he’ll continue to hold himself to a high standard and leave it all on the floor.

“I’ve always set standards for myself throughout high school and college,” said Skrelja.

“I’ve always had high goals, and this year is just about reaching those goals. Being a senior, this is it for me (at Brown). The most important goal is to win an Ivy League championship. Of course, every college player’s ultimate goal is to make it to the NCAA championship.”

After coming up short of the goal the previous year, Skrelja knows the onus to steer the big Brown bus deep into the playoffs is on him.

“Representing the team, it’s definitely an honor,” he reflected. “But with that comes a lot of responsibility. I know it’s up to me to lead this year. I’m excited for the responsibility.”

Role player no more, Skrelja has serious illusions of a banner year and a berth in the big dance.

Now that’s something Skrelja couldn’t have envisioned his freshman year.