The following essay was written by Kiran Kling ’24 (pictured above far left) as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction.
The Zoom was exactly on schedule. The gallery view was full, five minutes early. Coach Reilly ran a tight ship, and all 15 Wesleyan University basketball players, together but apart on this Wednesday night, knew the rules.
“Good to see you all tonight,” Reilly begins. “Everybody give updates, freshman first this time.”
Every Wednesday at 7 p.m., the nine players who chose to come to campus for the 2020-21 school year, and the six who chose to remain home, meet to hear updates about each other’s lives, network with alums, and crack jokes in the players-only group chat during the call.
“Olu, you’re first on my screen,” Reilly says.
Sitting at his dorm-room desk, Olu Oladitan’s [’24] face is backlit. The only source of light is a set of color changing LEDs that trace the rectangular outlines of the interior walls. It is the kind of lighting that would make a great TikTok, and this is no coincidence. Olu has the combination of humor and dancing skill that garners serious attention on that platform. A green and white Nigerian flag takes up most of the visible wall space, and the team can make out his king-size bed, large for the room, sticking out at the bottom of his video feed. He’s big enough, 6 foot 8 and somewhere around 240 pounds, that the University’s residential life department was happy to accept his application for a large bed.
“I’m doing pretty well,” Olu replies. “Put in a couple of hours with Cane this week.”
Olu works a part-time job keeping the athletic facility running smoothly. The pay is just ok, but the hours are up to him, and it’s a good way to make some pocket money.
“It’s really nice to have access to a gym whenever I want,” says Olu, “much easier than over break.”
Over break, he was back home in East New York, Brooklyn. Due to a high number of COVID cases, local public transport was limited and gyms were closed.
“I’ve got another in-person class this semester, and I’m hearing that we might be able to return to contact practices eventually, so those are both good things to look forward to,” Olu says. “I’m definitely very happy to be back.”
Coach Reilly pauses for a few seconds to see if Olu has anything more to say.
“Great stuff, glad to have you back. Dylan, you’re next.”
An awkward pause ensues, as Dylan unmutes on his second try.
“Things haven’t changed much here since we last talked,” Dylan tells the group.
This is to be expected. Dylan Ward is coming in live from his bedroom in Westport, Connecticut, a little less than an hour’s drive away from Wesleyan in the direction of New York City. You can tell his room is on the top floor because one of the walls slants, indicating the roof of his house is on the other side. In stark contrast to Olu’s room, all of Dylan’s lights are on. Visible in his video frame are a pair of dumbbells on the floor, and a pixelated inhaler on his dresser in the back corner.
“I’m still looking around for some solo court time,” Dylan says. “It should be easier once the local high school seasons end.”
Dylan doesn’t feel comfortable playing basketball with other people because his asthma puts him at serious risk, should he get sick. At home, he can self-isolate.
“In the meantime I still have the hoop in the driveway,” he adds. “I’ve been on Facetime with my trainer, and we’ve been getting creative with the home workouts. I’ve lost some fat and put on some muscle, I’m staying steady at 210 and getting stronger.”
After a pause, he continues:“Classes are good too, psych, calc, international relations, and a philosophy course. I do feel a little like I’m still in high school, and next year is my freshman year.”
In the absence of a campus experience, or any kind of true shopping period for classes, Dylan takes academic advice from one of his older brother’s friends, who was an economics major at Wesleyan.
“I’m still looking for a job, just to stay busy, but yeah, my life here isn’t too interesting,” Dylan sums up.
Coach Reilly pauses again. On paper, Dylan and Olu should be living very similar lives: they are teammates, both considering economics or psychology. They are both good students living up to high expectations. Both of their older siblings are recent Harvard graduates. But the pandemic pushed their narratives in two directions, at least for a little while. Dylan has never met his teammates, and Olu just ate dinner with them before getting on the call.
Neither Dylan or Olu feels like he had much of a choice concerning whether to stay home.
For Olu, getting tested twice a week, per Wesleyan policy, is the only way to safely play basketball. On campus, there’s always food, and his friends are mostly on campus, too. He even stayed on campus for a portion of winter break, to reap the same benefits. He spent his entire high school career at boarding school, and most of his friends he met before college live in the Boston area.
On Dylan’s terms, the only way to win is not to play. His childhood friends are around, and they can hang out at a distance. It makes sense to stay home and not take any kind of risks. In his words, “It makes sense to wait. I can have my real freshman year next year.”
Neither Olu or Dylan feels like he is a real Wesleyan student yet. Olu says that “next year will be my first year as a real college student, and for that matter, a college basketball player.”
They both say they feel more like individuals than full-on members of the Wesleyan community, and both expect that to change once COVID restrictions are lifted.
Despite their vastly differing levels of interaction with the Wesleyan basketball team, in the weekly call, students on and off campus are equals. “These interactions make me feel as though I belong,” Dylan says.
Coach Reilly calls on the next player. The call will end in 55 minutes, precisely, another cog in the well-oiled Reilly machine. Dylan and Olu will both sign off feeling justified in their choices, and part of something greater than themselves. Quite the feat in a pandemic.