The Music Man: Why Yale's Sherrod is choosing singing over basketball
Meet one of the most interesting players the sport has to offer. It's more than just basketball and singing. Brandon Sherrod made a transformation.
Maybe it was the name, maybe it's because "a Cappella" and "college basketball" were in the same sentence, maybe it’s because an Ivy League school was involved. Whatever the reason, news of Brandon Sherrod’s decision this week got more attention than a lot of offseason one-off college hoops headlines.
Sherrod, a 240-pound, three-year forward who would have likely been a starter at Yale next season will instead take a year off from the team and travel the world. For someone who's never stepped outside of the United States, it's an understandable decision, but the opportunity comes in the form of a traveling a Cappella troupe. Sherrod is leaving hoops to join the 'Poofs -- the Whiffenpoofs -- which most definitely sounds like something out of a Harry Potter novel.
The Whiffenpoofs is the country’s oldest and most prestigious college/male vocals-only group. Founded in 1909, the 14-man ensemble of Yale seniors travels the globe -- harmonizing on six continents -- and requires a year off from school.
It’s a really cool and unprecedented story in college sports.
So how does this happen? Sherrod, 21, who's built like a linebacker, sung for most of his childhood in a gospel choir, Jesus Saves Ministries, in Bridgeport, Conn. His first solo came when he was about 9 years old, singing "Make Me a Servant." The oldest of four children and big brother to three sisters, Sherrod grew up on gospel music. His parents would play Yolanda Adams and Marvin Sapp, and he never knew of pop or rock or hip-hop until he approached his teens.
"We didn't allow secular music in the house," Sherrod said. "And so listening to gospel music, a lot of things are learned by ear, so that’s a lot of where my ear came from."
He was classically trained in alto saxophone but quit marching band his sophomore year of high school because he hated the uniforms. He's self-taught on drums (his best instrument, aside from his voice) and piano. He says guitar is the next goal. He's never even had one voice lesson.
On the singing side, the transition to Yale came when he joined a Christian a Cappella group his freshman year called Living Water. But he gave it up after a few months because the time commitment from basketball and studying wound up being too much.
Still, he was pushed more into the music circles through a member of the current Whiffenpoofs during his sophomore year. Sherrod got involved with different musicians and singers on campus. That propelled him to play drums at a few different shows. Because of this, he met more people and participated in singing sessions in practice rooms at Yale’s Stoeckel Hall. Eventually Sherrod was encouraged to try out for the ’Poofs.
The prospect intrigued him. He loved music so much, arguably as much as basketball, and on a Monday night this past February, he auditioned at a small, legendary New Haven restaurant where the Whiffenpoofs often perform: Mory’s.
“It's an extremely intimate environment," Sherrod said. "I was nervous, but thought, Look, I get in, great. If I don’t, great, life goes on, so it was a win-win situation for me.”
With about 15 people, one piano, and a 20-minute audition, Sherrod was asked to harmonize and perform a few different vocal exercises. He also sang a solo, John Legend’s “Ordinary People.”
“If I had to sing any song the rest of my life it would be that one,” Sherrod said.
A few days later, the baller on campus with the rich voice got the call that he’d made the group. He’d be a tenor 2. Here he is earlier this month, singing Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” It's fantastic.
But after getting the call, Sherrod was still weeks away from deciding what to do. The audition and acceptance came in the middle of college basketball season, and at the time Yale was still very much in the picture to win its first standalone Ivy League title in 52 years. Yale wound up taking second in the Ivy, but because its season went into April due to making the CIT championship, Sherrod’s decision kept getting pushed back.
After talking with his family and teammate/starting Bulldogs point guard Javier Duren, he decided in late March he would abandon basketball for a year for the once-in-a-lifetime possibility. The challenge in the choice came was Yale's 2014-15 prospects. The team next season should be very good by Ivy standards. It again could challenge a Harvard team that could take a minor step back from what it's been the past three seasons. A team in the Ivy losing a strong presence in the starting lineup could hamper that.
“Those are my brothers," Sherrod, who started 14 games last season, said. "So for me to take the year off, it’s tough. It definitely played a huge role in my decision process. It’s very, very difficult, but I have extreme trust and believe that those guys are going to have a chance to win it. I think next year is going to be the year. They’re going to be guys who are going to step up and do it.”
To Yale's credit, the coaching staff sells its recruits -- who, like all Ivy Leaguers, do not get a scholarship to play basketball -- on the entire experience the university has to offer. Attending Ivy institutions affords players with myriad opportunities that most other universities truly can't offer. Yale's coach, James Jones, understood. Even if it was tough to accept.
"It was a lot of deep introspection for me,” Sherrod said. “That’s the question I was asked the whole time: How are you going to tell your coach? He was supportive, definitely disappointed, but also very, very excited for me to have the experience. Although it was a very difficult and made for a very difficult conversation, it ended up going very well.”
Sherrod’s a different guy all around. He grew up less than 30 minutes from Yale’s campus, in Bridgeport, a city that’s rusted over the past three decades and is stricken by crime and poverty despite being in located on Connecticut’s coast and pinned near the north of its most affluent region, Fairfield County.
Sherrod, a political science major, has often said he would like to be mayor of Bridgeport later in life, and it's a vision he still believes in.
“I’m very passionate about Bridgeport," he said. "I love Bridgeport. You can ask anyone here at Yale. I love my city. I’m not afraid to say it. I think Bridgpeort has a lot of potential that hasn’t been realized. A lot of crime, poor education and a lot of disparity between the wealth and the poor, which is like a lot of Connecticut, really. It’s like New Haven, really. I have so much passion for the city, I love it, and I don’t see people giving as much back to the city as they should.”
Sherrod's come a long way in seven years. He entered high school with no desire to play basketball. He was about 315 pounds and ate terrible food. He only tried out for the basketball team his freshman year because people told him he should due to his height.
“I was a very lazy younger child," he said. "I played a lot of video games. I didn’t play much basketball. I wasn’t super-active. I was really overweight. I went to try out and I was absolutely horrible.”
He only recently learned, from his high school coach, that he was very close to not even making the team.
"Which was crazy, I thought. Could I even be in this position if that had happened?"
Probably not. But he did make the time, lost 100 pounds by his sophomore year and helped Stratford High win two state titles in three seasons. He was the only Division I player on the team.
Sherrod plans to return for his senior season in 2015-16. School compliance has cleared the Whiffenpoofs participation project, and when he comes back, he'll be asked to do two things: keep Yale near the top of the Ivy -- and sing to his teammates. They've given him plenty of chances in the locker room, but he almost always declines. The guys have come to some public performances, though.
Sherrod's already wondered how he'll be able to maintain his physical shape while away.
"I'm going to be coming back with a vengeance," he said, "but am I going to be in good enough shape? How am I going to work out? Questions like that are always permeating my mind. I’m probably most nervous about that with basketball.”
Basketball, music and civil service make up the three motivations in Sherrod's life. If possible, he'd like to continue along those three roads once he's done at Yale.
"I want to play professional basketball, if possible," he said. "It’s every basketball player’s goal. It’s something I’d love to do for a couple of years at least. I don’t know what’s going to happen with music yet. I may meet some dope people along the way that may provide me with some connections to be in a band or play or sing, maybe move to New York.”
For Sherrod, there are always words to say, games to play and songs to sing.
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