The sellout crowds and electricity that attended Georgia Tech basketball when James Forrest played for the Yellow Jackets are missing.
Forrest, though, is not. The Tech great plans to be in attendance Tuesday when the Jackets play Clemson at Philips Arena.
“I try to go down as much as I can to support the guys and support the new staff,” Forrest said.
Tech’s season has played out in the grim fashion that many predicted in coach Brian Gregory’s first year. The Jackets have lost 13 of 15 and are in last place in the ACC. Virginia Tech delivered the latest gut punch Saturday, a 74-73 overtime loss on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Former players like Forrest, accustomed to Tech making the NCAA tournament and challenging for ACC titles, have braced for the ride.
“Everyone says the same thing,” said Forrest of former players such as Jon Barry, Dennis Scott and Travis Best. “They like [Gregory's] energy and they like the fact that he’s reaching out to the former guys.”
“The impression is just work-in-progress,” said Malcolm Mackey, Tech’s all-time leading rebounder. “This is Coach Gregory’s first year. It’s a big-time rebuilding year.”
Gregory has sought to involve former players with the team, a connection that had waned over former coach Paul Hewitt’s 11-year tenure. More alumni have attended practices and games than in recent years, a sign of their approval of Gregory’s work. Monday, Gregory said he received a text message last week from Tech legend Mark Price, now coaching with the Orlando Magic.
Gregory encapsulated the text as, “Hang in there, hang tough, saw the team play, doing a lot of good things.”
Said Gregory, “I think the guys appreciate the situation that we’re under, and I think overall – I hope, at least – they like the direction that we’re moving in.”
Forrest, who has returned to Tech to complete his degree while directing his youth basketball program, has been to five or six games. He understands that the Jackets don’t have the roster to compete in the ACC as they did when he was a two-time All-America honorable mention and the 1993 ACC tournament MVP.
“They just don’t have the skill-set players at the positions,” he said. “But I think overall, the team, they’re playing harder than they’ve played in the past. And a lot of that could be, in the past, they had more talent, but at least they’re playing hard.”
Mackey, recently recognized as an ACC tournament legend, has been to two games at Philips. The only player in Tech history to start for two ACC championship teams is eager for the Jackets to win their first ACC tournament since he was a player. He likes what he has seen from Gregory and approves of his roots as an assistant to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“I love [Izzo's] system,” said Mackey, a salesman at a Morrow car dealership. “If that’s the type of style that Coach Gregory wants, I’m happy with that.”
Former walk-on Brian Domalik, who keeps in regular contact with several former players including Kenny Anderson, Brian Oliver and his childhood friend Scott, said that it has been frustrating watching games this season, but that the Jackets are playing with more effort and coordination than they had under Hewitt.
“I feel like he’s getting the most out of the talent that he has,” he said.
While he was disappointed that Gregory did not hire a Tech grad to his staff, he is hopeful.
“I’m just really interested to see how we do over the next three years recruiting,” said Domalik, a manager for a facilities maintenance company.
Domalik used to own a box at Alexander Memorial Coliseum with several former players, which they gave up in part because of their frustration with the team’s decline. With McCamish Pavilion set to open next season and the hope of a revival, Domalik said they’re interested in getting the group back together.