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JUMPING THROUGH HOOPS: The story of Andrew Fava and Mak Krause

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Florida basketball’s walk-ons washed clothes, toweled floors and got battered by bigger, stronger players, all for an opportunity that they thought might never come. But when it did, it changed them — and those around them — forever.

 

The race is over now. Over before one runner realized it started and quicker than the other expected, though certainly not too soon. In lane one stands a lanky 6-foot-2 man with a TV-static beard, a rounded chin and a receding hairline. That’s Mak Krause, and he’d been jogging toward a non-existent finish line for over three years. In lane two stands a red-haired Irishman who’s actually Mexican-Italian, and who towers at “like 5’9” — maybe,” according to a friend. He’s Andrew Fava, and he’d been chasing that finish line called fate since he was 8 years old. Both men crossed together and were bestowed jerseys in place of medals.

Their journey toward those jerseys started every day at 5:30 a.m. with weightlifting at Southwest Rec using a strength plan devised by a former intern. Then they shuffled off to class or “hours.” As team managers, they had to sign up for either morning hours (9:30 to 11:30) or afternoon hours (12:30 to 2:30), and if they weren’t in class, regardless of what they signed up for, they’d better have been at Florida’s basketball complex to sanitize the locker room, cut up film, stuff suitcases for road trips, fetch the coaches lunch, wash yesterday’s sweaty practice jerseys, organize equipment, show recruits around, and if there was a game that day, sometimes they’d manage the visiting team’s shootaround. All with a smile and with energy, so help them, because a basketball program doesn’t need any negativity. “The time, the commitment,” Mak said, “it’s just unbelievable.”

The duo, along with some other managers, played coach Mike White’s staff every day in “noon ball.” White and assistants like Dusty May and Kyle Church usually throttled the team of errand boys. It helped their cause that whenever a former player like Schuyler Rimmer or Canyon Barry was in town, he’d play for the coaches. “They [win],” Andrew said. “A lot.” But those games gave Andrew and Mak an opportunity, despite the losses — an opportunity to show the coaches they could play.

“I always joke with the coaches not to get on Mak too hard,” Barry said, “because you’ll have to live with him after the game.”

Their early morning workouts were for noon ball. To help them stand out and maybe — just maybe — get noticed for those walk-on jerseys they’d always wanted. “We’d been practicing,” Mak said, “so it was in the back of our minds, but we didn’t wanna bring it up.” It had been in the back of Mak’s mind since he chose Florida on the last possible day to enroll. He’d played basketball since third grade and wanted to continue playing in college, but he also wanted to attend UF. He arrived thinking that perhaps some day he could walk on, but entering his fourth season in Fall 2017, those dreams of wearing a Florida jersey were nearly extinguished.

Andrew came to Florida from Maryland in the Fall of 2016 with no friends and a dream of walking on. “You can come here and manage,” Florida’s coaches told him, “and see what happens.” But this season, he grew impatient and concerned because as an outsider from Baltimore, his parents were paying almost $45,000 a year to support a dream that may die.

***

The race officially ended on Nov. 10, 2017, a date that, like their birthdays or Halloween or Christmas, will conjure childlike nostalgia and wonder for the rest of their time on Earth.

“Hard work, loyalty, company guy, commitment,” White said as a No. 14 jersey dangled from his fingers. As he continued, center John Egbunu looked back from the front row of the team meeting room with a smile as obvious as his 6-foot-11 body. So did Jalen Hudson and Chris Chiozza. White flipped the jersey to reveal “Krause,” and applause erupted like thunder. He wasn’t done.

“You guys ready?” White asked his team as center Gorjok Gak stood up. “I’ve got one more thing,” and Gak sat back down. He reached under the lectern in the front of the room. “Oooooh,” he said, “we’ve got another jersey.” And once again, when “Fava” was revealed, thunder.

Family and team

 

Of course the two of them knew already. They’d known for about a week, and so did their families. That didn’t alter the gravity of the moment. For those brief seconds they stood in front of their now-teammates, clutching the cloth of destiny, they were the center of the team they grew up rooting for, the Rocky, the Rudy, the miracle on ice.

Mak and Andrew both attended Catholic high schools, both took up organized basketball in third grade and both rooted for the Gators. Both of them played multiple sports, loved basketball the most and could’ve played at Division III schools. Both of them chose Florida instead.

Mak, though he’d largely accepted his fate as a manager, endured — no, embraced — endless toil for his moment. He washed oversized clothing and swabbed puddles of sweat proportional to the tree-sized men who produced them three years over for his moment. Andrew endured his size and circumstance as a white kid under 6-feet tall with dreams of being a bush in a forest, the frustration of college after college not calling back and his mother’s brush with death, all of it for his own moment.

How many among us had similar dreams in childhood? Dreams of scoring baskets for the Gators or scoring touchdowns for the Bucs or hitting homers for the Sox? How many among us reached them?

Mak and Andrew are the exception. For the rest of their lives, they can say they played basketball for the Gators when they’re two of only 551 to do so in the program’s hundred-plus-year history, and as walk-ons no less. Their families can claim their triumph as a source of pride, their coaches as a spring of inspiration. But what builds a person into someone capable of such achievement? Is it unique to them, or something within us all?

And with their race over, what happens to them now.

***

Mak stood outside Tolbert Hall in the afternoon glow of the O’Connell Center and waved goodbye to his parents, Valerie and Mark, as they puttered down Stadium Road in their Saturn Vue and faded into the asphalt. He was alone.

As he waited on the sidewalk and prepared to trek back to the dorm his parents just helped him organize, he wondered. He thought. He worried. None of his friends followed him to Florida from St. Pius X High School in Atlanta, but that was OK. He’d already made friends within the basketball program. Still, would he like Florida? Would he be happy without playing basketball on a team? He also had time to reminisce on how he got to that point, standing on the corner by himself.

St. Pius X

He thought back to how this started. How he grew up rooting for the Dolphins, Heat and Gators. His dad went to UF, so he loved Tim Tebow and Chris Leak.  They watched all the games together. He asked to have the Florida logo painted on his face at 6 years old. And every year, when he filled out his NCAA Tournament bracket, he scribbled in Florida winning regardless of its seeding. So when it was time to apply for college, only two major universities got essays from Mak: Florida and Georgia, with the latter serving as an in-state backup.

