By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The images return in tidal waves of emotion to Joe Mazzulla and Cam Thoroughman, two of five West Virginia University seniors who will walk down the carpet for the final time before today’s noon Senior Day meeting with Louisville, forming a montage of images of their college careers.
It is a montage of happy moments and sad, good times and bad, time shared and time alone.
This montage is filled laughter and pain, with images of a plaster cast and bright sweater, of a squawking parrot and shell necklace. It tells a coming of age story, from fights with police to a day of bonding at a Pittsburgh water park.
It is a picture filled with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, all of it shared by Mazzulla and Thoroughman and the three other seniors who play their final home game — John Flowers, Jonnie West and Casey Mitchell.
“On the court we were there for a coaching change, an NIT championship, a Sweet 16, then losing in the first round, which was tough to get over, then the Final Four,” Joe Mazzulla said before practice on Friday. “I think we covered pretty much everything in college.”
They left behind, gaining an education, Mazzulla earning a degree in three and a half years to go with his Final Four ring, each holding a key to his future.
“I put myself in a good position on and off the floor to get some kind of job in basketball. I’m working on my master’s. I put it in God’s hands and let it go from here,” Mazzulla said.
Thoroughman has a semester and one summer class left to get his degree, then it is off into the real world where he will try to live life after basketball in the corporate world who, at 6-foot-7, may be the world’s tallest human resources employee.
Life without basketball
Each had to contemplate a premature exit from the game, and it had a lasting effect on both of them.
A shoulder injury in the early part of his junior year in 2008 led to delicate surgery that nearly ended Mazzulla’s career, a career he was not ready to give up. It took more than a year to heal, him wanting to play so badly that he returned even though he could not lift his left arm higher than shoulder level and had to shoot free throws right-handed.
“That was tough. That was really tough,” he said. “Basketball had been my identity my entire life. I never really sustained anything that put a halt to it that fast.”
The result led Mazzulla through a time when he had to do a lot of self-evaluation.
“I really lost myself as a person and didn’t know who I was without basketball. I didn’t have a way to express my emotions,” he said. “I never thought about life without basketball before going through that three- or four-month span where I didn’t know if I would ever play again. Would the surgery be successful? You never thought about things like that until it happened.”
It was a difficult time but might play in well when he becomes a coach and has to tell a team or a player an inspirational story. In some ways it is already outlined in his head.
“You tell them about the ups and downs. You want to tell them about the difficult times. The difficult times are when you really learn about yourself. About a month ago I read about Josh Hamilton (the Texas Rangers baseball player who fought addiction).
“He got drafted out of high school and had never had an injury. He was out of baseball for a year. He didn’t know who he was. It took the people around him and him getting back into baseball to find himself as a person. He talked about admitting the negatives and the problem and moving forward.
“You can take it as you want, I don’t want to say you need to get in trouble to grow as a person, but you need adversity to find out what life could be like and what you actually have. You have to see the best out of everything and learn from it.”
With Thoroughman it was a nasty knee injury, one that he suffered in high school and re-injured as a freshman.
“You learn when you think everything is going good, something like that can happen. You can’t let it take you down. You have to turn it into a positive,” he said. “I learned everything could always be worse. I go to the Children’s Hospital a lot. You talk about putting things in perspective. You see those kids and you’re worried about going to practice for three hours because your leg hurts?”
Another lesson learned the hard way
It was supposed to be a fun day at a Pirates game against Colorado on July 28, 2008, for Mazzulla and Thoroughman, but there was the combination of youth, both 20, and beer and sun, and things got out of hand.
The police came; there was a scuffle after they refused to provide identification, and they were arrested. Mazzulla was charged with aggravated assault, hindering apprehension and underage drinking. Thoroughman was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and underage drinking.
It was embarrassing to the players, their families, the school and the team. But it also was a life-altering experience for each player.
“It obviously had an affect us. We put ourselves in a difficult situation, but we grew the last two years as friends,” Mazzulla said.
“It made me grow a lot. First of all, it made me realize that when you are a college basketball player, you are looked at. As much as you want to be just a normal person, you’re really not. I still think I am a normal person and don’t hold myself over anyone. But you have to realize that people do look up to you and hold you as a role model. Do something wrong and it will come back to haunt you,” Thoroughman added.
When they got out of the Pittsburgh holding facility the next day, they were hoping to low-key it back home, thinking maybe the word would not get back to the team and the authorities.
They were greeted by teammates Cam Payne, Wellington Smith and Jonnie West, who had waited all night to pick them up. They had missed a practice, as had Mazzulla and Thoroughman, and were punished.
“That says a lot,” Mazzulla said, referring to the dedication from teammates.
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There were good times, too.
A lot of them. Some you can even still find on the Internet, like Mazzulla, West and Da’Sean Butler in their hotel room on a road trip breaking up in laughter after being taped doing The Night of the Roxbury dance.
Even the arrest in Pittsburgh led to a light moment, the TV commentator Bill Raftery asking Mazzulla as he went by during warmups if he could get him some Pirates’ tickets. Mazzulla looked at the veteran announcer, wearing a rather gawdy sweater, smiled and said, “Yeah, soon as you give that sweater back to Bobby Knight.”
Then there was the parrot that West and Thoroughman got as a gift for Mazzulla, the gift that keeps on giving, and anyone who has a parrot knows what that means.
“Giving me that parrot was the worst idea,” Mazzulla said.
Eventually, when he was tired of cleaning up the cage time after time after time, someone came in and took the parrot. Mazzulla says he doesn’t know who took it, but he let’s just say there wasn’t an all-points bullet put out on it, either.
The memories keep coming. The first day Mazzulla met Thoroughman …
“He was dressed in all white and had a shell necklace. A shell necklace! That sums up Cam,” he said.
“I remember that,” Thoroughman said, as if he could forget the teasing he got. “I still have some necklaces, but I don’t think I have that one.”
So much crammed into so little time.
“When you’re doing it it’s a long time, when you’re looking back on it it’s a short time,” Thoroughman said. “I think it’s like that with a lot in life. It’s been a great five years. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I’ve grown so much as a person or player. I regret nothing.”
In the end, it’s the friendships, though.
“We went up to the water park in Pittsburgh and spent the day. Me, Jonnie, Da’Sean, Joe, Wellington,” Thoroughman said. “That speaks to how close we really were. It wasn’t just basketball with us. We were friends outside and will be friends forever.
“I still talk to Wellington and Da’Sean. I’m sure I’ll talk to Joe and Jonnie. I lived with Joe for four years. We definitely developed a really good relationship, one I’ll have with all those guys.”
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.