As Dr. Freeman Hrabowski scrolled through the text log on his iPhone in his 10th-floor office earlier this week, going back in time to find the day when Jairus Lyles wrote to say that he would be returning to UMBC, he stopped to smile at a photo.
They text regularly, the university president and the Retrievers men’s basketball team’s star guard, so much so that Hrabowski joked they’ve reached “BFF” status — best friends forever. But for as often as they buzz each other’s phone with notes of mutual admiration, there is maybe nothing more fundamental in 21st-century relationships than proof of proximity, a moment together captured for posterity.
So, yes, of course they’ve taken a selfie, the America East Conference Player of the Year candidate wearing a UMBC sweatshirt and down jacket, one of the state’s foremost higher-education officials in a tie and scarf, both smiling like old friends.
“It has been my honor to know him,” Hrabowski, 67, said of Lyles. “It really has.”
“Everything about him,” Lyles, 22, said of Hrabowski, “he's just an honest man.”
When Lyles decided last spring to finish his career in Catonsville, he knew the promise this season held. Much of it has been realized: Ahead of Saturday’s Senior Day game against Massachusetts Lowell, the Silver Spring native leads the America East in scoring (20.8 points per game), has the Retrievers (19-10, 10-4) on the verge of consecutive 20-win seasons for the first time in the program’s Division I history and is coming off a straight-A semester in his master’s program.
What Lyles could not foresee was the embrace of a mentor who marvels at the notion of a 3-pointer. “How do they do that?” Hrabowski said with earnest wonder, struck by the distance between ball and target.
But then, Hrabowski’s and Lyles’ friendship once might have seemed a long-shot proposition, too. Hrabowski is a self-described “mega-nerd” who gets goosebumps from math. Lyles is so taken with basketball, he can’t envision a career outside of the sport. Hrabowski oversees a rapidly developing campus and $400 million-plus budget. Lyles is a student-athlete at a low-major program.
But when Lyles sat down with then-first-year coach Ryan Odom last season to discuss his future — higher-profile schools were sniffing around, knowing he’d be immediately eligible in 2017-18 — Odom wanted him to see someone else. He arranged for an evening with Hrabowski, whom Lyles had met but didn’t really know.
“The coach had said to me, ‘[Lyles] is a really good guy, and I want you to talk to him and see what you think about his staying here. We'd love to have him, but we want what's best for him,’ ” Hrabowski recalled.
So one day after the season, around 5 p.m., Lyles went over to meet with Hrabowski. For some of the three hours they spent together, Lyles shadowed Hrabowski as if it were part of a game plan, sitting in on meetings, walking around the school’s Commons, helping with all the duties required of a university president.
In quieter moments, they spoke not of basketball but of life, of being a black man in America. It was their first real conversation, but it felt like their 101st. Hrabowski was struck by Lyles’ poise; Lyles, by pretty much everything Hrabowski showed him.
“I don't want to make him sound like a little boy,” said Carol Motley, Lyles’ mother. “But he called me and he was like, 'Wow, Mom. This is what we did.' ” A “game-changer,” she said of the meeting.
Privately, Lyles already knew he wanted to stay at UMBC. He adored his coaches and his teammates. He was also, by then, relatively well traveled, having started his career at Virginia Commonwealth before a brief stopover at Robert Morris.
But in their meeting, Hrabowski had shown him the future. He took Lyles to the roof of the Administration Building — so quaint, “it's almost like you can go out there and have a picnic,” Lyles said — and shared with him his vision for the school. Between the rush of students below them and the Baltimore skyline in the distance was the UMBC Event Center, still under construction.
“It's very symbolic,” Hrabowski said of the $85 million facility, which opened this month. “He saw how now we're taking our athletic program to the next level, to be the best that we can be.”
A few days later, Lyles told Odom and Hrabowski that his mind was made up. He was coming back. When Lyles received his undergraduate degree at commencement last spring, he shook hands with Hrabowski, and they embraced.
They have grown only closer since. Lyles will drop by Hrabowski’s office every now and then to check in, but with their schedules, they mainly text. After Lyles scored 35 points last month in a win over Hartford, Hrabowski congratulated him and asked what was in the water. Lyles said he appreciated the support, but more than that, what Hrabowski stands for.
That day, The Baltimore Sun had profiled Hrabowski’s participation in the Children’s Crusade of 1963, a civil rights march in Birmingham, Ala. He remembered Lyles texting him: “That win was for you and all you fought for growing up.”
“He sets the tone,” Odom said of Hrabowski.
Lyles’ father is not involved in his life, Motley said. Since Lyles graduated from DeMatha in 2013, it has been important to her that he surround himself with only “the best men,” from former VCU coach Shaka Smart to Odom to now Hrabowski. More than his basketball success, she revels in his maturation as a young man.
During a recent game, Odom was steaming mad after an iffy call, Motley said. Lyles walked over to Odom, helped to calm him down and led him back to the bench, lest the coach say something an official wouldn’t let him take back. After the storm had passed, Motley considered how much her son had changed, and who had helped change him.
“I think he looks at it like: 'This [Hrabowski] is an African-American male that is doing the kind of things that I want to do in whatever capacity I do it in. But I'm going to be mature like he is,’ ” she said.
For all of Hrabowski’s acumen and accomplishments, a complete comprehension of basketball eludes him. Hrabowski often asks Lyles questions about the game, and Lyles can offer only so much help. "I'm kind of repeating myself every time we talk,” he said, laughing.
The Retrievers could have as few as three games remaining this year, and Hrabowski figures to be paying attention to each. Even if UMBC’s season ends without its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008, even if a professional career takes Lyles across the Atlantic Ocean, the two expect to remain close.
Not so close that they can manage another selfie, obviously, but not so far that two BFFs can’t check up on each other, either.
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“I enjoy seeing how he's doing,” Hrabowski said. “But he knows that the coach and others will be here for him. There's no doubt about that. This is the wonderful part about education. You don't talk about people being your students or mentees for the four- or five-year period. It becomes life. It's about life.”