Brotherhood: that’s the one word head basketball manager for the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team, Jonas Alger, used to describe the relationship in the Kentucky men’s basketball locker room.
While helping out the players off the court isn’t in the job description, Alger, who is in his third year as a manager and first year in charge, said that if he does go out of his way to help them, they’ll really show their appreciation; it’s more than just a friendship.
Something Alger would also consider a brotherhood is that of the managerial group as a whole.
“There are so many hours that the managers are together,” he said. “We kind of have to enjoy each other.”
Before Alger joined the program, there were 12 managers on staff. This season, there are only seven or eight managers compared to nine last season.
“It just depends on the workload and how many we think we need,” he said.
Alger’s boss, Mark Evans, who is in his seventh season as head equipment manager, is in charge of hiring new managers every year. Mark was with Kentucky head coach John Calipari as a manager during his tenure at Memphis. Once Evans finished school, Calipari brought him to Kentucky.
Whenever a new manager comes to Kentucky, Alger thinks that easing them into, as they call it, The Greatest Tradition, would be the best option, right? Nope.
“For me, the older guys just threw me right into the fire and tried to teach me as I went. I messed up and was scolded a lot because they hold you to a higher standard,” Alger said. “They really force you to get going as quickly as possible.”
“It’s not typical for a freshman to be a manager,” he said.
The way Alger joined the program was by working at Calipari’s camps over the summer after his senior year of high school. Alger said that Evans and Calipari appreciated his work ethic enough to bring him into the program.
“For me,” he said. “I got hired freshman year. I sent in my resume and I was lucky to get the job.”
Alger, as the head basketball manager, doesn’t like to yell, as some managers before him were comfortable doing, “I just try to teach them before it happens instead of having them make all of those mistakes. It’s always a trial and error kind of thing.” Errors are expected under the pressure that comes with being a part of a program like Kentucky, especially when a manager is new to the job.
“It’s overwhelming at first to be around all these D1 athletes and to be around Cal, but it only takes a few weeks for them to start slowing down and understanding their role a little,” he said.
“The (team) are a great group of people,” Alger said. “They have a lot of funny personalities this year. They’ve all had time to finally become friends and become a family.”
Compared to Alger’s freshman year where everything seemed a lot more serious, this team is as laid back and close as any that he’s been around at UK. The opposite from his sophomore year where the pandemic and 9-16 record tainted the team’s spirits early.
“I never expected to be friends with the players,” he said. “Especially coming in as a freshman, they don’t really talk to you as much, but the more incorporated you get into the program, the more you (build those relationships).”
Sophomore forward Jacob Toppin is someone who Alger has worked the most with since Toppin arrived last season from Rhode Island.
“We’ve been around each other a lot, I help him with pretty much anything because I want the kid to succeed.”
It’s not just the players that treat managers like they’re a part of the team, it’s the coaching staff too.
“The coaches, they treat us like a part of the family (as well),” Alger said. “If we mess up, they yell at us, if we do good, they cheer us on.”
Coaches treat the managers the same way they treat the players. If they’re not performing, the coaches get on them.
“The coaches, they’re great,” he said. “The first day of practice, Orlando (Antigua) came up to me and another manager said (we) need to be loud when the coaches aren’t talking. You guys are just as important as they are out there.”
Antigua left a good first impression with that interaction with Alger, the coach returned to Lexington over the summer for the first time since 2014.
Being a manager isn’t just all fun and games being around these local celebrities; it’s a job and they are expected to get to work when the time comes.
On a normal day during the semester, Alger, a junior marketing major will head to class in the morning to where he’s free after 2 p.m.
“I’ll either be helping Mark (Evans) get practice-ready and doing laundry,” he said. “After that, we put on our basketball shoes and pretty much do anything the coaches ask.” That includes getting rebounds, passing the ball, and hitting players with the pad in the layup line. “Pretty much anything that helps practice run a little smoother.”
For travel days, the managers are in charge of all the equipment including game bags, shoes, uniforms and just making sure everything is accounted for in general. “Anything that needs to be done and no one else has a job for it, they ask (the managers) to do it.”
“It helps to have a lot of managers because if there’s barely any of us, it’s just a lot,” he said. “There’s just so much asked of us and there’s no way only two or three of us could get it all done.”
Not every manager travels with the team.
“It’s more of a merit thing,” Alger said. “The older you are, the more you’ll travel.” Alger’s freshman and sophomore year, he didn’t travel unless it was a special occasion and now, as head manager, he expects to travel to almost every game over the next two seasons.
“They ask us to do a lot, but at the end of the day, it’s for a good cause,” Alger said. “The coaches always ask if there’s anything they can do for us and they’re always there to do it.”
In the off-season, daily duties can differ. In the summer, the basketball program is typically busy traveling around the state with their camps and when they are in town, they’re limited to how many hours they can practice a week (per NCAA rule), which results in mostly individual workouts where Alger and the other managers are put to work on the glass.
During the season, a typical day consists of setting up the practice loops, setting out the players’ jerseys, cleaning the gym, and making sure the basketballs have enough air in them. “Pretty much just making sure everything is working.”
“I’ve done everything from rebounding, to handling the ball in fake offense against the team,” he said. “We usually have one coach that is in charge of getting the opposing team’s plays together and (managers) put on jerseys and fake walkthrough for them.”
Yes, that means sometimes it’s players versus managers.
“There have been a few times that I’ve gotten some buckets,” he laughed. “It’s hard, though, these are D1 athletes. One reason I’m a manager is because I love the game, but I couldn’t play the game.”
Alger, who is a marketing major, said his end goal is to be a manager. He turned down full rides from Eastern and Northern Kentucky universities just to have a chance to become a manager for the basketball team.
“Everything has worked out so far,” Alger said. It’s just a privilege to come in here every day and to be able to learn from these great basketball minds and these great players that are so skilled.”
Kentucky’s basketball program is famous for sending their athletes to the NBA and other pro leagues around the world, which means Alger has been around and learned from everyone from current New York Knicks star Immanuel Quickley, to the Indiana Pacers’ 2021 first round pick Isaiah Jackson and everyone in-between in his three years with the program.
“Every day I go to my classes in the morning, but when I come in here and practice starts, it’s just like another class.”
This extra class, as Alger sees it, allows him to take mental notes and get to know the in’s and outs of the basketball team before fans do.
“I’m looking forward to this season,” he said, “I think we’ll be really good this year.”
Even with the 2020 season ending up the way it went, Kentucky still pumped three more Wildcats into the NBA over the summer.
“Every year, we lose a lot (of players) and gain a lot,” he said. “That’s different from most programs, but it’s interesting to see how the locker room changes. This stuff is hard, the coaches really get into the players; they break them down and build them up, it’s a huge confidence thing.”
Some days, players are in the locker room reeling from the rigors that come with Kentucky basketball, but Alger sees it as a maturity thing. With the most experienced team Calipari has ever coached in Lexington, Alger said he believes one of the biggest strengths of the current roster is being mentally tough, something he thinks was missing last year’s squad.
Alger isn’t letting last year keep him down. Just like everyone else, he took it on the chin and continues to dedicate his time to his craft and this program.
“This is one of the most important jobs that I never knew about,” Alger said. “It’s a position that’s really important, even if you’re not going into basketball. It really teaches you a lot of discipline and takes a lot of hard work.”
Alger essentially has the schedule as a Kentucky basketball player, which isn’t something just anybody can handle, but he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I love it and it’s very rewarding,” Alger said. “You’ve just got to be ready to put the work in.