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  • Writer's pictureJacob Richman

MVP Emerson Halbleib Called It For Purdue

Some of the greatest moments in sports come from athletes calling their shots.

Babe Ruth signals with his bat, Steph Curry turns with confidence a split second after a shot has left his hand, Joe Namath guarantees a longshot Jets win in Super Bowl III. Some are clearly documented, other perhaps apocryphal, but they’re all fun … so add Emerson Halbleib to the list.

The senior center from the Purdue men’s club basketball team is savoring a National Club Basketball Association National Championship and MVP honors for his stellar performance in the playoffs — and he kind of called it all year long. Or at least talked about it a lot.

“I said it the whole year,” Halbleib said. “I had one goal in mind.”

Halbleib stands now as a champion, but getting there required personal improvement, growth and patience, which he would not learn until his experiences with the Boilermakers.

Finding club

Halbleib played hoops his entire life. Raised in Carmel, Indiana, he worked toward a basketball career from early on, starting in youth sports organizations — Upward and Indiana Prime Time — where he met Brandon Lafferman. Lafferman coached Halbleib at Indiana Prime Time in 4th and 5th grade and again at University High School.

Halbleib showed out in high school, but when senior year came around he left the sport.

Despite an offer to play for Gary Harris’ AAU squad and a potential college career in front of him, he chose to focus on academics at Purdue.

“I don’t think I was prepared to play then,” Halbleib said.” Maturity level, physically and emotionally, where I was at I don’t think it would’ve ended as well as where I am now. I feel more confident in myself, I feel a lot better about my game, I feel a lot better about my body.”

It didn’t take long for Hablieb to miss basketball. He established himself in West Lafayette, joined a fraternity and became immersed in his physics degree and astronomy minor. But as his body developed an old teammate encouraged him to return to the court.

Zack Hodgin was alongside Halbleib for many of his playing days, first at Indiana Prime Time, then at University High and eventually at Purdue.

Hodgin joined the club team during his freshman year and encouraged Halbleib to do the same, seeing the work he was doing to improve his body, slimming down and becoming more mobile. Halbleib missed competing, assented to Hodgin's wishes, and with his improved conditioning, became undeniable.

Becoming a star

Growing up, Halbleib idolized the big men of the 2000s. Players like Tim Duncan — who he began to model his paint game after — and elite shooters like Dirk Nowitzki taught him that size does not dictate range.

Although not quite as tall as either of his role models, Halbleib is regularly the tallest player on any court. Standing 6-9 and with remarkable skill and intelligence, he was usually “that guy.”

“No one else had someone like him,” teammate Gunnar Reffeitt said.

Halbleib wasn’t always that kind of player. Hodgin describes him as the ultimate team player, but in high school he was not inclined to take control.

Once he learned to become the focal point on offense, he became a force. He worked the paint to perfection and learned to space the floor and command respect by popping the occasional 3-pointer.

The Boilermakers made Halbleib the go-to and that made their offense elite. Purdue was ready to challenge for the Great Lakes Regional Championship in 2020 when the tournament and season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was crushing to every player hyped up for the postseason and, for the Boilermakers, it meant they wouldn’t get to show off what they felt was a powerful lineup.

It only served to push Halbleib and a core group of players that would return for the following two seasons.

“I already pictured us going to the national championship sophomore year,” Halbleib said.” I wanted it. That was my motivation.”

Back to the postseason

The 2021 season was also canceled, making the wait for Halbleib and the Boilermakers even longer. The team still practiced when they had access to a gym, but finding inspiration to practice on a daily and weekly basis was difficult. Players had to wear masks to practice and face-to-face drills were forbidden.

“That made it pretty difficult on us mentally,” Halbleib said.

Still, players would show up, get shots up and continue to work. Halbleib and his teammates had plans for 2022.

“It really felt like three years of build up for this. It felt like we just had completely unfinished business,” Halbleib said. “I felt like I didn’t get to prove what I could do and prove to myself how good we actually were sophomore year.”

Purdue had a few hiccups against Wisconsin and another when it split a series with Notre Dame, but the Boilermakers were right back in the Great Lakes Regional again. Halbleib’s confidence in where his team was headed never wavered.

A nail biter in the first round against DePaul might have worried others, but the Boilermakers dispatched Iowa State and avenged one of its only losses to Notre Dame in the championship game to punch their ticket to the national championships.

Once at the national tournament, Purdue battled through two physical contests with Radford and Bryant. Both were close for a half, but the Boilers closed out, something they learned from their loss to Wisconsin, which was decided in the final minutes of the game.

The final was a fourth matchup with Notre Dame. The two knew each other well, but one thing was different: Halbleib had injured his wrist.

When he woke up the morning of the final his wrist was bruised and he couldn’t move it side to side. He avoided any sort of serious break, but the major issue was that it affected him mentally. He dropped a few balls early in the contest, but when he needed to step up, he returned to his unstoppable ways.

“There was nothing that would keep him out unless he couldn’t walk. Which I think he still would’ve tried then, would’ve went zone or something,” Hodgin joked.

Halbleib tallied 14 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in the Boilermakers’ 53-48 victory over the Fighting Irish in an MVP performance.

The center had called his shot and delivered.

“It felt so relieving,” Halbleib said. “You just feel like you get to take a breath of fresh air.”

Continuing his journey

Reiffett, who originally played at Olivet Nazarene, said that, after the performance from Purdue this season, there are high school players sending in film, hoping to get a shot at a chance to play for the reigning champs.

A lot of that progress is owed to the play of Halbleib.

“He could definitely play at a mid-major D-I school,” Reiffett said. “When you’re that tall and you have that skill and touch and great vision and IQ…he’s great all around.”

After graduating from Purdue, Halbleib is looking to continue playing basketball in graduate school. He’s sending film from his play with the Boilermakers far and wide seeing what school may possibly uncover a gem.

Without his experience at Purdue, they might not have.

“A program should be very happy to have him,” Hodgin said. “They just have to find him.”

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