A legacy beyond basketball

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Phil Negri can’t believe where the time has gone, but still doesn’t like thinking about the finish line.

“I’ve tried really hard not to,” Negri said. “[I’m] just trying to stay focused and not really worry about the end.”

But the end of his basketball career is quickly approaching for the senior point guard.

Phil Negri will be one of three players honored Saturday on Senior Day. After graduating last May, Negri has had a difficult season in dealing with a back injury. Photo by Tim Gumz

And while he won’t become one of the most prolific scorers in UW-Whitewater men’s basketball history and won’t have an All-American picture hanging from the rafters for his efforts on the court, Negri’s legacy is different.

His legacy isn’t about points scored or player of the year honors.

It’s not even all about basketball.

He’s created his legacy in other ways – ways that might not be visible on the surface, such as in his resolve, intellect and commitment.

These facets make head coach Pat Miller sing Negri’s praises.

“He epitomizes Division III athletics,” Miller said. “He’s done everything we could ask a player to do.”

Resolve

Before this season began, though, there were questions as to whether Negri would even play.

Sitting out was something Negri did not want to do, but that’s sometimes the result when one learns he has a bulging disc in his back.

“I’ve tried to stay positive, and in a way I’m really fortunate to play because I felt there was a possibility I was not going to play,” Negri said. “That thought scared me more than the idea of not being 100 percent.”

While he’s suited up, played and started in all but one game, Negri said because the pain flares up quite often and causes swelling, his mobility on the court has been limited.

As a result, his stats are down from last year when he became a full-time starter. He’s scored in double figures just twice in 22 games, his shooting percentage has dipped and his ability to get to the foul line has suffered.

Negri’s injury was discovered in the fall, and since then he’s spent more time in the training room with athletic trainer Steve Hillmer than he has in the gym.

“I guess Steve and I have become best friends,” Negri said with a laugh. “I’m in there before and after every game and before and after every practice.”

He wears a back brace to help the injury but said it doesn’t always help.

Still, Negri has shown his resolve in that he won’t let the injury deter him from helping his team on the court.

“A credit to him is he’s still valuable to our team, even unable to go at 100 percent,” Miller said. “He’s changed his role because he’s a smart enough guy to understand his limitations, and that’s what really is a great thing about him this year is he’s done what he can to help us when he can.”

Intellect

Although the injury has dampened Negri’s season, his year and college career prior to that were going quite well.

After all, he graduated with his undergraduate finance degree in just three years – something Miller said he has never seen done before.

And he didn’t just graduate – he graduated summa cum laude (3.94 GPA) and was named to the dean’s list every semester. He was also recently named to the second team of the 2011 Capital One Academic College Division All-District Team.

Negri was also his high school’s valedictorian.

However, graduating college in three years wasn’t necessarily a goal of his when he came to UW-Whitewater in the fall of 2007. Negri said it was possible because he entered college at almost a sophomore standing due to the credits he earned at Lakeland High School.

“What he’s done in the classroom speaks volumes,” Miller said. “He’s a type of kid that if I were an employer I would hire in an instant. He’s extremely responsible. He’s made a great transition from Day 1.”

Negri is enrolled in UW-Whitewater’s graduate school program and is on pace to earn his master’s degree in the fall. However, Negri said he might transfer to another top-tier graduate school.

His dedication in the classroom is well-known among past and present teammates.

“I knew when I was here he was very smart and witty, and he used to help me out,” said former UW-Whitewater basketball player Matt Goodwin, who played with Negri for two years.

Commitment

With Saturday being Senior Day, Negri will play his final regular season home game and will be honored with fellow seniors DJ Dantzler and Marty Kujath.

However, Dantzler and Kujath are transfers, meaning Negri is the only player left from Miller’s 2007 recruiting class.

“I remember my freshman year we had an incoming class we were really excited about it,” Negri said. “Seeing [past teammates] go was tough because that freshman year you bond with the other new guys.”

As those players left, Negri was a constant in the lineup.

He played a small role his rookie year, but his role increased over the next few years.

“He brings great leadership on the floor,” Miller said. “Certain guys only know what they’re supposed to do, but Phil knows what everyone’s supposed to do.”

But with inexperience and a lack of continuity, the team already has more losses than it had in each of Negri’s first three years. Moreover, a fourth straight berth into the NCAA tournament is not a guarantee.

Dantzler said he can’t tell by Negri’s demeanor that the team has had its ups and downs.

“He still comes everyday like [we’re] undefeated,” Dantzler said. “He comes with a positive attitude.”

Negri, a two-time captain, admits it’s been a trying final year – especially with his back injury.

“My senior year hasn’t been as I expected or as I dreamed,” Negri said. “It’s been hard. Personally, I can’t tell you how hard it’s been.”

Nevertheless, he doesn’t want to dwell on the past and wants to soak in the final few weeks of his final basketball campaign.

“I guess when the end is near I try to enjoy every day,” Negri said. “I don’t want to be thinking about the end and miss what’s going on, so I guess I’ve put that out of my mind. I try to enjoy practices we have, wins we have and losses we have, because I’ve put so much of myself into this.

“In a way it feels like I’ve been here forever, but at the same time it went really fast. I feel like I was just starting here yesterday.”