Life Happened, and Somehow Put Them in the Championship Game
HOUSTON — After Joey Calcaterra, Connecticut’s brash, sharpshooting guard, swished an open 3-pointer late in the first half of a Final Four game on Saturday, making a Miami defender pay for an ill-advised gamble, he slapped hands with Coach Dan Hurley.
Calcaterra continued downcourt, barking all the way — at an opponent, at the crowd, at the moon?
As Sam Scholl watched the full Joey California experience play out, all he could do was smile and shake his head.
A year ago, Scholl and Calcaterra had uncertain futures together.
Scholl had just been fired as coach at the University of San Diego, where he was a basketball walk-on in the late 1990s. And Calcaterra, after playing four seasons for the Toreros, had just entered the transfer portal, sure there was something else out there for him.
Now, they will share men’s college basketball’s biggest stage: Calcaterra coming off the bench to provide instant offense (and a little attitude) for the Huskies and Scholl, a member of the San Diego State coaching staff, scheming to stop him when their teams play for the national championship Monday night in Houston.
In this scattershot, upside-down Division I men’s tournament, with its myriad upsets and unpredictable endings, there may be no better exemplars of it than Calcaterra and Scholl. When Scholl had Calcaterra over for dinner last May to celebrate his graduation, even the most fantastical path they had imagined didn’t involve this.
“I’ve had a lot of emotional moments over the last three weeks, going from, in a year’s time, the lowest of the low now to the highest of the high,” Scholl said. “You can’t get any higher than what we’re going to get a chance to do.”
“It’s crazy to see how the world works,” said Calcaterra, who posed for a photo with Scholl in their new teams’ gear near a large image of Calcaterra on a wall outside UConn’s locker room.
Calcaterra entered the transfer portal on March 9, 2022, three days after Scholl’s firing. He met with San Diego’s new coach, Steve Lavin, but didn’t want to return. He heard from Weber State, U.C. Riverside and Illinois Chicago, but he was convinced a better place awaited him. So he waited. And waited.
“It was a hard few months,” Calcaterra said. “My parents, at some times, thought I should commit to some places. There was just something within me that said: ‘Don’t do it. Wait a little bit longer.’”
Finally, in early June, as rosters were all but full, Vanderbilt called. And then so did Connecticut. Hurley had one scholarship available and was hunting for someone who could shoot and wouldn’t play with fear. But he told Calcaterra he wasn’t sure if he was good enough to get on the court.
Calcaterra hopped on a plane right away.
“I knew I had what it takes to play at this level, and I wanted to see what this was all about,” he said. “I only spent one night there, but I saw everything I needed to. I sat in on one workout and I saw the intensity — no rest, no break time. I knew I would maximize my potential.”
He committed the next day.
At one of Calcaterra’s first summer practices, Hurley christened him with the nickname Joey California, which might conjure an image of a laid-back, sand-between-the-toes, surfer — everything Calcaterra is not. “The first time, I was probably, like, what did he just call me?” Calcaterra said. “But he kept saying it and saying it.”
Soon, social media did its work, and now there is a Joey California line of hoodies and T-shirts. (Friends and neighbors in Novato, Calif., north of San Francisco, have taken to calling his parents, Richie and Wendy, California, according to The New Haven Register.)
“He’s the exact type of player from a guard standpoint that you want coming off the bench — confident, gunslinger, Maverick from ‘Top Gun’-type mentality,” said Hurley, who added that he encouraged Calcaterra to go somewhere else if he had doubts about whether he could break into the rotation.
When San Diego State’s coaches delivered scouting reports to the their players on the Huskies, Scholl gave the report on Calcaterra. He informed the Aztecs of Calcaterra’s deadeye shooting — a team-high 44 percent from behind the 3-point arc — and also that even though he is a role player, averaging about 14 minutes per game, he is not shy.
“Joey is going to take the big shot,” Scholl said. “He’s not afraid. He’s never been afraid of the moment.”
Scholl came to appreciate that self-confidence even more in the last 12 months than he did in the previous eight years, ever since he first set eyes on a rail-thin, high-energy high school sophomore at a travel tournament in Atlanta.
His own confidence was shaken after he was fired. After the hang-in-there texts and phone calls subsided, the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, and Scholl didn’t have a job. Money wasn’t an issue because he was owed the final year on his contract, but his faith in his career was.
Finally, San Diego State Coach Brian Dutcher called Scholl in early July and suggested he come aboard as a “basketball performance adviser,” a position the school created for $37,440 per year. It’s turned out to be a lifeline.
“When you get let go, it’s hard not to take that as you weren’t good enough,” Scholl said. “To get a chance to learn from this amazing coaching staff, be a part of this team and program, it builds your confidence when it gets shaken a little bit.”
And so there Scholl was late Saturday night, still buzzing from the euphoria of Lamont Butler’s buzzer-beating jumper that sent the Aztecs to the title game. He took a seat with the Aztecs assistant coach JayDee Luster on press row to scout their next opponent.
And then he saw a familiar scene: Calcaterra knocking in a 3-pointer and letting the world know. Calcaterra, who wouldn’t reveal what he said, understands why Scholl laughed, noting that he had collected more than a few technicals. “I’m sure he had flashbacks,” Calcaterra said.
It was one of many for Scholl this week.
“I think Joey was telling his defender, ‘Don’t gamble because I’m going to make you pay for it,’” Scholl said. “Joey has a tendency to always have something to say — in almost every moment.”
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