'Vet Week' brings generations of Ohio State players together for work

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

As the shots rained down inside the practice facility at Value City Arena, a couple of young boys were invited to the court to help rebound.

Around the perimeter, Ohio State assistant coach Mike Netti was putting a half-dozen Buckeyes through a shooting drill. The group included current players Sean McNeil and Colby Baumann, a pair of recent graduates in Duane Washington Jr. and Andre Wesson and two more with a few years under their belts.

And there, gathered under the rim, were Brian Brown and Ron Lewis’ kids, helping rebound as their fathers put up shots as part of Ohio State’s second-annual “Vet Week.” For two hours Tuesday morning, Buckeyes past, present and possibly future gathered to work out, to mingle, to lift weights and even to do some yoga.

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“We talk a lot about how this is a family, an extended family,” associate coach Jake Diebler, brainchild of the event, said. “It’s something we talk about in recruiting. It’s something we talk about throughout the year with our current roster. In the gym, you’ve got guys who are where our current guys want to be or guys who were where our current guys want to be and they’re sharing little things about the game, sharing their knowledge and it’s priceless.”

A two-time captain and a 2002 first-team all-Big Ten selection as a senior, Brown’s first season at Ohio State was also the first for the arena. The practice facility where the Buckeyes put in their Tuesday work wouldn’t be completed until 11 years after his collegiate career came to a close. This week, none of that mattered as more than 30 players converged on the site to work with the assistant coaches and spend time in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Quadrian Banks.

Most of the current roster was present including a five-man freshman class, three transfers and lynchpin Justice Sueing as he works to return from a groin/abdominal injury that cost him all but two games last season. Tuesday marked the second and final day of the event and coincided with the first of 10 summer practices the 2022-23 Buckeyes are afforded as part of their foreign exhibition trip that will take them to the Bahamas from August 4-9.

The morning got underway a few minutes later than the 9 o’clock scheduled time as some of the alumni needed a few extra minutes to get going. Malaki Branham, the team’s newest one-and-done player and a first-round pick by San Antonio in this summer’s NBA draft, stretched on the court that was his home just a few months ago alongside current center Zed Key and freshman Roddy Gayle. Nearby, Banks stood with Jared Sullinger and Jae’Sean Tate, laughing and swapping stories before Diebler assembled everyone at center court.

Players were broken into six groups, half of which got the morning underway in the gym while the other half headed to the weight room. Big guys were grouped together and worked with assistant coach Jack Owens while guards and forwards were blended and put in work with either assistant coach Mike Netti or Diebler.

While Shannon Scott and Bruce Thornton, Alpharetta (Georgia) Milton alumni, were gathered in a group with Branham and Gayle, Diebler jokingly called out alumnus Keyshawn Woods for a late arrival. Confined to the sidelines while recovering from a knee injury, William Buford still put up some shots despite an ice wrap around the joint. Scoonie Penn, former program assistant, 2000 first-team all-Big Ten pick and current NBA assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies, headed to Diebler’s station to help.

“Those moments where there’s just natural, organic conversation happening are my favorite, followed closely by when you have a guy like Mike Conley who can grab a guy like Bruce Thornton and talk to him about some successes he’s had with ball screens,” Diebler said. “Or you’ve got Duane Washington working with Sean McNeil, going over some actions we’ll probably put Sean in similar to what Duane had. Sully (Jared Sullinger) and Kosta (Koufos) working with Zed and Felix (Okpara). All these things.”

Down the hallway, Banks oversaw workouts inside the weight room that fed into a 30-minute yoga session. It came with a twist: when the beginner flow Peloton class started to play on the screen, it became apparent that the instructor was pregnant and the class seemed intended for a prenatal workout. Banks found another instead.

After 45 minutes, the groups switched and the workouts continued. As they laced up their shoes, Koufos and Okpara shared quick stories about their backgrounds as Penn accepted a shooting challenge from Trevor Thompson. When Penn won the corner 3-point shooting contest, he cried out, “Everyone in this gym, I’m the one taking the shot at the end!” as multiple players chuckled nearby.

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Washington was a constant presence throughout. In the weight room, he danced along as Bad Bunny played over the speakers. On the court, he was a source of continual chatter, encouraging walk-on Colby Baumann’s shooting, singing the notes to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” to pump guys up and engaging in a mini dunk contest at the close of practice.

“It’s beautiful seeing guys coming back and bringing their kids,” he said. “Multiple generations of Buckeyes is a beautiful thing to see. We’re all coming together as brothers for these couple of days. It’s amazing. Get some gear, good vibes, get to chop it up again with your family. It’s a great experience and great time.”

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A three-year player at Ohio State, Washington bet on himself following the 2020-21 season and entered the NBA draft. He went undrafted but was quickly signed to a two-way deal by the Indiana Pacers, and he closed his rookie season having averaged 9.9 points in 48 games but was waived last week.

Now, Washington said he’s looking for the next opportunity while staying patient. At least three NBA teams are showing interest, potentially on another two-way deal.

“We’re just hanging out with the fam, believing in God and letting free agency work,” he said. “We’ll have more up to date whenever the time comes, but right now man I’m just hanging out with the fam and getting some work in and making sure I’m getting better every day.”

Given how the last year played out, Washington said the last year has validated his decision to bet on himself and chase the professional dream rather than return for a fourth season of college basketball.

“My whole life and career I’ve been confident in myself and believe in myself at the highest level,” he said. “For me, feeling like it was the right time and going with it. Never regret anything. I look back and wouldn’t change a thing. Super, super thankful for the position that I’m in. I’m super blessed and it’ll only go up from here.”

That all helped lead him back to Columbus for Vet Week.

“This is home,” he said. “This is my only home. I didn’t transfer or anything. This is where I chose to be. Coach (Chris) Holtmann wanted me to be here. I’ll always call this place home and to everybody that has been a part of this, it’s home for them, too.”

Establishing a new tradition for the Buckeyes

Having former players return for the summer is not new for Ohio State, which is accustomed to seeing former Buckeyes turn up for open gym sessions and workouts in between professional responsibilities.

Now, though, Diebler is making part of it a little more formal and helping create a new tradition in the process.

“We’ve got more guys (this year),” he said. “I think we really need a bigger gym. We’ve got even more who could come back. It’s just grown. The vets really enjoy it. They come back a lot but it’s great when they’re all here at the same time. We had bigger numbers this year than the year before and we expect it to continue growing.”

In addition to the workouts, the former players share meals with the current team and cap the experience with a closed scrimmage. Not only does it help the current players get a glimpse of what it takes to reach their professional goals, but it also allows the former players – most of whom did not play for Holtmann – further their relationships with the coach as he enters his sixth season with the program.

Throughout the workouts, Holtmann spent his time talking with multiple players as they stood to the side.

“I think the one thing that’s been pretty cool to see is how coach Holtmann has embraced the tradition,” Diebler said. “He’s embraced the former players coming back and values them being here at such a high level, which I think is pretty special.”

The Buckeyes were still hanging around nearly a half-hour after Tuesday’s morning session was scheduled to end. Some put up more shots, some threw down some extra dunks and others milled around and enjoyed the company. Eventually, Holtmann had to put a wrap on it all to give the current players some time off their feet before the evening’s scrimmage.

Otherwise, they might still be there.

“The Ohio State, there’s something about it,” Washington said. “It’s stamped, it’s official, it’s the Buckeyes. We’re very highly hated around the country and I think we just join forces and lock arms and say, ‘This is us. This is who we are.’ ”

They’re Buckeyes. All of them.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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