Father-son relationship makes this Selection Sunday memorable in Detroit
DETROIT – Just as they do every year, Ray McCallum Sr. and Ray McCallum Jr. gathered in front of a television Sunday to watch the NCAA tournament selection show.
They were father and son sharing a moment like millions of other fathers and sons across America. It’s a rite of spring. It’s family tradition. Only this was different than in the previous two decades. Ray Sr. is the coach of the University of Detroit; Ray Jr. is his star sophomore point guard.
And one of those 68 teams called out was their Titans, paired off with mighty Kansas on Friday.
The TV program they always enjoyed sharing now was something else entirely. It was a moment in time for a family that got themselves and their school here by trusting in each other, dreaming for each other and devoting themselves to what they could do for each other.
And then finding it all came back to them tenfold.
“It’s a special day,” Ray Jr. said. “A special time.”
[ Pat Forde: Breakdown of the entire NCAA tournament field ]
There is nothing new about fathers coaching their sons in the NCAA tournament (Creighton’s Greg and Doug McDermott also are in this season’s field). But it’s a storyline that never seems to get old.
What’s unique about the McCallums is that the decision for Ray Jr. to play for his father wasn’t as simple as just joining the family business. He was a heavily recruited McDonald’s All-American. U of D is a weakened mid-major program that his father was trying to resurrect.
All the fancy, name programs came hard after Ray Jr. Duke. UCLA. Kansas. Michigan State. Florida. Ray Jr. could pick his spot, and there was plenty of peer pressure and fan sentiment that the best place was the biggest place, the best coach was the most famous coach.
Ray Jr. recalled taking a recruiting trip to Kansas during his junior season for the Jayhawks’ “Late Night in the Phog,” the school’s traditional Midnight Madness event to start practice. The banners hung from above. The seats were jammed for a practice. The Jayhawks were even awarded their national championship rings from the season before. This was pageantry.
“Cool experience,” Ray Jr. said.
“How are you going to top that?” Ray Sr. said with a laugh.
How? Well, he didn’t try. That weekend, Ray Sr. was back in Detroit, preparing a no-frills practice for a team that would win seven games that season, his first with the Titans.
Ray Sr. had a real challenge. As a father, he wanted his son to chase his dreams. As a coach, he wanted the best player he could get. He believed those ideals could coexist.
There was a balancing act, though. He would recruit his son, but he decided against the ultra-hard sell, the guilt trip or the simple father-knows-best demand.
He had to trust the son he’d raised would make the best decision for himself, whatever the decision. And he had to trust that he was competent enough of a coach to make the winning sales pitch.
The result would have to be good enough for everyone.
Ray Sr. thought his wife, Wendy, was on his side, which is good. There’s the adage in college recruiting that first you have to win over the mother.
Then the family sat through an impressive home visit by UCLA coach Ben Howland.
The McCallums grew up when UCLA was the undisputed pinnacle of college basketball, the best of the best, and that was before you saw the pictures of the campus or heard about the world-class academics.
“After Ben left, Wendy said, ‘Can you believe UCLA just offered my son a scholarship?’ ” Ray Sr. said with a laugh. “I knew I had some work to do then.”
In the end, Ray Jr. came to a couple of simple conclusions.
He was intrigued with the chance to stay in Detroit, which he’d come to like once the family moved there during high school. There is something inspiring about bringing pride to a city desperate for it. He was impressed by the excellent academics of the Jesuit school. And Ray Sr. had sold him on the idea of blazing his own path, bringing success to a place where it’s not a birthright (this is U of D’s first NCAA tournament since 1999).
Ray Sr. had traveled some of the same ground. In the 1970s, he was a star high school player in Muncie, Ind., who decided to stay home and play for in-town Ball State. He went on to score more than 2,100 points, have his jersey retired and get drafted into the NBA.
“If I would’ve gone to one of those other schools, something like this is expected; you make the tournament,” Ray Jr. said. “Here, it’s not expected. So making a difference is great.”
Then there was the chance to play for his father.
There are a lot of McDonald’s All-Americans. Very few had the option he had. In the end, that trumped any big stadium, any famous team, any name-brand coach. He trusted his father could make him the best player he could be.
So on the day of his decision – with Ray Sr. uncertain and UCLA somewhat confident – he called his dad and told him to pick up a U of D jersey and bring it to the news conference.
They were going to do this together.
A big TV was set up Sunday afternoon in the middle of Calihan Hall. The Titans had finished practice around 3:30 p.m., and by 5:30, there was a big gathering of fans, students, university employees and media, filling up the bleachers to watch together. Hot dogs were grilled outside. The weather was beautiful. Everyone was euphoric.
Last week, the Titans upset Valparaiso in the Horizon League final, earning an automatic bid. Ray Jr. had 21 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals. It wasn’t just him, though.
Ray Sr. has built a real team, a real program, and this was the coming-out party. The Titans dominated the offensive glass, played hellacious defense and cruised to a 20-point victory. Jason Calliste had 17 points. LaMarcus Lowe had 14 points and 10 rebounds. Chase Simon had three big steals. Eli Holman had two critical blocks. It was a group effort.
It turns out the father has done as much for his son as the son has done for his father.
In the on-court celebration after the win, Ray Jr. sought out his dad, threw a bear hug on him and screamed in his ear.
“This is the way it was supposed to be. This is what we came here to do.”
So now they were destined to watch the show they always watch. Ray Sr. always had been a coach (head man at Ball State and Houston, assistant at Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Indiana). Many years, they watched with his teams, usually just players and families, just the way it looks during those live cut-ins on CBS.
In 1995, Ray Sr. coached Ball State to the tournament. Ray Jr. was 3 years old and he was there. In 2000, Ball State returned, but not before Ray Jr., then 8, almost got thrown out of the Mid-American Conference tourney title game for sitting on the end of the team bench when he wasn’t allowed.
Some years, the down years when a bid wasn’t coming, they would just gather in the family room and analyze the brackets like any father and son.
Now there was this. An energized fan base cheering and chanting as CBS called out their school – the school they believed in, the program they bet on.
This was the Selection Sunday out of the McCallums’ oldest dreams and deepest faith.
“You know,” Ray Sr. said, “it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
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