The UC Davis men’s basketball team had just landed in Dayton, Ohio, and senior forward J.T. Adenrele was trying to take in everything.
“Sitting in first class, walking off the flight, walking to the bus, being in Ohio, across the country,” Adenrele said by phone. “I’m trying to take every single bit of these moments to kind of cherish them.”
The Aggies will make the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance Wednesday in a “First Four” game against North Carolina Central for the right to face Midwest Region top-seed Kansas in the first round. Among those making up the current squad, Adenrele’s wait has been the longest.
Adenrele, who grew up in Roseville and attended Oakmont High, was a freshman in UC Davis head coach Jim Les’ first season in 2011-12, when the Aggies went 5-26. He lost two college seasons to serious injuries, one in each knee. He endured grueling rehabs and wondered at times if his playing career was done.
I remember walking into Coach (Jim) Les’ office and telling him the news. I hugged him and I cried, man. I wept. I was scared. I didn’t know if I would be able to come back. I didn’t know if I’d have the heart to come back.
J.T. Adenrele, UC Davis senior forward
But he returned this season to post modest averages of 5.8 points and 5.1 rebounds for an Aggies team that won 19 regular-season games and three more to win the Big West Conference Tournament.
The knees held up. He’s going dancing.
“He just finds a knack in games to make plays that are game-changing plays,” Les said. “The stats don’t tell the story but, if you watch him and watch him in crunch time, he’s invaluable to this team and a big reason why we are where we are.”
Les and Adenrele arrived in Davis the same year. But little about that season signified the turnaround to come as the Aggies finished last in the Big West, going 3-13 in conference.
“I think (Les’) first year we had a lot of talent, but we didn’t have, like, a team,” Adenrele said. “We didn’t have guys that wanted to buy in to what he was selling, and that was a defensive intensity, a disciplined offensive team that wins games.”
Some players clashed with Les’ “intense” coaching style early on, Adenrele said. But the climb began the next season as the Aggies won 14 games. The ensuing summer, Adenrele was participating in a team workout when he came off of a pick-and-roll and felt his left knee buckle.
It was a torn ACL. Adenrele missed all of 2013-14 as UC Davis went 9-22. But healthy again the following season, he started 31 games for a team that went 25-7, capturing the program’s first regular-season conference title and reaching the NIT.
“Coming back and having that season really solidified things for me,” Adenrele said. “I thought all that hard work (rehabbing) was worth it, and I was more than willing to do it again if I had to.”
And then he had to. Another summer workout in 2015, another ACL tear – the right side this time – and another season derailed.
“It was heartbreaking to me,” Adenrele said. “I remember walking into Coach Les’ office and telling him the news. I hugged him and I cried, man. I wept. I was scared. I didn’t know if I would be able to come back. I didn’t know if I’d have the heart to come back.”
Les called it “one of the most emotional moments” he has experienced in coaching.
“For one of the first times in my coaching career, I didn’t have a good answer,” Les said. “I didn’t have a good solution for why this was happening to him.”
I say to guys all the time, ‘Do you ever wonder why when guys win a championship, the emotion, they’re sobbing almost uncontrollably? It’s because they know the hard work and effort and setbacks and comebacks that it takes to be a champion.’ And there’s no one person that embodies that more than J.T.
Jim Les, UC Davis men’s basketball coach
Adenrele started the rehab process simply wanting to be able to walk without crutches. As he improved, he started spending more time around the basketball court. He started getting up shots, moving around the court. And he listened to his teammates talking to him.
“I had guys in my ear telling me, ‘If you want to come back, we’re here,’ ” Adenrele said. “ ‘If your heart’s not in it, it’s not in it. But we want you to come back and we think you’d be an integral part of this team.’
“That’s what kind of convinced me to give it one more shot.”
Granted a sixth year of eligibility, Adenrele returned this season to his on-court role as a gritty leader and defensive presence in the paint . On Saturday night, after UC Davis had secured its NCAA Tournament berth with a win over UC Irvine in the Big West final, Adenrele held the conference trophy, the emotions evident on his face.
“I say to guys all the time, ‘Do you ever wonder why when guys win a championship, the emotion, they’re sobbing almost uncontrollably?’ ” Les said. “ ‘It’s because they know the hard work and effort and setbacks and comebacks that it takes to be a champion.’
“And there’s no one person that embodies that more than J.T.”