Interview with Vermont Catamount Legend Rahim Huland El

There are only a small handful of Vermont Catamount players that have surpassed the 1,000 (1,287) point and 500 (532) rebound barriers during their careers.

Rahim Huland El is one of those few.

As one of Coach Tom Brennan’s first recruits, Huland El was instrumental in turning the Catamount program around. He played a pivotal role in one of Vermont’s most memorable victories, an upset of a heavily-favored Northeastern team in the 89-90 season conference tournament. Huland El was the first member of his extended family to graduate from a four year university.

In this interview, Huland El discusses his time in Burlington, the great upset of Syracuse and his daughter’s success, among other topics. When his Catamounts tip off against Purdue in the first round, he will be watching intently, full of pride. No doubt, Rahim Huland El helped build Vermont basketball.

POPGATES: Recall the night the Cats shocked the world and upset Syracuse (2005). Where were you? Who were you with? Who called? Describe your emotions.

RH: Obviously, I can vividly recall that day.  When the brackets were announced, I felt that we had a decent chance to beat Syracuse. On the day of the game, I was at a restaurant in West Orange, New Jersey.  I was supposed to meet my buddy there, but he was unable to make it.  So, I sat there alone at the restaurant cheering every UVM basket and every ‘Cuse miss. Right away, I thought back to the 1989-1990 season.

I think we won 15 games that year.  It was our first legitimate team.  This was also the year that [Kevin] Roberson emerged as one of the best defensive players in the country – he averaged about 4 blocks (and 6-8 “alters”) per game. I have always seen the 89-90 season as the start of the run that UVM has been on for the past [several] years. So, as I sat watching the Syracuse game, my primary emotion was extreme pride – pride that classy guys like Taylor Coppenrath and Sorrentine and Mopa Njila were creating the culmination of something that us “old guys” started many years before.

POPGATES: Let’s back track. How did you get involved in basketball? Who were your earliest mentors? Where did you learn to shoot?

RH: I originally became interested in basketball as a sixth grader living in Irvington, New Jersey.  I was a tall kid so I figured I would tryout for the local traveling basketball team.  Well, I was tall but I could not play a lick!  So, I did not make the team.  At that time, I decided that I would not be cut from another team…ever.  So I started practicing 2-3 hours per day on the playground.  I was like the mailman, neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow would stop me from practicing. I would play and get beat on by older players and grown men.  Within a year, I was the best player in my age group.  I did not get cut from the seventh grade team!  My earliest role models as players were guys like Julius Erving, Bernard King, Michael Ray Richardson and Magic Johnson.  The common thread among these players was that they played with passion. I always liked to play with extreme passion as well.

POPGATES: Let’s talk about the recruiting process. Who was looking at you? Did Coach Brennan visit you personally? Describe his charm? What did he say? What did he not say? How did he win you over? Did he woo you with poetry? [editor’s note: During the recruitment of TJ Sorrentine, TB wrote a poem for him.]

RH: Ahh, recruiting… In addition to UVM, I was recruited by Fordham, Cornell, Rutgers, Columbia and several other mid-major schools.  I was part of TB’s first recruiting class at UVM.  The other members of that class were TJ Whitaker, Mark Madden, Matt Johnson and Bill Bright. Coach Brennan came to visit my home and commenced to charming the heck out of my mother. He also mentioned that he preferred an up tempo style of play and that I would have a chance to play as a freshman. TB got my attention with each of these statements. I was a pretty athletic player, so running was right up my alley. Unfortunately, no poetry. Prior to TB’s home visit, UVM was my third or fourth choice.  After his home visit, UVM was right at the top of my list!

POPGATES: Before choosing Vermont, did it bother you in the least that Vermont was one of the lowest ranked teams in Division 1? It was a Public Ivy and all but still…

RH: UVM’s ranking did not bother me. In fact, I knew that this would increase my chances of playing right away.

POPGATES: First impressions…When you first meet your teammates: Kevin Roberson, Kenny White, TJ, Bill Bright, Matt Johnson, Mike Lubas…what are your thoughts? Was there instant chemistry – on and off the court? Do you think ‘we are going to turn this thing around?’

RH: First of all, I was one of five freshman players during the 87-88 season.  We were a very young team. But, we had good chemistry.  The upperclassmen – Joe Calavita, Mike Lubas, Rob Hamlin, Bart Donovan, Chris Kappas, Francis John and Brad Chandler – all looked out for us young guys.  And, since we were 3-24, we had to get along. All we had was each other.  The first season was about survival.  Aside from a big home win against Northeastern, we did not have much success on the court. However, the seniors, Rob Hamlin and Francis John, set the tone of working hard everyday in practice.  The younger guys watched and tried to follow suit.  The next year, Roberson (“Hutch” as we all called him), Kenny White, Mike Malachuk and Rich Tarrant joined the team.  So over a 2 year period, we added nine players to the team. This signified the changing of the guard.

