There’s a reason Connor Klementowicz will become only the third Flying Dutchmen player in the last quarter-century to spend four years as a walk-on.
“It’s almost unfair what you want out of a walk-on,” Joe Mihalich said this week. “You want him to know all the plays, be talented enough to guard an all-conference player, work as hard as anybody else, have a great personality, be positive in the locker room. And then understand that you don’t even play and (have to) pay your own way.
“You’re asking for Superman. And Connor was Superman.”
It’s not the first time Mihalich compared Klementowicz to a one-named icon. Technically speaking, Klementowicz is no longer a walk-on after being surprised with a scholarship for the spring semester prior to a game against Drexel Jan. 25, two days before the beginning of the semester. After the 72-59 win, Mihalich marveled at how popular Klementowicz is around campus.
“All you’ve got to do is say ‘Connor’ and you know who it is,” Mihalich said. “Like Pele or Elvis. You’ve just got to use one name.”
Klementowicz, far too young to remember Pele or Elvis, laughed at the comparison but admitted he’s enjoyed the singular experience as the walk-on who went on to become universally beloved within his team and campus.
“I’m not going to lie, I love it,” Klementowicz said. “I’ll come to practice and then I go and eat lunch and I like to meet people. I like to be friends with kids that are in my finance class all the way to the kids form the band and people that not everybody’s friends with.”
Celebrity status was the furthest thing from Klementowicz’s mind when he visited Hofstra as a high school senior. Klementowicz thought about going to a Division III school where he could play regularly but decided he wanted to try to go DivisionI, where he’d play far less but chase a universal goal.
“I just wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, where I could help my team win a championship,” Klementowicz said.
Mihalich and top assistant Mike Farrelly, who spent four years as a Division I walk-on at St. Joseph’s, were honest about what Klementowicz could expect, especially under an established head coach.
When Tom Marich joined the Dutchmen for the first of four seasons as a walk-on in the fall of 1994, he was playing under a rookie Division I head coach in Jay Wright. Marich played 57 games for the Dutchmen. Matt Grogan walked on to Hofstra in the fall of 2009 because he wanted to play under Tom Pecora, but Grogan ended up playing 53 games over his final two years for Mo Cassara’s undermanned squads.
There would be no paths to similar playing time for Klementowicz, who has played 63 minutes over 26 games.
“Coach Farrelly was a walk-on himself and he explained to me you have to understand, theres a job to do,” Klementowicz said. “It’s not like you’re expected to play or anything like that. This is what you’re going to have to do for four years.”
Klementowicz’s task in practice is to prepare his teammates for games, and his role on game day is to use his personality to lighten the mood. As a freshman, Klementowicz began standing at the free throw line nearest the Hofstra bench and handing out specific handshakes for each member of the starting lineup. For example: The reserved Eli Pemberton gets a simple handshake while the more outgoing Tareq Coburn gets patted down, like he’s going through security.
“You know what everybody’s feeling like,” Klementowicz said. “Eli’s locked in. ‘Rico’ likes to get pumped up. So whatever works with those guys.”
Teammates aren’t the only ones Klementowicz interacts with before and during a game. In the moments prior to the lineup being introduced, Klementowicz will often be seen helping organize the kids and community members who are lined up to exchange high and low fives with the starters as they jog off the bench towards Klementowicz.
Once the game starts, Klementowicz is the first player off the bench with three fingers in the air following a 3-pointer. At home, the final moments of lopsided wins are filled with chants for a Klementowicz appearance, which his parents particularly enjoy.
“It’s not even getting into the game that gets me excited — it’s the whole crowd going crazy, the band, the student section,” Klementowicz said. “For my Mom to say ‘Oh, they cheer for you’ when I get in the game or even on the bench, just hearing that makes me happy. When I get to talk to my parents and they tell me they’re here and that they (are) proud of me for that, that means more to me coming from them than anything.”
There’s a pretty good chance Klementowicz’s parents won’t have to wait as long to see him this afternoon. Marich and Grogan each started on their Senior Day, as did walk-ons Jeff Fox (2001) and Ryan Johnson (2008), and the only Hofstra senior to not start in his home finale over the last decade was the injured Joel Angus III.
No matter how much time Klementowicz sees on the court this afternoon, the finance major knows he’ll take to the real world the lessons learned during a unique four years at Hofstra.
“I hear kids say ‘I want to come out of college and right away start making money, I want to make six figures,’” Klementowicz said. “It’s not realistic. So I’m going to take my experience here and understand that you’ve got to work hard to get promoted or to get where you want to get. And then obviously the biggest thing for me was to see my four years pay off and get that scholarship. I’m going to take that and understand that maybe four or five years of experience in whatever field I (enter), maybe I’ll get that promotion where it’ll boost me up and I’ll start getting a name for myself.”
Of course, before that there’s one more goal to achieve — the one that lured Klementowicz to Hofstra instead of a Division III school in the first place. A win over James Madison, or a loss by William & Mary, will lock up a second straight regular season title for the Dutchmen and vault Klementowicz and fellow seniors Pemberton and Desure Buie into a select club at Hofstra.
No seniors have exited Hofstra with an NCAA Tournament banner since 2001, and the possibility of being the rare walk-on to go dancing is one of the few things that leaves the loquacious Klementowicz at a loss for words.
“That would — I mean, come on man, ever since you’re a kid in kindergarten, everybody wants to make it to the NCAAs,” Klementowicz said. “That would just be — yeah I don’t have any words for that. I would just be so happy. I just want to go dancing, man. That would just be the cherry on top.”