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  • Writer's pictureDave Barend

Some Love For CUNY's Errol Samuels




Not another one of those.

I can’t take it.

Uh, Dave?

Ok, allow me to explain. As editor-in-chief of College Basketball Times, I’m forced to read the same story over and over: Player wants to be great. Player works hard. Player faces an insurmountable obstacle. Player overcomes and succeeds.

All so inspirational. All so emotional.

And at this point, all so nauseating.

Yeah, that’s a problem.

So as I began to write this story myself, I started with a mantra: Not another one of those.

And thanks in part to Errol Samuels, I think we have something unique. All right, thanks entirely to Errol Samuels I think we have something unique: A love story.

You like love stories, Dave?

No, I hate them too.

Well this should be great.

Actually, I think it might be.


Love Takes A Shot

Sooner or later, love is gonna get ya, according to 1970s soft (very soft) rock band, The Grass Roots.

Well, Love set its sights on Errol Samuels sooner than later.

Uh Dave, love isn’t capitalized.

And yet it is.

At age 6 or 7, Errol saw her, in front of his mom’s house in Queens. She was an absolute ball. He took a shot.

Right though the hoop.

“After my first try I was like, ‘I like this.’”

And with that, Love’s efforts to get Errol began.

He then started watching NBA games.

“Allen Iverson was a big influence. I see him play and I want to do what he’s doing.”

So he continually went outside to shoot. He just kept shooting.

“Once you see one go in, you want to see them all go in.”

Why?

“I loved the game.”

Ok, but what does a seven-year-old know about Love? Did Love really have him?

Well, Errol didn’t just want to shoot, he also wanted to play with the older kids on the block. That posed a problem.

“They weren’t going let you play just because you were there. . . .So if you wanted to stay on the court, you had to be at least somewhat good.”

Last second shots became his go to drill.

“Every kid would do the countdown: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, buzz.”

And Allen Iverson scores, of course.

Of course not.

“I was me.”

Unfortunately, he could not do much about his lack of height.

“You get in the park and you ask, ‘Who’s got next?’ And they look at you like, ‘What are you doing here? You ain’t got next.’ . . . Let me show you why I have next. . . .I want to show them that I’m not just a little kid. I really can play.”

And he did.

“They started giving me respect. ‘Oh you’re good.’”

Huh, maybe it was Love.

Getting there, but he hadn’t even tried organized basketball.

“It was just me playing on the hardtops, and in gym. . . .Things like that.”

Love needed to get him on a team.

After 6th grade he learned he could play for his middle school.

But the coach held tryouts.

No problem for Errol. Except Errol missed the tryouts.

What? That’s not Errol. He’d maybe miss a dentist appointment. Or miss homeroom. Or miss a 2-month anniversary with some cute girl.

But miss tryouts?

Yup. And the coach would not let him play.

Where was Love, Dave? How could Love let that happen?

Love dropped the ball. But did it not give up.

“A guy in my neighborhood was on an AAU team and they needed another body . . . After that I was in every tournament with him.”

When 8th grade arrived, Errol had a slightly different focus than the previous year.

“It was more of a determination. I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to make this team.”

Tryouts arrived. And this time, so did Errol. And . . .

He made the team.

This meant two sets of practices for two different teams - after school and early morning.

“It showed me. I didn’t like getting up early in the morning. But if I have to get up to play basketball, then I have to get up to play basketball.”

Love’s coming back. Maybe.

“Guys who were on the team a year prior had somewhat of a seniority when it came to playing time.”

Sounds unfair.

Yet at the same time, people had high expectations for Errol.

“They were telling me, ‘You’re the next thing. You’re good.’ I know I am, so let me prove it.”

Sounds like pressure.

Yeah, but according to Errol, “Pressure busts pipes or makes diamonds.”

He hoped for diamonds.

“I just kept going out at gym time playing constantly. And lunch playing hoops. At recess, playing hoops. After school, playing hoops. Just always hooping. Even to the point where I had a girlfriend and she’s like, ‘You like basketball more than me.’ I couldn’t say yeah I do - but I did.”


So no diamonds for that girlfriend.


But Errol got his - in the form of playing time. And his 8th grade team won every regular season game but one.


Uh Dave, this is starting to feel like one of “those” stories again.

