NEW YORK -- Forty minutes before practice Friday, the second-to-last day of his college basketball career, Jason Brickman is the only player on the court at LIU Brooklyn’s Steinberg Wellness Center.
He’s already proven he’s one of the best point guards in the history of college basketball. His team was eliminated from conference tournament contention the night before. But there was Brickman, by his lonesome, hoisting up jump shot after jump shot -- working on his game.
Three assists. That’s all he needs Saturday afternoon to become the fourth player in Division I history to collect 1,000 for his career. Should be a piece of cake for a player averaging 9.9 per game, who hasn’t had fewer than five in a game this season. Still, he’s a tad nervous.
“I think the whole team wants it, the coaches want it, so I think there’s a little pressure,” Brickman said. “I’m gonna do whatever I can tomorrow to try to reach 1,000. I think it’d be a great accomplishment for me, and a great to end to my career here at LIU.”
And what a career it’s been. Generously listed at six feet and 165 pounds, Brickman has gone from barely recruited out of high school to leading the country in assists the past two years. Jack Perri, elevated to head coach two years ago, was the assistant who discovered Brickman at an AAU tournament in Texas back in 2009.
Perri still sounds giddy five years later, as he recounts the first time he saw Brickman play. “There was two point guards,” Perri said. “There was one kid that was really flashy -- fast and aggressive, but a little out of control. And then there was Jason, who was just making the right pass, would pull up on the break -- I’m like, OK, this kid is really good.”
Thanks to Brickman’s relatively small stature, average foot speed and short arms, LIU had hardly any competition for his services. Brickman was thrilled to earn a Division I scholarship, and excited to move to New York City, but more than a little apprehensive going into that first college practice in the fall of 2010.
“I just remember coming out to the court and seeing how big everyone was out there,” Brickman recalled. “I was really nervous, my hands were sweaty, and I didn’t know how I was gonna do playing at the Division I level.
“Once I got on the court and we started playing, I started feeling a lot better.”
It didn’t take him very long to make an impact. Brickman came off the bench his freshman year but still managed to average 5.5 assists in just 22.8 minutes per game. The Blackbirds went 27-6 that season, and earned the school’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 14 years.
Brickman had 15 points and eight assists in the Northeast Conference championship game, including two clutch free throws with seven seconds left in an 85-82 overtime win over defending champ Robert Morris.
“That’s one of the wonderful qualities about him, is that you just can’t faze him,” Perri said. “It’s been that way since he was a freshman. He’s ice, man -- whether it’s free throws, big shots or just making the right play and making the right decision. That’s never something that’s really changed.”
As a starter, Brickman guided the Blackbirds to NEC championships and the NCAA Tournament the next two years as well, upping his assist averages to 7.3 as a sophomore and 8.5 as a junior. But his senior year has been a different story.
LIU was expected to take a step back after losing two of its top three scorers to graduation -- the Blackbirds were picked to finish fourth in the NEC. But former conference player of the year Julian Boyd ended up missing the entire season with a torn ACL, leaving the team seriously handicapped.
Brickman has still managed to up his assist average to nearly 10 per game -- two more than any other player in Division I -- and raised his scoring average to double digits for the first time in his career (11.5 ppg). But the Blackbirds are just 9-19 overall, 4-11 in conference play, and were eliminated from contention for the NEC tourney after Thursday night’s 86-82 overtime loss to Central Connecticut State.
Which means Saturday afternoon’s regular season finale against Bryant will definitely be the last game of Brickman’s illustrious college career.
"That’s the hardest thing for me,” Perri said. “I wish he could go out on a better note, and that was the message that I gave the team right after the game. I just said, on Saturday, we are playing for Jason. I want Jason to win his last game.”
The only drama that’s left is whether Brickman can join that exclusive 1,000-assist club. There are only three members, and they all played on Tobacco Road -- Duke’s Bobby Hurley (1,076), NC State’s Chris Corchiani (1,038) and North Carolina’s Ed Cota (1,030).
Brickman is too young to remember seeing any of them play. But he has a fan in Hurley, who saw Brickman in person several times his first two seasons while Hurley was an assistant coach at NEC rival Wagner.
“I love his demeanor. Great poise and composure,” Hurley, now the head coach at Buffalo, said by phone Friday. “We had really good defensive guards, and we couldn’t rattle him with pressure. Great feel for the game, vision and awareness of where his teammates are.”
Hurley is not surprised Brickman is on the verge of joining him and his legendary ACC brethren. “I kind of knew early on,” Hurley said. “He’s a pass-first guard with great natural ability, and shooting and scoring is an afterthought. And he had good players with him. No matter how good you are, if you’re not surrounded by talent, you can’t complete plays.”
Boyd, who was on the receiving end of many of Brickman’s passes over the years, won’t be able to play in his final game. But he’ll be there to cheer him on. And he’ll certainly miss playing with his fellow San Antonio native.
“It’s amazing, that’s really all I can say,” Boyd said. “Because you know, as long as you get to an open spot, the ball’s gonna end up in your hands somehow."
“You gotta have your hands up,” Boyd added, chuckling. “You don’t want to get hit in the face. Have your hands up, at all times.”
In a turn of events that only seems fitting, Brickman’s last game will now be at home, against Bryant. His younger brother, Justin, is a freshman on the Bulldogs. His parents will be in attendance as well.
He’d rather have one more shot at the NCAA Tournament. And he hopes to play somewhere next year -- either in the NBA or overseas. But for now anyway, this is Brickman’s last chance to play -- and a last chance to appreciate him.
“I know I’m gonna have a lot of emotions. I’m not sure how I’m gonna feel,” Brickman said. “But to have my younger brother here, playing against them, in front of my family, and a chance to get 1,000 assists, just everything -- it might be one of the best games of my college career, one of my best experiences.”
LIU Brooklyn's last practice of the season wasn't a particularly strenuous one. With the team playing two games in less than 72 hours and the postseason out of reach, Perri walked his team through the scouting report, then called it a day.
After one last huddle at center court, everyone went their separate ways -- except for Brickman, who quickly found his coach and draped his arm around his neck.
Perri reciprocated, before quickly retreating behind the bleachers, with his hands on their way to his eyes.
One more perfect pass, from one of the best we've ever seen.