The faint hum of the projector had no chance at audibility over the sound of trumpets, as the Springfield College men’s basketball team blasted the volume on a stream they had been eagerly awaiting for two days.
“Good afternoon, and welcome to the 2018 Division III Men’s Basketball Selection Show, I’m your host, Kyle Binder.”
It was back in late February. The Pride were still recovering from a NEWMAC semi-finals defeat at the hands of conference foe WPI. The loss had extinguished Springfield’s chance for an automatic bid for the Division III tournament. The team’s fate was now at the hands of the NCAA, with the only possibility of the season’s continuation being an at-large bid.
Surrounded by his teammates, Ben Diamond sat silently at the end of Blake Arena’s conference room table. He clasped his hands together, his head bowed in anxiety. Less than three feet away from him, were two boxes of pizza, the aroma of tomato sauce and cheese blanketing the room. But despite the normally tempting scent, Diamond was in no mood for eating. Neither was anyone on the team.
“The Warriors will face Johnson & Wales.”
Diamond found the composure to lift his head, as the matchups began to be read, his eyes still distant with wonder. He looked away, worried, when he heard the name that followed the Wildcats:
“The next game in Baltimore kicks off with MIT, the NEWMAC tournament champs.”
He knew, realistically, there was only one more field for a NEWMAC team to join the Dance. Five minutes passed. Ten. Springfield still hadn’t been called. There was only one slot left.
“And the final team, in this year’s field, is Springfield.”
Diamond shot up from his seat, trembling in relief as the excited screams from the Pride echoed through the basketball offices. He grabbed senior forward Brandon Eckles, one of the first of his Springfield teammates he’d met two years earlier, and gave him the tightest hug he had ever given to another soul. As the Pride began to huddle around Diamond, he pulled team manager Greg Allen into the mass of humanity.
“YEEEEAH!” screamed Diamond, his voice cracking with emotion. “YES!”
Springfield was going dancing. They were taking it on the road to face Albright.
“That selection show helped us realize how much we really care about each other,” said Diamond. “It’s not often you get 12 guys who truly enjoy being around each other. It was 30 minutes of thinking, ‘is it over? Is this it? Do I not get to play with these guys ever again? I didn’t want it to end. I love these guys. When they finally called our name, there was pure joy. It was the pure joy of ‘I get to practice, I get to travel, I get to play with these guys again.’”
Diamond joined the Pride’s program for the 2015-16 season as a sophomore, after spending his first year at college playing for the Bard Raptors. But basketball there, wasn’t making him happy as it had in high school. Bard finished 5-20, with an 0-16 record in the Liberty League his freshman year. “It was a stressful time, to be that bad, I was unhappy,” said Diamond. “Basketball was a game that had brought me joy for so long and you only get so many years to play it.”
In the summer going into his second year at Bard, Diamond decided to step away from the team, and would transfer to Springfield later in the semester. He enrolled into the school’s Communications/Sports Journalism major as a sophomore, academics he had been searching for within Bard’s writing classes throughout his time as a freshman.
Though Diamond still wished to play basketball again, which prompted him to reach out to Springfield College head coach Charlie Brock. On Diamond’s accepted students day, he met with the Pride’s coach of 20 years in the fieldhouse. Diamond admitted, he was nervous upon meeting such a tall, imposing figure with a storied history in coaching.
When New Student Orientation came around, Diamond reconciled with Brock who introduced him to sophomore forward, and NSO leader, Brandon Eckles to help ease the transition onto the team. “Brandon, this is Ben,” Brock said. “This is one of our guys, I want you to look out for him this weekend.”
Diamond appreciated his coach’s introduction to the entire team throughout the preseason. “I thought, ‘Wow! That was pretty cool,” he said. “Then once we started playing pickup all the guys would come up to me, ‘ah, yeah you’re the new recruit right?’ I definitely didn’t feel recruited but [it was clear] Brock was looking out for me since day one.”
Eckles could tell from the start that Diamond was the perfect addition to the Pride, with his enthusiasm and excitement for the sport. “He and his mom [Claudia] were just so excited for a new journey,” he said. “I could tell he was a great kid.”
“You got big things to come”
Since arriving at Alden Street, Diamond knew that earning minutes with the Pride would be no easy task.
“Being new to the program, I knew it was going to be really hard to earn playing time, especially on a team that had just gone to three straight NCAA tournaments,” he said. “I was just really happy to be a part of it and learn from them.”
According to Diamond, he had always been taking a do-or-die approach in practice, especially early in his tenure with Springfield.
“I really had to compete every day, [I needed] to make sure I was contributing in practice,” he explained. “We had a bigger roster that year, so there’s a lot of pressure to just be good in practice. I knew I needed to buy into what Brock was selling and just give it my all.”
As a sophomore, Diamond’s teammates admired his work ethic and enthusiasm. This was evident following a season-ending loss to Emerson 72-63. Diamond’s phone dinged later that night. It was a message from senior guard Josh Downes.