Nah, I’m telling you this is a love story.

Well it feels like Love has him. Story’s over, right?


Love And High School

He enters high school and, as a mere freshman, he’s asked to play varsity.

Wow! But see, Dave? Love’s got him . . .

And he said no.

What?!

“The coach wanted me to play. But he was like. ‘We’ve got a lot of older guys who are probably going to see more time.’ . . . I could have taken it as let me continue to prove I should be on floor versus I’m just going to play JV. . . In a way I look back at it as if I took the easy way out.”

Ok, live and learn.

10th grade comes. He does the same thing.

Why? How does Love let him do that?

11th grade brought some good news: Errol joined varsity.

It also brought some bad news: the coach did not lie.

“There was a guy I was way better than in practice . . .but because he was a senior, the coach wanted to play him more.”

And then Errol realized something quite important.

“I was starting to lose the love.”

Oh no.

Love still tried to hang on. And senior year, the coach named Errol captain.

“But our team didn’t do well.”

They became mathematically eliminated from making the playoffs pretty early.

“So once we were out of playoff run, it was like . . . I’m just going to enjoy my senior year.”


Really?

“No point.”

Love lost him. Completely lost him.


Love At The Delhi?

And yet Love did not give up.

After high school, Errol attended SUNY Delhi, a JUCO in upstate New York. And he made a big decision: he’d talk to the coach about becoming a walk-on.

Got to be Love.

Coach said he’d be glad to have him tryout.

Fantastic.

“But he’s like, ’You can come. It’s open to everyone.’ So I didn’t take that as much motivation to go.”


And he didn’t.


“Guys on the team they were like, ‘Why didn’t you try out? You could have made it.’ I didn’t care for it as much anymore.”


Next year?


“Neither.”


Love lost again.


“Without a doubt.”


Decked Out


To Errol’s credit, he focused on his grades, and by the end of first semester of year two he brought his GPA up to a 3.2.


He admittedly had some other focuses.


“I wanted to enjoy college, the whole experience, and party and girls and drink and all of that stuff.”


So after dutifully spending some time in Queens with his mom on the weekend of Mother’s Day, he headed back to an off campus party that Saturday night. He and his buddies wanted to relax before the upcoming finals week.


“One of my friends was ready to go and he was like, ‘Let me take a smoke really quick.’ We were on a patio and there was a deck above it that was put on manually. . . . And that ended up coming down.”

Down? Down where?


“On my back.”


What? Are you saying a deck on a second floor fell on his back, Dave?


Not exactly. A deck, as well as the six to eight people on it, fell on his back.


“I was pinned against the frame, standing, but bent over.”


So picture the number seven. That’s what he looked like. Well, you probably also have to picture a deck on top of that seven. And picture six to eight people on that deck.


“I was actually in shock like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

Mayhem ensued as his unscathed buddy and others scrabbled to push up the deck to pull him out. They next put Errol on the grass and waited.


And waited.


Finally an ambulance came. Then he had to be flown via helicopter to a hospital in Cooperstown.


Cooperstown?


Yeah, because when you think of Cooperstown you think of A+ medical care.


Though maybe Cooperstown made some sense given that none of his thoughts included basketball.


Love, where are you? Definitely not there.


But his sisters and his mom arrived later that night once notified by his then girlfriend.


The next morning he came to after having been sedated. And when he saw his mom his immediate reaction was, “Happy Mother’s Day.”


Yes, he managed to remember what day it was despite the fact that the sky had pretty much just fallen on him.


“I was trying to break the mood. It was gloomy situation. I wanted to bring smiles to faces.”


He also tried to bring a smile to himself with a positive thoughts.


“I got off the hook for taking finals - that was a good thing I guess,” he said with his trademark huge smile that accompanies his Billie Dee Williams mustache.


Billie Dee who?


You know Lando Calrissian from Star Wars.


Dave, you are both old and a dork.


Anyway, he learned his injury occurred between the T12 and T8 vertebrae.


Bad, but not devastating according to the doctors. They said in six months there should be a difference.


So he had his mantra.


“Six months. Six months.”


6 months comes - nothing.


8 months. Nothing.


Love. Still nothing


10 months. Nothing.


1 year. Nothing.


New diagnosis: permanent injury.


Physically, it changed everything.


