- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- For better than two hours, the quest has been underway. As usual, the last mile is the most difficult.
A reporter and producer have been dispatched to the campus of Louisiana State University for a College GameDay feature on, quite possibly, the tallest tuba player in the history of the world. There are more than 24,000 undergraduate students and, on this bright day at least, nearly as many one-way streets and guard booths.
Then, in the process of making seven consecutive wrong turns, the musician materializes suddenly on a nearby sidewalk. He's hopelessly long-limbed, wearing glasses under a mop of dark brown hair and slowly shuffling along -- surely, this is how giraffes move in the Serengeti -- to a 9 a.m. class. After a quick Google search, the small No. 55 on his black team backpack confirms that he is indeed Andrew Del Piero.
Yes, beyond his dazzling Texas all-state tuba-playing talents, Del Piero has acquired yet another rare skill set. After years of resisting the pressures of peers and society at large, Del Piero is, oddly enough, a center for this sometimes formidable SEC basketball team. He is not merely 7 feet, 3 inches tall, but a rounded, renaissance man, accomplished in two very different -- some might think mutually exclusive -- arenas.
"I don't want to sound cocky or anything," Del Piero says, "but growing up I knew I always wanted to be the guy who beat my own path. I really don't let anything faze me. Two completely [different] sides of the ball, if you want to put it that way."
Well, yes, that works just fine.
If you are looking for some street cred, consider the LSU-Florida game from Jan. 12. Against the best team they've played so far this year, the Tigers lost 74-52, but Del Piero started and produced seven points and five rebounds. He played a team-high 33 minutes against the team currently ranked No. 7 in the nation -- and even threw down a sweet two-handed flush.
This, from a guy who played only a single season of basketball -- ninth grade -- before walking on at LSU two-and-a-half years ago.
"How would I assess my lack of basketball ability in ninth grade?" said Del Piero, who has a wistful, winning sense of self-deprecation. "I was a tall, lanky kid. Lanky, nice word. Really uncoordinated, I guess we can say that. I had feet the size of bricks. I was tripping all over myself.
"On the other side of things, I was killing the tuba. So it was an obvious choice for me at the time which way I should go."
His father, Paul, looked around the house in Austin, Texas, but couldn't find any pictures of his son playing any sports. The best he could do was the team shot from that freshman team at Westlake High School.
"He didn't play a lot of sports before his junior year at LSU," Paul wrote in an email.
Paul, it's worth noting, walked on to the Dartmouth College basketball team in the 1970s.
"Like me, Andrew's body developed very late," he added. "Despite being seven feet tall, the coaches cut me after freshman year, certain I could never develop the strength or agility to compete."
Early on, the tuba held a strange fascination for Andrew. Something about the size; they run 35 to 40 pounds.
"It just sort of fit me," he said. "I was always the big, tall guy. I have big lungs because of my size. Big lips that help with the big mouth piece."
He played in the school band, of course. The pictures are always the same: Andrew is a head higher than the entire group, centered perfectly in the back row. After being named twice as a 5A all-state selection, he found himself interviewing for a scholarship at LSU. His older brother had brought him to a football game against Fresno State a few years earlier and the color and pageantry of the LSU Marching Band, some 325 strong, "blew his mind."
The LSU school of music heard about him from the Westlake band director, but his height wasn't mentioned.
"Wow, you're tall," said Roy King, the director of the LSU Marching Band, when Del Piero arrived on campus.
He laughed at the memory.
"He was very technical, trained very well," King said. "It's very similar to athletics. We're after those blue-chip musicians just like the athletic department is after those blue-chip athletes."
Collis Temple, Jr., the first African-American to play varsity basketball at LSU, was one of those blue-chippers. The 6-8 forward preceded a long line of successful big men, including Shaquille O'Neal, Stanley Roberts, Stromile Swift and Glen "Big Baby" Davis. So it was fortuitous when Temple ran into that 7-3 freshman one day at The Chimes restaurant.
Like so many before him, Temple asked Del Piero if he played basketball. No, Andrew said, he played in the band.
"You're in the band?" Temple said, incredulous. "We have a coach here and he'd really love to have someone like you on the team."
Del Piero had heard this sort of thing before.
"I'm thinking, someone like me," he said. "Hmmm. OK, I get it. I'm really tall. I said, 'Thanks, I'll consider it.' "
Nevertheless, Del Piero says now, that planted the seed.
"I just started thinking to myself, 'Maybe I'm improving and it's a legitimate opportunity for me,' " he said.
He started playing a lot more at the LSU student recreation center, working on those low-post nuances that can help overcome an alarming lack of mobility. Trent Johnson was LSU's head coach at the time, but Del Piero never quite worked up the nerve to speak to him. That didn't prevent a friend from sending a Facebook message to team member Garrett Green, saying that Andrew thought he could take him in a game of one-on-one.
Six-foot-11 Garrett Green.
Del Piero, slightly embarrassed, eventually met Green at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. They played some and talked more about whether he had the tools to play Division I basketball. Del Piero was encouraged; a day later, he walked up to Johnson's office and offered his services. In September 2010, Del Piero was accepted as a walk-on and forfeited his music scholarship.
This led to the predictable, inevitable, really, razzing.
"This is the whole band-geek, band-nerd stigma thing," Del Piero said. "They did treat me a little differently than all the rest of the teammates. Maybe I would be like, 'What does this guy think he's doing, walking on to the team from the band? This guy's crazy. What's going on here?' "
At the rec center, dunking on 6-3 intramural players, he had felt like an all-star. But on the first day of varsity workouts, Del Piero was stunned by the intensity.
"A reality check," he said. "I thought, 'All right, I've been playing at the rec, I've been in the marching band. I get some exercise. I should be fine, right?' Uh, no, not so much."
Conditioning was a serious issue. How are you going to play in the games if you can't finish practice? For two years, he wrestled with what he called this "whole new animal."
When head coach Johnny Jones arrived on campus last April, he was open-minded but told Del Piero he had some work to do. When Jones saw him again in August, he almost didn't recognize him.
"I saw the improvement, saw a different Andrew, a guy that was finishing drills, playing harder," Jones said. "It meant something to him when things were happening on the floor. I just thought it was the right thing to do, because he bought into what we were doing, to reward him and put him on scholarship."
The Tigers are an average SEC team. On Jan. 30, they beat then-No. 17 Missouri at home, where they are 11-2. Recently, Del Piero's minutes have waned, but he's averaging close to 4 points and 2 rebounds per game, credible numbers.
Spectacular, for a tuba player, though. Actually, in the interest of full disclosure, Del Piero wants America to know that the instrument played in marching bands is a Sousaphone. Tubas, believe it or not, are only employed in the more refined venue of indoor orchestras.
How will it end when he graduates this spring? Well, Del Peiro has another dream. He says he believes he has a chance to play basketball as a professional. Some of the veterans around the LSU program actually agree.
Del Piero already has done the math.
"You can make a great living playing the tuba," he explained, "but getting a real high-paying job in a professional orchestra is less likely than playing in the NBA. There's probably less than 100 spots in major orchestras.
"I'd love to play overseas if that's at all possible. Really, I shoot for the stars. We'll see what happens."