Everything you ultimately need to know about basketball player Drew Maddux can be compressed into one brief chain of events. Last season at Memorial Gym, in the last minute of a game both teams desperately needed to win, Georgia shot a double-digit Vanderbilt lead down to a single, precarious point.
Then, instead of carefully protecting the ball, the Commodores nearly threw it out of bounds. As the errant pass skittered away, Maddux dove for it, caught it, and, in the same motion, signaled for time out.
In the huddle, Jan van Breda Kolff called for a play designed to put the ball in the hands of Madduxa mere freshman in a lineup stocked with juniors and seniors. He had to know Maddux would be fouled. Most coaches would prefer to have their toenails plucked out with pliers than to entrust game-icing free throws to a freshman. But, just as VBK envisioned, Maddux drew a foul, coolly sank two shots and Vanderbilt won.
According to the box scores, Maddux has had other more memorable performances, including a 19-point effort in a victory over defending champion UCLA and 20 points against North Carolina. (He’s averaging 15 per game, second on the team to Frank Seckar.)
But statistics, which only measure quantities, obscure the qualities that are plainly evident to anyone who sees Maddux play. On the court, he is equal parts exhorter and exciter. He regularly shouts encouragement to teammates. With raised arms or a pumping fist, he cues the fans to cheer.
“I’m an emotional player,” says Maddux, affirming the obvious. “I feed off the crowd, and I think they feed off me.”
The same dynamic works with his teammates. “The guys see the all-out way I play,” he says, “and they respond to that. Just like, when I see Frank [Seckar] go all out for a loose ball, I want to play like that too. Pretty soon, everybody’s doing it.”
However they came by it, every member of the Vanderbilt team seems to have a Maddux mentality this year. And in no small way, that’s why, in defiance of virtually every form chartand in spite of a dizzying array of injuriesthe Commodores entered this week with a 14-7 record and a shot at the NCAA Tournament.
In recent years, Vanderbilt teams have earned a reputation almost as white collar as the reputation of their school: smart, good shooters, not physically intimidating, unable or unwilling to scrap. This season, the Commodores have exhibited a distinctly different work ethica Maddux work ethic. They rebound well. They aggressively hawk the ball. They don’t mind banging bodies.
After the Commodores physically demolished Virginia, a team that prides itself on hard-nosed play, Cavaliers Coach Jeff Jones paid Van Breda Kolff a supreme compliment. “He didn’t say, ‘You have some nice players, some smart players,’ VBK smiles. “The first thing he said was, ‘You’ve got some tough kids.’ ”
All of which has made this seasonarguably his most difficult because of all the injuriesthe most satisfying for the Vandy coach. “He’s definitely more relaxed,” says Maddux. “This is the kind of team he likes to coach. A smart team that likes to work hard. That’s the kind of player he was.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to coach the way I wanted to for the very first time,” agrees VBK, who instituted 6 a.m. runs and weightlifting sessions to help instill more togetherness. “We have players who don’t have agendas. I knew we’d be short on talent in certain ways, but we have great chemistry. I knew, if we could get the players to believe in themselves, they could compete with anyone.”
Van Breda Kolff certainly had no problem getting Maddux to believe in himself. Ever since he was 5, Drew figured that his destiny was to play for Vanderbilt, just as his father and grandfather before him had done.
He became a season-ticket holder at the age of 9 months, and he can still direct you to the spot from which the family watched Vanderbilt play: Section 2B, Row 4, Seats 1-8. “It’s really kind of a dream,” he says, surveying the vast, empty gym before a practice last week.
When the dream finally became reality last year, Maddux remembers, he was so nervous he bricked his first layup in pregame drills. “I was so caught up in the emotion,” he says. “I still have a hard time with my first layup.”
But, unlike most other freshmen and sophomores, Maddux has found it easy to spur on others with his own boundless confidence. “I was always president or vice president of my student body,” he says. “I was captain of my high school team as a sophomore. I like being in a leadership role.”
When Maddux was in high school, VBK remembers, the coach saw him play with the Tennessee Travellers, an AAU team that included Maddux’s teammate Ron Mercer. “They had a lot of great players,” VBK says. “But the one player who stood out as the leader of that team was Drew Maddux.”
To say, as many observers do, that Maddux is the heart and soul of Vanderbilt’s team is perhaps to sell some of his fellow Commodores short (Howard Pride and Seckar in particular). But if Maddux isn’t the only leader, he’s certainly the most visible and audible one to fans.
And certainly no other Vanderbilt player shares quite the same black-and-gold-blooded passion, handed down from two prior generations. “When you have that much love for something, you’ll do everything you can for it,” he says.
“[With all the injuries], this has been such a freaky year. The guys needed to see that extra energy and excitement. And this team has really responded. I think I’ve played a part in that.”
If anyone understands Maddux’s mind-set, it’s his coach. When he sees Drew on the court, he sees a little of himself. “I’ve told him that too,” Van Breda Kolff says. “After a disappointing loss, I’d get on the bus or the plane and I’d see that same look on his face that I had. I like that competitiveness in him. He’s like I was. He really wants to win.”
This week, Maddux has steeled himself for a challenge he’s never faced before. When his old nemesis, Kentucky, comes to town, he’ll have to take on his old friend, Ron Mercer. It’s not something Maddux looks forward to.
“It’s the first time I’ve played against him,” Drew says. “Even in pickup games we’re always on the same team. For so many years we dreamed of playing on the same college team. It will be hard to get comfortable playing him.”
Nevertheless, Maddux will prepare for this game the way he prepares for every other. He’ll listen to some music to pump himself up. (Pearl Jam is a favorite, though he’s a little embarrassed to admit it.) He’ll have some quiet devotional time, and he’ll don his game shoes, on which he has written “Phillippians 4:3,” which reads: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
“A couple of years ago,” notes VBK, “Florida’s team coined a phrase: ‘Find a way to win.’ This year, our team has found a way. Against Arkansas, we committed 31 turnovers and still won. We’ve had games where we shot poorly and won.
“We respect everyone but fear no one, and I told the team that’s how we have to approach Kentucky. We’re going to play with a lot of confidence.”
Watching Drew Maddux, you know he’s right about that.