If you are a college basketball fan, it is likely you have never heard of the NJIT Highlanders. It is equally as likely you didn’t know there was a school known as NJIT (short for the New Jersey Institute of Technology), and that said school competes in Division I. For the diehard college basketball fans, you likely know of NJIT due to their incredible back-to-back seasons of futility in 2007-08 and 2008-09 in which they went 0-29 and 1-30 in consecutive seasons.
The 0-29 season was so hard on then head coach Jim Casciano that in the middle of the season he took a 12-game leave of absence for medical reasons that included depression. After Casciano resigned right before the end of the 0-29 season, Jim Engles was named head coach for the following season. He promptly went 1-30. But just four seasons later, Engles led the Highlanders to a regular season conference championship, in part due to the play of senior guard Chris Flores.
“I mean some of my teammates were losing hair when I got there,” Flores says of the atmosphere on campus when he arrived. “Nineteen and 20-year-old guys, and I think the fact that that was happening just kind of shows you what the situation was like at NJIT.
“Nobody really thought of it as a basketball school, so you know it felt disrespected and belittled by other ballplayers I grew up around. Basically just the overall vibe I got from people is ‘Why, why did you go there? That school is a bad school.’ And I just told people, that was an opportunity for me and that was it.”
It was actually the only opportunity Flores had at the Division I level. Coming out of high school, the only scholarship offer he had was from NJIT. He had nowhere else to go. So while it would have been easy to see a 1-30 season unfold before your eyes and bail, Flores only saw the potential of the situation. He saw the team had nowhere to go but up, and felt that NJIT was a place where he could truly make an impact that would be felt for years to come. And he did.
The process was slow and steady, and while NJIT never had a “great” season by objective standards, when you put things into perspective, what Engles and his team did is truly remarkable. As a freshman, Flores’ Highlanders went 10-21, followed by a 15-15 season, then 15-17 before their breakthrough year of 16-13 and a regular season conference championship.
“It was just consistency,” Flores. “Coach Engels always preached that if we wanted to win something, you had to do things a certain way. He said it had nothing to do with the name on the jersey, but just the work you put in on the court.”
And Flores certainly put in the requisite work, averaging nearly 17 points, four rebounds, and three assists per game as a senior on his way to earning conference player of the year honors. However, despite his work this past season, Flores is a long shot at the NBA, not only because of his skill-set, but because of where he went to school.
Much of the predraft workout process is politics. It’s who knows you or your coaches and is willing to give you a look. But most people, even those in the NBA, have no idea who Flores is. He played his home games in a major city (Newark, New Jersey), but in the obscure Great West Conference with teams scattered from Chicago to Utah. Not a hotbed for NBA scouts, and his only workout so far has been with the local Brooklyn Nets. Flores knows the odds are long that he will achieve his dream of playing in the NBA, but after doing something at NJIT that nobody thought possible, Flores won’t give up so easily.
“People don’t really respect the school I was at or the conference we were in, that’s why I have to work ten times as hard to prove myself as some other guys do,” Flores says.
What do you think?
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