BUFFALO - On trips or after practice, Dayton Flyers players occasionally engage in a "Famous Alumni From My High School" competition. "It's amazing. "I'm always at the top," senior forward Devin Oliver said, "because of Derek Jeter."
Oliver's quest to be remembered as the second most famous athlete from Kalamazoo (Mich.) Central High continues Saturday night as his team faces the daunting business of playing Syracuse in a virtual Orange home game. Oliver and the Flyers defeated Ohio State in a thriller Thursday and are up for another challenge, even a formidable one such as Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone defense.
"I think we've just got to focus on what we're trying to do as a team, play physical and play aggressive," he said before practice Friday, after he finished a background session with CBS announcers Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery by taking the microphone and interviewing them. "You know, don't just settle for launching threes and playing around the perimeter, but doing what we've got to do and get the ball into the interior."
Since he was a kid, Oliver has been inspired to aim high. He was an Honor Society scholar who helped Central win a national academic honor that brought President Barack Obama to the graduation ceremony (at which Oliver challenged the Commander in Chief to a game of one-on-one and reportedly was told, "I don't think you're ready for that").
There was no question where the player's greatest athletic incentive came from, though. Anyone growing up in Kalamazoo couldn't help but feel proud of Jeter.
"He came back one time when I was in high school. He pulled up with a couple of Escalades and a pretty woman on his side," Oliver said. "Another time, when he was inducted into my high school's hall of fame, I got to meet with him and talk with him for a while. Real cool guy."
Plus, he knows that Jeter was a solid guard/forward. "I'm pretty sure he was first-team all-State," Oliver said.
Truth be told, Jeter's basketball career at Central was not as distinguished as Oliver's. The latter was the one who led a state title run. But basketball was pivotal in Jeter's development because his parents said they would allow him to enroll at Central -- rather than the smaller Catholic school they had chosen -- if he proved he was good enough to make a top AAU basketball team.
Every day, on the way to the high school gym, Oliver passed the trophy case bearing Jeter's No. 13 baseball jersey. The Dayton player remembers his sophomore year, when he and everyone else on the varsity baseball squad got new cleats, donated by the famous alumnus.
"What's really funny is my girlfriend in eighth grade lived in his old house. It was right behind the high school. So he could just walk right over to the field. There was no question why he was that good," Oliver said. "To be one of the best Yankees of all time . . .
"When I saw he was retiring, it struck deep. If you have a guy like that who is from Kalamazoo, It's pretty cool. I'm happy his career has been what it is. I think he's definitely going out on top. I think he's going to have a really good year."
Big East reunion
The other game here Saturday night features Villanova and Connecticut, two longtime rivals before the former Big East split.
"They're going to be scrappy. That's what a Big East team is about, to be scrappy and aggressive," said Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier, who hit a buzzer-beater against Villanova the season before last.
Three of the four teams remaining at this site were members of that same fraternity, although Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is weary of the "old Big East" nostalgia. He said, "You don't ask questions about someone's ex-wife, do you?"