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Kale Abrahamson opens up about his time at Northwestern

After his sophomore season at Northwestern, Kale Abrahamson announced that he would transfer from the school. He ended up at Drake, heading back home to Des Moines, Iowa, in search of more playing time and a fresh start. Abrahamson, always one of the most honest, insightful interviews on the team, sat down with us to discuss his time at Northwestern, the coaching change, his relationship with the coaches and his future in the Q&A.

Question: So why did you choose to come to Northwestern?

Kale Abrahamson: I had a ton of offers actually, and I tried to weed them down. I really thought I was going to go to Stanford, but I went out there and had a visit where I didn’t really get a good feeling about it, so then I had to open it up again. I went to Wake Forest, Vandy – oh man, I was going everywhere – and Northwestern as well. And then I scheduled my final official visits and I came here and I thought, ‘This is the place for me.’

Q: What was [former head coach Bill] Carmody’s recruiting pitch like?

KA: He really didn’t recruit me at all. It was more Tavaras Hardy, he was my main recruiter. He came and saw me initially and offered me a scholarship. But yeah, Carmody was not very social. He’s not really into that whole recruiting thing, and I didn’t really notice it at the time; but yeah, it was mostly Hardy.

Q: What was Hardy’s pitch like then?

KA: He was telling me I was going to be the next John Shurna, and all that stuff. They say stuff they don’t really mean. It’s kind of a big fugazi, to be honest. He would show me clips of John Shurna coming off ball screens and stuff like that, and I never came off a ball screen in my whole career here.

It’s easier the second time around now [referring to his recruitment this past spring after he decided to transfer] to see what the truth is and what isn’t the truth. It was just one of those things where obviously they’re trying to sell you something.

Q: Where did you see yourself as a fit in Carmody’s system, and what did you think you could accomplish here?

KA: I saw myself as John Shurna-esque. Obviously I didn’t want to put that comparison on myself, but I thought I could score in the same ways that he could score; and score a lot; and score early. I thought I was going to play a ton as a freshman, and that was a big reason for me to come here as well. I really wanted to play as a freshman. I didn’t want to redshirt. I thought I could make an impact right away, and I thought that opportunity was here.

Q: So when you got here – non-basketball related question – what were your first impressions of Northwestern as a school?

KA: It’s unbelievable. It’s the coolest campus in the nation. It’s one of the best schools in the nation. I love how everyone kind of knows everybody. We had a really cool freshman dorm in Elder, and people seemed to know us and we knew the people on our floor. It was really fun. I was like, ‘Dang, college is awesome.’ And it’s still like that now. Two years into it, I still walk out here and look at the lake and I’m like, I’m just so blessed, I’m like, ‘Man, how did I end up here, to see that.’ And I can walk two feet to a beach, and I’m working out and I can see the lake. It’s just epic. It’s a pretty cool campus.

Q: You probably had expectations coming into college; was it what you expected? Was there anything that surprised you about it?

KA: It was actually easier than I expected it to be academically. It’s such a prestigious school, but I’ve done pretty well academically, so I wasn’t really worried about that.

The basketball part obviously was a big surprise. Many of my expectations were not met in that area obviously. But it’s one of those things that you have to go through, and it was a good experience for me.

Q: On the basketball side, early in your first season, was there anything that – with the coaching, or with how the program was run, or with the team’s attitude – really stood out as a surprise for you?

KA: I was surprised how much seniority played a role in trust from the coaching staff and from your teammates. I expected it to be more of a level playing field. When I walked in, it seemed like us young guys were really not on the same playing field as the older guys. We didn’t get the same slack from anybody – from coaches, from teammates. So that was a big change for maybe, maybe because I was the man in high school. No one was messing with me then. So it was a big transition initially, and especially that first summer.

Q: I don’t want to use the word fault, but who could you attribute that dynamic to? Was it the coaches? Was it the players?

KA: I think it was just the whole organization. I wouldn’t blame anybody in particular. I keep coming back to that word trust. I think it was that nobody really trusted us new guys, and I don’t think we trusted the older guys based on the way we were being treated. And maybe that’s normal, but for me, that was not a good thing, and I think we could’ve handled that a little better.

