Hours after he’d picked up his freshly pressed suit from the dry cleaner for Wednesday’s senior night festivities at San Diego State, fourth-year student manager Ben Kneller learned he wouldn’t need his fancy duds.
Aztecs coach Steve Fisher wanted him in uniform instead.
As a reward for four years of service to San Diego State’s basketball program, Fisher called Kneller into his office Wednesday afternoon, handed him a No. 33 jersey and told him to prepare to play that night against Colorado State. Kneller not only got to check into the game when the Aztecs’ lead balooned to double figures in the final two minutes, he also scored a point on a free throw with 53 seconds remaining.
“The smile hasn’t left my face ever since,” Kneller said by phone Thursday night. “I woke up Wednesday morning as a manager and I fell asleep as a Division I basketball player. It was pretty cool.”
Although Kneller played intramural basketball at San Diego State and started for his high school team years earlier, the Westlake Village, Calif. native never even considered trying to make San Diego State’s team. Kneller believes his future lies in coaching, which is why he relished even the not-so-glamourous aspects of being a student manager like setting up practice, rebounding for players and handing out water bottles during games.
The process of getting Kneller in uniform on Wednesday began with a phone call from Fisher to the student manager’s fiancee last week. Without Kneller’s knowledge, his fiancee and his mother then obtained a copy of his high school transcripts and submitted his SAT scores so the NCAA clearinghouse would make him eligible to play.
Since Kneller’s teammates knew he would only get in the game if they got ahead by a safe amount of points, the chance to see him on the court became a goal for them to strive toward. Sure enough, with 1:09 to go in the second half, the Aztecs comfortably ahead 66-51 and the crowd chanting “We want Ben,” Fisher walked down to Kneller and told him to check in for junior Brian Carlwell.
“As soon as he said that, I hopped out of my chair as quick as I could, took my warmup jacket off and ran to the the scorer’s table,” Kneller said. “I wanted to make sure he couldn’t change his mind.”
Knowing that Colorado State would foul to stop the clock, San Diego State’s D.J. Gay passed the ball back to Kneller as soon as he inbounded it and the Rams sent the student manager to the free throw line. Kneller rushed his first one and came up a few inches shy of the rim. He redeemed himself by rattling home the second one with the crowd roaring and his teammates pumping their fists on the bench.
“I don’t think there was any pressure because I told myself, ‘It can’t get worse than the first one,’” Kneller chuckled. “As long as I hit the rim, it was going to be better than the first.”
Kneller’s cell phone has hardly stopped buzzing since Wednesday night as friends who he hasn’t spoken to in years call or text to offer congratulations.
The whole experience has been so memorable that Kneller hopes to one day do the same for a student manager if he ever fulfills his dreams of becoming a college head coach.
“I know how special it is,” Kneller said. “If I’m in that position, I’d definitely look out for whoever the manager is.”