COMMENTARY: The Water Boy: Jake Presutti makes name for himself as walk-on

By Rob Anthes Daily Orange

Syracuse, NY (CSTV U-WIRE) --

Excuse Jake Presutti for not knowing. Excuse him for not knowing guys from Belmont don't play Division I basketball, for not knowing team managers are supposed to keep their distance from Hall of Fame coaches or All-America basketball players. Excuse him for showing up at practices an hour and a half before any of the other players did and leaving two hours after they left. Excuse him for working hard. It's all he's ever known.

It wasn't enough for Presutti to carry the towels of some of the best basketball players in the United States. It couldn't be enough after he spent his whole life playing - no, loving sports. After spending a year at the bottom of the ladder as a team manager, the sophomore joined this year's team as a walk-on.

It's the least you'd expect from someone who, as a child, saw "23" and thought "Michael Jordan." For someone who'd learn numbers because of sports, who'd help his father coach children three, four years older than him. And when Steve Presutti's team was down a man in practice, he didn't even have to ask his eager 10-year-old. Presutti was already in there, showing the tough junior high schoolers how to play basketball.

And Steve didn't even think about not bringing his son along. That'd be worse than no dessert for a week.

It's because basketball is Presutti's life. It's been said before for people who didn't earn it, but it's clear Presutti did. In hindsight, it's really no surprise the three-sport star from tiny Genesee Valley High School is playing with the big boys these days.

Just the same, it's no surprise people laughed at him when he tried.

Lured by the encouragement of associate head coach Bernie Fine, Presutti came to Syracuse in the fall of 2004, just hoping to step on the court.

Fine and Presutti spent plenty of hours one-on-one in the gym the previous summer, trading basketball knowledge. Presutti, then a camper at Syracuse's basketball camp, must have showed Fine something in all those extra sessions - he was named the camp's most valuable player. Immediately, Fine and Presutti began exchanging e-mails.

Despite never being recruited, the exchange led Presutti to Syracuse, where he soon found out the basketball team, chock full of talent and experience, didn't have a spot for him.

"When he came here, I tried to get him to be a walk-on his first year, but we had a lot of players," Fine said. "So I said 'Jake, why don't you be a manager, because you could be around?'"

Presutti jumped at the opportunity. While most managers just put in their three hours at practice and leave, it was never about the bare minimum for Presutti. He'd be at practice more than an hour before, shooting jumpers and picking assistant coaches Mike Hopkins or Rob Murphy's brains for any little tip they were willing to offer.

And after hanging around in the gym for another two hours, shooting by himself, Presutti would run home and put the knowledge he collected that day in a five-inch binder full of basketball strategies he'd accumulated.

"I guess you could call me a gym rat," Presutti said. "I wouldn't really call myself that, but I just love being in the gym, love shooting around. I'm just trying to get better."

He improved. All those other managers who previously laughed when Presutti suggested he may try out for the team saw it. They saw his basketball skills become more refined. He could hang with the players on the team.

Even more surprising, Presutti became part of the team. Despite technically still being a manager, Presutti fit in as an athlete. He hung out with the players, on and off the court. He joked and laughed with them. It seemed as though Presutti had already been added to the roster.

Presutti proved himself.

"We have a lot of managers who come through and they'll say, 'I'm just doing this so I can walk on the team,'" Syracuse head manager Mike Schoeneck said. "When Jake first said it, we laughed because we're like, 'Who does this kid think he is?' But as time went on, there was more and more of a legitimate chance.

"We laughed because we didn't know what he could do."

By the time the 2004-2005 season finished, it seemed inevitable Presutti would make the team. Even though his spot was almost entirely ensured, Presutti never let up. While many of his friends relaxed over the summer, he stayed in Syracuse and continued to work out, increasing the intensity of the workout schedule he kept during the season.

His family was only 166 miles away, yet the only contact it had with him was via telephone. Until his name was on that roster, Presutti knew nothing was assured.

"We just kept calling, calling to see if it's official," Presutti's mother, Patricia, said. "All along we'd keep saying, 'You never know.'"

Eventually, the Presuttis received the news. When the fall 2005 semester began, it became official. The manager made the team.

But the Orange and Presutti don't see it that way. Save a few water boy jokes here and there, the members of the Syracuse basketball team accepted Presutti as more than a walk-on. They knew what he had been through to make the team and they knew he wasn't about to change just because he made it.

"They know I earned my way on the team," Presutti said. "I wasn't given the spot by any means. I earned it, and they respect that."

He has played in a total of two minutes over two games this season, scoring his first career point on a free throw against Villanova on Jan. 21.

Presutti accomplished his goal, but that isn't enough. He wants to compete with the guys on scholarship, maybe even embarrass them every now and then.

Most of all, Presutti keeps on shooting. He keeps arriving at practice more than an hour early, leaving a few hours after practice is over. That's how Presutti climbed to where he is and he's not about to let it go.

"He fell in love with the place," Steve Presutti said. "He just set his mind on it. This is what he wanted - to be in this position right here."

(C) 2006 Daily Orange via CSTV U-WIRE

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