“Hey man,” it read. “Just wanted to say thanks again. You were the kid who came to practice everyday ready to go with the best attitude and [in] the games the one cheering on the bench. I know what it’s like not to play, I didn’t play at all most of my freshman and sophomore years. But the coaches are gonna notice how hard you work. You got big things to come. Just keep working harder than everyone else.”
“We had only known each other for a year but that really stood out, knowing that a captain was looking out for me like that,” Diamond reflected.
Like Downes, Diamond needed to stay patient. Him, alongside Eckles and Andy McNulty, were named tri-junior captains the following season, for a 2016-17 squad still in its youth. There were a total of zero seniors. Because of this, Diamond was looked upon to lead by example. But after averaging 2.5 minutes as a sophomore, his minutes per game was still at a 6.1. Regardless of court time, Eckles said that Diamond carried himself as a true captain.
“Ben’s leadership is something that impacted our team. Greatly,” said Eckles. “Stats don’t matter to him, he just wanted to help the team win. He wants team success, and his character, leadership and presence helped us be the team we were.”
Diamond followed what Downes encouraged. He made sure his presence on the sidelines was known. At the end of the day, he had still found a family after feeling lost as a freshman at Bard. He wanted to support them with every genuine cheer he had, on each possession, whether exploding in jubilation after a big three point play, or aggressively applauding a fast break in hope it would start a run.
“It was really frustrating because it was different to be in the leadership role and not playing,” Diamond explained. “But I wasn’t about to become a bad teammate or anything.”
Sticking It Out
Though as much as Diamond loved his team, he still missed pacing the hardwood. He’ll never forget the conversation he had with sophomore guard, Trey Witter, a talk that propelled him through the wear of sitting on the bench. It was following a 67-63 loss to Wheaton. Pride freshman Jake Ross had sat for the game with a stomach bug, and Diamond could only watch the Lyons salt the game away with four free throws in counter to the Pride’s late turnovers. He wish he could have helped.
“Trey man,” Diamond said. “I don’t know if I can do this. Mentally, this is just so hard.”
“You just gotta stick it out bro,” answered Witter. “You’re too important to what’s going on here. We can’t lose you.”
“I just want to help you guys win.”
“If you stick it out, you’ll work out of it. We’re gonna be really good next year, and you’re gonna want to be a part of that.”
Diamond responded to Witter’s pep talk. He took his approach to helping in anyway possible even further. Because through thick and thin on the schedule, he was always ready to take on the titan-like programs of the northeast with his teammates.
“Coming here [from Bard], [Springfield] was definitely [playing] a different brand of basketball,” he explained. “We were playing some of the toughest teams in the area. Even if I wasn’t playing, it was fun learning about the other teams and challenging the guys in practice. I really started to take pride in pushing our team. Junior year, we may have been at around a .500 record but we beat No. 1 Amherst, and we took Babson to the ropes multiple times. The potential [for our team] was there.”
The perseverance would pay off for Diamond in his senior year. He played in 26 games while averaging 14 minutes per contest. After the Pride’s bench was hit with multiple injuries, his number along with the likes of Witter and junior forward Kevin Durkin was counted on to act as the second unit in the Pride’s first run to the Final Four in team history. He contributed two 10 point games through the regular season, while also pulling down a career high seven boards against Emerson.
“I felt like I had to play so I couldn’t ever be put back on the bench. I wanted to play so hard and so well that coach would need to put me out there,” Diamond said. “That’s the mentality I had, and I think everyone on our team shared that mentality. To finally able to [help] in this year’s run, especially when we won nine in a row, with my teammates congratulating me [on being able to play], it’s something that I hadn’t experienced at the college level. I’m proud of believing in myself and knowing that one day it would work out. And I’m proud of our team – I really think we were one of the hardest working teams in the region. It’s good to know that hard work pays off.”
Shine Bright Like a Diamond
Salem, Va. 57-56. The Pride was clinging to a Final Four lead over the Nebraska Wesleyan Prairie Wolves with 7:40 to play in the second half. Jake Ross hit Ryan Garver and Nate Schimonitz with two rapid crossovers before rifling an overhead pass to the corner. The ball made an audible “pop” in the hands of Diamond as he simultaneously lined up for what would be the final shot of his career. Amongst the frantic squeaks of basketball shoes, he let it fly. The ball clunked around the rim before passing through the twine.
“Threeeee point basket for Bennn DIII-AMOND,” called the PA announcer.
It was a finishing touch to a five point, four rebound, and four assist game, on Division III’s biggest stage.
Ben Diamond glanced over at the bench, his old acquaintance. As he ran back the other way to play defense, he threw up three fingers toward his celebrating teammates, his Birthplace brothers of three seasons.
“His performance was great,” said Eckles. “I told him after the game that I was proud of the way he played. He didn’t back down, played within himself and did what it took. I was happy for him. He played like a senior should.”