VALPARAISO, Ind.—One of college basketball’s most fearsome rim protectors was discussing his reading material these days.
Let’s see, there’s the book about the giraffe that can’t dance. And another about the sounds a cow makes. Valparaiso’s Vashil Fernandez -- reigning defensive player of the year in the Horizon League and one of the most prolific shot swatters in the land – reread that one about three times just the other day, after breakfast.
But then, what little Maia wants, little Maia gets.
Not many college centers out there can say that. But then, not many can say they didn’t pick up a basketball until they were 17 years old. Not many can say they grew up in a house with 15 kids back in Jamaica – with the kitchen attached to the house and the bathroom outside. Not many can say they are closing in on a master’s degree in international economics and finance, which will go nicely with the master’s they’ve already earned in international commerce and policy.
Six years ago, Fernandez had never played an organized game of basketball. Now he is a primary force for the defending champions of the Horizon League. The Crusaders return 98.8 percent of the scoring from a 28-6 team that pushed Maryland to the brink in the NCAA tournament last March, before giving way by three points. Nobody – nobody – should sleep on Valpo this season.
No, not many can match Vashil Fernandez’ journey.
"He’s a grown man," Valpo coach Bryce Drew was saying. "So when we have our conversations, it’s not always a coach to player. A lot of times it’s man to man. A lot of it is about life. He knows what he wants, and he knows where he wants to be."
But first, maybe we should take note of where Fernandez has been.
Vashil never knew his father back in Jamaica. His mother had to go into Kingston to work, so the kids – two girls, four boys – had to stay in the country with their grandmother and several other family members. Fifteen children, four adults, three bedrooms. You do the math.
"The last time I went back and looked at it, I thought it was crazy. How could you fit 19 people in that house?" he said. "But back then, we didn’t care about that. We cared about having a roof over our head. We had each other. We were excited about having something."
"Some days yes, some days no."
The kids hunted for birds and fished off the river bank. Young Vashil played a little soccer, ran a little track, as all Jamaican kids seem to do. He was 17 when he decided to try basketball.
"I couldn’t dribble. I traveled. It was horrible. One time I dunked the ball and didn’t land on my feet. I landed on my butt. But I was dedicated to learning it."
Learn, and love the game, he did. He moved to the city with his mother, and played in high school. He grew better, stronger, surer. There seemed only one place to go. America. Play at a prep school, and then, who knows what might happen?
It was a risk worth taking, even as he left his loved ones behind. Nobody in the family had ever gone to college before, and he would be representing all of them.
"Everyone was very excited for me, seeing that I was trying to go out and do something not just for me, but for all of them," he said. "It was bigger than just me."
He landed at Princeton Day Academy in Maryland, and it was not long before college coaches found him. They met a player with a game very much under development but also a studious young man wise beyond his years.
"One of the conversations we had, I asked him how his night was going," Drew recalled, He said, "I’m reading Ezekiel.’’’
Bible study, basketball, and a deep sense of finding success for the family he left behind, all in a body heading for 6-10, that’s what someone would get with Vashil Fernandez.
He saw snow for the first time in his life in Maryland, and was so excited he went in shorts and a tank top to build a snowman. "I probably won’t ever do that again" He was certain of his next move after one visit to Valparaiso. He had never heard of the place before, but he loved it. He sat out his first year, came off the bench the next, started half the games the next and last season become a full-blown force in the paint, taking the Crusaders defense to another level.
"It completely changed Valpo as a team," Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. "They’re the only team in the league that has that. He’s a unique entity ... he makes them who they are."
Valparaiso was sixth in the nation last season in field goal percentage defense at 38.2, and Drew said the entire scheme was built around Fernandez. "With his ability to protect the rim, I always tell the other guys they need to take him to lunch, because he bails them out a lot."
This by a player, as Drew mentioned, "who came to college basically with less than 60 to 80 games he’d ever played in his whole life."
Meanwhile, the rest of Fernandez’ student life was blossoming, too. He was determined thrive academically, to be a role model to his siblings. He joined nearly every club he could find. It was as if he wanted to know everyone in the Valparaiso zip code. "As far as the student-athlete is concerned, he is the ultimate model," Drew said. "We have over 50 different countries represented on our campus, and he is the most popular guy on campus."
One day, playing in a pickup game with other students, he took a pass from a young woman named Bridget Eichner and dunked. Maybe that was an omen. "I knew," he said, "we were meant to be."
By last spring, Vashil was proposing to her on Senior Day. They were married in May, one week after graduation. Maia had already come along. He was a family man, and that meant the world to him, for there was always the shadow of the father he never knew. He heard stories that the man had died when Vashil was 12. He heard stories he might still be alive.
"I still don’t know," Fernandez said. "It was hard. For a long time, I was really mad at him, mad at the situation, mad at my own family for giving me a run-around story. Now that I have had my own child, I learned to forgive and forget about the situation. I always told myself that when I became a father, I was going to try to be the best dad I could be, do my all to protect my family and make sure they have a better life than I did."
Hence, the books about giraffes and cows, the special Wednesday mornings, the 5 a.m. alarm to get up and start making breakfast, the appreciation for special moments he never knew. And the expertise in diaper changing. "I feel like I picked up where I left off," Fernandez said. "Growing up with a lot of siblings, I had to change a lot of diapers."
Maia and Bryce Drew’s son hugged one another last season. Drew predicted the toddlers will probably be playing together during games this year; a scene few programs could match.
Fernandez has more goals. He wants to help Valpo have the best season in its history. Even better than the Sweet 16 trip in 1998, which included the live-forever-in-highlights buzzer beater to upset Mississippi by ... Bryce Drew.
He wants that second master’s. And he really wants one other thing. Sophia Green was able to get a visa and the family found enough money to get her here last spring for her son’s graduation and wedding. But she has never seen Vashil play in a basketball game in person. Not once. How he would love to make that happen.
"My mom was right there when basketball started taking off for me, and the door was opening for me," he said. "It would be awesome to know my mom was here, able to see me play basketball."
He hopes to get a shot to play professionally, but there is always a real world road to take for a man with two master’s degrees. But either way, things will be good, for his mother, for his siblings, for his wife and daughter. That’s why he’s here.
"I know it’s hard for everybody back there," he said. "I know what needs to be done. I appreciate that I was able to figure out what my calling was and what God had planned for my life.
"It’s all coming into play."