First up, here is the link to the much shorter print story about Ryan Broekhoff's journey from young freshman to Valparaiso star.
I can still remember a mid-November afternoon in 2008 when I scoured the internet searching for an international phone card. I'd heard rumor of a talented Australian player giving a verbal commitment to the Valparaiso men's basketball team and I wanted to figure out just who this Ryan Broekhoff character was.
It took me an hour to find a reliable phone card and then took me three tries to get Marty Clarke on the phone from the Australian Institute of Sport.
Clarke had glowing (yet realistic) things to say about Broekhoff. One quote stood out in my mind and it was one that I included in my initial story on Broekhoff's signing.
"He is physically immature at the moment, with a very young body that is still growing, but he is very smart in basketball," Clarke said in 2008. "He's not the super athlete, but he doesn't have to rely on his athleticism. Another year in the gym will really help him physically."
Fast forward several weeks to when Homer Drew was able to officially comment on Broekhoff's signing and the Valparaiso coach compared the Australian native to one of the all-time program greats Lubos Barton. As a reporter who got my start covering the Barton teams of 1998-02, this comparison seemed almost blasphemous. I've often thought that Barton was the second best player to ever wear a Valparaiso uniform behind Bryce Drew.
Needless to say, Broekhoff had lofty expectations in my mind when he arrived at Valparaiso in the fall of 2009.
To say that Broekhoff was a lightly regarded recruit would be an understatement. The forward played at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), but didn't even start on the team his final year. That's not necessarily an indictment of Broekhoff's skill level, just an illustration of how loaded AIS was that season. Clarke led a team that featured future college stars Matthew Dellavedova (St. Mary's), Hugh Greenwood (New Mexico), Cody Ellis (St. Louis) and Brock Motum (Washington St.).
Former Valparaiso assistant coach Chris Sparks was on the staff at the time and knew of Broekhoff from summer camps he worked while coaching in New Zealand. When Sparks hit the road recruiting for the Crusaders, one of his first stops was AIS and Broekhoff.
"The thing that I instantly fell in love with was that he was one of the most efficient players you'll ever see," Sparks said. "The more I watched him, the more I saw that he was fundamentally sound and that he was such an intense competitor, but always within the team concept."
Sparks returned to Valparaiso armed with a DVD featuring Broekhoff highlights to show the rest of the staff. Homer and Bryce Drew pored over the video, but the two were plenty cautious at first.
"It's hard to recruit someone when you can't see them in person," Homer said. "Video can be very deceivious. It's hard to gauge everything a player can do. We spoke with the people at AIS and Marty Clarke is someone who I really learned to trust his judgement."
The selling point for Drew came down to the fact that both of Broekhoff's parents played at the highest levels of competition with the Frankston Blues, a junior club in Australia. Clarke reiterated to Drew that Broekhoff still had growing to do (a point that Sparks continued to make even on Broekhoff's official visit to Valparaiso) and that the player that Broekhoff currently was would not be the same player that arrived to Valparaiso.
"By Marty giving us the glowing report and his Mom and Dad having the genes, that was a factor in my mind," Homer said. "His potential was a lot of upside. He could go as far as he wanted to go and obviously we've all seen the story from there."
If there was any hesitation in Broekhoff's recruitment, it certainly didn't help that Valparaiso was the only Division I school to make an offer. Pacific and Northern Iowa had shown interest, but legend goes that the Crusaders were the only team to offer a full-ride to the United States and they did it without ever seeing Broekhoff play in a live game.
"In the end, the only school that wanted Ryan to visit was Valpo and they were the only college that we looked at," Broekhoff's mother Jo Toebelman said. "Thank God for us. It was really disappointing that none were that keen, but I bet they're kicking themselves now."
Broekhoff eventually signed with Valparaiso and that summer he again flashed the potential that originally had Sparks drooling at the prospect of the Aussie in a Crusader uniform.
"AIS was playing at the U-19 championships and I went down there after we'd already signed Ryan," Sparks said. "AIS was up by three over Croatia and were on defense. Croatia had an all-world guard and he took a 3-pointer that bounced off the back rim and was falling straight down, I mean it was going to fall in the basket. In FIBA there isn't goaltending and just as this shot is about to fall through, Broekhoff comes in out of nowhere, leaps up and grabs the ball. His elbows were two feet above the rim when he grabbed the ball. I had never heard a crowd go from so loud to so quiet to so angry that quickly. He pulled this ball down and I knew right there that we had the steal of the century. Coaches from St. Mary's, Washington, Texas were all there. I just smiled because we'd gotten the steal of the century."
Broekhoff arrived on campus in the fall of 2009 to a team that was in dire need of "Welcome tags". Broekhoff and Matt Kenney were the only two newcomers to make it through to their senior year from a group that included Chris Halvorsen, Milos Milosevic, Tommy Kurth and Hrvoje Vucic. Cory Johnson and Brandon Wood also made their Valparaiso debuts in 2009-10.
Broekhoff had plenty of ups-and-downs his freshman season as he started a handful of games at the beginning of the year before being relegated to reserve duty for much of the season.
"The coaches never made any promises about starting or how many minutes I'd play," Broekhoff said. "I always admired their honesty. The journey has had ups-and-downs, but I wouldn't trade the last four years to go anywhere else."