Q: I assume you were consistently on winning teams growing up; was it difficult to be on a losing team [your freshman season]?

KA: Yeah. It was different for sure. My high school team actually hadn’t been to the state tournament in 15 years when I came in as a freshman, and we finally got there my senior year, so I knew we had a place to go here, and it wasn’t going to be built in a day. And that was one of the reasons I was attracted to this place. I figured I could be the guy who put a stamp on this place and got it to it’s first NCAA Tournament, and that’s a big accomplishment; it’s just something cool. But the fact that we didn’t get there, and the fact that it was so bad the first year was really disappointing.

Q: When I last talked to you for this story on Alex Olah, you said something about there being a lot of external factors or situations that contributed to [Olah] struggling and not having confidence. Would you go into that any more? What were you talking about there?

KA: Like I said, I just don’t think any of us younger guys were getting any confidence from anyone. The only person that was ever building up Olah the whole year was me. The only person ever building me up was Olah. So that’s got to come from somewhere, whether it’s the coaches whether it’s the players, somebody has to build up the younger guys and tell them, ‘hey, it’s going to be okay. We have confidence in you. We believe in you. You’re going to be a big part of this team.’ And maybe I wasn’t going to be a big part initially, but Olah was, so I expected better treatment of somebody who’s going to be a big, big part of what you’re trying to do.

Q: And even Drew Crawford didn’t do that? Because it seemed like he did that this past year to some degree.

I think we grew as a team in general. We came together much more. And I’m not blaming it all on the Carmody era either, even through that season we came together more as a team. But yeah, it’s all interconnected, you can’t blame one person, everyone is all trying to build this rock together and if one person isn’t helping, it’s not really going to work.

Q: So what did you take away from your first season?

KA: I just got a lot tougher. My faith got stronger. I had to rely on God. There were times when I was down, when I thought, ‘I hate basketball. I don’t want to play, I don’t want to go to practice.’ It’s a grind. You go through a Big Ten season, you’re taking four classes, you’re never here, you’re always in the gym, you’re at the gym for six hours a day, you’re lifting, you’re playing, so that was huge. And it just made me a lot, lot tougher. And I’m thankful for that, because you’ve got to be tough at this level.

Q: Did you enjoy it at all?

KA: No, not particularly. I mean, there were glimpses of fun I suppose, like individually when I would play well. But as a team, it was never like, ‘we’re having a great time.’ We never were.

Q: So when Carmody was fired, what was your reaction?

KA: Well I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was trying to see who’s coming in, am I leaving -- if coach is leaving, everyone was trying to see who came in and seeing if we wanted to play for the new guy. It was a very strange period. It was like two weeks.

[Athletic Director Jim] Phillips called us in and gave us the news, and we told him what we wanted in our next coach. And then we went on spring break, and Collins was here when we got back.

Q: What was that meeting with Phillips like? What did you tell him?

KA: It was intense. Everyone was crying, Phillips was crying… it was intense. We pretty much outlined the characteristics that Chris Collins fulfilled – a player’s coach, a history of getting players to the next level, developing players, stuff like that. I even wrote [Phillips] a letter. I said, ‘Let’s bring Chris Collins here.’ I had met him, and I thought it was going to be the best fit for the team. And I still think they’re going to be really successful.

Q: So what was your reaction when Collins did get hired?

KA: Oh, I was happy. I was totally ecstatic. I told Phillips I wanted him, so I was pumped up and ready to go.

Q: So when you first got to know Collins personally as the head coach here, what were your first impressions of him?

KA: I thought he was just a cool dude. But I knew he was a killer deep down. There’s two different phases. If you’re that successful, you’re not just one person. There’s a public face, and there’s a behind the scenes, I’m-a-killer nasty face. You’ve got to be a beast to be that successful and that strong and that tough. So I knew that initially. It kind of reminded me of my dad actually, because that’s how my dad is. So I liked it. It was a good initial impression.

