BURNABY MOUNTAIN — Twenty hard minutes. Work on your dribble. Work on your handle.
“Every day that I did that, I would add a paper clip to make a chain,” remembers Michael Provenzano. “I wanted to be a point guard but my dad told me ‘Not until you learn how to dribble.’ If I missed a day, I would have to take the whole chain apart and start over. It got to a point where I went a whole year and then missed a day. But in the end, I got to 550 days and I stopped because I knew it was finally time to try something new.”
Just as we suspected.
No one develops the kind of assured ball-handling motion that the starting point guard with the Simon Fraser Clan has without the level of self-starting purpose that Provenzano showed when he was just a fourth-grader growing up in London, Ont.
And although that chain has long since been broken, the contagious effect that the 20-year-old redshirt freshman has brought to the re-building program atop Burnaby Mountain has been something akin to a chain reaction.
“The thing that makes Mike special,” says Simon Fraser head coach Steve Hanson, “is that he is such a high-motor guy. When he comes into the gym, his body language is always positive. Whether that’s game-day shoots or in the death of practice, he’s got energy when no one else does.
“He’s a freshman, but he is the kind of guy we can build a team around. He looks like he’s played a lot of post-secondary basketball but he hasn’t. He’s a special guy in that way.”
The cold, hard reality for Simon Fraser Clan men’s basketball is its 0-15 record in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Playing with its third head coach in three seasons, ballast has been hard to find. Yet with five more games remaining, including Saturday’s West Gym White-Out clash against the visiting Western Oregon Wolves (7 p.m.), the pieces being put into place have enjoyed their moments.
At home on Thursday, with 27.5 seconds remaining and the Clan scratching and clawing to gain that first conference victory, Hanson put the ball in the hands of Provenzano.
It was time to start a new paper clip chain.
In the half-court, with the shot clock winding down, the 20-year-old sized up the defence of Portland’s Concordia Cavaliers, patiently waited to for a lane to open, then on his 17th dribble, blazed a path to the hoop for a lay-in that put his team ahead 73-70.
Yet despite his 21-point effort, SFU wound up losing the game 74-73 on a four-point play converted from the stripe with 1.8 seconds left.
“It’s certainly a tough pill to swallow,” said Provenzano, who is second in team in scoring at 12.8 points-per-game behind fellow guard Kedar Wright (14.6 ppg), “but what it comes down to is that fact that you keep your head up for the guy next to you. It can be a lot harder as an individual to be resilient and persevere in the face of our adversity. But when you look at the guy next to you, and he genuinely cares about you and your well-being, it’s a lot easier.”
It’s like a chain, and it’s also Provenzano’s way of saying, that after leaving home at the age of 17 to chase his hoop dreams, that he’s happy to have found a place that he can finally call home.
Following his 11th grade year in London, he left for North Carolina’s High Point Christian, a top-tiered prep school, where he played for two seasons. In fact the season after he left, current Kentucky Wildcats forward Bam Adebayo transferred into the program.
Recruited by former SFU head coach Virgil Hill coming out of High Point, Provenzano ultimately began his university career last season at Div. 2 Lake Superior State in Michigan, but wound up red-shirting on a team that boasts one of the top point guards in college basketball, All-American Akaemji Williams.
Not happy with his fit, Provenzano reached out to current Clan forward Gibran Sewani, whom he had met on his recruiting trip the previous year, setting the stage for his entrance into the school as a health sciences major.
THE LINKS THAT BIND
He’s not setting anything in stone, but Provenzano admits he is considering medical school in his future.
“Basketball isn’t going to last forever and I want something that I can really sink my teeth into and I think medicine could really fit the bill,” he explains. “I love the game as much as ever, but now I am taking time to enjoy it more and at the same time put things into more perspective. I used to be a little crazy with basketball and I think I might have taken things just a little too far.”
Is he ready to come clean on his maniacal early years in the sport?
“From about ninth grade right through my time at High Point, I used to keep a binder that was divided into all these different categories,” he begins. “I wrote down how many servings of fruit I had each day, how many hours I slept, how many minutes I stretched. I even wrote a daily reflection.”
Subsequent seasons have brought a broader scope to his life, yet the seeds of that dedication are still with him, manifesting themselves in the kinds of ways that have helped him cement his status as a part of the foundation of Clan basketball.
“We do a six-lap run as part of our testing protocol and he blew everybody on our team out of the water,” Hanson says. “His conditioning is outstanding. There’s not a better guy in this league. Steve Nash was noted for his outstanding conditioning and Michael has always been a Nash disciple.”
No better role model to mentor under from afar, and Provenzano admits as much.
“It was definitely Steve Nash when I was younger,” he says. “My dad (Angelo) and I, we would watch a lot of Nash together. We even flew out to Phoenix to watch him just before he left.
“Later in my career, another guy that I have come to respect so much is Kevin Pangos,” he continues of the Canadian and former Gonzaga star guard currently playing professionally in Lithuania. “I reached out to him and he got back to me. He was so humble and he gave me great career advice that I still keep with me.”
It goes without saying that the losing is never easy.
Yet the arrival of Provenzano has been one of the true bright spots for Clan basketball.
He wants to stay and he wants to see through the completion of the program’s major re-construction project.
He’s impossible to miss with that incredible dribble, filled with deception and change-of-pace.
And when he puts his head down and drives hard to the basket, his flowing mane seems ready to break free from the constraints of his man-bun.
“Last season, at Lake State, there was team rule that our hair had to be at a certain length,” Provenzano reports. “So I got it cut. No big deal. It’s just hair. But for me, it did have some personal meaning.
“I identified with it and last year was a tough year. I felt like I lost myself a bit. But I thought to myself that I need to go for a little change, and maybe I need to get back to my roots.”
Michael Provenzano has done just that.
Once again, the hair is long. And so too, in a figurative sense, is that childhood paper-clip chain.
By just being himself every day, SFU’s freshman star is adding the links that will strengthen the bond of a program willing to weather the storm.
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