Mak wrote his essays about his other great love. He told the admissions committees about moving to Atlanta from Columbia, South Carolina, in 2006, which he’d moved to from Fort Lauderdale when he was 5, and about how he arrived in Georgia without any connections or friends. He’d played organized basketball since third grade, so he tried out for the Golden Lions seventh grade basketball team, a feeder program for St. Pius X. When coaches lined the kids up after practice and told them to step forward one by one, Mak wasn’t called.  

His older sisters, Dylan and Taylor, were in high school at the time. Both of them played basketball, and both of them woke up every summer morning at 6 to be in the gym by 7 to shoot, dribble and run until 9. They called these morning workouts “The Breakfast Club,” and a handful of coaches supervised the group. Mak, then a rising eighth grader, started joining his sisters for mornings of sweaty fundamentals. Then he went home and practiced by himself.

St. John

When tryouts for the Golden Lions eighth grade team arrived about a year later, Mak showed up again. And this time, his name was called and he stepped forward. Then he made his school’s freshman team, its JV team and — finally — its varsity team as a junior. He also played defensive back and wideout for the football team, but he gave that up after his sophomore year to focus on hoops. St. Pius’ offense flowed through Nick Harris, its 6-foot-10 center who now plays for the College of Charleston. That didn’t matter to Mak. He still told Florida and Georgia about his perseverance when faced with rejection. About how after he failed to make the seventh grade team, he never failed to make any team again. 

Aaron Parr coached Mak on the varsity team. At 6-foot-2 Mak played the wing, and Parr was honest: Nothing about him jumped off the stat sheet. But what he did have was intelligence.

“His basketball IQ was probably the highest on the team,” Parr said. He could play basically every position because he understood the offense, which came in handy during his senior year. St. Pius X was on the road at its rival, Blessed Trinity, and it was senior night for the Titans. Harris fouled out with five minutes left in regulation. And with three minutes left in overtime, bot of Pius’ starting post players had fouled out, much to the delight of Trinity’s 2,000 fans. So Parr moved Mak to the front court and asked him to guard Blessed Trinity’s 6-foot-6, 240-pound center.

Mak shut him down, led the team on offense and helped secure the two-point win.

His high school career culminated with the Golden Lion Award. It’s supposed to be presented to the person who best represents work ethic and a team-first attitude. Parr left a note on this rendition just for Mak. In it, he said Mak was one of the hardest workers he’d ever coached despite not being the most talented player on the court. Nobody, Parr continued, was more qualified than Mr. Breakfast Club himself.

While Mak struggled to stand out behind Harris, he saw his sisters have success in basketball. Taylor, the oldest, went to Florida State and was a manager on the basketball team. Dylan played basketball at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Mak first looked to Dylan for inspiration. Like her, he was getting interest — and money — from smaller northeastern programs. Salve Regina, DeSales and Manhattanville, to name a few. But he’d also gotten accepted to Florida, and as the May 1 decision deadline approached, he had to choose. Would he go to Florida, where he’d always wanted to go, or to a Division III school where he could play basketball, which he’d always wanted to do?

"What do you think, mom?” he asked Valerie. “What do you think?" But she didn’t know what to tell him. If he picked Florida, she reasoned, he’d always wonder where his college basketball career would’ve gone. And if he played basketball, he’d have to get rid of his cherished orange and blue everything.

Valerie remembered how when Mak started ninth grade, his school counselor asked him where he wanted to end up, and he said Florida. He took the SAT three times to improve his chances of getting in. Yet he could still hear the voice in his head begging him to reconsider. “But basketball…” it reminded him.

“He talked to a couple coaches,” Valerie said, “and he really, really struggled.”

He picked Florida. Where the hell else was he gonna go? The history was too much, the educational opportunity too great. Plus he could go fairly cheap with a Florida Prepaid plan. So with his choice made, he turned to Taylor. She’d managed at FSU, and Mak thought that might be a good way to stay involved with the game he loved. The day after he decided on UF, he messaged Florida’s director of basketball operations Darren Hertz, who contacted the head manager.

“You can come down and work camp,” Mak was told, but be warned. The position is prestigious, many people are trying out for a few spots and your odds are low. This was, after all, only two months removed from Florida’s 2014 run to the Final Four. Mak agreed to try it out. His first task: Coaching an overnight basketball camp during the summer.

He was working a summer job in Fort Lauderdale with the overnight camp two days away when he got a call from Gainesville. He was told they could use some extra help at a recruiting camp the next day if he was available. They told him this at 9 p.m.

They needed him at noon.

So Mak awoke around 5 and snaked up the half-dark, half-light interstate with no idea where he was sleeping that night. His next steps were from his car into the basketball complex, where he worked until 5. The team secured him a dorm for him that night, and the next day was the de-facto manager tryout camp. About 500 children attended. All the wannabe managers were placed with the same age group. They spent the day coaching teams and collaborating, all the while being observed by the men who would decide their fates as managers, all the while panicking on the inside while trying to look composed. When Mak moved in for his first Fall at Florida several weeks later, he hadn’t heard from them since.

Mak, whose name is actually Mark Andres Krause, has been called Mak since birth. His parents used the acronym of his initials as a nickname, and Mak insists that until he was 5, he didn’t know his real name. As he prepared to start college and watched his parents drive away, few in Gainesville knew that. The only ones who did were leaving.

“He was pretty sad,” his dad said, “and so were we.

“That was not a good day.”

But as he walked back to his room, Mak carried hope in his phone. He had a message to send.

***

Behold a game. A child’s game in its most basic form, played in front yards across America between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. Behold a bat made from a broomhandle, any broomhandle, with athletic tape on one end to help its wielders hold on in that moment of bliss when they smack a tennis ball to new heights, perhaps over the mailbox/foul pole in the driveway/right field. This was how Andrew Fava grew up, playing with his father, also named Andrew Fava, who raised his two children outside. Yes, in the Fava household, video games and TV were sought-after commodities, while sports were an everyday reality. But not organized sports. Just stickball, backyard toss and asphalt hoops.

