March 5, 2013
As the 49er men's basketball team inches closer to the post-season, LongBeachState.com wanted to catch up with alum and 2012 Big West Player of the Year, Casper Ware, who has been playing professionally overseas in Italy.
By Scott Bosco
Even after training in the NBA, traveling the world, and playing a season in Italy's professional league, winning the Big West Conference in 2012 for Long Beach State is still one of Casper Ware's most favorite memories. Approximately 7,500 people were in attendance at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. for the conference championships. It would be the third year in a row that Long Beach would square off against UC Santa Barbara in the championship game. With Long Beach losing the previous two years, an intense rivalry had cultivated between the two teams. Two times too many had Long Beach fallen short. But it was different this year. Finish was in the hearts and minds of the players and fans alike. It became a slogan cheer not only for the fans donning the word on yellow and black t-shirts, but a symbolic chant for the team in the locker room. For many of the players on Long Beach', after having been a team together for almost four years, this would be their last season together; a last chance to Finish the conference, their rivalry, and their college careers strong. So finish hard is what they did.
Casper defined himself as a player that day, matching his career record for three-point shots. The 5'10" point guard took over the game, taking the MVP award and winning the Big West Conference Tournament crown, allowing them to receive the conference's automatic bid to the 2012 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament.
"When Casper hit a three pointer in the tournament right in front of me that turned it into a four point play, that swung the game," Head Coach Dan Monson said. "I picked him up off the ground and said, `We're gonna go to the NCAA tournament; you're going to make sure of that'."
Though Casper remembers kissing the trophy and cutting the net from the rim vividly, the whole experience really set in while sitting at the podium for the press conference at the NCAA tournament first round game.
"I remember it was all a lot of hard work, but we finally made it together," Casper said.
In 2008, Long Beach didn't have any point guards other than the 5'10" Ware, who never played the position at his high school, Cerritos Gahr.
"The first time I saw Casper I loved him. Here was this little guy controlling the game," Monson said. "He wasn't a true point guard or off guard but I just loved his fierce competitiveness."
At his first opportunity, Monson brought Casper and his family to Long Beach where he told him "I want you to be the point guard and the future of this program," and offered him a scholarship. Monson gave Casper some time to think about his decision, but it wasn't long before Casper called Monson and signed on to be a 49er.
For four years, Casper never missed a practice or a game. If he missed a free throw in a game, he would come to 7:00 am practice an hour early just to work on his free throws.
"He just hated to lose," noted Monson. "The team came first and he elevated everybody around him."
A point guard is an extension of the coach on the court. And, as point guard, Casper learned to become a great team leader and an extension of his coach's leadership out on the court.
"He was a great leader, but I suspended him his senior year because he dropped his headphones in a university meeting, just to make a point to the other kids," Monson said."It was the pettiest thing I've ever done, but I knew I could coach my team through him, and, as a result, we didn't have a lot of problems with that group."
The defining moments of the championship game soon became a stepping stone into a professional career for Casper. After college ball, Casper's focus quickly shifted to signing a contract with a professional team. Although he was small, he received interest from several teams in the NBA including the Utah Jazz and the Detroit Pistons. Ranked 68th in the draft, Casper barley missed the cut for the NBA, but came to an agreement with the Detroit Pistons to spend a summer training with them as well as playing for them in their Summer Pro League games in Orlando.
"It was a fun workout. I actually could have gone to their (Pistons) training camp, but I decided early that I just wanted to grab a contract and just be comfortable knowing I was gonna go somewhere and play," Casper said.
In the end of training though, Detroit didn't offer Casper a contract, but although he may have been overlooked here in the states, Casper did receive the attention overseas from A.S. Junior Pallacanestro Casale of Italy's LegADue Division. Casper took advantage of the opportunity and signed with Casale.
"I knew I could get better in Italy and come back." Casper said. "So, I took this chance to make myself a better player."
The game is very technical in Italy - slower paced and a little more fundamental than the NBA. There are several differences between the way basketball is played in the U.S. and the way they play in Italy. The court is slightly longer and narrower than an NBA court. The biggest difference in court setup concerns the size of the key. The European three-point line is just 20.5 feet from the basket, while the NBA boundary is 23 feet nine inches. But, most significantly is the difference in time for a shot. The European shot clock is 11 seconds shorter than the American ball's shot clock. Regardless of the differences, Casper is adjusting well. Casale is in third place and Casper is averaging 20 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds this season.
