On March 4, 2023, Manhattan College’s nine seniors entered their home locker room for the final game they’d play at Draddy Gymnasium. Against all odds, the Jaspers only needed to win against Mount St. Mary’s to clinch their first winning season in conference play since 2015, plus a coveted first-round bye in the MAAC Tournament. However, when the team cracked open the door to the locker room, they found it overrun with water. At some spots, the water was at ankle height. The Jaspers had to relocate their home base to a classroom on the second floor of the gymnasium building.
Issues at Draddy were nothing new. A game in November had to be postponed because of wet floor conditions, but that didn’t make the situation any better. If there’s one thing that then-interim head coach RaShawn Stores learned from his decade in college basketball, it’s how to roll with the punches.
“I know it’s our last go around in this building, but we’ve been facing the adversity all year,” Stores told his team, “let’s go out there, and have fun.”
The Jaspers didn’t have a Hollywood ending that day, as the Mount jumped out to a 19-point first-half lead, and ended up winning the game by five. Senior day was neither the beginning nor the end of the story. The six-month span of late October through mid-April in Manhattan basketball had a surreal aura around it, as though it could’ve only been concocted in a simulation.
The Jaspers entered 2022–23 with high expectations picked second in the MAAC preseason poll, and Jose Perez was chosen for the preseason player of the year. However, a week later, the first domino fell, marking the beginning of the chaos. Without warning or much of an explanation, Manhattan’s then-athletic director Marianne Reilly fired Steve Masiello, the school’s head coach of 11 seasons.
Just two weeks before the season the university frantically handed the reigns, on an interim basis, to Stores, a former team captain and two-time MAAC champion under Masiello. Just hours later, Perez announced that he was entering the transfer portal. He felt betrayed by the school.
Just two days before these events, Jaden Daly released a feature article illustrating the bond between Perez and Masiello.
“He’s changed my life, honestly,” the star player told Daly. “It’s a different type of bond we have. I feel like he has my back no matter what, we joke around, we can talk about everything. I never really had a father in my life for real, so he’s taken over that part. At one moment, I was really alone in life, and he was one of the only people I could really talk to.”
Masiello had always prided himself on his relationships with his players, leading to many expecting a mass exodus from Riverdale. Perez himself even told Adam Zagoria that he thought that the whole team would decide to transfer before the season started.
That turned out not to be the case. Stores took the stage in front of the team.
“We’re going to start a journey,” he told them. “One game at a time, one day at a time, that’s all that matters.”
He was able to reach the team on a personal level.
“I know what being in their shoes was like, I know how I needed to be coached,” he told me. “You have to understand the players and try to discipline them with love.”
It wasn’t simply a speech that got most — but not all — of the players to stay, it was a belief in the coaching staff, that had mostly stayed the same.
“I just wanted to play for [Stores] and Tyler again,” Jasper senior Elijah Buchanan said after their game against Mount St. Vincent in November.
Stores never had any reservations about becoming the head coach, recalling that “everybody always told me I was a leader.” He knew that the key to being a basketball coach was his sincerity and care for his players, “I just wanted to lead these young men for a great season not only on the court but off the court as well.”
However, while much of the team bought in, projected starters Samba Diallo and Omar Silverio joined Perez in the transfer portal, leaving the Jaspers scrambling two weeks before the season. Manhattan’s roster was filled with older players, but they hadn’t seen significant minutes at the college level. Even with the drastic roster changes, Stores didn’t change a ton at the beginning.
Stores wanted to spend more individual time with each player, helping to build confidence and belief.
“As much as I started believing these guys,” he said, “their teammates started to believe in them.”
The bond that developed for this team was undeniable. They played for each other. They dove for loose balls. They played every game like their life depended on it. Through the first four games of the season, Buchanan led the team in scoring, providing a steady veteran presence as somebody who had been playing big minutes at the college level. However, in the second game of the Jaspers’ trip to London, he got injured. He wouldn’t return for the entirety of the season, leaving the Jaspers without four of the six players who were expected to log the most minutes for the team.
Manhattan was able to stay afloat in the MAAC, winning its first two games, but then lost three games in a row. With a struggling defense, and injuries to key players, Stores knew a change was needed. Adding former Jasper forward Rhamel Brown to the staff that already included teammates Tyler Wilson and Stores was like collecting the infinity stones of a championship team.
The staff looked to their roots. They taught the zone defense and ball pressure the same way they’d been taught. Stores recalled that just like the good-old days, Brown patrolled the back line, only this time, serving to teach the bigs and wings his ways.
“The team was able to see how the zone was supposed to move and rotate,” Stores said.
The zone worked, as Manhattan picked up back-to-back wins against Niagara and Mount St. Mary’s, holding each to under 60 points.
“We wanted to make the game plan not as easy,” Stores said. “It helped us make the offense think.”