“I kind of realized that when you put kids into sports these days at a young age,” Andrew senior, who friends call “The Fav,” said, “when nobody can really do anything, it's pretty boring for them.”

Instead, Andrew and The Fav organized entire stickball leagues in their imaginations. Teams like the Arizona Bomb Launchers played the Toledo Grumpies in a full-season format that included meticulous record tracking and playoffs. The games were played at Fava Field, also known as the family’s front yard. Players pitched at a net behind home plate — Andrew had to hit any part of the net to get a strike, while his dad had to hit the strike zone — and rounded rubber bases. Large trees in the outfield kept any of their hits from getting too far. All because The Fav, who played college baseball at North Carolina State, believed it would be more fun and make his son better at baseball. Whereas in an organized league he might bat twice in a game, here it was constant.

“Outside with me,” his father said, “he would swing that stick 200 times in two hours.”

As Andrew grew, so did the family stickball games. The Fav recruited his college buddies when they were in town to play against his son, while Andrew brought his friends onto his team. And the games weren’t free of incident. The Fav remembers one time when he smacked a pitch right back at his son. “He shook it off like he always does,” he said. Although he often let Andrew win as a child, the games got more heated as the years passed. “It would turn real competitive real quick in the Fava household,” said Cullen Kuhn, Andrew’s friend since kindergarten. They eventually took their game on the road, bringing equipment to other people’s houses and the beach. The Fav loved it in part because he was spending so much time with his son, but also because he loved baseball.

Baseball led him to his wife and Andrew’s mother, Maria. He was visiting his former NC State teammate Doug Strange, who was then an infielder for the Texas Rangers, in 1993 when they met. Maria was studying at the University of Texas at Arlington, and her roommate was dating Doug. With The Fav’s visit approaching, he asked Doug if he could set him up with a Texas woman. Doug asked his girlfriend, who asked Maria. “No, thank you,” she said. She wasn’t into athletes. But she soon relented and went to that game against the Orioles in July of ‘93. Then she saw him. "Oh, wow,” she thought. “He's kind of cute. Who is that guy?” They married just over a year later.

It’s tough to imagine a sport having a more profound impact on one’s life. Yet The Fav didn’t limit his children to his past. As much as he played stickball with Andrew, he also shot baskets and blocked out in driveway on the hoop beside the net. He woke up — and still wakes up — around 2:30 a.m. to work at the family’s produce company and got home in the range of noon-3 depending on his schedule. Andrew arrived home from school around the same time, and when he did, the two always headed outside. Sometimes his father prayed for darkness because of his exhaustion, but Andrew just wouldn’t put down the ball or broomstick. “One more dad,” he’d beg. “Just one more.” That earned him the nickname of Tasmanian Devil. He’s also called Frankie by his father’s Italian family — his full name is Francis Andrew Fava — and the Monk by his direct family because when he was young, he climbed over furniture like a monkey. His uncle, Joe Fava, never experienced that side of his nephew until the Monk was about 10 and uncle Joe was babysitting him and his younger sister, Alexandra. Joe took them to see a movie and asked them what they usually got at the movies. They answered a large Sprite and a box of candy, so that’s what they got.

“When we got in the car to go home, they turned into these two demons,” Joe remembers. “I don’t even understand what has transpired.”

The next morning, The Fav texted his brother asking how the kids behaved.

“Are you kidding me?” Joe answered. “They were horrible. They were just possessed.”

The Fav called and asked what he’d fed them. When Joe answered, he discovered that his niece and nephew never eat sugar and drink soda. To this day, they joke about why he’s never taken them to the movies again.

Andrew first played organized basketball, like Mak, in third grade. His mom still has the video of him suited up in the Immaculate Conception Elementary uniform, the Rocky theme song blaring in their car, as they drove to the court. “Andrew,” she told him, “this is your first game. This is so exciting. You actually get to go to an actual court and people are gonna be there.” Andrew pumped his fists and made no effort to conceal his excitement. At the game, where nobody knew him, he cut up the court on the game’s first possession and scored. "Holy crap!” his father remembers hearing. “Who is that kid?"

“I am so grateful that we still have that,” his mom added, “because that was the beginning of him finding that love.”

The love continued through middle school. Andrew’s friend Joe Sudano, who played with him, remembers his dedication. His drive. His talent. He summed up Andrew in three bullets. First, his work ethic and toughness. He remembers Andrew once taking a hard tumble on a drive to the basket. He laid on the floor for several seconds while his teammates panicked. Then he shot up from the elbows, did a pair of pushups and made the and-one free throw. “I’ve never seen a kid work harder at a younger age,” Sudano said. “This kid would literally play outside all day.” Second, his calm. He greets everyone, and Sudano’s mom Kate said he always gives her a hug when he enters her home. Right before he raids her kitchen for Oreos. “He is the most respectful kid I’ve ever met,” the younger Sudano said. “He’s my mom’s favorite one of my friends, hands down.” And third, his meekness. Andrew’s dad was the team’s coach in middle school and made his son do the ball carrying and cone stacking. One friend said if youth coaches have a reputation for showing their kids favoritism, Andrew’s dad was the glaring exception despite his son constantly scoring in the 20s and leading the team to wins. The harsh attitude rubbed off, and Sudano said Andrew was just as hard on himself if he scored 20 points and missed a couple free throws as his father. “He is the most humble kid for how good he was,” Sudano added.

While his basketball game blossomed, so did his love for Florida. He first noticed the Gators in 2006, when the Florida football team beat Ohio State to win a national title. Then again when the Gators beat the Buckeyes to win a national basketball title a year later. He rooted for Ohio State in those games, but he admits he jumped on the UF bandwagon after that. “Dad,” he told his father, “I really like Florida. They’re good at sports.”

“Well you know two of your aunts went there, right?” his dad answered.

And so his aunt/godmother, Angela Class, started bringing him hats and shirts and jerseys whenever she visited. His jump onto the bandwagon turned into an all-or-nothing plunge, and his room in Baltimore to this day features a Tim Tebow fathead on the wall along with a Florida flag, a Florida clock and several Florida stickers. Gator-head carpeting decorates the floor.

