Ten years ago, seniors Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez met each other for the first time. As sixth graders, the two were in the early stages of forming their basketball careers, playing together on New Heights, an Amateur Athletic League (AAU) program.
The New York natives hit it off right away when they met as 12-year-olds, but the gap between where they lived led to them being distanced for some time.
“We were very close friends,” Rodriguez said. “We took a split because our AAU program went down. He’s from Brooklyn and I’m from the Bronx, so we weren’t so close together because we were so young. As we got older and we were getting recognized as great players in the city, we came back together, we reunited, and that was a good feeling.”
Now, both 22 years old, the two have been fortunate enough to play beside each other at Seton Hall hardwood as they head into their fourth and final year.
Carrington was the first player Rodriguez formed a relationship with before Seton Hall, but he was not the only one. The player Rodriguez was closest to in his recruiting class is current Brooklyn Net and former Pirate guard Isaiah Whitehead.
“We went to school together at Lincoln [High School] and I kind of stayed at his house during that time because the commute was so far,” Rodriguez said. “But we had a great relationship coming in, and we still do.”
Rodriguez played on an AAU team with Whitehead called the Juice All-Stars before they graduated high school together in 2014. The program was led by Lincoln coach and former Seton Hall assistant coach Tiny Morton, who came with his players to South Orange for one year.
For Rodriguez, the ties to his current teammates go even deeper. In high school, Rodriguez played AAU ball with the N.J. Playaz alongside redshirt junior Michael Nzei. The forward sat out his freshman season with a hand injury playing a part, so he gets forgotten when talking about Seton Hall’s senior class, but he was involved with his Pirate teammates before he got to campus.
Along with playing on the same team as Rodriguez, Nzei also played with Myles Powell on the N.J. Playaz. Beyond that, Nzei faced fellow big man Angel Delgado many times in high school.
If one attended the 2014 Regional Jordan Brand Classic at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., he or she would have gotten a pretty good look at what Pirate basketball was going to look like come the 2014-15 season. The home team of the Classic consisted of Carrington, Rodriguez and Ismael Sanogo, while Deglado and Nzei were teammates on the away team.
As high school stars, the future Pirates showed what they would contribute in their college careers. Carrington put up 18 points, Delgado snatched 15 rebounds and Rodriguez blocked a shot that brought the game to overtime, with his team eventually grabbing the win.
Those three players are already 1,000-point scorers with a senior season still to play.
As the Pirates were stars of New York schools, Delgado and Nzei played in a few All-Star games together. The two did not necessarily get along, though, until they both knew they were going to don the blue and white.
“We weren’t really close, we were just going against each other,” Nzei said. “He tried to get in a fight with one of my teammates. We were just like, ‘Yo, relax, let’s play the game’ and all that. After then, when we realized we were coming to Seton Hall, it was like, ‘What’s up bro, see you in July,’ all this stuff.”
Now, Nzei and Delgado are as close as can be, calling each other family.
Delgado, a native of the Dominican Republic, did not come to America until 2012. He came to the tristate area when he transferred to The Patrick School in Hillside, N.J., and became more involved on the New York Lightning AAU team.
Carrington was in Delgado’s life from the time he came to the United States. Delgado shared the floor with Carrington on the New York Lightning and their relationship and chemistry have stood the test of time.
“It’s been a long road with this guy,” Delgado said of Carrington.
Delgado also added that he has played in tournaments with Rodriguez prior to Seton Hall.
From sixth grade to AAU to the Jordan Brand Classic to Seton Hall, the roots of Seton Hall’s seniors run deep. Each player has taken a different road – some have crossed, and some have not, but they have all led the Pirates to a senior college season with a lot on the line.
While the senior squad has experienced success with each other in their freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, the 2017-18 season is the one where the seniors are supposed to take their leap. The team is ranked No. 23 in the AP Top 25 and other national rankings have the Pirates even higher.
Both Delgado and Carrington have received national preseason attention, with the big man garnering multiple nominations and an AP All-American honorable mention.
With a deeper bench than ever before, now is the time for the senior class to lead the team to a deep postseason run. They have not won an NCAA Tournament game, but winning one game is not the cap on this team’s potential. A Final Four appearance could be in the cards.
As Carrington said at Big East Media Day, “Fourth time’s the charm.”
The seniors are confident, but they will also be playing with emotion, as this season puts a cap on many years spent with each other at the competitive level.
“It’s going to be emotional this last year, just taking on being on the floor with these guys for our last years,” Rodriguez said. “It’s exciting at the same time, but very emotional knowing that we might not be playing with each other no more after this year. We had a great experience here at Seton Hall for our whole four years, and graduating together, that’s going to be a great accomplishment for us.”
As Nzei stated, basketball never stops. There will be opportunities for the group of Delgado, Nzei, Carrington, Rodriguez and Sanogo to play with each other again, but this season is the group’s chance to take their past chemistry and utilize it to do something special as Pirates.
“This is the last time, we have to take care of every day we play here,” Delgado said. “It’s only five months, six months, and we want to try and make it special. We try to make it special, we try to make history with these players to make everyone feel great.”
College basketball will end, but for the players, the bonds that started as long as 10 years ago do not.
Friends, family, brothers – even a landmark season cannot touch what the teammates have formed. Still, the roads they have taken have led them to making dreams of being a college basketball house a reality.
“Everyone on the team is like a brother to me,” Nzei said. “After [Seton Hall], it’s [still] a family.”
Elizabeth Swinton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @eswint22.