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Growing up basketball: Son of a coach, Ackerman felt destined to pursue game

By JOEY OSTER/ VN STAFF WRITER
On March 24, 2015

BY JOE OSTER

VN STAFF WRITER

Pat Ackerman has not lived a normal life.

Sprouting to 6’10” before his junior year of high school at Worcester Academy, Ackerman could envision feats that most players can only dream of, such as playing Division 1 hoops or maybe even in the NBA.

As the son of a college coach, he was deep within the world of basketball before he could walk, but nothing could prepare him for perhaps the most grueling destiny for a former prep star: an NCAA journeyman.

Tom Ackerman, now retired, coached college basketball for over 20 years, most notably at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, where he won the PSAC East Coach of the Year award twice. His success at Mansfield, which included finishing with a top-ten ranking in all of Division II, spiked interest from other colleges around New England.

With an offer from Assumption College, Tom and his wife Gretchen uprooted their two children, Meghann and Patrick, 14 and 7 at the time, and moved to Rutland, Mass.

Pat was always destined to fall in love with the game that his dad lived and breathed.

“I’ve had a ball in my hand since I was born,” Ackerman said.

The move only further shaped Ackerman into the gym rat that he still is today. His father taught him how to shoot and even let him participate in pre-practice shooting and ball-handling drills with the Assumption team.

Naturally, Ackerman began playing in rec leagues and for his middle school teams.

After eighth grade, he enrolled at Wachusett Regional High School.

Always looking for a pick-up game, he regularly made his way to the gym at nearby Worcester Academy, a basketball prep school powerhouse.

This wasn’t just some gym Ackerman chose at random to regularly hoop and hang.

“Pick-up games are big at prep schools,” said Ackerman. “You would start pick-up games just so that the coach would come out and watch.”

He was already close with Worcester assistant coach Jamie Sullivan, who he played for throughout grade school, but Ackerman wanted to catch the eye of Ed Reilly, head coach and athletic director.

After finishing his sophomore year at Wachusett, he transferred to Worcester.

Already fairly well known in the basketball program, Ackerman reclassified as a sophomore in order to gain three years of eligibility.

It wasn’t until the summer before his junior year that he blossomed as a player. While playing AAU for Sullivan’s team, the Middlesex Magic, Ackerman regularly played in 10-11 games over a two-day period, since he started on both the U16 and U17 squads.

That summer snowballed into standout junior and senior campaigns for Ackerman.

He averaged 10 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game as a junior and was nominated for the 2011 McDonald’s All-American game.

Naturally, Division I colleges began sniffing around the shot-blocking center with a mid-range game.

Ultimately, Ackerman passed up the likes of Sienna, Minnesota and Harvard to play for Ed DeChellis at Penn State University.

His letter of intent was signed and he looked forward to four long years competing in the Big Ten, arguably college basketball’s strongest conference.

Unfortunately, a wrench was thrown into Ackerman’s plans.

Months before the start of his freshman season, DeChellis, the man who recruited him, stepped down at PSU and accepted the head coaching job at Army.

Pat Chambers was hired to succeed DeChellis.

Ackerman met with his new head coach for lunch before the season began.

“He assured me that things were going to be good, but once I got there, no hard feelings or anything, but it was just wasn’t what I had expected,” recalled Ackerman. “It was just a tough situation for everybody there.”

Ackerman barely saw any action in his two years at Penn State and averaged a measly 3.3 minutes per game. He decided it was time for a change and requested to be released from his scholarship.

Looking for a suitable transfer school, Ackerman turned to his father’s former assistant and lifelong friend, Pat Donnelly, for advice. Donnelly, who coaches at U of D Jesuit High School, advised him to look into University of Detroit Mercy.

He contemplated transferring to a DII school, which would allow him to not sit out a year, but Ackerman saw the potential of a redshirt year as an advantage to improve his craft.

Eventually, he decided on Detroit.

“Here, it’s just ball. There were a lot of other things at Penn State that could distract you and get you off what you’re trying to do,” said Ackerman. “That definitely helped my decision.”

Especially without distractions, Ackerman’s redshirt year was exceptionally tough. He would have to put in all the work of being a member of a D1 team without the solace of playing actual basketball games.

“The grind of it just sucks. Since I wasn’t playing, I had to lift everyday,” said Ackerman. “The team gets to sleep in, and I’m in there every morning at 7 a.m. building muscle.”

A transfer’s redshirt year usually becomes a slippery slope. A guy can unintentionally put on some winter fat without the normal cardio of competing in games. Naturally possessing a lanky build, has has always found it difficult to consistently put on weight, be it muscle or fat.

While trying to keep up with his cardio, strength and conditioning, Ackerman said he was told by a coach, “We don’t care if you’re fat. We need you to get fat!”

The purgatory that was his redshirt season was nearing an end, and Ackerman could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Unforeseen, there were still many tough times ahead.

After starting at center for the first handful of games at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, the 23-year-old junior began to see his role quickly diminish. After regularly playing in 15 to 20 minutes per game, that number quickly dropped to single digits.

The turning point, not only for Ackerman but also for the entire Titans season, came on Dec. 13 in a home game against the 11-ranked Wichita State Shockers.

The heavily favored Shockers team was fresh off an undefeated regular season the year prior with their eyes set on a possible Final Four appearance.

Detroit played up to the competition, as did Ackerman.

His numbers were modest, 2 points, 3 rebounds and a block, but Ackerman left his stamp on the game, going to the floor for loose balls and making countless hustle plays.

Ahead one point, the Titans found themselves five minutes from a monumental upset.

The tables began to turn; Detroit collapsed, and lost by nine.

Both UDM and Ackerman were never really able to regain their momentum after that game.

Ackerman and the team’s season became microcosms for each other.

The loss led to a six-game skid of losses and second-half breakdowns for Detroit.

Ackerman saw his minutes continually diminish.

Nonetheless, he said he put the team above himself and tried to contribute in any way he could.

“It’s one thing if you’re not playing and winning,” he said. “When you’re losing, then it’s really tough and you’ve just got to encourage those guys (the rest of team) and stay positive.”

Still, Ackerman and the entire Titans program optimistically looks forward to the 2016 season.

The team will regroup and look to Ackerman as a senior leader, especially with the major hole left with the graduation of Juwan Howard, Jr., a two-time all-Horizon League selection.

Said Howard: Ackerman “comes from a basketball family, so he knows the game. He can shoot for his size and has a good hook shot. Off the court, he’s a great guy.”

For next season, Ackerman characteristically dreams of team glory over personal accomplishment.

“It’s cliché but it doesn’t matter if I’m starting,” he said. “It’s who’s finishing the game. That’s where you want to be, really. I want a ring, man. Just to play in the NCAA tournament and get a ring.”

This offseason will be more of the same. Ackerman will be back in the weight room, trying to gain that elusive muscle – with hopes that the extra strength will pay off with some hardware. 

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