Tebow Room
Tebow Room 2

In addition to bringing him Gators merchandise, Class also watched her godson’s games. She remembers how aggressive he played, which his friends corroborated. “He was always getting in fights at recess,” Kuhn said, “over football games.” But that wasn’t natural. Brian Plunkett, who coached Andrew and his dad at Loyola Blakefield High School, said the younger Fava was different from his father in that sense.

“His father was just a bull in a china closet,” Plunkett said. “He just wanted to kick your ass all the time. Andrew’s different, and you had to push him… But Andrew got to that point.”

Andrew was always a great shooter. Anyone who knows him will tell you that. “He’s always had a great stroke,” his grandfather Frank Fava said. But he wasn’t very fast. Or strong. Or tall. So he drew on his stickball work ethic and practiced more than everyone else. It resulted in him making varsity as a sophomore. He also continued to play baseball, where coach Joe Pyzik said he showed off his coachability. Andrew wasn’t particularly talented in one area of baseball. He had some power for a small guy and could drive the ball in the gaps, and as a pitcher, he threw a not-very-fast fastball and a knuckle curve, making him a self-described junk baller. Pyzik said he remembers one time when Andrew waited for a first-pitch fastball and struck out on off-speed stuff later in the at-bat.

“You’re a first-pitch fastball hitter,” Pyzik told him after he’d trudged to the dugout. And on the next at-bat, Andrew heeded his coach’s advice and swung at the first pitch to get on base. But he also knew when to speak up. Once in a game against Mt. St. Joe, Andrew was yanked with the lead only to see his team blow it. The next time he was in a similar situation, he told the manager he wasn’t coming out. The team won that game against St. Paul.

But as his high school career neared the halfway point it was time to have a conversation with his dad. So they walked into the yard and spoke as fathers and sons do, with his dad laying out his options, knowing at that point that his son was unlikely to grow much more.  “I know college coaches,” The Fav said. “It's what I did. I can help you play college baseball. But, if you want to play basketball, I don't know anybody and you're going to be on your own.” His father didn’t want to discourage his son. He wanted him to be realistic, and he told him so: If he was going to play college basketball, he’d have to get lucky on top of playing perfectly.

“I like playing baseball,” Andrew answered. “I want to do it. But I love playing basketball."

And so his family planned a list of visits to potential colleges for their basketball-playing son. But his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer that November and had to undergo a double mastectomy. The cancer was caught early, her prognosis was hopeful and she wasn’t worried.  "This is no big deal,” she told her kids. “We're gonna get through this. It's nothing." That’s how death comes. With overconfidence and faith reaching the climax of their crescendo, it seeps in unnoticed when nothing can be done and takes everything, from a single life to a family’s life together. With trips planned and her son’s graduation in just over a year and her daughter set to start high school, Maria felt sick again. She went back to the hospital in January, and doctors found a cluster of tumors on her liver.

Maria believed she had weeks to live.

***

It was morning at the Florida basketball complex in the Fall of 2017. Sunlight streaked through the glass and danced on the team trophy case, where photographs and scissored nets remind visitors of the storied history of the program. Somewhere behind the case, in the bowels of the facility, Mak studied. He was there for morning hours and was struggling to squeeze in some school work between chores. Florida was set to play its first game of the season — a scrimmage against Tampa — later in the week, so he needed to prepare UF’s uniforms. But before that, he needed to get the coaches lunch. He put away his sports ethics project and found assistant coach Kyle Church, who told Mak that coach White needed to see him in his office.

Mak had been invited into White’s office before. Sometimes White needed an errand done, or just some coffee. But as Mak started his walk, his trudge turned to a near skip. “There’s not a huge chance,” he thought, “but maybe this is it.” It was the second time he’d had that thought regarding the Florida basketball program. The first came after his parents left him on the sidewalk as a freshman. He’d sent the head manager a message two weeks later, and he was told he’d be informed of his manager status in the coming weeks. He was also warned that freshmen getting hired was almost unheard of, and with about 60 other applicants and a core group returning, his odds were almost nonexistent. “But if you want,” he was told, “I haven't made my decision, and if you want to come and watch practice and workouts, we have them every day at 7 a.m.” Mak was there 15 minutes early for those workouts the next day.

He kept attending during that limbo period when he still wasn’t part of the team. Then, with about a week until the season started, the head manager sat him down. "I'm going to do something I never do," he told Mak. "I'm going to hire a freshman."

Being manager meant he worked under Billy Donovan, his idol, who as a typical New Yorkah quickly nicknamed his new manager “Mak the Knife.” Mak wanted to coach basketball after graduation, so learning from Donovan, he thought, was a great start down that path. Donovan also started to notice him. Once before a football game his freshman year, Mak was shuttling people from the basketball complex to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium when Donovan was due for a ride. But they got held up and chatted, and Mak ended up watching about a quarter of a televised game with Donovan before he dropped him off and returned to the facility.

Football games are big days for basketball recruiting, with tours and visits and meetings and outings, and managers are expected to help. That could mean anything from showing recruits around to arriving downtown an hour before a recruit is scheduled to dine with coaches to drive in circles and find a parking space, only to occupy the spot until coaches arrived with the recruits, back out to give the spot away and drive home, or perhaps back to the facility, where surely some player was in need of a rebounder. Because of his managerial duties, Mak has attended seven games in his four years of college.

And that’s just Saturday.

