Marquette's Golden Eagles give second-grader motivation to never give up, be kind
The Marquette University basketball program had quite a 2022-23 season. The team won the Big East Championship, head coach Shaka Smart was named coach of the year by the USBWA and AP, and player Tyler Kolek was named the Big East player of the year.
But those aren't the only reasons soon-to-be 8-year-old Nathan Hassel of Hinsdale is a Golden Eagles fan. Hassel and his family had to chance to meet Smart and the team when Marquette traveled to Chicago to play DePaul University in January. Then the family was invited to a March 4 game between the two teams on their home court in Milwaukee.
Hassel, a second-grader at Monroe School, now has a baseball cap and a basketball signed by the team. But that's not all.
"I have tons of pictures," he said, pointing to a stack of photo albums.
He was first introduced to the team by his mom, Nicole Senese-Hassel, a Marquette alum. But now he has his own favorite team member (Kolek, whom he chose prior to the player of year honor) and his own appreciation for Coach Smart's "one second rule" philosophy.
"When you fall, you have one second to get back up," Nathan shared. "Don't ever quit."
Seeing the Golden Eagles clinch the Big East Championship on their home court wasn't a thrill only for Nathan.
"It brought me back to college when I was at Marquette," Nicole said. "I used to pretty much go to all the games - at least all the home games.
"It was definitely a homecoming for me," she added. "It was great to see him enjoy it as much as I do."
Nicole, who started watching Marquette games with Nathan last year, said he was mesmerized by them.
"He could tell that the team members and coaches truly respected and care for each other," she wrote in an email.
He learned more about the team and Smart by watching You Tube videos and appreciated all they did to help others in their community, especially kids.
"These coaches and team members became Nathan's role models and inspiration," she wrote. "Nathan loved how they never gave up and overcame the odds as they were ranked No. 6 nationally at the end of the season."
When Nathan started playing Jodie Harrison basketball this year and invoking Smart's one second rule, his mom decided to send a thank-you email to the team. That led to the meet-and-greet at DePaul and then an invitation from Smart to attend a home game in Milwaukee.
The three were invited to tour the locker room and press room, watch the pre-game practice and take photos with the coaches and players - all of which Nathan described in a single word.
Nathan's dad, Corey, embraced the opportunity to take his son to a game, as the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee is a very family-friendly environment.
"Coach Smart encourages that and reminds not only the players but the students that it's a family event and bear that in mind," he said. "The players have proven themselves to be great ambassadors of the school.
"It was a really good experience. Nathan had a great time. The family had a great time."
Nicole has felt that inclusivity since she was a student.
"They make it known that once you are part of the Marquette community, you always will be a part," she said. "It's a great school to attend. It's a great school to be an alumni. It's a great school to have kids look up to their players."
Nathan has sent the team members thank you notes, his mom said, enclosing a gold coin from his treasure chest in each.
"He wanted the Golden Eagles to have those gold coins to remind them that they are a treasure to him and each other."
The family also has made donations to charities the team supports as a way to spread the kindness and generosity the team showed them.
"These guys who clearly are the best of the best - coaches, staff, players - were so genuinely nice to him and they took such time to meet with him and share some kind words, which is pretty much all anybody would like," Nicole said.
Or, as Nathan summed it up, "They're great!"