Stukes ready to play ball with new La Salle brothers

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFFPHOTOGRAPHER Amar Stukes (left), playing for La Salle College High in January 2013.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFFPHOTOGRAPHER Amar Stukes (left), playing for La Salle College High in January 2013.
Posted: July 08, 2014

AS TIME SLOWLY ticked off the clock hanging on the wall adjacent to Amar Stukes, his nerves weren't getting any calmer.

Stukes tried to go unnoticed in his 9 a.m. history class, his first ever at La Salle University last year during his redshirt freshman year. He sat quietly. He refused to raise his hand. And as the clock continued to tick, Stukes sat there, embarrassed and uncomfortable.

With a year before he could touch a hardwood basketball court, before he could don his golden jersey and Explorers gear, he couldn't figure out how to stop shaking in class.

"I learned that it's not as easy as high school," Stukes said.

To combat his bothersome nerves, Stukes found a way to get more comfortable in the classroom. His new teammates began to form a pseudo family that included Stukes, the new point guard who was a Daily News All-City selection as a senior at La Salle College High.

Stukes grew close with others like him. Cleon Roberts, Jordan Price and Tony Washington, other redshirt players and transfer students, became close friends who could help ease his anxieties and help him focus.

Stukes also found solace in a friend of the team who soon became his most important role model, a student manager named Jack DiMatteo, an aspiring college basketball coach who was the captain of his high-school team. Stukes' mindset became more team-oriented; less fixated on his individual glory and more on his team, his new brothers.

"He stayed around me, making sure I did extra work, even on the weekends," Stukes said of DiMatteo. "I invited him to my house. He stayed in my ear and made sure I never slacked off. He even started a Bible-study program for us and he made sure I was on top of my game."

DiMatteo became Stukes' rock, getting him into the gym for extra reps after class and helping to improve his overall game outside of practices. DiMatteo, a Christian Brothers Scholar at La Salle, this summer founded KYW Training, which he describes as an elite basketball training company for current and aspiring college players (jackdimatteo.wix.com/kywtraining).

Stukes said it was because of DiMatteo that he finally started paying attention in history class and began pushing the pace in practice.

One night it all came into focus for Stukes, how DiMatteo and La Salle basketball offered the perfect family on campus.

"We started a movie night, so every Sunday we would all go to Tony's [Washington's] roonm and pick a random movie on Netflix," Stukes said. "One day we were watching 'Olympus Has Fallen,' and when the movie was over we had a heart-to-heart. Jordan [Price] was saying that [this experience] would have never happened at Auburn. He got along with the players, but he never would have come to his teammates' rooms and watch TV."

Stukes continued: "Jack [DiMatteo] started saying that it was a sign that we all came at the same time and we created a brotherhood. And that's when I said that we were a family. They made me feel like I was at home. They invited me to their room. They made me feel like I belonged there."

And with his mind back on basketball, with the new love from his second family, he still has a lot he wants to show the city, the Atlantic 10 and himself.

The 6-3, 19-year-old accounting major said he has been taught how to use his body more effectively in games from graduated guard Tyreek Duren, one of the winningest players in Explorers history since the days of Lionel Simmons in the late 1980s.

Stukes said he wants to show off how his shot has developed and to prove to the city that he belongs in a top-notch Division I program.

Coach John Giannini is quite content with his young guard's progress.

"He's a guy I have confidence in," he said of Stukes. "He's a winner. He's very good on defense and is very unselfish. And that's a big deal. He's going to get stops and get turnovers and find the open man.

"We want him to shoot the ball better and be more active offensively. He knows the importance of being a threat and being able to score himself. We want him to develop into an overall player, and we think he is on his way."

Stukes now walks to classes with a wide beam on his face, excitement tangible in his eyes. He gets to class early and raises his hand more frequently, showing enthusiasm for the class material.

DiMatteo has done a lot for Stukes and so have his new teammates, giving him the confidence not only in his game, but also in his studies. Gianinni described them as guys who would "do anything for each other," and with companions like that, Stukes has high hopes for his first season manning the point.

He came into college flustered and unsettled and enters his sophomore year with the confidence to play in the A-10, with his partner and his second family right next to him.

For a La Salle team that went 15-16 last season after going to the Sweet Sixteen the year before, Stukes made it clear that he's not worried about himself or his own stats. He just wants to bring a winning atmosphere back to the Tom Gola Arena.

"What I define a point guard is: someone who can control the team and get people open shots. I'm 100 percent team-oriented," Stukes said.

"In AAU, I won games without scoring a point, but I was perfectly comfortable with getting seven or 10 assists. I just do what my team needs me to do. If I need to lock down a player, I'll do that. If they need me to score, I'll do that. If they need me to set them up, I'll do that. Points don't matter to me. I just want to win."


On Twitter: @TylerRickyTynes

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