More than meets the eye: behind the scenes with team manager Freesman

Noor Ashouri

[nicevideo link=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TcjC_8rjqM”]

Photo by Sara Ricevuto.
Photo by Sara Ricevuto.

Zack Freesman sits under the basket. His fingers are laced, feet spread apart, leaning forward. His eyes follow the ball intently. His shoes look like they’ve just been taken fresh out of the box. They are his game day shoes. It’s UNF vs. USC Upstate.

When one of the players slips, Freesman grabs the towel on his right, gets on his knees, and sweeps the sweat up beside the fallen player. This technique assures the court isn’t slippery. “If a guy goes diving for a ball, it leaves a streak of sweat, a slip and slide,” Freesman said. “Especially Romelo Banks. He sweats more than anyone on the team.”

Just before the game, Freesman stands under the hoops, helping players warm up. Freesman is one of five team managers. Coach Matthew Driscoll simply calls them student coaches. But they like to call themselves ‘the wolfpack.’ “(It’s) from the movie The Hangover,” Freesman said, “Started as one and grew from there.”

Although fans mostly see team managers on towel duty, Coach Driscoll warns the position is much more than meets the eye. He said he had a former team manager go on to become a Division I head coach. Team managers dedicate an enormous amount of time to this job, often coming early and leaving later from two-hour practices six days a week and going on trips with the players. They help go through practice plans with the coach, help execute drills, and help the players in whatever they need.

A few years ago, it was Freesman out on the court. He played basketball growing up. Senior year of high school, Freesman spent his Thanksgiving break sending over 100 emails to Division III college coaches, letting him know who he was. He got responses. But decided he wanted a head start on a different career path.

Zack Freesman sits on high alert during the game. Photo by Sarah Ricevuto.
Zack Freesman sits on high alert during the game. Photo by Sarah Ricevuto.

“At some point you’re going to have to hang your shoes up and I knew I wasn’t going to make money playing the game I love,” Freesman said. “You can’t play your whole life.” Freesman, a sports management sophomore, wants to be a college basketball coach. He’s known this since his freshman year of high school.

During every time out, Freesman gets up from his chair on the sideline and huddles in with the basketball players. He likes hearing what Driscoll has to say. The only exception is when Freesman left about halfway through the game to get Subway for the players.

He first met Driscoll when he came to his high school, Cypress Bay High School, looking for one  of Freesman’s teammates. Freesman had gotten into other schools like UCF and FSU.  But Driscoll sold him to join the UNF team. “I knew where I was going to school that day,” Freesman said. “It didn’t matter what the campus looked like.”

But it’s what Driscoll does off the court that’s won Freesman over. “We’ll be in the middle of practice. It’s a 6 o’clock practice in the morning. We’ll have maintenance workers coming in,” Freeman said. “He’ll stop and say, ‘good morning.’”

The respect goes both ways. Driscoll said Freesman has a servant’s heart. He is someone who wants to make your life better, no matter who you are. “He’s not gonna let a chair not get picked up,” Driscoll said.

The night of UNF vs. USC Upstate, Freesman didn’t finish work till midnight despite the game ending around 10. He was on laundry duty. He does this without pay, at least not financially. Freesman gets paid in t-shirts. He’s wearing a North Florida t-shirt as he’s talking to me. He’s collected about 10 so far and wears them everyday.

Zack Freesman sits with his other team managers on the sideline. Photo by Sarah Ricevuto.
Zack Freesman sits with his other team managers on the sideline. Photo by Sarah Ricevuto.

“The only time I’m not wearing a North Florida t-shirt is when I take my girlfriend out on a date,” Freesman said. He wears them all the time for a reason.This is his life. His girlfriend, Jillian Baumeister, said no matter what difficulties he’s had that day, Freesman always goes back to saying he loves the game. The passion has rubbed off on Baumeister, who said she goes to every home game and loves basketball now too. Although she admits she sometimes has a hard time keeping up.

“I’m trying to learn,” Baumeister said. “I ask him all these questions.”

Freesman’s passion can be seen during the game, even if he isn’t playing on the court. Freesman claps when he’s impressed and shakes his head when the opposing team scores. His eyes seem to never leave the game. After talking to him, neither does his head.

Email Noor Ashouri at [email protected]