Q: Did you see playing under Collins as a big opportunity for you?

KA: Yeah. I mean, he’s coached the best players in the world, and his dad has coached the best players in the world, and he’s at every practice, so I felt privileged to have those guys.

Q: So when you first got out on the court, what were your first impressions of Chris Collins the coach?

KA: Initially, he took it easy on us. He was cheering for us, he was like, ‘Yeah, make that shot! Yeah, let’s go!’, and jumping around and stuff. So that was cool. I was like, ‘Dang, this is different than Carmody.’ Because he’s way more vocal and charismatic. But that was just spring workouts. Once the season started, the tough guy came out.

Q: Can you tell me one story of him being that killer, being that tough guy?

KA: We had some sort of scrimmage. We thought we had played fine, it was like a 15 minute scrimmage. Afterwards, the coaches were like ‘yeah, yeah, good job, good job.’ And we get back home, take the weekend off, and then Monday comes, and [team co-captain Dave Sobolewski] texts us, ‘guys, get here early. Film room. I’ve never seen a coaching staff this mad in my whole entire life.’ And we didn’t know what we did. We thought someone failed out of school or something.

We walk in there, and they played the film of that scrimmage, and it was a 15 minute scrimmage and it took 3-and-a-half hours. And there was a lot of bad words said in that meeting. It was super-intense. That woke us up quick.

Q: Were there ever times like that with Carmody?

KA: No. Never.

Q: In your first season under Collins, did you think your playing time was going to increase?

KA: Yeah.

Q: And when it didn’t, was it a surprise to you?

KA: Yeah.

Q: In preseason, were there hints from Collins that it wasn’t going to increase?

KA: Oh, I could tell right away. Once we started team workout, I knew I was on the second team immediately. It was already set, from probably the second workout. I didn’t know how it happened, but I was like, ‘Dang.’ So I was fighting every day in practice trying to earn it back, trying to win it back, and it was a struggle. It was a fight out there. Practices are completely different than the games. There’s no refs. It is a war, especially when people are competing for playing time. I probably could have handled it better, I probably could’ve played better, but yeah, I was just trying to do the best I could to get that time back.

Q: Do you feel that you weren’t given a fair shot to earn your place on the team?

KA: I mean, like I said, I could have done stuff differently, but I think, if I was put in a different position initially… I don’t know, it’s tough to tell. It’s probably 50/50 I would say. I could’ve maybe done it myself… but maybe not. It’s one of those things I still think about.

Q: Do you know if other guys on the team felt like that as well?

KA: Um… I mean, obviously some people never got a chance. Like [Aaron] Lieberman never got a chance, Chier [Ajou] never got a chance. Me and [Nathan Taphorn] were pretty much the same. Yeah, it’s not fair. This isn’t like YMCA ball, so no one is expecting it to be fair.

Q: Early in the year, you met with Collins, or you went into his office and pretty much told him that you wanted to play more. What went on in that meeting?

KA: I was just confused, to be honest. I knew I wasn’t going to start, that was clear from day one, but after all the workouts, I played like two minutes in a scrimmage out in Saint Louis. And I was like, ‘Holy crap. What is going on?’ And so I had to talk to him. I don’t see myself sitting on the bench – ever. Maybe that’s cockiness, maybe that’s confidence, whatever, but I’m not doing it. So I had to go in there and say it, and I think he respected that, because he played, he knows how it is. I think he would be more mad if I didn’t care.

Q: Before the season, did Collins ever sit down with you and convey to you what your role was going to be on the team?

KA: Before the season, he said, ‘You should try to start on this team. I think you can start on this team.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I agree.’ So I tried, and obviously it didn’t work out.

Q: Do you think he was sincere in saying that?

KA: [Long pause]… I don’t know, I guess. Maybe. But I’m guessing he told everybody the best case scenario, which is what you should do as a coach. You should say, ‘Hey, this is your highest potential. This is what you should strive for.’ But no, nothing was guaranteed.

