The moments come out of nowhere, like no-look passes that hit them in the head. Maybe James Voskuil is running drills in practice and suddenly — boink!
— he can’t help it, he’s thinking “Oh, man, I have that paper due tomorrow .
Or maybe Rob Pelinka is sitting in a business school lecture and suddenly
— boink! — he can’t help it, he’s thinking about that three-point shot he could have made last night against Indiana, if he just put a little more arch on the . . .
“Mr. Pelinka? You with us?”
You want to talk balance? Try walking the two-world tightrope between academics and athletics — and I’m don’t mean the baby stuff here, gym classes or freshman English or playing intramurals at a Division III college. Nuh-uh. Try attending business school at Michigan while being the sixth man on maybe the best college basketball team in the country. Try majoring in aerospace engineering — aerospace engineering? — while playing alongside Chris Webber and Juwan Howard.
Try flying back from a night game in Texas, then making an 8 a.m. class. Or hearing 16,000 fans scream your name, then rushing home to stick your nose in a book. Try lectures, practices, papers, games, road trips, midterms, tournaments, finals.
As the Wolverines head into yet another NCAA tournament, the impressive thing about seniors James Voskuil and Rob Pelinka is not that they’re going.
It’s that they’re still alive.
“It’s like you compete on two courts,” says Pelinka, a Robert Downey Jr. look-alike who will graduate this spring. “There’s the Crisler Arena court and the academic court. Only in academics I’m competing against people who have all day to do their studies, and I have maybe from 8 to midnight.”
Adds Voskuil: “You’re always so tired. It’s like you’re out there competing against the best in basketball. And then you get bombarded by the best in the classroom.”
It is not easy. Yet, after five years, Voskuil and Pelinka are virtual poster boys for the student-athlete ideal. Pelinka will finish Michigan with a 3.9 grade-point average in the business school — his only “B” came when he caught the flu and missed a midterm — and Voskuil will graduate from the engineering school with a 3.3 GPA, and qualifications to train as an astronaut.
“I tried; they won’t take me,” he says, perfectly serious. “I applied, did all the paperwork. But you have to be 6- foot-4 or smaller.”
Too tall to be an astronaut?
Is there any end to injustice?
Yet missing a trip to the moon is hardly the only sacrifice these two have made. Voskuil (6-feet-8) and Pelinka (6-6) have not enjoyed the social life you might expect of star athletes. There just wasn’t time. They roomed together their sophomore season, and Voskuil’s overwhelming memory is Pelinka grabbing his books at 6 p.m., locking his door, coming out at 12, saying “good night” and going to sleep.
Party on, Wayne.
“A lot of my Friday and Saturday nights were spent behind a desk, pushing a pencil,” Pelinka says. “My social life, my fun, was all right here, on the basketball court.”
“We’re not big drinkers or anything,” says Voskuil, who was often seen this season racing out after a game, his hair still wet, to finish an engineering project. “Basketball takes a lot out of you.”
Oh, yes, basketball. Pelinka and Voskuil might be overachievers there as well. Both primarily spot-shooters, they were recruited in the Bill Frieder years, and neither was expected to turn around the program. Pelinka came from a small school in the wealthy Chicago suburbs. Voskuil was a surprise recruit from Grand Rapids, who admitted to the newspaper upon accepting Michigan’s offer, “I may not be a Big Ten player yet, but I’m going to get there.”
They both got there. Voskuil became the team’s best three- point shooter by his sophomore season and started most of the games he played. But the arrival of the Fab Five freshmen sealed his fate as a backup. Pelinka was part of the 1989 championship team and might have been a starting guard this season were it not for two guys named Jalen Rose and Jimmy King.
Being used to excellence, being used to succeeding, this second-fiddle stuff was — and is — difficult. It is not how they imagined senior year, sitting down after introductions, watching teammates three years younger get the most attention and headlines.
“But what are you gonna do?” Pelinka says. “Bench Chris Webber?”
Always the outsider
And so they endure, and they juggle their lives, the way they have been juggling since their arrival in Ann Arbor, existing on five hours of sleep, taking instructions from Steve Fisher, nodding, racing to class, taking instructions from a professor, nodding, setting up schedules, taking makeup exams when the plane was delayed, spending nights in hotel rooms reading engineering books or economic theories.
Through it all, they’ve learned a funny truth about trying to be both jocks and scholars: neither side fully accepts you. At times Pelinka and Voskuil were mildly scorned by other students — “These athletes, they think they can get away with anything” — and at times, they were teased by their own teammates — “Four point! Four point!” they used to joke at Pelinka for his perfect grade-point average.
“It’s really like living in two different worlds,” Pelinka says. “I’ll come to the gym from the business school and my whole vocabulary will change. In business school they’re using words like ‘flyback’ — which means a firm flew you back for a job interview. And then I come to practice and someone says
‘Five thousand-G’ — which means, ‘See ya later, I’m outta here.’
“I have to catch myself sometimes, jumping from one talk to the other. Sometimes I’d go from practice to a class and I’ll be all geeked up, and I’d say, ‘Man, can you believe tha — . . . I mean, uh, we have a project due, don’t we?”
Truly rocket science
“Tell me some of your engineering classes,” I ask Voskuil.
He smiles. “Well, there’s Dynamics and Controls.”
“Dynamics and controls of what?”
“Systems. Could be electrical systems, or spring systems, feedback systems, loops.”
“Tell me another.”
“Well, there’s propulsion class.”
“Yeah, rockets, stuff like that.”
It is hard to imagine going from rockets to basketball. It is hard to imagine coming off the bench to nail three-pointers and secure a tournament victory over Cincinnati — as Voskuil did last year — then coming home to a physics equation.
But if you think it’s hard from the outside, try fitting both worlds inside your head. Most people congratulate Voskuil and Pelinka on the fine job they do as student-athletes, but one question still haunts both:
Could they have been better players if they were lesser students?
“We talk about that a lot,” Voskuil says. “I wonder if the ideal college athlete isn’t a guy who stays eligible but makes basketball his No. 1 priority. I think, honestly, that’s what a head coach wants.”
Another net gain?
There was a moment, four years ago, when Voskuil and Pelinka sat in an Atlanta hotel room and saw their coach, Frieder, weep openly as he said good-bye to them. And there was a moment three weeks later when they cut down the nets in Seattle, celebrating a national championship in their very first season.
There was a moment last weekend, when Voskuil’s parents joined him at center court at Crisler and heard a thunderous ovation for their son on senior day, his last home game. And there was a moment after the Iowa game, when Pelinka found a note taped to the dashboard of his truck. “Thanks for the memories and all the hard work. I love you. Dad.”
So fast it goes. So much work. So much play. Voskuil hopes to play in Europe before settling into his aerospace career. And Pelinka, who might go the Europe route as well, will eventually attend Michigan’s law school, not too shabby an institution, to which he has been accepted.
“I think back on our first year, we were such kids!” Pelinka says.
And now, young men. Too often you hear the bad news of college sports, the hypocrisy of it all, players skipping class, skipping degrees, taking payments, taking advantage. Maybe you say to yourself, “The whole system stinks.” And then along comes a couple of honor students who still make practice, who still make jump shots, and you say to yourself, “Hey, what’s this?”
Impressive, that’s what. If Michigan does indeed win another national title, and the Wolverines go to cut down the nets, there should be a double round of applause for Rob Pelinka and James Voskuil as they climb to the top. Student-athletes. Two worlds conquered.
That is, if they don’t fall asleep before they get there.