|Jamal Olasewere, left, and Julian Boyd, right, hold up Blackbirds point guard Jason Brickman behind LIU-Brooklyn head coach Jim Ferry, in front holding his son. (Matt Norlander)|
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The cube-like, royal blue scoreboard is mounted — it doesn’t hang — directly over midcourt at the Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center on Long Island-Brooklyn’s campus. There are no other electronic indications of what the score is in the yellow-and-white-walled room. Players often retreat back on defense after a made basket and steal a look when their necks are forced to crane as the ball switches sides once again.
Jason Brickman, the shortest player on the floor, looks on every retreat. He has to.
The pint, shy-as-hell point guard for Long Island University-Brooklyn has made himself into a role that’s vital and surprising. Vital because he’s a point guard, and so with that the vitality is obvious. Surprising because the 20-year-old is about as shy as any player commanding an offense in the country. Averaging 7.2 assists per game, he's fifth in the nation in successful distribution. He’s the counter to his booming teammates: NEC Player of the Year, Julian Boyd; and Jamal Olasewere, the flanking, flying, braggadocio wing that is at times even more unguardable than the formidable, big Boyd.
After the top-seeded Blackbirds earned their second straight NCAA tournament bed with a 90-73 home victory (their 26th in a row, the second-longest streak in the nation behind Kentucky) over No. 3 Robert Morris Wednesday night, when a media liason asked to have a microphone put in from of Brickman at the postgame press conference, teammate C.J. Garner, who had a team-high 21 points, responded, “He ain’t gonna talk anyway.” Boyd and Olasewere laughed. Then they said this:
Olasewere: “He controls the game night in and night out. Without him, we couldn’t do this. He’s a great point guard.”
Boyd: “I definitely wouldn’t have gotten Player of the Year, we wouldn’t have gotten all these accolades without him. I love that guy — just for now, though.”
The tongue-in-cheek post-note on the compliment came with a big brother’s sentiment of protection. Brickman is little brother that knows the way and leads the team and takes the jokes in stride, even coyly laughing along with them. The dynamic is an interesting one. He’s teased because his teammates know he can take it. He's grown into the role. He's tougher than he looks.
“I joke with them a little bit too, but I’m the serious type in the locker room,” Brickman said.
On the floor, his game is extremely serious. Brickman’s proved to be not a reliable, but a dangerous scorer in the second half of the season. The personality patterns mirror each other. Boyd and Olasewere interact with the crowd and can be caught smiling constantly. Brickman goes about the game like he’s diligently finishing up Saturday morning chores for mom. Brickman finished with 18 points and 11 assists Wednesday night. Afterward, Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said he was clearly the most uncontainable aspect of the Blackbirds’ attack.
“I knew they were going to play hard on these other guys, they’re all-conference players, and I knew they weren’t going to leave them, so if I made a move I’d get to the basket,” Brickman said. “I think they were trying to play the pass more because I’m a pass-first guy. They were taking away the passing lanes, so it was opening the drives for easy layups.”
“I’ve always been a quiet guy, and don’t say a whole lot, but with these guys the relationships get better and I just try to lead by example,” Brickman said. “I don’t have a loud voice or a whole lot of emotions, but these other guys do.”
He’s not as nervous to talk to the media now as he was a year ago, or even two, when he was cripplingly shy, but he’s still avoiding eye contact when I’m talking to him and asking question.
“He fascinates me every day,” LIU-Brooklyn coach Jim Ferry said.
****On his official recruiting visit, Brickman arrived with his little brother and his mom. At one point during the courting, when Brickman wasn’t around, his mother turned to Ferry asked the coach not to take her son’s reactions the wrong way. He was loving the visit, she said, he just wasn’t outward about it. It’s just the way he is. The rare silent and effective leader is proving by example and plus action how much he’s needed.
Early in the season, LIU-Brooklyn was not only struggling, it was under .500 on Dec. 17. During the team’s 2010-11 NCAA tournament season, the group was never below average. A big part of the team’s struggles were related to Brickman’s inhibition with creating offense for himself. Ferry brought Brickman in, sat him down, and told him he had to be more aggressive—at least with the ball, if it wasn’t going to happen with his vocal chords. Ferry talked to Brickman’s father about it, too.
“He was trying to be a distributor too much,” Ferry said. “He was turning the ball over trying to get everyone involved. I told him, ‘Jason, you put up 22 points a game in high school. Go for it.’
Since that conversation, LIU-Brooklyn’s lost two games. And as it’s been, the rules for Brickman are the rules for only Brickman. Ferry calls him “the perfect point guard.” In practice, when the 44-year-old coach is collectively telling his guys what they’re doing wrong and what they need to change, Ferry will discreetly pull Brickman to the side and insist he not change a thing.
Brickman ran the offense with Peyton Manning-like allowance in the NEC title game. He’d never been given so much leash so early and often in a game, but the noise mandated he run the team. Ferry’s voice couldn’t be heard, as his guys were running offense on the opposite end for the first 20 minutes. Brickman guides this team a way that’s unconventional. Often times you’ll hear the trite message of “leading by example,” only Brickman truly does that — because there’s no other way. Not only is he not shouting to players on the court, he’s likely not saying a word in huddles before free throws and during timeouts.
The only assumption you get upon seeing Brickman is that he could be the bus boy for famous Junior’s Restaurant, which sits a block from LIU-Brooklyn’s campus and proudly displays more than 40 cheesecakes of increasing flavor and calorie-count varieties in its windows.
“He’s a great point guard, and they’re very rare, so when you get them you have to cherish him,” Ferry said. “Those two guys’ personalities are so booming, it’s almost good there’s not another guy trying to get in there. Jason balances us. He controls the game.”
“Control.” An interesting word choice, because the team runs. It never stops running until the scoreboard stops counting. It’s not arrogant, it’s just the way they play — aggressive all the time. The NEC title game’s defining play came from a Garner alley-oop to Boyd that curled and unfurled, developed then exploded like a Hawaiian rip tide and gave the Blackbirds a 59-45 lead with 9:57 to go. The team practices those long-range, parabola passes when it closes out practices.
“I don’t think we ever threw one that far or that high,” Ferry said.
By the final two minutes, Robert Morris was reduced to a slow-death foul fest before the championship was taken again by the Blackbirds. All of this was a factor from Brickman’s heady play, which included many layups and four trips to the foul line.
After going nearly two decades without back-to-back representative in the NCAAs, the Northeast Conference has had repeated champs for four straight years. Brooklyn-born Spike Lee made the time to stop by and watch the game from underneath Long Island’s second-half hoop. The place was a constantly flaring nerve center for nearly two hours. And amid all that activity, the quietest person in the building killed and killed again the hopes and chances for Robert Morris.
Jason Brickman didn’t need to say anything and never will if he keeps playing like this. His teammates speak for, and up for, him. And the crowd always reacts; louder on this night than it ever had before.