In the first three games of the zone, Manhattan cut its defensive effective field goal percentage from 56.9% to 44.7%. The Jaspers also forced 3% more turnovers, dropping their adjusted defensive efficiency by nearly 11 points.
Thanks to Rick Pitino, Masiello got back on his feet quickly, and his new role at Iona gave him a chance to return to the Bronx in January. The building was full, it was the most emotional game of the year for the Jaspers, and the tension was palpable.
“These young men had been waiting to play in a packed Draddy like that for some time,” Stores said. “And they were able to experience it.”
The Jaspers displayed their resilience in that game, coming back from 15 points behind to force overtime, but that wasn’t the only instance. Manhattan played with more passion and emotion than any other team in the conference, and the team’s belief in each other allowed them to claw back in games.
With under seven minutes left, Manhattan trailed by eight to Canisius on the road, but the Jaspers came back to win the game in overtime. They followed that up with another emotional overtime win at home against Siena. That overtime period featured the play that would define Manhattan’s season.
Ahead by two points, senior Samir Stewart saved the basketball along the sideline with a tap pass back to senior Nick Brennen. However, Stewart’s momentum was carrying him so quickly, as he’d turned so fast, that he had to leap over the scorers table, and the people sitting at it. He landed hard, but he immediately got back up and lept back over the table to rejoin the play.
Manhattan fell behind by 21 points in the first half on the road at Quinnipiac. It was the antepenultimate MAAC game for the Jaspers, who entered the game with just a 2% chance at getting a bye. The hope seemed all but lost, but this was an all too familiar state for this team.
The theme of Manhattan’s season was handling adversity.
“How do you respond to anything in life,” Stores would tell his team.
“Not everything always goes right,” he preached.
“If we can’t respond in the game, how will we respond in life,” he explained.
The Jaspers turned up the heat in the second half, eventually taking a three-point lead with three minutes to play. However, as the final possession loomed, the two teams were tied, and Ant Nelson had the ball in his hands. Nelson, a grad student in his final few weeks of eligibility, sunk a floater at the horn to win the game, keeping the Jaspers’ hopes of a bye alive, and registering the most improbable win of their season.
But alas, as previously mentioned, there was no Hollywood ending to this story — at least not in the traditional sense. After Manhattan lost to Marist in the first round of the MAAC Tournament, the team gathered in the dinner room of their Atlantic City hotel to share stories. The team and staff spoke about how appreciative they were, not only of Stores, but of each other, and the journey that they embarked on together.
“They all could’ve walked away on October 26,” Stores said. “But, they wanted to stay together and build something, and have this special bond.”
The Hollywood ending for the Jaspers didn’t come on the court, but it came in May. When Manhattan’s many seniors walked down that aisle and were able to graduate.
The 2022–23 Jaspers are more than a basketball team, they’re a brotherhood, that will represent far more than the 12–18 record they put up on the court.
For the players and alumni, Stores had done enough to become the full-time head coach. He was paraded through as a hero by the brotherhood. Nearly every single member of the Manhattan team sent out tweets asking for him to be named the full-time head coach, but the search went on regardless. Stores interviewed after the season over Zoom, just like every other candidate. According to a source, the day before Stores was set to interview, Reilly told him that he didn’t have much to worry about.
However, after some time had passed, he was informed that he wouldn’t be a finalist for the position that every player had called him the only man for.
With his typical humility, Stores’ reaction was, “I just said I tried to control what I could control, and they wanted to go in a different direction, so nothing I could do.”
“I thought I was in a good spot,” Stores said, “I had a lot of the alumni and the community behind me, and these young men had a great year.”
Stores also made sure to note that all of his seniors were able to graduate. Stores got emails from alumni and fans telling him how great of a job he was doing.
“It wasn’t just about winning games,” he said, “these people really loved and cared about not only me, but my family. It’s something special to leave an imprint on something bigger than basketball, in people’s lives.”
Stores thanked the alumni, his players, and the school, and found a spot on Grant Billmeier’s staff across the river at NJIT.
While the initial reaction was harsh, new coach John Gallagher has been able to endear himself to the community. He’s using the same techniques that Stores did of connecting with the alumni base, and creating an active and engaged community around the team.
Stores told me that his advice for Gallagher would be to “get out to the community, and love on the guys.” Gallagher’s passion for the game and enthusiasm for the position have turned the fanbase in his favor, but they won’t forget the way their favorite son was treated.
Over the next few years, there’s no doubt that Stores will be a top candidate for northeast mid-major head coaching openings. However, for the moment, his focus is squarely on his current position.
“I’m blessed that I get to work for and learn from Grant Billmeier,” he said.
But he knows eventually those calls will start coming, asking him to be a head coach. And, when it comes, he will be ready.