Athletics

A Class Like No Other

by Justin Long 

The AmherstCollege men’s basketball program has consistently produced student-athletes that have moved on to play at the professional level, and it is becoming more common for Division III athletes to further their playing careers overseas. But all five members of one graduating class signing professional contracts in the same summer? That’s unheard of.

The Class of ’08 went 111-12 in four years at Amherst, won the program’s first national championship in 2007 and made three consecutive Final Four appearances. Just three months after graduating, Andrew Olson ’08, Kevin Hopkins ’08, Fletcher Walters ’08, Matt Goldsmith ’08 and Brandon Jones ’08 have all signed contracts to play professional basketball in Germany.

While head coach Dave Hixon ’75 has seen upwards of 25 players go on to play professionally, he says the Class of ’08 has broken new ground. “On average, there’s probably one guy in each class that has the potential to play professionally,” says the Lord Jeffs’ coach of 31 years. “Going 5-for-5 with one class is remarkable. It’s unreal.”

For Olson, furthering his basketball career was an easy decision. “Playing basketball has been the real constant in my life, and I didn’t want to stop playing competitively just because the NCAA said my four years were up,” says the reigning national player of the year. “I want to say good-bye to the game on my terms.”

The five members of the Class of ’08 will be representing five teams in three leagues, all in Germany. In an early August scrimmage, Walters (25 points and nine rebounds) led the Iserlohn Kangaroos to a 12-point victory over Olson (22 points and nine assists) and BBV Hagen in a matchup of Regionalliga 1 teams.

“It was really weird playing against Andrew,” says Walters. “We just kept cracking jokes during the game.”

Olson_Walters
Fletcher Walters '08 (left) and Andrew Olson '08 (right) returned to the court as opponents during an early August scrimmage.

The Class of ’08 follows in the footsteps of former Amherst greats like Jim Rehnquist ’77, arguably the best basketball player in program history. But no alum has helped open doors more than Ben Batory ’94. Batory played for six teams in five countries from 1994 to 1998 and has helped to lay the groundwork for several Lord Jeffs. “The young guys reach out to me from time to time for my advice and networking,” says Batory, who advised Walters on how to market himself and helped Hopkins contact coaches in Europe. “It is important to me that guys get to go over there and play ball, but it’s also very important that they do so as Amherst students—as students of life—and not as jocks. I try to hold the guys to that Amherst standard and have them learn from my experiences.”

But this is far more than just the chance to have one last go-around on the basketball court—it is the opportunity to begin a new chapter of life. During his first year of playing professionally in Israel, Yram Groff ’89 met his current wife, with whom he has had four children. Similarly, Gary Collins ’77 met his wife just two weeks after arriving in Austria for his first of more than 15 years of professional basketball. Collins and his wife have four children and have lived in Vienna for 30 years.

Goldsmith has already secured an internship with a German consulting firm, Kon.m, courtesy of his new team, TV Werne. “This is going to be one of the most valuable life experiences I will ever have,” says Goldsmith, who had 15 points and eight rebounds in his team’s second scrimmage. “To have my friends so close to me is icing on the cake. Every young kid who plays basketball wishes that one day he can play professionally, and all of us are getting to do it.”

Despite the players’ early success, being overseas has come with a price. “Leaving the people I care about back home has probably been one of the hardest things I have done in a long time,” says Jones, “but I don't think I could have passed up an opportunity like this in good conscience.”

“The opportunity to continue my basketball career has been a roller coaster thus far,” adds Walters. “The last month has been a huge test of my perseverance. During the end of the first week, I received news that my grandfather passed away from pneumonia. He was my sports idol and a huge hero of mine. It meant so much to me to follow my grandfather's footsteps and sign a professional sports contract.” (Walters’ grandfather played in Major League Baseball for the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Athletics in the 1950s.)

The hardships that come with being away from home make it that much more important to appreciate such an experience—another of Batory’s lessons. “I told the guys to use their time overseas and to make it about more than just basketball,” says Batory. “They’ll draw on this experience the rest of their lives, so they need to make the most of it.”

“We are all very blessed to be playing in the same country,” says Jones. “I definitely feel like we are in divine favor with the way basketball has worked out since we've been a part of each others' lives.”

“I could not imagine or plan out a better situation than what we all have in front of us this year,” says Olson. “And it’s not so bad to get paid for something that you have always played for fun.”

Hixon will undoubtedly miss his most recent graduating class, as a group of guys so talented comes around maybe once in a coach’s lifetime. Still, those who were fortunate enough to watch Olson toss 50-foot alley-oops and make no-look passes to Goldsmith, Hopkins, Jones and Walters can rest easy knowing these ’08s are still doing what they love to do most.

More importantly, they’re doing it together.

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Click here to learn more about where the Class of '08 is currently playing