Q: Throughout the season, you had your moments, you had some good games, but it seemed like you struggled with inconsistency. Why weren’t you able to find that consistency?

KA: I don’t know. It was a tough year. Playing time was up and down. I would make shots some games, I would not make shots some games, I would not get shots some games, I would get shots other games. That was frustrating for me, because I’m not used to getting one shot a game, and if I miss it, the whole game was ruined. I could’ve been more aggressive, and done other things, but it’s in the past, so I’ve stopped thinking about it.

Q: In terms of Xs and Os, was there a reason that you didn’t fit into the system or fit in with the team’s personnel?

KA: I think we [himself and Collins] have a different vision for who I am as a player. And that’s fine. Obviously we’re allowed to disagree on that. But my role this year was to space the floor and shoot 3s, and maybe that was the correct role for me this year – and I accepted it; I even told him, ‘I’ll do whatever you want’ – but after the year was over, I was like, I didn’t work this hard to stand in the corner and shoot 3s.

Q: This is a completely open-ended question: What is your opinion of Chris Collins?

KA: He is a son of a gun. I think he’s going to get this team wherever… I mean, he will die before Northwestern is not successful. It’s only a matter of time. He’ll do whatever it takes. If he has to get players from SPAC [Northwestern’s on-campus gym] to win, he’ll do it – he said that many times to us. And he’s not kidding.

He and pretty much every successful coach has this persona of, ‘I’m really charismatic, I’m really cool.’ And they are cool, but behind those doors, it’s a killer. And he’s going to do it. I’m excited. I think he’s going to take this place to the next level.

Q: So why did you decide to transfer?

KA: Like I said, I see myself playing a much different role than what I had the opportunity to play here. And it’s not like I made the decision flippantly. It was very difficult. I weighed every option. I marked out what playing time would be available where, who was in my spot, what I would have to do to play, and then what I would have to do to play the minutes I wanted to play. And it wasn’t here.

Q: When did you start thinking about transferring?

KA: Like, immediately when I didn’t play the first game. I was like, ‘this has to change.’ You get four years to play this game in college, and it’s kind of personal, but it’s really not. It’s a business. And I’m trying to play and make money with this at some point in my life, and I can’t risk sitting on the bench.

Q: Was the decision made in your mind before the season was over?

KA: Yeah. I never told anyone, not a soul besides my dad and my mom, but oh yeah. At some point, it was done. It’s not like I took anything away from the team, I still gave this team everything I had, and I’m pretty proud of that.

Q: If you hadn’t transferred, what would your role have been on this team next year?

KA: I think I would’ve had to fight like a freakin’ nutcase every day just to get the minutes I got this year. And I hated this year. So I was like, ‘Good lord. I can’t do that again.’

Q: So what do you want to accomplish at Drake?

KA: I just want to get back to who I am as a player, and who I know I can be. And maybe people don’t see that, but those people aren’t around me every day, and those people don’t see what I see, what my family sees, what I think my coaches at Drake will see.

Obviously it’s not about me when I go to Drake, I want to get Drake back to prominence, I want to do something cool for Des Moines, which is my home town, but obviously I want to go to play and be successful as an individual as well.

Q: You definitely want to play basketball after school?

KA: Yes. Most definitely. I’ll play wherever. I’ll play until my knees fall off. A very wise man told me that one time. ‘You need to shoot that ball in the hoop until your knees break off.’ So that’s what I’m going to do.

Q: Was there ever anything in your mind that tempted you to stay just for Northwestern and the school aspect?

KA: Oh yeah. I mean, Alex [Olah, with whom he’s very good friends], and that beach [points], and that lakefill [points], and those classrooms [points], and those teachers I have, that was big. I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t know if I could leave that. But that was big with Drake, because it’s a very good academic school, so I knew I wasn’t dropping down to the crust school of America. So I guess I’ve just got to come back and see the beach every once in a while.

And me and Olah are going to be brothers for life. I ended up not worrying about that as much. It’s going to suck leaving him, but I expect him to go to the NBA soon, so he can fly me out to see him whenever he wants. So it’s just one of those things.