If Chuba Ohams had followed his gut reaction and transferred from Fordham University last spring in the wake of a coaching change, it’s possible he never would have gone to the opera.
But after a talk last spring with new men’s basketball coach Kyle Neptune, Ohams was convinced that Neptune was interested in bonding with him and helping him develop not just as a basketball player but as a man. One experience at a time.
And so it was that Ohams came to find himself on a recent sunny Friday afternoon stuffing his 6-foot-8 frame into a cushioned seat in Row D of one of the balconies of the Metropolitan Opera for a dress rehearsal of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which officially opened Sept. 27 after the Met had been closed for 18 months due to the pandemic and is the first opera featuring a Black composer in the 138-year history of the famed opera house. It’s a good thing nobody was seated in the chair in front of Ohams because he was able to stretch out and get some much needed extra leg room.
Neptune “didn’t make any promises to me, he just pretty much told me how he could develop me more as a man, and that alone showed me that he cared about me much more than on the court,” Ohams, a Bronx native and graduate student with the Rams, said after the opera had concluded.
“He didn’t tell me he was going to take me to the opera, but he definitely told me that we’re going to do a lot of events that I’m going to enjoy.”
After taking over in March, Neptune, 36, spent this summer leading his new players through a variety of experiences in and around New York City aimed at building team bonding, including a boat ride around the Statue of Liberty, a paintball excursion in The Bronx and the opera.
A Brooklyn native who played college basketball at Lehigh, Neptune, whom the players call “Nep,” had been an assistant under Jay Wright during Villanova’s recent run of winning seven Big East regular-season titles, four Big East Tournament titles and two NCAA championships (2016 and ‘18). Now he’s in charge of changing the culture at a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2015-16 and hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1992.
“We want them to legitimately have New York City experiences,” said Neptune, who came to the opera nattily dressed in a blue suit sans tie with a matching pocket square. “There’s not a lot of places in the world they have these types of high-level experiences and while they’re here, we want to make sure that they have a chance to experience them.
“And in 10 years, you never know how something like this affects them. Whether it’s having a conversation with somebody over dinner or it puts in their mind that they like the performing arts and they want to be a director, or they meet someone and they can say, ‘I’ve been to this play, I’ve been to the Met,’ and that leads to something else. You just never know how these things are going to effect guys.”
Ohams and eight other Fordham players traveled with Neptune, several assistants and other support staff in four cars from campus to the Met. They milled about under the sun near the fountain in front of the opera house and were then greeted by Rebecca Hargrove, an opera singer whose career began when she obtained a scholarship to the YoungArts program that identifies accomplished young artists and provides them with opportunities.
With Ohams and the players in a semi-circle around Hargrove, she explained that Fire Shut Up In My Bones is based on a memoir by New York Times columnist and CNN commentator Charles Blow that was then turned into a script by Kasi Lemmons, who began her career acting in Spike Lee’s School Daze and most recently directed Harriet about abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Hargrove told the players that the opera would show vignettes of Blow’s life from 1978 when he was 7 to his freshman year at Grambling State University. She didn’t mention that the main character, Charles, turned out to be a basketball star, too.
“There’s a lot of of suggestive material, there’s a lot of cursing, this is not going to be your basic Mozart or Beethoven opera,” Hargrove said. “The entire cast is all African-American.” Hargrove tipped the players off that subtitles were available in the headrests so each person could read what was being sung.
When Ohams sat down in his seat, he was afraid the opera might last four hours and he wasn’t sure he could survive it. It turned out only to be about two and half with a 30-minute intermission.
“I enjoyed it,” he said when it was over. “I definitely enjoyed the whole dancing part, That was the best part.”
As for the the fact that it featured the first Black composer in the history of the Met, Ohams said, “It was my first opera, so it was a good experience regardless. It helps that it’s the first Black composer. It drew my interest a lot more, just hearing that.”
The opera was certainly less painful than the paintball trip for Ohams.
“It hurt, it hurt a lot,” he said, adding that Henry Lowe, the team’s director of operations, had drilled him a few times in the body during paintball. “When you’re tall like myself I’m an easy target. A lot of body shots. I stayed with it but i wish I didn’t.”
“That’s part of the game,” Lowe, standing nearby, retorted.
Two of Ohams’ new teammates, Antonio Daye Jr. and Darius Quisenberry, transferred in from Florida International and Youngstown State, respectively.
While they had participated in paintball and other bonding experiences like going to the movies at their previous schools, they, too, had never attended the opera.
“Obviously, it was long but I didn’t mind that too much,” Daye said. “It was a new experience. I think it was dope and it was really cool.”
Said Quisenberry: “We never went to any operas, we don’t have anything like this in Ohio.
“I have only heard of operas on TV, I’ve never been to one so really I didn’t know what to expect,” he added. “It was actually a lot different from what I expected. It was cool to witness the first ever Black-scripted play in the history of the Met, which is something so I got to witness history.”
He added: “That’s what I mean with Nep’ just exposing us and broadening our horizons, just getting us out in New York City and experiencing different things.”
For a team that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since the first Bush Administration, can these types of experiences really translate onto the court once the season begins?
“Absolutely,” Quisenberry said. “If you build a bond off the court, it’s going to show on the court. I think just being around the guys, spending time with each other, that’s the most important part. Building that family unit because if you’re unbreakable off the court, you’re going to be even more unbreakable on the court.”