POPGATES: Hutch’s rebounding record was broken somewhat recently, which was a little sad. However, it got a lot of people talking about Kevin. What was Kevin Roberson like off the court?

RH: Kevin was one of the finest human beings I have ever met.  He was smart, humble, kind and considerate.  But his quiet nature sometimes masked his fierce competitive fire.  I looked at him very much as my little brother.  I and several of my former teammates still struggle with Hutch’s untimely and unfortunate passing.  He was destined to achieve some spectacular things with in his life.  In fact, I named my son “Ahsan” because it’s meaning “gentle, kind, charitable and handsome” is very close to the meaning to “Kevin.”  Both names also describe Kevin Andre Roberson to a T.

POPGATES: What are your memories of Kevin Andre Roberson?

RH: I have many memories.  But, the best recollection of him is to appreciate the tremendous growth as a man and player while at UVM.  He came to UVM as a skinny, small (6’3) kid with limited skills and very shy. Within 18 months he had made himself into one of the best players in the league and a top 5 shot-blocker in the country.  He developed his game the same way he lived his life – with quiet, confident determined work.  All the while pursuing a degree in engineering.  The kid was special.

POPGATES: And did you and the rest of the team mind travelling to games on game day? [editor’s note: Kevin preferred to sleep in his own bed than on the road.]

RH: No. Before Kevin arrived on campus and as a player, we usually took buses to our road games.  I still have nightmares about the horrific 12 hour bus ride to Penn State during my freshman year. So, the change to leaving on game day was a positive. It often meant that with the limited travel time, we had to fly rather than take buses to the games.

POPGATES: What do you recall about the man that used to be known as Jesse “The Body”?

RH: The Body.  When I first met Jesse Agel, he was a young guy coaching a local high school team. The next year, he was a graduate assistant coach for our team.  The following year, he was a full assistant coach.  Jesse is not a glamorous guy.  But I found him to be an extremely hard worker who has an excellent knowledge of the game.  Jesse, along with our other assistant coach, Jeff Brown, provided the yin to TB’s yang.  Jesse Agel was a good friend to me while I was at UVM.

POPGATES: Discuss the upset of Northeastern in the 1990 conference semis – one of the biggest victories in Vermont basketball history. What was the game plan? Who delivered? What clicked? After the buzzer, what was the mood in the locker room? Any tears from Coach Brennan? What do you recall?

RH: I remember that we felt extremely confident going into the game.  We had been very inconsistent coming into the league tournament. However, we had played very well against Maine in the first round.  Also, during my time at UVM ,we had always played well against Northeastern.   The game plan was simple – play good defense and play hard.  Personally, I remember that I had a decent game.  I think I scored 19 or 20 points in the game.  I also had a dunk that made it to ESPN Sports Center that night.  However, my personal accomplishments aside, the thing I remember most was exhilaration in the locker room after the game.  Specifically, I remember seeing the sheer joy on the face of Chris Kappas.  Kappas had graduated the year before. During his time at UVM, Kappas had seen some tough times – not a lot of wins.  He had come to the game to cheer on his former teammates. I was so glad that we were to win one for him and the other guys who had come before us.

POPGATES: After the subsequent loss to Boston U in the finals, what words of wisdom did Coach Brennan impart, if any?

RH: Coach just told us he was very proud of the way we had played.

POPGATES: Villanova at Patrick: Take us back. We hear that the crowd was pretty wild and that Rollie was quite demanding. What do you recall about that game?

RH: The “Litterbox” was really pumped that day.  Again, we were very confident coming into the game.  Remember, the same core group: – Kevin Roberson, Kenny White, Matt Johnson, Richie Tarrant, and myself – had started virtually every game for two and a half  seasons.  So, we were a very cohesive unit.  We expected to play well in every game.  We did play well, we just came up a little short.  As far as Massimino is concerned, we always got a kick out of his sideline routine. You could not really take him too seriously though.

POPGATES: Best Coach Brennan story? We’ll take two if you have another.

RH: There are many TB stories.  However, the first one that comes to mind was during my senior year in high school.  I had already verbally committed to attend UVM.  My team, Randolph High School, played a basketball game against Seton Hall Prep.  I was the best player at Randolph.  Mark Madden and TJ Whitaker were the stars of Seton Hall Prep.  Madden and Whitaker had also committed to attend Vermont.  I think the final score of our game was Randolph High 29 – Seton Hall Prep 28.  I don’t think there was one fast break basket in the entire game.

