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The tales of a college basketball student manager

Four years ago, as Duke was prepping for its Countdown to Craziness, Ryan Kelly was wheeling a tub of Gatorade down a hallway in Cameron Indoor Stadium. He lost control of the dolly he was using and the orange liquid spilled everywhere -- just as Mike Krzyzewski rounded the corner.

"Oh my god. I thought I was going to get fired,'' Kelly said.

For the record, Krzyzewski laughed, turned to someone and joked, "Must be a freshman."

His peers know his horror.

"You don't want to be late with anything at practice,'' Michigan State senior Andrew Novak said. "Coach [Tom Izzo] will yell, 'Let's go. Let's GO. LET'S GO.''

And so they scurry, this bastion of hoop servants who are often seen yet never cited, reacting like Pavlov's dogs to a timeout horn to set up chairs and distribute water bottles, towels and whiteboards.

They have been chosen from rigorous selection processes that include interviews, job shadows and even essays.

They are the few, the proud ... the managers?

Seriously?

"We do take our jobs seriously, but we have serious jobs,'' said Alessandro Sant'Albano, a Duke manager by way of Turin, Italy.

Was it really necessary for the Duke Blue Devils managers to protect an injured Tyus Jones from prying eyes with a curtain of towels as if he were a horse on a track after a catastrophic injury?

Do candidates for the Kentucky Wildcats really need to work camp to prove their worth?

To be water boys (and girls)?

The answer is yes, and yes.

Student managers might be the lowest rung on the athletic food chain, but they have become a vital cog in the basketball machine. And while being a real Cinderella in the NCAA tournament might require a lot of hard work and sweat (or mopping up someone else's) these menial jobs are coveted on-campus gigs because they have some serious fairy godmother benefits.

The obvious attraction is access (an insider's entre to big-name programs), but the less obvious attraction is ... also access. Most mangers have their eye on a future career in sports and have seen how their predecessors have parlayed the art of making Gatorade into full-time gigs.

Brian DeStefano, former Duke manager, is now associate head coach at Harvard.

Mark Evans, now the equipment manager at Kentucky, was with Calipari at both Memphis and Kentucky as a student manager.

Katherine Vosters graduated from Wisconsin in 2013, after having served three years as a manager. She just finished her second season as the Badgers' director of basketball operations.

And then there are the Paugas, the patron saints of managers. Brian, the younger brother, turned his undergrad experience at Michigan State into an internship with the San Antonio Spurs. Eight years later, he's the team's director of scouting. His brother, Kevin, went from Spartan manager to a full-time director of operations position and owner of a well-read analytics report, the KPI.

So feel free to laugh at their earnest efforts as servants to their peers. They'll have the last laugh when they cash their first paychecks.

"I've seen how many guys have moved on,'' Novak said. "I saw this as an opportunity.''

Plenty of others do, too, but not everyone makes the cut. The odds, in fact, of becoming a manager at an elite program are about as stacked as the odds of playing for an elite program.

Each of the Final Four schools sift through hundreds of applications annually, choosing no more than three or four managers each year.

The application process at all four is rigorous. Michigan State includes job shadowing and an essay. Kentucky asks aspiring managers to work camp before inviting a few for interviews. Wisconsin holds mock workouts. Duke puts candidates through multiple rounds of interviews.

And so we pause here to ask again: Take this stuff a little seriously, people?

"You need people who are here for the right reason,'' said Evans, from Kentucky. "When I say that, the best way to explain what we do is we're the first people to turn the lights on and the last ones to turn the lights off. You have to want to do this.''

Kids who show up and want the perks -- the good seats on the bench, access to the inner workings of the big-name program, the gear, the travel, in other words, the "glamour" -- generally aren't chosen.

Because, as Vosters points out, that's a very small part of the job. Mostly it's behind-the-scenes prep work and cleanup. Often it's for little to no pay. Wisconsin managers receive a small stipend; Duke and Michigan State's groups get no pay at all.

Kentucky, on the other hand, has a scholarship fund for its managers, named after Bill Keightley, the school's beloved equipment manager of 48 years who died in 2008.

So instead of people looking for glitz and glamour, schools are looking for students who want to:

• Haul luggage onto planes and buses in the wee hours

• Fill and refill Gatorade tubs

• Cut and edit film until their eyes cross

• Chart hustle plays and other obscure stats at games

• Work camps in the summer

• Sacrifice weekends and holiday trips in exchange for practices

• Stand, as they do at Duke, just so far apart, ball tucked under one arm, other arm on hip, towel over shoulder.

In other words, people who are willing to do just about whatever they are asked to make life easier for basketball players their own age.

So who in the world are these people?

Most have a similar story.

Kelly grew up in Massachusetts, a self-described lifelong Duke fan with eyes on a career in physical therapy. He was invited to the staff of 12 as a freshman.

"I was the happiest kid in the world," he said. "I was running around the dorm like a nut.''

Now a rising senior, he headed to New York last month, invited by Justise Winslow for the NBA draft. In March, he'll take part in senior day, at Cameron Indoor Stadium, against North Carolina. His father, Terry, a factory worker, will be there (his mother passed away).

"It can't get better than that,'' he said.

Novak is from outside of Chicago, an ex-high school baseball and basketball player. He's in the Michigan State business school and would love a career in either college or professional sports. He's been tubing, pulled on a pontoon boat driven by a happily crazed Izzo, who was intent on whipping the boat so fast his managers would fly off into the water.

Vosters is a Wisconsin native, the daughter of season-ticket-holding parents who was never going to college anywhere but Madison. The lifelong Badgers fan allowed herself a moment to look down the bench this season, as the final seconds were ticking away in Wisconsin's upset of Kentucky.

"It's a feeling I can't describe,'' she said. "I knew how hard everyone on that bench had worked. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.''

A three-sport athlete in Elmira, New York, Evans had a high school friend who was a student manager at Alabama. With designs on a career in sports himself, he took a chance and went to Memphis, where he found the competition to take care of the basketball team wasn't too fierce. He signed up as a freshman, but a year later John Calipari was off to Kentucky.

"I was like, 'Uh-oh. Was this all for nothing?'" Evans said.

Instead, Evans asked Calipari if he could stay on staff if he also made the move to Lexington. Calipari agreed and Evans transferred.

In 2012, he was on the bench when the Wildcats won the national championship.

There has to be an outlier in every bunch.

That would be Sant'Albano, the curly-haired senior manager at Duke. His father was once the CEO of Juventus, one of the world's premier soccer teams, and is now international CEO of Cushman & Wakefield, a multibillion dollar commercial real estate firm.

And he spent the past year wiping up Jahlil Okafor's sweat?

"My family taught me hard work,'' he said. "They believe you have to start any job from the ground up to really know it.''

Ground level on a recent June day saw Sant'Albano giddy with triumph after the managers beat the campers in a game of knockout.

"We haven't won in eight years,'' he said. "We could sweep if we win the third session.''

He was serious.

They all are, serious about a job at which most of us would scoff.

But when they graduate with letters of recommendation from Bo Ryan, Izzo, Calipari and Krzyzewski, guess who will be laughing then?