Broekhoff's breakout game finally came midway through the season when he knocked down four second half 3-pointers and scored 20 points in a win at Loyola. Former Valparaiso teammate Brandon McPherson knew that it was only a matter of time for Broekhoff to shine.
"It was just him getting comfortable and we knew that would come," McPherson said. "There were times when he'd be open and he wouldn't shoot. I'd get so mad at him for that. I'd say 'Shoot, that's why you're here!' What we see from Rowdy today doesn't surprise me because I saw him in practice. If everyone would've seen him back then, they'd know this was coming."
With his freshman season in the rear-view mirror, Broekhoff dedicated the off-season to improve every aspect of his game. The forward jumped to double figures in scoring while knocking down 64 3-pointers as a sophomore. Broekhoff also doubled his assists and steals while tripling his blocked shots. Broekhoff was already on his way to becoming an integral part of the team when the Crusaders suffered a major defection.
Star guard Brandon Wood announced at the end of the 2010-11 school year that he would be transferring to Michigan State for his final season. Wood would've easily been named the preseason Horizon League Player of the Year. Instead the Crusaders suddenly lacked a go-to scorer, but not as far as Wood was concerned.
"I definitely saw a breakout year coming (for Ryan)," Wood said. "Playing with him his first couple years, I noticed that he did a lot of things well and knew that by the time his college career was over, he'd be great at those things."
Broekhoff began his junior season with 18 points at Arizona and then really turned heads with 22 points (in just 11 shots) and 13 rebounds against Georgia Southern. Broekhoff's biggest improvement during his junior year came on the glass when he jumped up to 8.5 rebounds per game.
It was widely expected that Valparaiso would be the home of the Horizon League Player of the Year in 2011-12, but no one would've believed that Broekhoff would be the recipient when the year began.
As much as his fortunes may have changed when Wood left for Michigan State, Broekhoff is very humble about what happened in the aftermath.
"It did open up quite a few avenues on offense," Broekhoff said. "Brandon was a fantastic player when he was here and we would've enjoyed having him last season. It did open things up, not just for me and my development, but for other guys as well."
Broekhoff's scoring jumped nearly five points per game during his junior season and he won Player of the Year honors despite never being named Horizon League Player of the Week.
"I never thought that I had to be the man or that I was going to get all these looks now, it just sort of fell that way. We had a lot of pieces that fit together well and I was lucky enough to be the recipient . Whether it was Kenney getting in the lane or Buggy getting in the lane, I was the recipient of the open shots from that. Then once Kevin got healthy that opened up a whole new avenue. We had a legitimate low post scorer presence. It wasn't me taking the reins and saying 'Yes, now I get to do whatever I want, play 35 minutes and put up 20 shots or anything like that," Broekhoff said. "It kind of freed me up I guess to be a bit more creative, to play a more free, loose game where we ran up-and-down and made plays in transition. Everything fell into place at the right time for us and again, I was lucky enough to be the recipient for a lot of those things."
Technology has made attending Valparaiso easier for Broekhoff than it would've been years ago. Facebook and Skype have helped to keep the Australian connected to his family and home country. Technology has also helped Toebelman keep up with the Crusaders and her son via the Horizon League Network.
Night games often happen at lunchtime in Australia, so Toebelman watches alone while the rest of the family and friends follow along at work. During the weekends, Broekhoff's sister Mel will join the viewing party and the two women will shout and high-five at the computer screen before heading out for a celebratory coffee if the occasion calls for it.
Toebelman will be visiting Valparaiso in February and will be staying through the end of the season. It won't be Toebelman's first trip to Valparaiso, but two weeks out, she finds herself excited at the prospect of returning to the Athletics-Recreation Center.
"Knowing that it will be the last time watching Ryan play at Valpo will be exciting," Toebelman said. "Seeing the fans cheering for him. Seeing everyone again and just really soaking up the ARC atmosphere and truly appreciating that place for giving Ryan a chance and really helping to evolve him as a player and a young man. It really is a special place for us and Ryan."
Future can wait
There are at least 12 games left on the schedule for Valparaiso this season, but the only one on Broekhoff's mind is Wednesday night's contest against Green Bay.
Broekhoff has yearned for a chance to get to the NCAA tournament and he knows that Valparaiso's best (and only) chance to go dancing is to win the Horizon League tournament. The best chance to win the tournament is to win the regular season title and host the tournament. The best chance to do that is to stay focused on each upcoming game.
There is little doubt that Broekhoff will play basketball for a paycheck next season, but the senior isn't giving his future much thought even with NBA prospects looming beyond the year.
"(The NBA) is in my dreams, but a lot depends on how the team performs this year," Broekhoff said. "If we make the NCAA tournament it's obviously a big step forward in getting some recognition. Right now I'm just focused on Green Bay tomorrow and the next game in conference. Once I'm finished that sort of stuff will take care of itself."
"The NBA is something I'd love to do at some point, it's something that anyone who plays basketball would love to do but only a small number get to do. Right now I'm trying to help this team get more wins and once that's all said and done, then I'll look at the next stage of my life. Right now it's kind of all in the distance."