The Anomaly

Andrew Locke ’11 has gotten used to standing out, to being an exception. He certainly stood out in Hoboken, New Jersey, on a November afternoon in 2007 when he first pulled on a blue basketball jersey, the word “Middlebury” emblazoned across the chest, and loped onto the court, standing six feet ten inches tall, arms and legs and elbows and knees somehow connected to a paper-thin torso that, all together, wouldn’t have weighed 200 pounds if it were soaking wet and logged with 10 pounds of water. He played 18 minutes in a 46-point demolition of the Merchant Marine Academy. In a sign of things to come, he blocked five shots, about one every three minutes or so. During the next four years, he’d block 372 more.

As a neuroscience-economics double major, he’s an exception (“there was a girl a couple of years ago who did this”), and he was the exception when he chose to spend the fall semester of his junior year abroad, not in Europe or South America, but in Cape Town, South Africa, where, as a very tall, white American, he was not just a curiosity, but a novelty.

What about downing those five protein shakes a day and countless plates of scrambled eggs, putting in those extended hours in the weight room? Not many 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds spend their summers this way. (“Guys like me have a hard time putting on weight,” he says with a shrug and a hint of a smile.) But then again, not many college kids are determined, hellbent, really, to add 40–50 pounds of stock and muscle so that they will be strong enough to carry a team, a program, and take it places it has never been.

And so it goes.

“There is no one [else] like Andrew Locke at the Division III level,” says the coach of a rival school. “You don’t see kids like him [in Division III]. And I’m not just talking about his height, but his athleticism, his instincts, his timing. When he’s on the court, he changes the game. Period.”

Case in point—when his career ended in the national semifinals, Andrew Locke’s marks on the Middlebury record books became indelible. Most blocks in a game: 13. Most blocks in a season: the top three entries (114, 113, and 94) are Locke’s. Most blocks in a career: 377. That figure will never be sniffed. And what about all the shots he altered, intimidated? Not even days of watching tape could quantify the number of shots people didn’t take at all.

“Having him back there [on defense] allowed us to do some things,” chuckles Middlebury head coach Jeff Brown. “It allowed us to be very aggressive defensively.”

Yes it did: Middlebury led the nation in field-goal-percentage defense this year, and the Panthers rode that defense all the way to Virginia and the DIII Final Four, picking up its second NESCAC title and setting a school record for wins in a season along the way.

*

A world away from Pepin Gymnasium, with its gleaming hardwood floors, thumping sound system, and retractable baskets with breakaway rims is a dusty, garbage-strewn soccer “field” in the largely impoverished Cape Town suburban township of Gugulethu.

If you had stumbled upon this place on an October day in 2009, you would have seen an insanely tall, white man and a contingent of black African children spending the entire day, morning and afternoon, clearing the area of glass.

While studying at the University of Cape Town, Andrew Locke volunteered in Gugulethu, where he taught and coached children and adolescents the game of basketball. On this day, though, the kids wanted to play soccer, so Locke and his group departed for the field. Upon arrival, the stunned American discovered its hazardous condition, made more dangerous by the fact that most of the kids were barefoot. “So, we spent the day picking up glass,” Locke says. “And then later we played. Obviously, it was a good thing to clean up the field and to give the kids a place to play, but I hope it also instilled a sense of pride, a sense of responsibility to take care of what was theirs.”

Sitting at a table in the Davis Library’s Wilson Café on an April afternoon, Locke becomes animated when telling this story. “How do you best motivate people? That’s what I’m most interested in.”

This mindset was evident on the basketball court this year, of course (Locke was one of three senior captains on an extremely close-knit team), and, as he explains it, there’s a seamless connection with his experience in South Africa and his work in neuroscience and economics.

“Human behavior is endlessly fascinating to me,” says Locke. “This [double major] gives me a really broad view of how and why people do what they do. It helps me understand what people want to do, why they want to do it, and what their constraints might be.”

With this in mind and graduation just a month away, Locke is considering a return to Africa, where he hopes to become involved with development work in communities that have a great need for it. He’s in the middle of the application process for a Peace Corps opportunity in Mozambique and mentions two other countries in Africa  (Ghana and South Africa) as places where he may end up.

But first, there’s a much more conventional option, for the likes of Locke anyway. He’s looking into the possibility of playing basketball professionally in Europe, preferably in Spain. He loves the game too much not to look into it, he says, though he admits that he wonders—and worries about—how putting on another uniform and playing with people who are not his best friends would compare to this year, this magical season.

*

Let’s be Andrew Locke for a moment, shall we? Let’s observe human behavior. See that photo at the top of this page, that image of a smiling Locke in the Davis Library? The one that was taken when there were still games to be played? Today the smile’s not quite as large when talk turns to the season, the one that ended with the school record of 28-2. “It’s silly, I know, but right now, talking about how well we did, how we accomplished things that had never been done here before . . . it doesn’t console me. We were supposed to win that game [a 59-57 loss to eventual national champion St. Thomas], and then we were supposed to win the next one.”

Now, before you take these words as a sign of a malcontent, listen harder; take a moment more to observe.

“I’m at a loss for words, really,” he says when asked to explain why this year’s team was so cohesive, so close. “We deeply wanted to win games; we wanted to win for each other. Everyone, every one of us felt this way, and, because of that, we just felt like we couldn’t lose. This won’t make sense, but if we had known that we were going to lose [our last game] . . . we would have figured out a way to make sure that didn’t happen.”

The hardest part, he adds, was seeing pictures of people who had packed into the Grille to watch a webcast of the game. “Up until then, we had been able to give them so much to be happy about. And then we let them down.”

Maybe with some time and distance, the pain will recede and the joy will remain, and what remains can be instilled in others—another team, a village, a people?

“Yeah,” he says. “You’re right. That’s a great way to think about it.”

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