“You can’t walk. That’s the obvious. But then you kind of lose control of your bowel and bladder movement. You have no sensation from below your belly button. You have to think in advance - I’m going out, I’ve got to bring this much supplies. So everything changed.”


Mentally, Errol had to find a way to accept his new life.


“I continuously kept myself busy. I put myself in somewhat of a routine. . . Monday and Wednesdays I would go up to the hospital [Mount Sinai in Manhattan]. Fridays they’d have an aerobics class, a workout class I would go to.”


Then he received an introduction to adaptive sports.


And there you have an opening for Love.


“We went to a basketball court not too far from the hospital. I was just playing against my therapist . .. And he’s like ‘You should play, You should play.’”


Love’s working it!


Errol’s response:


“I don’t have the love for the game like I did.”


What?


Hello Brooklyn

Move ahead a bit to the Summer of 2014 and Errol attended an adaptive sports clinic.

“A guy there says, ‘We play ball too. Come down. We start in September.’”

That guy had a name: Dave Deas. He also had a title: Player/Coach of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s (NWBA) Division 3 Brooklyn Nets.

Somehow, someway, Love had enough left to drag Errol to that first practice at the Roy Wilkins Rec Center in Queens.

He grabs a ball and then something unexpected happened.

“Somebody was talking trash to me.”

Yup, and with Love in a pretty weak state.

Errol took a breath.

“All right, I’ve got to do this again. They came to me as I was shooting and it went right in, in their face. I just gave them the look like, ‘You still talking.’" I didn’t say anything because I’m the new guy.”

Then something even more unexpected happened.

“The love starts to come back.”

What?

Well, it hit Errol.

“Oh this is a real thing. They really play. They really do it.”

You know, as opposed to just going to a court with some non-hooping therapist and shooting around.

“I had to start competing. I had to go up against 5 other guys. What I thought I lost and no longer had desire for was right back in me.”

Pretty crafty, that Love.

“After that I was there every Monday, every Monday, every Monday. . . .They noticed I was good. I could play. . . . I’m competing. I’m getting better. I’m still a good shooter. I’m making plays, learning the game as it is now.”

Errol, however, made one thing very clear about his early days as a wheelchair hooper:

“I wasn’t a star.”

“As we go along I started getting better and better. Then learned wheelchair skills - getting better at moving the chair and getting adapted to it.”

All was great except for one thing.

“We stunk.”

Love tried to hold on.

Lots of losing did not help.

Getting a guy with some height did. Then they signed up a player with speed who could also shoot. Combine those two with Errol’s talents and “we were slowly progressing. Progressing. Progressing. Progressing.”

And they had fans, like Errol’s dad, after whom Errol models his “Rasta” styled locks. His mom has come to a few games as well.

“But she said the bench is too hard for her to sit on.”

His girlfriend, however, regularly attends. And Errol deftly avoided any reference to her complaints.

So to recap: Errol was in love. Then fell out of love. Then a deck fell on him. Then he fell back in love. Here’s hoping none of his ex-girlfriends think they’ve found a way for him to fall in love with them again.

Heading to Nationals at the end of the 2019-2020 season, the Nets had been ranked #7. That meant a chance to do pretty well.

In the midst of a match-up with a lesser team, Errol took a shot.

Mechanics perfect. The ball rolled off his fingers just as he wanted. And - miss.

That happened again. And again. And again.

The whistle blew - foul on Errol. Again, and again.

“That was frustration . . .from missing. I’m not focused. Now I’m making tick-tack fouls.”

A fifth whistle makes Errol sick. He fouled out.

And the team, well, they lost.

“I felt like s*** because I know if I’m not fouled out we win that game for sure.



CUNY LOVE


Did Love let up? Did it let him quit? What did he do?

“I did the thing that Iverson didn’t want to do.”

Practice? You talking about practice?

“I would go to the gym and just keep shooting from different spots - 100 shots at each spot.”

His workout regiment also included strength training (“pushups, dips, shoulder presses”) and “practicing getting up and down the court to make sure my wind’s right.”

A bit earlier, he met Ryan Martin, the soon to be head coach of the new wheelchair basketball program at CUNY.

“Coach was reaching out to me because he’s trying to gather the talent in New York locally to put together a competitive college team.”

