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  • Writer's pictureNicole D'Costa

UAlbany’s Club Team Showed John Mhilli His Basketball Future

John Mhilli loves basketball. From the time he was a teenager with more potential and height than skill, to his days as a collegiate club player, basketball has been his sport.

He tried to walk away from it, but it kept calling him back.

For John’s entire college life, he charted a course with basketball at its center. His only question was, how could he turn his passion into something more?

Today, the University at Albany alumnus is a first year collegiate coach. He credits his years as a club player for his chosen career.

The Tip Off

It took some time for John to find his way to basketball. Growing up in Detroit, John was always a talented athlete. Under the influence of his brother Enderson, he started playing soccer at five years old.

John’s height allowed him to stand out from his teammates. He played goalie because of his taller frame.

“He would shoot rockets at me,” John said as he described his seventeen-year-old brother practicing with him at seven years old, standing in goal.

John turned his attention to other sports in ninth grade after realizing that he never possessed Enderson’s love of soccer. When entering freshman year after having moved to Rye, NY, administrators pushed him to try out for the basketball team due to his height – already over six feet tall at age 14. He decided to look into both basketball and football.

It was not to be. The football coach told him he was never going to play; the junior varsity basketball coach cut him. Rejection was hard, but John kept trying.

In his sophomore year, John tried out for and made both the junior varsity football and basketball teams. His athletic path seemed secure.

The Take Away

When junior year rolled around, John made the varsity football team, but he got cut from the varsity basketball team, again. This devastated John – a second rejection within three years.

John planned to stop. Looking back, John remembers thinking to himself, “There’s no reason to play.”

But his football coach encouraged him to try again. John took his coach’s advice and committed to bettering himself and his performance for the next season.

John used the rejection as fuel to the fire that basketball lit inside of him. By January of his junior year, he was in the gym every single day for at least two hours. He practiced jump shots, layups, and just about anything to make him a better player.

During varsity basketball tryouts senior year, the coach was impressed with John’s improvement and took him to play backup center. John recalls this as one of the most thrilling and joyous moments of his life. The hard work, training, and long hours on the court finally paid off. In the end, the efforts he made after getting cut led him to appreciate and love basketball even more.

The Slow Break

John had a solid season in his last year of high school basketball as the fifth man off the bench. But after graduating in 2018, John did not get recruited to play college basketball. He decided to go to the University at Albany and focus on academics – to a point.

John still wanted to keep basketball in his life as much as possible. Wasting no time, during his first week at UAlbany, John approached the assistant coach of the men’s Division I team. He became the student manager, a position he held for all four years of college.

“They didn’t give me a single dime, I just loved basketball and wanted to be around it,” he said.

Also during his first month of college, John contacted the student who had organized the nascent club basketball team at UAlbany. The team only started the year before, and John’s freshman year was its first season participating in the National Club Basketball Association (NCBBA).

John made the team as a backup center. He was one of the only two freshmen on the squad that had six seniors.

That year turned out to be the team’s best year throughout John’s four years on the team. The Great Danes finished the regular season an amazing 17-1. They then made it all the way to the NCBBA National Championship tournament, before suffering a heartbreaking loss to Georgetown University in double overtime.

The following year, John served as the vice president of his club. But mid-year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The COVID-related challenges, however, provided an opportunity for John to bolster his passion for basketball. He started to watch more college basketball to see the different styles and techniques that the best coaches in the country use and deploy.

John’s teammates named him president for both his junior and senior year. He welcomed the responsibility of running practices and scheduling games, in addition to coaching and playing on the team.

With club basketball, John was able to find the perfect middle ground between not playing basketball at all and playing varsity basketball. Practicing a few times a week, traveling for games, and participating in regional and national tournaments allowed John to contribute to something larger than himself during his time at UAlbany.

With a smaller team, John loved being in a tight-knit community on and off the court and pushing each other to their full potential each day.

“I started to do things well beyond the court," John said. “I was getting guys laughing and getting guys excited. But then I had another side where I’d get in guys’ faces if they weren’t trying hard enough.”

“John is always fun and easy going but he loves to win and to compete as well and having that combination is great because we had a lot of fun moments while also aiming and trying to be the best we could on the court,” said Mark Barry, John’s best friend and teammate.

John was also in charge of running tryouts for the team his senior year. “It was very stressful because almost one hundred people came to the tryouts and we only had seven available spots, so it was difficult to narrow down who deserved to have a spot on the team,” John said.

He organized a training camp with twenty-two of the players for two weeks which acted as extended tryouts, giving John more time to evaluate the players seeing who worked well with the team. This allowed him to gain more experience recruiting new members to the team as well as blending new and returning players.

During John’s senior season in 2021-2022, UAlbany’s talent and team spirit led to on-the-court success once more. The Great Danes went undefeated in the regular season, finishing with a 15-2 record. John led his team with 19 points per game. UAlbany earned the number three seed in the NCBBA New England regional tournament, and came a mere one spot short of qualifying for the national championship.

Post Game

The four years of club basketball, combined with John’s involvement with the Division I team, centered John’s life at college. During his last few years on the team, John had a realization: “I want this to be my life, not just a part of my life.”

The answer: coaching. Looking back on his leadership roles on the court, John realized he wanted to use his knowledge to help others reach their dreams of playing college or even professional basketball.

John recalled the first time he was truly in charge of the team. It was the first official tournament of his senior year in a game against Ohio State, which was the preseason number one team in the country.

“It was tough to manage everyone and also play at the highest level. I learned I couldn’t micromanage these guys and also be focused on the game as a player,” John said.

With back-to-back games against Villanova and The College of New Jersey, John hurt his hip; as much as he wanted to play, he physically could not go on. He ended up coaching for most of the TCNJ game.

It was the team’s third game in just 20 hours. They were exhausted. “We ran out of gas and ended up losing to TCNJ,” John said.

Fast forward to the end of the season when the team was playing Vermont and they were down ten points in the last two minutes of the quarter finals. John had just fouled out and quickly remembered his lesson from the beginning of the season: put five well rested players on the court. He knew he had to trust the younger guys on the team and lean on their legs a little more since most of the starters were very fatigued.

With the new, energetic lineup, UAlbany ended the game on a 12-0 run and won.

“I was so proud of our guys for pushing through and it taught me a lot as a coach,” he said.

Coaches have a significant impact on the players they work with. John credited much of his own growth to his coaches, and that every coach in his life had changed something about him, both in basketball and off the court.

Dwayne Killings, coach of UAlbany’s Men’s Basketball team, got to know John through his work as the team manager. “I think he learned from the coaches how to teach and how to develop players. I think it taught him what a coach sounds and looks like,” Coach Killings said.

John’s teammate, Mark Barry, concurred. “John’s focus on the team’s success, effort, and input as well as focus on making sure all of the right pieces or players fit together will be very helpful moving forward,” he said.

After graduation in 2022, John found his perfect fit: assistant coach for Skidmore College's NCAA Division III Men’s basketball team.

“There’s not a lot of people that can truly say that they 110% will love what they do in their career. I couldn’t just sit at a desk and do something for somebody that I hated for eight hours a day,” John said.

The former Great Dane took everything he learned during his time in the club league and beyond to turn a hobby into a career. John followed his heart and found his future.

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