This piece was originally published in Dime #71. To see the feature in its entirety, check out the issue, on newsstands nationwide.
Until this past March, the last time the University of Detroit went dancing, Tim Duncan was ringless and Kwame Brown had a promising career ahead of him. But in 2012, Ray McCallum Jr., a vocal and passionate point guard, led the Titans back to the NCAA Tournament. And now he’s screaming for more.
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“I want this!” University of Detroit guard Ray McCallum Jr. yelled several times during the Titans 20-point victory over Valparaiso in the Horizon League tournament championship last March.
Every player wants to win, but “this” means more for McCallum. It includes securing the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 1999, and it includes being the young leader challenged with turning things around for a mid-major instead of playing for one of the bigger schools that recruited him. McCallum chose Detroit over Kansas and Michigan State, and averaged a team-high 15.4 points and 4.0 assists per game in his sophomore season.
“One of the deciding factors to go to Detroit was to have the opportunity to change the program around,” says McCallum. “I told my dad, the day I committed, I just wanted to do anything I could to get my team to the NCAA Tournament.”
That promise is significant because dad is also the head coach. Playing for Ray McCallum Sr. and staying close to where he grew up in the Detroit area has made for an experience McCallum Jr. enjoys, and one that he says makes success even sweeter.
“A lot of kids go away for college, but I was fortunate, I got my dad there, my mom, my sister, my whole family there at all my games,” says McCallum Jr. “It’s a lot of fun playing for my city. There are people you’ve seen since you were in high school and everyone supports you, so it’s been a lot of fun for me to play in front of all the people I know.”
At Detroit, McCallum Jr. plays for a coach he knows, and a philosophy he knows well. He’s been hearing it all his life. It’s a philosophy that encourages the Titan guard to use his opportunity at a mid-major school to do more than make himself look good.
“I say to him it’s important that you win and that your team wins, and that’s kind of the way he’s been raised and taught the game,” says McCallum Sr. “Doing things to make your team better, make your teammates better, be a great teammate, and winning.”
Crucial to becoming a better teammate is becoming a vocal leader. It’s a part of his game that now stands out.
“It’s something I definitely had to develop,” says McCallum Jr. “I was normally kind of quiet. My senior year [of high school] I started becoming a lot more vocal. Then coming into my freshman year at Detroit at times I was vocal, but not at the level that I should’ve been.”
“His teammates sometimes would say ‘hey we didn’t hear the play, you’ve got to say the play louder,’” adds McCallum Sr. “And I think during that tournament run, he said ‘I’m going to make sure they can hear me.’”
With experience in the leadership role and a raw passion for the game, McCallum Jr.’s voice is coming more easily. Valparaiso, the team standing in the way of the promise he made to his father, heard loud and clear.
“I’m in the game, I’m just in a different zone,” said McCallum Jr. “And when I feel like I’ve got it going, I like to play with a lot of emotion and energy. And I feel like that can get my teammates going sometimes.”
With his eyes on an NCAA Tournament bid, he was in that zone. McCallum Jr. scored over 20 points in each of the last three games of the Horizon League tournament, his only consecutive 20-point scoring games of the season.
Unfortunately, in the first round of the NCAAs, he dropped only eight points in a 15-point loss to Kansas, a team he could’ve been on. But after Detroit stayed within two points for most of the first half, and strung together a 10-2 run in the second half, McCallum Jr. is confident about surpassing his original goal of making the tournament this season.
“It just shows that even though we’re at a small school, we can still compete with all the big time schools,” he says. “I don’t see why we can’t get back there and have an opportunity to play a team like that again, and get a win.”
At 6-2 and 188 pounds during his sophomore season, McCallum Jr. wanted to get stronger this summer, and plans to come back to school with an improved jump shot and better ballhandling. Keeping his vocal chords in good shape goes without saying.
Will he be a first rounder in next summer’s draft?
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