By Bruce Wood
"When I talked to Coach Dunn, he sat down with my family and told us he was going to throw me out there immediately. He was going to let the wolves get me and see how I would react."
Jabari Trotter two years ago
Recalling his start at Dartmouth
Now a senior, Jabari Trotter doesn't have to dig out old tapes to remind himself of the challenges he faced starting all 28 games as a Dartmouth freshman three years ago.
All he has to do is look out on the court.
Entering this weekend the Big Green stats list freshmen first (Jvonte Brooks), third (John Golden) and fourth (Gabas Maldunas) on the team in minutes played.
"The freshmen have a great skill level and a lot of potential but I can see the deer in the headlights look sometimes," Trotter said with a knowing smile. "Or sometimes they may be a little overconfident. It changes, and not just from game to game, but from practice to practice.
"One moment the coach will be giving you a lot of praise and the next moment you will be on the baseline running suicides because you are not paying attention. I definitely see myself a little bit in that."
Recruited out of Southern California after a strong career at Harvard-Westlake and a prep year at Phillips Exeter, the 6-foot-1 Trotter played a team-high 32 minutes, scoring 15 points in his first collegiate game, a 63-48 loss at Army. He would finish the season second on the team in scoring (7.0) and second in assists as Dartmouth went 9-19 overall, but 7-7 in the Ivy League.
"As a freshman it was great to have some of the seniors and juniors kind of take me and some of the other guys like Dave (Rufful) and Kirk (Crecco) under their wings," Trotter said. "Especially when we learned we weren't in contention for an Ivy League title they helped us keep our heads up and made sure we kept working hard.
"Now we're the older guys. I know I've talked to the freshmen who get a lot of minutes about what I went through my first year. I tried to help them understand that being so young and playing D-I college basketball, there are going to be ups and downs. It is very hard to be consistent making that transition from high school to college. I tell them never to get too down on themselves. You have to be prepared for that, more mentally and emotionally than physically. You have to grind it out."
If he sounds a little like a coach, that shouldn't be a surprise. Trotter ran his own basketball camp back during summers back home in California and has coached an Under-15 AAU team.
On the information sheet he filled out for Dartmouth as a precocious freshman he listed "coach" on the line where it says, "Tentative career plans (Business, Medicine, Law, etc.)," and three years later you can delete the "Tentative" part and forget the Business, Medicine, Law stuff. Not that he's quite ready to hang up his sneakers.
"I am going to get meniscus surgery at the end of the season and see how the rehab goes from there and hopefully I will be able to play a couple more years," Trotter said. "I love to travel, and it would be great to be able to play the game for a little longer and then settle down and start the whole coaching thing.
"But coaching in college is still the goal. I love the game and will continue to love the game even when I'm not playing it anymore. I've been through so much and have been involved in basketball for so long that there's a lot of stuff I can share."
Among the things that he has been through are three head coaches and 10 assistants over his four years in Hanover.
"It has been tough," admitted Trotter, who against Cornell on Feb. 4 became the 14th Dartmouth player to make 100 3-point baskets. "Even if you have a coach that you don't like, being with that same coach and coaching staff for four years you can adjust. You look for a certain air of consistency. But we haven't had that, the seniors on the team."
That said, there's been a silver lining to both the coaching carousel and the disappointing records to listen to Trotter, who hit 5-of-6 six shots from outside the arc and came within a bucket of matching his career high by pouring in 22 points against Albany just before Christmas.
"There have been so many different learning experiences, so many different styles," he explained. "Being the kind of IQ player I am, I take it all in and think about what is good, what is bad, what works, what doesn't work. And not just on the court, but off the court in the relationships with players. That kind of thing. I want to remember what I would want from my coach as a player, and hopefully that will help me out in the long run."
One thing that has helped him was the arrival of Paul Cormier a year ago. Although Trotter's 7.1 scoring average is actually down a bit this season, and he has come off the bench five of the last six games, he is buying what his coach is selling.
"It is unfortunate that we will only have the chance to play two years for Coach Cormier and his staff, but I'm glad we did have an opportunity for those two years," Trotter said. "We definitely grew as players and definitely grew as young men.
"He told us he thought we could be a decent team but that we needed to understand that our place in this program is to leave the legacy of hard work, of leadership, of a certain type of work ethic that will shine the light for the younger guys. That will be what we will be remembered for. We took that to heart and realized that while we might not win an Ivy League championship, we could be the group of guys that started the program off on the right path. That down the line we can turn on the TV to watch these guys and know that we had a hand in it."
With a younger son at home and their demands as schoolteachers, Trotter's parents will see him play in Hanover for the first time on the final weekend of the season. While the suspicion is he'll see his share of time, there are no guarantees and that's the way Trotter likes it. How you practice during the week determines how much you will play on the weekend, another of the lessons he's learned from Cormier, who counts himself as a Trotter fan.
"I have immense respect for Jabari," Cormier said. "Whatever his role is, he's always willing and ready. I wasn't here but I know he came to Dartmouth with a very good reputation and expected to make a bigger impact than he has. I wasn't sure how easy he would be to coach because of the difference between his expectations and his role, but he's been absolutely outstanding. To his credit, he's been willing to do whatever we need to help us try to win.
"I just hope some day down the line he gets the dividends he deserves for how he's adapted and accepted how his role has changed. He's been as positive as can be. I'm confident he'll take positives from each coach he's had and recognize the negatives of each coach and the situations he's seen and be a very valuable coach."
A veteran writer and observer of Dartmouth athletics, Bruce Wood launched a web site in 2005, www.biggreenalert.com, specializing in Big Green football news coverage.