Errol had hit his mid-twenties at this point. College seemed like a lifetime ago.

Problem?

“Well, I’m like, I’m interested in getting better so - I’m down to help build the program.”

No problem.

But what about the NWBA Nets?

Turns out the practices for CUNY took place at Queens College, “which is right near where I was practicing already with the Nets.”

No problem.

Then Covid hit.

Problem?

“We’re shut down for a year.”

Big problem.

“There’s just virtual workouts. If you can get out to a park, you can get out to a park.”

Love vs. Covid.

While he managed to gain strength via some Zoom sessions, he lost a whole lot of endurance. With the Nets he rarely missed a minute of any game.

“I played consistent, non-stop. I would not come out.”

He needed to get back in playing shape.

And Love might have needed a booster.

But it did not let go.

“I was just as committed. I had something to look forward to when it ended.”

And when the 2020-2021 season finally arrived, he did not disappoint.

According to Coach Martin, he helped “the program navigate a challenging start with the pandemic.”

“There were definitely teams that have been around for years and years that are bigger schools, that are better schools. They have facilities that are way better. But that doesn’t stop us from competing, We’re still out there 40 minutes just like they’re out there,” Errol said.

Toward the end of the first season CUNY had a big game against the University of Illinois.

“We came out fighting off the jump. It started off great. We’re giving them hell.”

And then . . .

“Second half comes and you saw the transition between a good team and a great team, It’s like they they turned on a click and the game momentum just flipped around. We kept going at it. We didn’t stop and say we’re going to just let you win.”

And CUNY won, Dave?

No. No they did not.

“But we gave them what we had. It just wasn’t enough. . . . We just knew we had a lot more work to do.”


And with Nationals up next the team definitely worked harder.


Errol’s “quiet leadership, strong work ethic, and determination was a rally point for the team,” said Coach Martin.


Nationals arrive.


Game one.


Lost it.

But not the Love.

CUNY entered a consolation bracket and won its first game.

Final game - and Errol scored, and passed, and played stellar defense.


And CUNY won, Dave?


Yes. Yes, they did.


They also ended up in 8th place - extremely impressive for a first year team.


“Errol was a fundamental piece to CUNY's success as a brand new team. He was a steady hand as our point guard and our top defensive player,” said Coach Martin.


This past year the team continued to accept incredible challenges. Mid-season they scheduled a game against NWBA’s D2 Shepard Steelers.


“They had a former Paralympic player, and some other former college players - good, competitive team.”


Yikes.

“First half we were moving ball around. And my first four shots I put up - all in, all in. . . .The team rode out the hot hand, and I had about 12 of our first half points.”


And then . . .


The other team flipped a switch and the momentum turned?


Nope.


CUNY won.


As Coach Martin succinctly put it, “Errol’s game is exceptional.”


Yet somehow during this past couple of seasons, Love left Errol.


What?!


Well, it stayed and left.


Now I’m confused, Dave.


It spread.

“Love this team.”

Errol loves this team so much that he willingly rode on a bus with them for a whopping 16 hours all the way to Alabama. The CUNY women’s team, which Ryan Martin also coaches, accompanied them too, as they often do.

“Last year we were in Texas on our way to a game. Sharp turn, and I just hear someone calling me ‘E! E! E!’ - one of our women’s teammates. That turn was so hard she ended up on the floor.”


Errol to the rescue.


“Yeah, but a little too late though. She was already down,” he said with a chuckle.


Love has spread from Errol to his coach too.


“He’s a great guy because he pushes me, talks a lot of s*** to me. So I have to talk s*** back. It’s a New York thing, you know.”


Errol recently graduated with a BA in Economics. He’s no longer in his mid-twenties. He’s now in, well, he’s entered the part of his twenties that starts with a three.


While his playing career at CUNY may be over, he might play internationally or maybe try for a spot on the NWBA’s D1 New York Knicks. He’s also considering coaching.


“Errol has a lot of potential still as an athlete, but when he decides to become a coach it will be a natural fit for him. He's a strong communicator and people naturally follow his lead,” said Martin.


He actually has his sights set on coaching at his old high school.


Uh Dave, isn’t that risky? Isn’t that where he lost the Love?


Errol’s not worried.


Though later than sooner, Love’s got him now.


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