SAN ANTONIO — “Sit wherever there’s an open table,” I’ve been instructed.
There is only one. It’s right in front of the stage, and a sign at the middle reads, “Reserved for Naismith Finalists.”
I, with my 15-inch vertical, am decidedly not a Naismith finalist—but Jalen Brunson, DeAndre Ayton, and Marvin Bagley III are already seated elsewhere.
Looks like Complex Sports has fortuitously finessed a VIP seat at the 50th Naismith Awards Brunch, a celebration of college basketball greatness. This historic event is littered with well-known hoops figures; the ratio of famous person to non-famous person is roughly 1:5.
Bob Huggins—wearing the exact navy, short-sleeved West Virginia zip-up you’d expect him to be wearing—sips a Starbucks coffee. Jay Wright, sporting a light grey suit, politics. “Congratulations,” a woman tells him. It’s been only 12 hours since his team defeated Kansas. Bagley’s dad snaps photos of the Duke freshman with former Naismith winners.
It’s the morning of Easter Sunday at a beautiful venue named Pearl Stable, two miles from the Alamodome. The ceremony begins with M.C. Fran Frischilla delivering opening remarks, then it jumps to the big announcement. Villanova’s Jalen Brunson is named the nation’s top player, winning the 2018 Citizen Watch Naismith Trophy, surprising no one. As he accepts the award, the junior guard is gracious and self-deprecating.
“My mom mentioned you see in the montage video all these guys dunking, and then you see me shooting threes and layups,” Brunson says. The crowd laughs. He thanks his teammates.
The watch on my wrist is the reason I’m here to witness it all. This marks the second year in which Citizen has served as title sponsor for the most prestigious individual honor in college hoops. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the award, the Japanese watch giant has released Naismith-themed men’s and women’s timepieces that feature pebbling detail on the bands, reminiscent of the surface of a basketball.
The brunch spread is phenomenal: fruit, eggs, potatoes with peppers and onions, sausage, bacon, Tex-Mex, and more. Bagley skips the long buffet line and heads straight to the omelet station.
There are two more awards to go. First, Jevon Carter of “Press Virginia” is announced as the first Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. His speech is a heartfelt salute to Huggins.
“He turned a boy into a man,” says Carter, sporting an all-black ’fit. He’s projected to be a second-round pick in June’s NBA Draft.
Then, in the final award presentation of the day, Virginia’s Tony Bennett receives Coach of the Year. The easily likable Bennett, who also won this honor in 2006-07 with Washington State, swears he didn’t vote for himself.
These awards are a memento—they mark the best of each era. There are five former Player of the Year honorees in the building: Bill Walton (1972-74), Danny Ferry (’89), Christian Laettner (’92), Marcus Camby (’96), and T.J. Ford (2003), who dons crisp white kicks with his grey suit.
Citizen has created commemorative, custom-engraved watches for all 50 winners of the Naismith Award. They’ve been distributed throughout the year. To date, 17 of the NCAA legends—including Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin—have received theirs.
“Our philosophy is, ‘better starts now,’ and that seems especially appropriate as Naismith approaches its next 50 years,” Eric Horowitz, Citizen’s U.S. managing director, tells the audience.
For the first time, fans had an opportunity to weigh in on the awards this year. Their online vote counted for 5 percent of the total, while the Atlanta Tipoff Club board—comprised of coaches, administrators, and journalists—decided the rest.
The fans and committee settled on Brunson, who averaged 19.2 points, 4.7 assists, and 3.1 rebounds per game in leading Villanova to a 35-4 record. As he sits with his family, Brunson rocks black glasses with a navy suit, white shirt, and silver tie—Villanova colors.
A five-star recruit, Brunson started as a freshman for the 2016 Villanova team that won the national title against North Carolina on Kris Jenkins’ last-second trey. The 2017-18 Big East Player of the Year, Brunson is projected as a fringe first-round pick, and it’s not yet clear whether he’ll return for his senior campaign.
As the ceremony winds down, Frischilla shouts out Ayton and Bagley, guaranteed lottery picks, and says he gets chills thinking about them playing at the next level. Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham, who was also a finalist, is not in attendance.
Frischilla closes the 90-minute function, and guests say their goodbyes and summon Ubers.
A memorable season is practically in the books—but not quite. Brunson and Wright will vie for the men’s championship Monday as their Wildcats square off with Michigan at 9:20 p.m. EST.