Joe Kuykendall was a James Madison basketball team manager for four years, and many of his duties were unremarkable: setting up equipment for practice, organizing gear for road games, ordering postgame meals. Being behind the scenes of a mid-major hoops program, though, provided Kuykendall amusing stories he’ll remember for a lifetime. Such as the time he broke a coach’s cellphone celebrating a buzzer-beating victory. Or the time the team bus broke down in Nowheresville, Pa., on Thanksgiving Day.
His favorite tale is about the time JMU won the Colonial Athletic Association championship in smelly uniforms.
The five-year anniversary of the Dukes’ surprising conference title is approaching, giving JMU alums a convenient excuse for a nostalgia trip back to 2013, when a coach on the hot seat and his surprising team of seniors and freshmen reached the NCAA tournament.
We’ll get to the smelly uniforms, after a bit of context on how JMU was in position to win its lone league title in the past 24 years.
The CAA was a popular conference from which to poach during the late stages of realignment, so the league had just lost powerhouse VCU to the Atlantic 10. Another perennial contender, Old Dominion, was on its way out and therefore deemed ineligible for the CAA tournament. Towson, in a breakout season, was ineligible because of academic sanctions. That left just seven teams vying for the league championship and a coveted spot in the NCAA tourney.
In their first CAA tournament game, on a Saturday at Richmond Coliseum, the third-seeded Dukes wore their white uniforms in a tight win against longtime antagonist William & Mary.
In their second tournament game, on Sunday, the Dukes wore purple as they eked out an ugly victory over second-seeded Delaware.
After each of the games, Kuykendall and another manager stuffed the Dukes’ dirty uniforms into duffel bags and shoved them in the corner of their hotel room at the nearby Marriott, a few blocks from the cavernous arena.
The conference championship game was to be played Monday against top-seeded Northeastern, and the Dukes, as the focus of national television for a night, planned to wear their sharp, new “Vegas gold” uniforms.
With Harrisonburg an easy two-hour drive from Richmond and JMU playing for its first NCAA tournament berth in nearly 20 years, fans flooded the Coliseum, creating a Dukes-partisan crowd. There was only one problem, which prompted another.
Roughly a half-hour before tip-off, a referee told a JMU assistant coach that the team’s gold uniforms did not visually contrast enough with Northeastern’s whites. They’d have to change.
JMU’s purple uniforms — having been worn the previous night and never washed — were still in Kuykendall’s room, “just festering” in that duffel bag, as he put it. You see, basketball players sweat a lot, and fabrics that marinate in sweat for 24 hours smell a bit foul.
Alas, sweaty uniforms were better than no uniforms, so Kuykendall and three others, including a redshirt forward, ran from the arena to the hotel to secure the gnarly purples. With just eight minutes until tip-off, they returned to the locker room and instructed the players to change. The Dukes took the request in stride and didn’t seem to notice anything awry.
“I don’t know if they were already sweaty, or in the zone,” Kuykendall said of the players. “Maybe they just didn’t care.”
JMU bombarded Northeastern from the get-go, taking a 22-point lead by halftime and coasting to a win. The Dukes thus reached the place every team hopes to be in March, a place where the NCAA provides laundry services for teams.
As a No. 16 seed with the stench of a weak conference and mediocre Rating Percentage Index number, the Dukes’ first tournament assignment was a play-in game against LIU Brooklyn. They won that game (in their white uniforms) and then lost to top-seeded Indiana (while wearing their since-washed purples) during the first full round of the tournament.
It was a high point for a program that has not built on that success. Of the team’s four impact freshmen, only one would go on to play four seasons at the school. None of the team’s senior leaders sniffed the NBA. Coach Matt Brady received a contract extension after the season but was fired in 2016; he is now director of player personnel at Maryland.
Nostalgia has a way of ignoring those specifics in favor of cozy memories. Kuykendall appreciates that season more now than he did at the time. His parents met as basketball managers years earlier, and they dreamed of a trip to the NCAA tourney. Kuykendall, as a freshman in a job he signed up for on a whim, got to live out that dream right away.
After graduating from JMU in 2016, he spent a season working for the women’s basketball team at Mercer, then left the industry and is now working toward an MBA at UMass. He still consumes college basketball and listens to the Ringer’s “One Shining Podcast,” which typically focuses on big-name programs, not tournament crashers such as JMU.
But in January, hosts Mark Titus and Tate Frazier asked for college basketball managers past and present to submit their most memorable stories. Many of the tales — these are college kids, remember — were a bit . . . suggestive. The hosts saved the best story for last: Kuykendall’s submission about the Dukes’ wardrobe malaroma.
Titus and Frazier have made these types of manager stories a regular segment on their podcast. Their title for it: Dirty Laundry.
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