Thanks to Ruhail Akhtar, UConn is in the Club
When Ruhail Akhtar showed up at UConn, the club basketball team did not exist … and had not for four years.
These days the Huskies are ranked No. 18 in the country and hope to make it to nationals in the National Club Basketball Association. It certainly takes a team to win games, but at UConn it took an engineering major who was not yet done playing competitive ball to get things going at all.
Growing up, many young athletes dream of playing professionally. A few get the chance to go on and play in college, while a few of those get the opportunity to play professionally.
Not everyone’s desire to play at the next level lines up with their educational or career goals. Club teams within universities provide opportunities for students to represent their school while still moving along their career paths.
Ruhail Akhtar found the best of both worlds, continuing to follow his engineering dreams at the University of Connecticut and becoming the president of the club basketball team.
Dreams and Reality
At 4 years old, Akhtar was dribbling a basketball, falling more in love with the game. His dad was his role model growing up, and Ruhail mirrored everything he did. If he watched basketball, Akhtar did too.
Akhtar was a friendly, outgoing expressive type of person who always went out of his way to care for others and make them feel welcome.
“I try and meet and talk to as many people as I can, always wanting to help as many people and be a good friend to whoever I can be.” Akhtar said.
Akhtar grew up just an hour from UConn, in Milford, Connecticut, which has the civic motto, “A small city with a big heart.”
“It’s the perfect way to describe it,” Akhtar said.
High School was not the smoothest road for him as he aspired to become a multi-sport athlete at Jonathan Law High School, but suffered from a seizure that halted his football hopes as the contact of the sport was too much to risk his long-term health. That left him with basketball, and though things did not start well in Akhtar’s high school career, a new coach turned things around and the Eagles became one of the best teams in their division his junior year.
Akhtar posted 14 points in the final game against their rival high school that qualified them for the state tournament in the 2020 season. They made it to state quarter finals junior year and were on the road to playing in the state quarter finals his final year too, but COVID caused a cancellation of the tournaments.
“It was super tough to deal with, especially being a senior and having the season end like that. We had the same group of five pretty much from sophomore (year on) so it was difficult for us five specifically to know our high school careers were over,” Akhtar said. “They told us during the middle of the day at school and I remember going to the rest of my classes pretty much just putting my head down and doing nothing because I was depressed and upset over it.”
Akhtar loved basketball, but it was never his true focus as academics always came first.
In the Club
Eventually he found himself a comfortable academic home at UConn, studying engineering, but never wanted to completely distance himself from the sport he grew up playing. He looked into the club basketball team when he arrived, but it had been disbanded.
Akhtar quickly started working toward bringing it back again. Eventually, UConn Recreation reached out to him, asking if he would be interested in starting the team again. He knew he had a good opportunity to bring back an activity that could have a considerable influence on students in the same position as he was coming out of high school.
“I applied, they interviewed people, and I got the chance to be the president.” Akhtar said.
Becoming the president of the club brings a lot of responsibility, like finding a coach, holding tryouts, setting a schedule, finding referees and everything it takes to get games planned and scheduled.
It’s a big job, but he knew it would pay off.
“Over the summer it was making preparations like booking gym time with the school for tryouts, (but) the biggest thing was spreading the word about tryouts,” Akhtar said. “It was the first club team in four years … no one was going to know tryouts are being held.”
He spent countless hours spreading the word about tryouts and it paid off when nearly 90 students showed up.
One of those players was Akhtar’s Milford classmate Matthew Cruz, who called their relationship “brotherly.” But he also recognizes that what his friend has done is remarkable.
“I am absolutely impressed with what he has been able to be do with UConn basketball and the success we have been able to go through this season,” Cruz said.
Things were not immediately easy. Team chemistry took a bit to develop as many of the players were not only new to the team, but to campus.
Coach Elijah Demb noted that Akhtar makes sure every player has the best experience, making the team busses to away games enjoyable for everyone and getting his teammates merchandise to represent the club and university.
“His [Akhtar’s] teammates are more than just his teammates. After practices he’s always getting the guys together to go out to eat or study in the library together,” said assistant coach Arya Mistry. “He truly creates a bond with everyone in our club and this shows that he cares about us as people and doesn’t only see us for what we can provide to the club.”
His teammates have noticed and appreciated Akhtar’s effort.
“Honestly, I can say that there is no one else in this club that is more dedicated to the success of the team than Ru, and without him we would not be where we are today as the 18th ranked team in the country,” assistant coach Natalie Aloisio said. “With his help and motivation, the E-board and us coaches have built this team from the ground up, and I could not be more proud of it.”
Well Beyond Basketball
It’s not just on-court situations that make Akhtar stand out, but a caring heart for others.
“Over winter break I went to (Hartford) to report on a UConn men’s basketball game at XL Center with him for a club that we’re in,” Mistry said. “We ended up leaving the XL Center very late at night so instead of me driving back home late that night, he offered that I could stay the night as his house.
“The next night, there was a bad snowstorm so he offered that I could stay the night again, and since it was break, he said I could stay as long as I wanted to. He didn’t have to let me stay at all, but he welcomed me into his home with open arms and while I was there, he gave me a tour of his town, invited me to practice with his brother’s rec basketball team, and took me out to the best places to eat in town. Ru will go out of his way and wishes nothing but the best for the people he cares about.”
Akhtar hopes to get an internship within the engineering industry and said he wants to be able to take care of his family after everything they have done for him.
“My parents work really hard for me to be able to go (to UConn),” Akhtar said.
He looks forward to holding his role as the president of the club team next year and wants to continue to have an everlasting impact on his teammates and people around him.
“I’m very motivated to be the best version of myself, the people who I know and who I care about, if they need something from me, I will always find a way to come through for them.”
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