During the rest of the week, he was getting his wish. He played basketball by serving as a practice dummy, though it wasn’t always the dunkfest of his dreams. The first time it happened he filled in for an injured player, and he had to be on the floor the whole time. Donovan, during one moment of particularly poignant wheezing, turned to him. "You good, Mak the knife?" he asked. And even though he wasn’t, there was no way he was going to tell Donovan he needed a break, so he finished practice. “He called me after this practice almost pretty much dead,” his mom said. This was what he wanted. He was at Florida, he was playing basketball and he was learning from one of the best minds in the game, the most accomplished basketball coach in Florida history. He was happy, he was thriving, he…

Billy Donovan quit. He bolted at the end of Mak’s freshman season to become the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, leaving Mak adrift. So once again, he had to make a decision. "Do you wanna go back and play?" his mom asked him. That was still an option. He could transfer to a Division III school, and after training against Florida’s players in practice, he thought he had a chance to be better than most of his potential teammates. But he also loved Florida, and he loved the relationships he’d made. He cherished the phone calls from point guard Kasey Hill, who’d ask Mak to come to the gym and rebound for him at all hours of the day and night. Mak would do so gladly. But there was also the uncertainty. The crippling uncertainty of not knowing who was going to be the team’s new coach, or whether his job — let alone his opportunities to play during practice — was safe. But then there was the prestige of the school, and the academics — Mak was already almost halfway to a telecommunications degree. But… but… but…

Mak stayed. He stuck around for coach Mike White, whose director of basketball operations interviewed Mak and liked him so much he eventually made him head manager. And so he kept doing his same duties, ordering pre-trip meals from Pollo Tropical and Boston Market before another load of laundry, except now he was actually playing more because of noon ball, all the while never saying a word about walking on, all the while clinging to a shred of hope that maybe the new staff would give him a look. Wes Pittman, a former UF grad assistant who’s now an assistant coach at Eastern Florida State College, was around Mak during his early years at Florida.

“Mak made the perfect candidate to be a walk-on,” he said. “He just wanted to be a part, whatever that meant.”

He gained a reputation for that team-first attitude as the years passed. His nickname of “Mak the Knife” had nothing to do with him being a Swiss Army Knife of a manager, but perhaps it should have. Needed someone to tour the visiting AAU team? Ask Mak. Need a rebounder before day break? Ask Mak. Need somewhere to live over summer when your lease ended? Ask Mak.

Canyon Barry knows that last point well. He met Mak on his official visit to Florida as a potential transfer from the College of Charleston while Mak was doing some office work. “I clicked with him immediately,” Barry said. “He’s such a nice guy. Gets along with everyone.” The two started getting together on weekends to watch Game of Thrones or Sons of Anarchy, or perhaps to go to their favorite restaurant — Dragonfly — where they’d both get a “The Bomb” roll while Mak added edamame and Barry added vegetable tempura. And if they felt like splurging, they’d split a fried cheesecake. Barry appreciated Mak’s dedication given his unknown status.

“Manager is one of those thankless jobs in college basketball,” he said. “They don’t get to be under the lights, playing on the big stages, but they care just as much as everyone else.”

He said he saw that in Mak when watching a replay of Florida’s appearance in last season’s Sweet 16. After Chris Chiozza hit the game-winning three pointer to lift the Gators over Wisconsin and send them to the Elite Eight, Mak bursted from his chair in Madison Square Garden with the full voltage of the moment. But then, Barry remembers, his face dropped and it was almost possible to peer inside his mind as he realized that, shit, maybe Chiozza’s foot was on the line, and maybe the game wasn’t over. He scrambled to get chairs in order for a potential huddle before referees officially ended the game.

When Barry’s lease expired upon his Spring semester’s end, Mak asked if he’d like to move into a spare room in his rented house until he figured out his next step. Barry currently plays in the Czech National Basketball League, but he still talks to his former roommate every day and often mentions meeting up next time he’s back in the States. Or perhaps they’ll go on another family vacation together, like they did last summer when they learned to surf in Costa Rica.

Surfing

 

That vacation was a rare instance where Mak got to spend time with his family. Being a manager meant being at tournaments during Thanksgiving, having 72 hours off for Christmas and more tournaments during Spring Break. He cherished going home for some fried chicken, mashed potatoes, fried okra and sweet tea, or for his momma’s banana pudding. It just didn’t happen much, and that was OK with him.

Vacation

 

Mak arrived at White’s office on that morning in early November and sat down alongside Church. His body shook and his limbs felt numb and his mind went to heaven and back as White opened his mouth. “We’re gonna put you on the team,” he said, and Mak erupted into internal fireworks that exploded out of his mouth as words of thanks, and questions.

Who could he tell? Just his immediate family for now. He needed to be cleared with the NCAA before it was official. Would he still be a manager as well? Yes, but just until the team was able to hire his replacement. And, of course, what else could he do to help the team?

He walked out still trembling, his hands unable to push his phone’s buttons fast enough. He needed to call his parents. He reached his father, who was just north of Key West in Cudjoe Key, where the family has a small vacation home it uses to fish and relax. Hurricane Irma had torn pieces off the house, and Mark was in the middle of repairs when the call came in.

“Hey,” Mak told his father. “I want to tell you something.”

Mak’s father panicked. What was wrong? Was he in trouble? Was he calling from jail or…

“They asked me if I wanted to be on the team,” Mak continued, “and I said yes.”

His father paused and couldn’t say much. When he finally did, it was simple.

“That’s just unbelievable,” he said.

“I didn’t cry on the phone,” Mak’s father said later,” but I certainly did once I hung up with him.”

His mother was visiting Mak’s sister Taylor in New York. She’s an assistant marketing coordinator for the Knicks, and the two of them were in a neighborhood store when Mak called. She scrambled for a chair to sit down and listen to her son, his voice quivering with each word, tell her his news.

“He just went back to that time where he had to make that decision and give something up,” she said when reflecting on the call, her voice cracking and emotional. “It just was a dream come true. It really was.”

He had to wait to tell anyone else, which upset Barry. At least at first. He was visiting Gainesville that week when he stopped by coach White’s office.  “I’m sure Mak already told you,” White said to Barry, “but I’m so excited for him.” Barry gazed at him puzzled. He confronted Mak about it later, and his confusion was swiftly replaced by elation.

“He was such a good listener to coach White and didn’t wanna mess up his shot,” Barry said, “so he didn’t tell me.”

When the wait was over, he sent Pittman a text. “I’m officially a Gator,” it read. Pittman had no idea what that meant so he called him and caught the same elation Barry had.

“I don’t know anyone who could say a bad thing about Mak,” he said. “He always does the right thing, he’s always focused on doing the right thing, but he knows how to have a good time. You just enjoy being around him.”

