Emmanuel Saints making it fun again

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Joe Tamburro handling the ball in a game against Emerson. (Emmanuel athletics photo by Mike Broglio)
Joe Tamburro, the team's leading 3-point shooter, provides Emmanuel with instant scoring off the bench. 
Emmanuel athletics photo by Mike Broglio

By Brian Lester

Basketball is fun again for Joe Tamburro and his Emmanuel College teammates.

The Saints are in the midst of their best season in quite some time.

With 15 wins and just five losses through 20 games, including a 6-1 mark in the GNAC, they will be guaranteed to finish with their first winning season in a decade. Emmanuel finished 17-11 in 2008-09.

It beats the recent history of the program, which has only 17 years of history to begin with. The Saints won just 21 games the past three years. That wasn’t fun at all.

“It’s tough and frustrating,” Tamburro said. “We didn’t want to go through that again.”

It’s different this season. Tamburro will take it.

“It’s been the most fun I’ve had playing basketball in a while, maybe in my lifetime,” the senior guard said. “There are more fans at games than I’ve seen in my entire four years here. There’s a lot of excitement on campus. It’s good to see.”

The turnaround is impressive without a doubt. New head coach Danny Lawson has played a big part in it.

Danny Lawson, Emmanuel men's basketball coach, with his players during a timeout. (Emmanuel photo by Mike Broglio)
Danny Lawson has worked at multiple levels of college and pro ball, but grew up around small college basketball.
Emmanuel photo by Mike Broglio

Perhaps to outsiders what the Saints are doing is downright surprising. To Lawson, in some ways, this was expected.

“I realized when I took the job that I had a great group of guys here, some talented players,” Lawson said. “They were hungry to achieve. They were motivated and excited about a new start. It renewed their competitiveness and have all bought into their roles.”

That much is evident by looking at the statistics. Seven players average six or more points per outing. Three are in double figures, including Tamburro, who is pouring in 14.3 points per outing.

Emmett Riddick leads the team in scoring at 15.9 points per game. Marcus Fox is in double figures as well, at 13.3.

Tamburro said from day one everyone was willing to do whatever it took to win.

“We knew we were all going to buy in,” Tamburro said. “We wanted to get everyone involved. We were tired of losing. We were going to do everything in our power to make sure it didn’t happen this year.”

Lawson said the willingness of the players to be all in has made a world of difference.

“There is always a transition when a new coaching staff comes in, but I think the buy-in, the excitement they had, allowed that process to speed up,” Lawson said. “The guys are comfortable in our motion offense and in our man-to-man defense. They have become the best versions of themselves and that has helped the team succeed.”

Lawson is a head coach for the first time in his life. But he knows the game well. His dad, Jay, is the long-time head coach at NCAA Division II Bentley. He played for him while in college.

“I’ve spent my life around small college basketball. I’d be stupid to say that it didn’t help,” Lawson said with a laugh.

In terms of coaching a team in practice, in games, there’s no question Lawson has used a lot of what he learned from his dad in that respect to his advantage.

But it’s what his dad did away from a practice or a game that has stuck with him more than anything else and has proven valuable in his own coaching journey.

“He always developed close personal relationships with his players, and I always felt like the buy in they gave back was at such a high level because of that,” Lawson said. “I saw the amount of time he spent with the guys off the court in his office, in the weight room, and that is instinctively something I wanted to do when I came here.”

Lawson, a former star on a Bentley team that won 101 games in his career, has coaching experience at nearly every level of the game. He was an assistant at Endicott before he came to Emmanuel.

Prior to that, he spent close to five years at Duquesne as an assistant and the director of basketball operations. He’s also made stops at LIU Brooklyn and Le Moyne.

And then there is that season he spent with the Boston Celtics. Fresh out of college, he landed a job as the assistant video coordinator, working alongside Danny Ainge, Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau during the Celtics’ 2008 NBA championship season.

He’s been able to use that experience with the Celtics to his advantage as well.

“It was surreal, especially the timing of it,” Lawson said. “I think the biggest thing I drew off that was the uniqueness of the season. To see the Big 3 come together, a group of players that had achieved a lot individually, and then sacrifice that to come together and win a championship was a great example of what it takes to be a great team.”

Lawson has seen this team do the same. The players have made stats secondary to winning.

“Everyone knows their role,” Tamburro said. “We are moving the ball around and different guys are stepping up. No one is looking for their points. It’s all about getting the win.”

The Saints entered the first full week of February with a half-game lead over Suffolk. Four teams have two losses or fewer in conference play, which consists of a single round-robin in an 11-team league.

Lawson is confident his team will finish strong and be in a position to win a GNAC title. He’s reminded his players, though, that nothing will come easy down the stretch.

“We’re in a different situation now. We’re not catching anyone by surprise like maybe we did earlier in the season,” Lawson said. “The guys have embraced that. They understand the focus and concentration they need every night because they are getting everyone’s best shot.”

It beats the alternative.

“The past three years were tough, and being down makes you appreciate what is going on now,” Tamburro said. “We have to keep putting in the hard work. We know what we are capable of accomplishing if we play our best basketball.”

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