Eli Friedman has been a student-manager with the Arizona Wildcats for four years, so he has pretty much seen everything there is to see.
He has been to the NCAA Tournament. He has been part of two Pac-12 championships. He has traveled to dozens of cities and venues. He has gone elbow-to-elbow with NBA stars like Deandre Ayton and Lauri Markkanen.
But if there is one moment that encapsulates the senior’s tenure at the UA, it happened during the wee hours of February 28, 2016. Friedman, a freshman at the time, had already headed to bed when he noticed he had five missed calls from Allonzo Trier.
A few hours earlier, the Wildcats lost a heartbreaker to the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City and it didn’t sit well with Trier, a then-freshman who scored 23 points but missed a potential game-tying jumper with 1:34 left.
So as soon as the team’s plane touched down in Tucson, Trier dialed up Friedman, his go-to rebounder, as he made a beeline for Richard Jefferson Gymnasium.
“He wanted to shoot,” Friedman said.
And Friedman was more than willing to join him, never mind that it was well past midnight.
“There hasn’t been a time when Eli hasn’t been there for me,” says Trier, now a member of the New York Knicks.
Friedman estimates Trier hoisted 1,000 shots that night and such outings would become the norm for those two, who were roommates for a few years and still FaceTime each other daily.
“I never saw myself rebounding at 3 o’clock in the morning in college,” Friedman laughed. “That was probably the weirdest thing I’ve had to do.”
So maybe Friedman, a captain on his high school team, didn’t know exactly what he was getting into when he joined the managerial ranks, but the experience has been everything he wanted it to be.
You see, when the Livingston, New Jersey native was applying to colleges, his deciding factors were not climate or location or even academics. Above all else, Friedman was seeking a school where he could get hands-on experience in a well-regarded basketball program.
“My ultimate goal is to do player personnel and scouting in the NBA,” said Friedman, a psychology major who also considered Syracuse and Michigan State. “And I knew the only way to kind of get my foot in the door was to be a manager and be a part of a top-tier college basketball program.”
The job requires a lot of sacrifice, to be sure. The hours are long, the pay isn’t enough. And if you want some time off for spring or winter break? Forget about it.
“It’s not like the ordinary college life,” Friedman said.
Even school takes a backseat.
“You try to stay ahead, especially during January and February when you’re on the road,” Friedman said. “You have to learn time management.”
Managers do “anything from A to Z,” Friedman said. Junior manager Elijah Roth calls them “utilitymen.”
“Anything you can think of behind the scenes, we’re probably doing it,” Roth said.
Some responsibilities include, but are certainly not limited to:
- Hauling luggage off the team bus into hotels and arenas
- taping a basketball court in hotel ballrooms so the team can do walkthroughs
- statistically charting everything the Wildcats do in practice
- serving as practice bodies
- wiping the McKale Center backboards before games
- passing out water and towels during games
- making food runs
- rebounding at all times of the day, for hours at a time
- making sure players are on time to meetings, team meals and practices
- representing Arizona on the hardwood by competing against other schools’ managers (Friedman and company are 2-0 this season, with wins over Colorado and Stanford)
Then there is the part that Roth says is the most time-consuming: slicing up copious amounts of film. Roth recently scrounged together a compilation of all the Pac-12’s point guards for Justin Coleman to study. It took a few days to produce.
“I probably do about three hours of video work every day,” Roth said. “Not even breaking down games. Right now we’re looking at grad transfers and we’re breaking down film for them, showing the coaches. There’s just various projects.”
Managers take on greater roles as they get older.
“Instead of just rebounding and what not, now you’re making special edits for the coaches if they want to watch Brandon Williams off pick-and-roll,” Friedman said. “Instead of them just looking at you as an ordinary manager, you’re now trusted to do more things like that and be more involved.”
As the head manager, Friedman tries to lead by example, though he isn’t afraid to speak up.
“He helps us push each other more, and when we’re slacking a little bit he’ll hold us responsible,” Roth said. “He just wants to uphold the structure of the program. When he came in, it was like you get here an hour before practice, you do everything with the most care that you have and take everything seriously.”
Because it is serious business. UA director of basketball operations Ryan Reynolds, a former student-manager at Xavier who oversees the hiring process, says Friedman and his crew are invaluable to Arizona’s success.
“They are as much a part of the team as any player or coach,” Reynolds said.
Head coach Sean Miller believes a strong managerial staff can be the difference between a good program and a championship program, so he takes the time to get to know them personally, Roth said.
“I think one of the biggest points of having a great culture is making sure that the lowest person on the totem pole feels like they’re appreciated and they matter,” Friedman said. “And Coach Miller, he makes you feel like you’re there for a reason and that you’re relied on. So there’s never a time at Arizona where I’m like, man, my work is not paying off. Why am I here?”
So what does make all those hours worth it? The opportunity to be part of something greater than yourself, Friedman said.
It’s the thrill you get on the road when you go into a hostile environment with 20 of your closest pals and grind out a hard-fought win. It’s the satisfaction you get when you see a player swish a jump shot, knowing how much time they spent honing their craft in the offseason.
“I think that’s a big one because you’re part of their daily grind in the summer,” Friedman said. “For Zo for example, he probably shot over 20,000 shots the summer going into his junior year. And for him to shoot 90, 50, 40 (percent) in conference, that’s the rewarding part of it. Just watching him make shots and knowing that you helped him become the shooter he is today. And all of our guys today, when they make a shot ... all our managers are there helping their daily process.”
And almost all of this happens in the shadows, far outside the spotlight, with the average fan having almost no idea of their contributions.
“I always like to tell the managers that you can do something right 999 times in a row without anyone noticing, but the one time you mess it up every one knows right away,” Reynolds said. “That is just the life of a manager.”
Friedman said his crew operates by the mantra that a good manager is seen, but never heard.
“As a manager the thing you learn is just to put your head down and work,” Friedman said. “It’s not the most glorious thing, but if you can put your head down and come in every day and work, you can do a lot of things in life. So I think my experience being a manager and not getting the praise or not being on TV all the time, but still working your butt off, that can prepare you for anything.”
For Friedman, that could mean a long career in the NBA. Like Trier, Friedman got a shot with the Knicks last summer, interning as an extended manager for the front office. Friedman’s peers believe he has a bright future in basketball operations.
“He’s a hard worker, he’s got a great work ethic and he’s very knowledgeable about basketball,” Roth said.
“I have no doubt that he will join a long lineage of former Arizona student-managers to go into the real world and achieve incredible success,” added Reynolds.
But no matter what the future holds for Friedman, he will always be grateful for his time at Arizona. And after he works his final home game Saturday, he hopes to be remembered as the guy who “said yes to everything.”
Even if that meant rebounding a thousand shots at 3 a.m.
“(Senior day) will be emotional just because I can’t thank Coach Miller and the coaching staff enough,” Friedman said. “I’ve been so lucky and fortunate to learn from Coach Miller, Austin Carroll, Coach (Danny) Peters, Coach (Justin) Gainey, and Ryan Reynolds. Those guys made me who I am today. They invested so much in my growth and I’ll forever be thankful for that.”