And as for Mak, once the initial calls were made and the shock subsided, he remained shaken. His mind was a Pollack painting of colors and thoughts and hopes for the future.

“[It was] probably the best moment of my life,” he said. “I never expected it. You always dream about that kind of stuff. It’s always in the back of your head. I was just really focused on trying to work hard.”

A grin stretched across his face as he walked out of White’s office. He passed Andrew Fava.

***

Cholangiocarcinoma — the name itself sounds medical for death. In simpler terms, the disease is bile duct cancer. It causes tumors in the liver, jaundice in the eyes and skin, itchiness, weight loss and pain. It can be operated on or treated with chemotherapy, but the long-term survival rate is low — in its most innocuous form, 30 percent of people who have it live five years or more. At its most deadly, that number drops to two percent.

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Maria Fava, whose family calls her Maru and whose matching family Christmas sweater calls her Bird, was told this was her burden. Days after professing to her children that her cancer was taken care of and she was going to be fine, she sat them down again and told them what she could. "Listen,” she said, “we have a lot of faith." She didn’t tell them the survival rate because of how low it was. She didn’t tell them the name of the disease so they couldn’t look it up themselves. “I'm gonna have to get some chemo,” she continued. “I'm probably gonna have to have some liver surgery and it's not gonna be pretty for a while, but I'm gonna try to do whatever I can. And we'll figure it out."

Days later, Alexandra walked into her mom’s room. With a burgeoning soccer career and four years of high school ahead, she looked at her mother and must have assumed that such luxuries as that moment were numbered.

"So,” she finally asked, “will you be here for my eighth-grade graduation?"

Maria panicked. She’d tried to hide the severity of her battle from her kids, but they saw it. They talked to each other other for strength, crowded each others rooms in moments of weakness and searched for positivity. But they knew. "Oh my god,” she realized in that moment. “They get it. It's gonna be so bad.”

Her surgery was scheduled immediately, but in the week leading up to it, she was concerned. Her doctor was grim about her odds. The surgery, she remembers him telling her, could actually speed up her deterioration. He gave her a 10 percent chance of living six weeks once the procedure was done. She decided to cancel and seek a second opinion at Johns Hopkins. Her new doctor told her she had the same kind of cancer her old doctor had discovered, but he wanted to take a different approach. Rather than operating immediately to try and remove her tumors, he wanted to shrink them with chemotherapy.

She went through two rounds, and the outward symptoms of her disease worsened. She lost weight, and her hair evacuated her scalp in waves. She assembled a group of friends, her daughter included, to go wig shopping, though she never actually wore it. She only trimmed her hair, and it never all fell out. “And at the end of the day,” Alexandra remembers of her mother’s worsening health, “when you saw her smile, it didn’t really matter.”

But under that smile, Maria felt death coming. She tried to stay hopeful, and she got fistfulls of blessings from her priest, Father Michael White, who told her that he had a feeling her diagnosis was in error, but she was still in pain from the cancer, and the cure made her nauseous, numbed her fingers and toes, and robbed her left ear’s hearing. “If it gets too hot you have to tell me,” her nurse told her, “because you might be burning inside.”

She watched movies about old people and their grandchildren and thought about never getting to hug her own. Every moment was a reminder of what she would miss, and that scared her. Some part of her longed to tell her children how much she loved them, and how much she was going to miss them, but she couldn’t do that to them. Instead, every morning she’d descend the family’s staircase and proclaim, “Guess what? I didn’t die today!” and then the family would leave for school, and then the dread, the sickening dread, would creep back in.

Until late February, when she got a call from her team of doctors at Johns Hopkins. Her husband begged them for weeks to run the pathology again, and it paid off the day before her third chemo treatment was scheduled. “I wanna tell you,” the voice on the phone said, “that you don’t have cholangiocarcinoma.” She screamed into the phone.

“Oh my God, I’m not gonna die, I’m not gonna die!” Andrew sprinted into the room to offer a hug. “I never thought you were gonna die,” he told her. But the battle wasn’t over. She still had cancer of a different name: Epithelioid Hemangioendothelioma, or EHE. This new cancer was more treatable but still potentially deadly. She scheduled her new surgery for March, one day before Andrew’s birthday. She kissed both kids goodbye the day before. The surgery was purposely scheduled when she knew both kids wouldn’t be around — Andrew was bound for a baseball tournament in St. Petersburg and Alex was playing soccer in Las Vegas — and as he packed for his trip, Andrew forced her to make a promise. "Mom, I'm gonna call you on my birthday," he said. “And you will answer the phone, and you will wish me happy birthday."

Maria tried to stay positive through it all, and she meant every word, every action, every deed of her defiance. She never cried. She told her kids that her No. 1 goal was to make sure that they never felt anything but normal. But the surgery was risky, and doctors said if it went bad, if they took too much of her liver for it to regenerate or sliced too many capillaries for her blood to continue circulating, it could be the beginning of the end. They stored her blood ahead of time for a transfusion and booked her a spot in the ICU. They also warned her husband, who was going to wait it out at the hospital, that the surgery was long and arduous. If the doctor emerged too early, he probably hadn’t removed the tumors.

The doctor split the waiting room doors after three hours. “Oh my God,” her husband thought, “it’s over.”

“Oh my God,” the doctor told him, “it’s a miracle.”

The tumor popped out of her like a marble from clay. She didn’t need to go to the ICU and her prognosis was positive. She was wheeled into Andrew’s National Honor Society induction a week later and his ring ceremony the morning after that. Her battle was largely over, though not without leaving a lasting mark on her family.

“The little things begin to not matter,” Alex said. “Sports and grades and all that stuff didn't matter because at the end of the day, we still had our mom.

“We've always sort of had that fire within us. I think that's just kind of part of who we are. But seeing my mom live that out definitely showed us that anything is possible.”

***

Let’s start with a picture. A single frame with green leaves in the background and Andrew up in front wearing a checkered blue-and-white button down with an orange Florida sweater stretched over it. The photographer was Lauri Robinson, a longtime family friend who met Maria at the gym when she was pregnant with Alexandra. She took Andrew’s senior photos. When she finished, he told her he needed her to take one more. He disappeared to change and emerged in the University of Florida pullover. “This is for when I get accepted,” he told her.