"I think I've been adjusting well," said Casper. "Everybody is good when you go overseas so you're not always going to beat everyone with your talent. Sometimes you gotta read the defense and trust your teammates are gonna be in the spots they need to be. So, it's really about trust and levels of being smart."
The biggest change going over to Italy for Casper has been the change of pace. They want him to slow down and take a step back from scoring and focus on distribution, a skill that he believes is going to be a cornerstone to getting to the NBA.
"It's been a growth year. Learning to anticipate where my teams gonna be, pick and rolls, knowing where help is gonna come from, and just little stuff like that," Casper said. "I'm also learning to draw people's attention so that my teammates can get open. I was more of a scorer at Long Beach because they needed me to score. In the NBA I would be more of a distributor because there are many great scorers in the NBA."
Recently, Casper came back to Long Beach for the first time since he graduated to be presented the game ball that was supposed to be given to the MVP of the Big West Championship. University President F. King Alexander took half-court during the Santa Barbara game on Jan. 30 to give Casper the honors he didn't receive at the time of the championship.
"That night we couldn't find the game ball because it was taken from us," Alexander said, raising the game ball above their heads to the cheering crowd. "It should have been given to Casper at the Big West Championship last year so I'm here to give Casper the game ball from last year's championship."
Being back was sentimental for Casper on many levels.
"I miss it so much. All of the memories just go through your head like just being with my teammates in the gym and the atmosphere of the fans," Casper said. "We were together for four years. We all committed to go here and make something of Long Beach State, and we did it."
Outside of the small ceremony at the UCSB game, Casper had a chance to reconnect with his coach and old teammates for a quick practice. Even with being gone, Casper gravitated towards his old leadership role with the team.
"It was great to see him he got out there. He showed our guys the intensity of the next level. He did everything we've been telling the guys to do the last two months and he did it without having been here to hear it," Monson said. "I think it really validated to the new guys that, ok that's why they won. They did what they were supposed to do last year."
During a practice with his old teammates, James Ennis noticed Casper's improvement as a player during a friendly match. Casper crossed up his old teammate with a move that he never had before, showing off his new skills.
"It was just two good players and friends going at each other, He came off a screen and got me with that one," Ennis said. "His whole package as a player has just gotten sharper."
Being back for a short time, Casper enjoyed watching his old team play again in Walter Pyramid, and cheering with pride for his team.
"They're playing well right now," said Casper. "They're having a good season so everybody's happy."
Casper even admires the way Mike Caffey has taken his place, "He's been doing good and can do great things here," Casper said. "I think he has a chance to do better than me... I really believe in Mike's skills as a player and leader."
Right now Casper is still talking with NBA teams but is trying to focus on Italy. If Casale does well this year, they move up a division, which means a better shot for Casper in the NBA.
"My goal has always been about getting to the NBA. When your little you dream about playing in the NBA," Casper said. "If I could play for any team, of course it would be the Los Angeles Lakers, because they are in my hometown. However, if I could choose a team in Italy, it would be Milano. Their city is beautiful and there are loads of things you could do to have a little fun."
Monson remains hopeful for Casper's career as well and believes that Casper could play in the NBA if he got into the right situation.
"It's easy to see his development as a player from last year to when he was here recently. That one day, I watched him cross somebody over with a move that he never had before." Monson said. "I feel confident that wherever Casper may be he's going to be successful."
Ultimately Casper's career looks healthy. His highlights in Italy this season include scoring 30 points in three games as well as a few massive dunks. Outside of basketball, Casper is enjoying his new life exploring the country, eating the food, and finding his life away from his family and friends which he calls every day.
"Casper is a grown man now. He left here with a degree, and his game gets better every year," said Monson. "But what I'm most proud of is to see that kid from Gahr, that all he cared about was basketball... that didn't understand life or the importance of academics... who had trouble talking to adults and looking them in the eye... To see him now develop into a man who not only cares about his family, but now cares about his friends and teammates... For every way he has developed as a player, he's developed significantly better as a person, and for me, I'm really proud of him."
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