Later that night, TB calls me and said: “Son, I have to take back my scholarship offer, you won’t be playing at UVM next year.”  I asked what was going on.  He said, “don’t worry it’s not personal, I just spoke to Madden and Whitaker and told them the same thing.” So, now I was really getting nervous. Again, I said, “Coach, what’s up?”  Finally, he said, “how the heck am I going to play fast break basketball next year when the heart of my recruiting class just played in a game with a final score of 29-28?” After a pregnant pause, TB let me know that he was only kidding.  However, he made me promise that I would not be part of another 29-28 game again.  I promised.  A few weeks later, we had the second Randolph – Seton Hall Prep match-up. I think the teams combined to score 70 points in that one.

POPGATES: After graduation, did you play professionally? Discuss your life after graduation. What did you pursue?

RH: I did not play professionally. I had an opportunity to play overseas after graduation.  However, I had had enough of basketball at that point. After UVM, I attended and graduated from Rutgers University School of Law. About fourteen years ago, I started coaching youth basketball.  I currently coach a boys AAU basketball team that is ranked in the top ten in the nation.  I also coach my daughter’s basketball team. Coaching kids is my way of staying involved in the sport.

POPGATES: Discuss your daughter’s basketball career. When did you know she was a special player?

RH: I know she could be an outstanding player when she was about 12 years old and in seventh grade.  She was playing AAU on an older team with eighth graders and in most games, she was clearly the most effective player on the court.  But, she was not very committed to developing her skills. So, I had a “come to Jesus” talk about commitment and what it took to get to the next level (D1) of basketball.  She reacted positively to our conversation and from then on, she has been an extremely self-motivated athlete.

POPGATES: Discuss the process of making her a ACC player. Was she inspired by your Sports Center dunk?

RH: Essentially, I took all of the lessons that I taught myself as a player and learned from the great coaches that I was exposed to and distilled them down to basic concepts.  We then created drills to learn each of the necessary skills – mental and physical.  Finally, we worked those drills until she mastered each necessary skill.  My daughter has averaged about 20 hours of skill-conditioning training per week since she was 12 years old. We also exposed her to the highest level of competition that we could find.

She inherited my work ethic and a bit of my athleticism. She can dunk. However, Aliyah’s skillset is much more refined than mine ever was. She is 6’1 and plays point guard and two-guard.   She had dozens of BCS level D1 scholarship offers before she chose UVa.  If she continues to work hard and stays healthy, she has a chance to have a very impressive college career at UVa.   I really haven’t spent a bunch of time discussing my playing career with her – I didn’t want to add any undue pressure to her as a developing player.  Plus, the kids don’t want to hear the old “war stories.”  So, I am certain she has never seen or heard about my ESPN moments…  But, she is more mature now.  So, I may have to breakout some old videos to show her how Daddy could ball “back in the day”!

POPGATES: Over the years, how much contact have you had with the Vermont program? Have you seen many games? Have you been back to Church Street? Which teammates are you close with?

RH: My wife, Leslie-Ann, and I used to attend at least one game per year.  We also used to visit Burlington at least once per year during the summer months.   However, it has become increasing more difficult as the years pass. I still follow the team as closely as ever via the internet.  During my time at UVM, I was closest to TJ, Matt Johnson and Billy Bright.

POPGATES: What lessons from Coach Brennan stand out most?

RH: The lessons learned from Coach Brennan have to do with more than basketball.  He set the example of always keeping a positive perspective in life.  During my freshman year, we only won three games. Yet, Coach never let us see his frustration. He let us know that you have to believe you will be good before you can become good.  The power of positive belief is essential. This was TB’s greatest gift to me.

POPGATES: If you have anything to add, the floor is yours.

RH: I thank you for allowing an old catamount the opportunity to take a stroll down memory lane.  My days at UVM were truly some of the best of my life.  The boosters at UVM – people like Mrs. Gucciardi (“Mama Gooch”) and others – helped to ensure that a Jersey kid felt right at home in the Green Mountain State. Finally, I would like to congratulate my old track & field teammate and roommate, Dan Bokan, on his pending induction into the UVM athletic Hall of Fame.  Dan was an excellent athlete and good guy.

POPGATES: Last one: Momma Gooch’s best dish in your humble opinion?

RH: Your question is akin to asking a parent which of his children he loves the most!  Can’t be done… All of Mrs. Gucciardi’s dishes were outstanding!  That being said, if somehow a plate of her spaghetti and meatballs showed up at my home, I would be in pure heaven.