But acceptance wasn’t his only concern. With his senior year upon him and his mom’s illness in the past, Andrew was back to visiting schools. And with each visit, his dad remembers, the frustration of walking into a head coach’s office was amplified. Every time, without fail, Andrew walked in and the coach’s shoulders dropped. His parents followed behind him, and the coach’s shoulders slouched even more. “It's nice to meet you," they’d say. And then they would walk out of the room and send in some assistant to deal with the short kid.

Nobody called him back, and nobody offered him a scholarship outside of some Division III schools, but he and his father decided, after watching a Division III game, that he was too good for that. He could play Division I, they felt, if only someone would give him a look. But the looks never came. No school he visited came to watch him play, although a couple — La Salle and St. Joe’s — said he could come and manage and that they’d take a look at him for a walk-on spot then, with no assurances beyond that. One of his best visits was actually to Florida.

He talked to Church for two hours with his parents, and although no Florida coaches ever came to watch him play, he kept communicating with Church throughout his senior year. He was promised nothing and told that Florida might not add any walk-ons any time soon. But with the May 1 decision deadline approaching, it was still his best option. Then, a surprise. Richmond University, a Division I program, called and said they’d like him to come manage and that they’d look at his game then to consider him for a walk-on spot. That didn’t happen until late April, so he had less than a week to decide. He sought advice.

First from his dad:

“When you're my age, at 50 years old, you never want to look back on your life and say what if,” his dad told him. “What would happen if I would've done this?"

Then from his friend Billy Plunkett:

“If you have any chance to play Division I basketball at your dream school — the school that’s been your dream school for your entire life — if you don’t take that chance,” Plunkett said, “you’re gonna absolutely regret it for the rest of your life.”

He’d already asked his other friend Joe Sudano:

“Dude, if you get into Florida,” he’d told him, “you have to go and just see what you can do.”

Andrew toiled through his thoughts. His parents told him to pick the place he most wanted to go regardless of cost. After her brush with cancer and the effects it had on her family, Maria wanted her kids to go wherever they wanted. He still couldn’t decide. Finally, Andrew’s father broke it down for him: He was going to go somewhere, and if it didn’t work out within a year, he could always transfer, so he might as well pick his favorite. His father hoped he would pick a smaller school where he’d have a better chance, but alas.

"You know what?” he told Andrew when he announced his decision. “You were never going anywhere but Florida."

His friends and family tried to keep hopeful. Most of them were excited with his choice.

“I’ve seen how this kid works,” Sudano said. “If he puts his mind to something, he’s gonna do it. So when he picked Florida, I was like, ‘Thank God.’”

But their faith was tempered. Few thought he’d be able to walk on within two years, if at all. He was a manager immediately, which was a good start, but he couldn’t dedicate all his time to basketball. As a criminology/psychology double major with a Spanish minor, he took 15 credits per semester from the beginning. Despite not having a car in Florida, he also worked as a valet this summer at UF Health Shands Hospital to stay in Gainesville when his parents couldn’t afford to pay for classes. He Ubered to work, which cost about $10 both ways, to make $30. Then he’d wake up the next day at 5:30 to lift with Mak, go to hours and classes, and play noon ball. Eventually he started running plays against the actual team.

“Bill, I can play with these guys,” he told Plunkett this summer. “It’s not just me sitting in the corner hitting an occasional three. I can actually do stuff out there.”

“Sure Frank,” Plunkett answered, calling Andrew by one of his many nicknames. “Whatever.”

But his play in practice didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. He’d talked to coaches after the team’s 2017 Elite Eight run and brought up his desire to walk on, and they weren’t opposed to the idea. They also wouldn’t commit to it. So when it hadn’t happened at the start of Fall, he started to weigh his options again. His parents had spent much of his college fund on Maria’s medical expenses, so paying for Florida was a struggle. He felt he could go somewhere else that would offer more money, and his dad started putting out word that Andrew was looking to transfer. "I really do miss the game,” he told his mom late that summer. “I might have to do a highlight reel. I'm gonna ask a video guy and, maybe, since I know we can't afford the school, if you can give me another semester, maybe I will try to apply somewhere else and transfer where I can get some academic money." His mom was devastated.

And then about a week before the season, Andrew missed a call from coach Church as he walked into class at about noon. Church never calls, so Andrew called right back.

“What’s up, coach? Do you need anything?” Andrew said.

“Where are you at?”

“I’m walking into class…”

“Oh. That’s fine. Just come to my office when you get to the facility.”

“Is it urgent? Do you need me to come right now?”

“No no no. Just when you get to the facility, come on up.”

Andrew spent the whole class thinking it was going to happen. “I just had a feeling,” he explained. “I don’t know what it was.” He tried to ignore it. Don’t get your hopes up, he told himself. Don’t expect anything. Church has called you into his office before to give you advice before, and this is probably more of that. But still, maybe...

He nearly ran to the facility after class and passed a grinning Mak on his way in. White had left to visit a recruit. “Why don’t we shut the door?” Church said. He didn’t waste any time from there. “We’re gonna put you and Mak on the roster,” Church said. “Congratulations. I know this has been a dream for you.”

He called his parents and started a ripple that radiated through his social circle for weeks. His father was at at auto part store when Andrew called. He picked up and said he’d call back when he got in the car. “No no no,” Andrew pleaded. Then he told him, and then his father asked where the restroom was so he could do his “happy dance” in private. For the next week, when those coaches he’d reached out to called, he had to say Andrew was still looking even though he wasn’t.

Next was his mom, who had just gotten the results from a medical scan that morning. They weren’t good. "Oh my god,” she thought that morning. “What else is gonna happen?” She was on the phone at the grocery store that afternoon when she noticed he was calling her. She figured she’d call back in a minute and ignored him. But then he called again. She panicked. She told the person on the phone she needed to go and explained the situation. As she hung up, a message flashed across her screen. “Emergency,” it read. “Please answer.” She raced to call back.

"Oh my god,” she told him when he picked up. “What happened? It doesn't matter what happened, I don't care, just tell me what's going on. It's OK."

