December 14, 2008:
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.
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 traditional 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.
He remembers the nights of shaky sleep, with thoughts about his role circulating his brain at a rapid speed. He remembers all the expectations heaped on him because of the stage he played on in high school. At Trinity Catholic (CT), Skrelja was a 3-point rainmaker flanked by Craig Austrie (UConn), Dave McClure (Duke), Mike Trimboli (Vermont), and a variety of others.
There were a few bright spots. The night he erupted for 19 points and 12 boards in a pulsating, signature victory over Harvard, for example. There was his Ivy League Rookie of the Week selection that followed. For the most part, however, freshman year was a struggle.
“The game is just so much faster in college,” said Skrelja, out of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.. “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 a defensive role. He’s also a key source who Brown will feed in crunch time. A big picture of Skrelja, soaring 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 even 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 reminds people of game nights with the vivacious mindset of an event promoter.
He even manages to get the anti-athletic bookworms (who morph into different human beings when they embrace the hecklers within them) into the seats of the Pizzitola Center. Skelja’s apartment is about 100 feet from this arena, so many post-practice hours are spent in these cozy confines.
It’s a good life. It’s also a life Skrelja will be bidding adieu to after this season. And that’s what makes him so hell-bent and hungry for success.
Having undergone the metamorphosis from off guard/small forward to point forward, Skrelja is flushed into a leadership role this year. Controlling the tempo and quarterbacking the offense and kick-starting the break fresh off the defensive board are responsibilities Skrelja has subscribed to.
“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 dismal 3-5 start, Brown hopes to snap out of the funk as the Ivy League schedule inches closer.
For Skrelja, who played his first few Division-I basketball games at 17 and was pressed with the idea of doing a post-graduate season, time has zipped by at Brown.
The team’s elder statesman underwent a self-revelation prior to the season. He realized this was it, everything that he worked for had come down to this season. The chances are this will be his last time to play basketball at this highly-competitive level with teammates he holds a knot-tight relationship with.
Skrelja certainly has no crystal ball, he’ll continue to hold himself to a lofty standard.
“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 sailing 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,” Skrelja said. “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 holds serious expectations for a banner year and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
These are lofty goals Skrelja never could have considered during a sleep-deprived freshman year marred by uncertainty.