"Mom,” he interrupted. “I made the team.”

“What team?” she answered. “What are you talking about?” Andrew laughed.

“That's great,” he said. “I will forever remember that I called my mother in the greatest moment of my life and my mother said, 'What team?' Way to go, mom. I'm a Florida Gator."

She screamed into her phone in disbelief. “Like, the real guys?” she said, still unsure that this could be happening. A man approached her in the store and asked if she was alright. “Oh, I'm so sorry,” she answered. “I just can't tell you, but it's really good and I'm OK.”

When he got his jersey a week later, one part of his journey was over. His father told all the coaches that Andrew was no longer interested. But a new journey had begun.

***

Mak dribbled up the court and lost control, the ball flying around his body like a circus performance gone wrong. He drove to the net, hands picking at the ball, but stayed in control long enough to flick it to Andrew in the corner. His flick wasn’t meant to be, though, and guard KeVaughn Allen knocked it out. No matter. On the next play, after the ball was flung and slung from the outside to the inside and back, Chiozza found Andrew behind the arc. Swish, right over Allen’s extended arm.

It was Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. More than two months had passed since Mak and Andrew were added to the roster, and they still had little to show for it in public. But in practice, they were being treated like any other player. The Gators were scheduled to play South Carolina on that Wednesday, so Mak wore No. 23 for USC’s Evan Hinson and Fava wore No. 10 to simulate Justin Minaya. On the play after Fava’s swish, Mak grabbed a pass and dribbled toward the rim with no moves whatsoever. Freshman DeAundrae Ballard met him at the rim and Mak nearly impaled his face with his elbow. Ballard fell to the ground beneath the hoop. “C’mon, c’mon, you good,” his teammates told him as Mak walked by and looked on, preoccupied with the instructions being yelled by coaches.

Could you imagine? Mak Krause, the man who never starred on his high school team, putting Ballard, a man who came to Florida billed as the 101st-best player in the nation and who carried four stars next to his name, on his behind for about 20 seconds and not even looking down. Yes, the days of managing were definitely gone, though not without leaving an impact Mak said he’ll carry with him. He still remembers that last load of laundry: A post-game day load of uniforms — a light load in the world of team manager laundry. “I’d been doing it for so long that that was a great way to go out,” Mak said. “It kinda felt like a ceremony.” A ceremony that ended countless hours of toil and purpose and sacrifice at once.

“I wanna coach, so when I’m a coach, I’m just gonna be respectful of what they do,” Mak said. “Because it’s a lot of time, and it’s hard work. Dirty work stuff. It makes me really appreciate the situation I’ve been given.”

Andrew, meanwhile, wants to work as a psychological profiler for the FBI or another crime-investigating organization, but that’s not what he’s thinking about for now. He’s a freshman in NCAA years, so he has three more seasons to prove himself. His father and grandfather were two of the only people, they’ll tell you, who believed he would get this far. They’re not done dreaming.

“You kiddin’? That’s all I think about,” Andrew’s grandfather said. “I wake up in the middle of the night thinking he’s gonna get in there and hit a big three at the end.”

But Andrew’s parents still struggle to support him financially and said his college fund ran out earlier this year. Their thinking when he chose Florida was that he’d get some academic aid, but as an out-of-state student, that didn’t happen. Their thinking then was he’d either make the team and be put on scholarship or he wouldn’t make the team and he’d transfer somewhere less expensive. He’s still not on scholarship as a walk-on.

“We have to figure it out,” his father said matter-of-factly. “We're in the figuring-it-out mode.”

Maria’s cancer hasn’t returned since her last surgery a year ago, so she and The Fav traveled to Gainesville to watch Andrew play against North Florida in UF’s second game of the season. She’d had those discouraging scans (which turned out to be nothing), so at the time, she told herself she really needed to take in the experience because it could be the only opportunity she gets. She raided the student section and walked as far down as she could get to take pictures.  "You guys, you guys,” she told a group of students nearby, “my son is that little guy that just made the team!" She made friends with the group before she had to go back to her seat. Then, late into Florida’s blowout, the chants started.

“We want Mak! We want Drew! We want Mak! We wants Drew!”

It was the second time this had happened. Down on the bench, Mak didn’t realize what was happening the first time. Him and Andrew, always in their long-sleeved warm-up shirts since they rarely play, are always the first players off the bench to offer high-fives during timeouts, always first to a huddle, always first to stand up and protest a bad call or celebrate a big play. Both were too into the game to notice the chants.

“Then you just sort of piece it together,” Mak said. “It was sort of like the scene in ‘Rudy.’”

Andrew’s first thought was for them to be quiet so White wouldn’t get frustrated. But then again, he figured, Florida was up by 30.

White smirked and barked at the bench, and the sight of them pulling off their warm-up shirts ignited the crowd in a way opening day hadn’t. Neither one scored that day, but when the same situation arose at the next game, neither player wasted the chance. Mak picked up a point on a free throw while Andrew scored four points. His mother nearly passed out amid the screaming and crying and feeling emotions she didn’t know she had. “I think you're gonna have a heart attack,” her husband told her.

In that scene, in that moment, they crossed their new finish line. And in doing so, they began their next race. For Andrew, that’s a time when fans no longer have to chant his name unless he hits a buzzer beater. For Mak, it means being the person who makes those personnel decisions. But for now, they can finally just enjoy the run — and everything that comes with it.

On a recent trip to the Oaks Mall, a group of unfamiliar fans approached them. “Drew! Mak! Oh my god!” they said. “We're so excited for you!” It turned out the group was among the crowd of students who spoke with Andrew’s mom at the season’s second game. “Oh, that's great,” he thought. “You met my mom." And then they made small talk about school and about basketball, the two men who two short months ago were completely unknown. The same two men who now had fans behind them, fighting their way through the next great race of their lives.

Ethan Bauer is a sports writer for The Alligator. Follow him on Twitter @ebaueri and contact him at [email protected].

Ethan Bauer is a general assignment sports reporter for the Alligator as well as the Florida Gators correspondent for the Miami Herald. He has previously covered cross country, women's basketball, football and baseball. He has worked at the paper since Sp