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March 31, 2009

The Secret To WKU's Team Chemistry

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A flat-screen television sits on the wall in a rectangular living room at the Registry. It's a modest, four-bedroom apartment.

Nothing hangs on the walls beyond the television. But in this apartment, bonding is occurring.

Here, four members of the Toppers, senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez, junior guard A.J. Slaughter, senior forward Japeth Aguilar and senior forward Nemanja Milosevic live. It's their home away from their very different upbringings and backgrounds.

Mendez-Valdez is of Mexican descent and from San Antonio. Aguilar is from the Phillippines. Slaughter knows Kentucky well, coming from Shelby County, just outside of Louisville. Milosevic is originally from Montenegro, but transferred to WKU after a year at New Jersey Institute of Technology and another year at Sierra College Junior College in California.

Four totally different people, yet here, they are brothers, coexisting together.

They're also not far away from four of their WKU teammates. Across the hallway, in the same type of apartment, are senior forwards Matt Maresca and Mike Walker, junior forward Jeremy Evans and junior guard Anthony Sally.

There's also rarely a dull moment. The eight are constantly in each other's apartments, steadily going back and forth between the two

"It's like a frat house with no alcohol," Walker said.

But the four are also there for each other when the situation warrants.

"If something was to happen, you could run next door and be like, 'I need help," Mendez-Valdez said.

On this night, the day before WKU is to leave for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark. there's a game going on. In his apartment, Mendez-Valdez has a Little Tikes plastic basketball goal in the living room. At first, he, Slaughter and Walker just play around and shoot on the goal.

Soon, after Maresca enters a few minutes later, it's four on four and a game of P.I.G. breaks out. The trick shots are flying.

Mendez-Valdez tries a shot in which he bounces the ball off a bar stool and in the basket. Then, Slaughter shoots a fall-away shot from about eight or nine feet. There's trick shots off the wall, off the ceiling.

As the game is going, they talk about living together and playing on the child's goal whenever they have free time.

"You wanna see the other apartment?" Mendez-Valdez asks. "I think Jeremy's cooking."

Across the hall, Evans has just finished with a big meal. It's 10 p.m. now. The kitchen counter is littered with pots and pans, but also with Evans' home cooking of chicken wings and macaroni and cheese. He has fixed the meal for himself, his girlfriend, Corey, Slaughter's girlfriend, Malia and anyone else who's hungry.

But except Evans, who's still chowing down, the guys decide it's time to quickly resume the game.

In the first apartment, it's not quite the scene of a chef. There's a few empty McDonald's and KFC bags that sit on the counter. The refrigerator is blank, except for a sticker on the freezer. It's a Bowling Green Junior High Visitor's pass, with Mendez-Valdez's name and photo.

"What is this? A pedophile pic?" Maresca asks.

The photo is of the Texan with a hooded sweatshirt on, the hood pulled over his head and a mean look on his face.

"Every time we went to teach, we'd do something stupid like that," Mendez-Valdez explains.

Slaughter shoots the ball, a fourth of the size of a regulation basketball and this one of rubber and calls it off the wall, off the television stand and in. He misses. Mendez-Valdez has found a weakness in his opponent. He shoots it left-handed and swishes it from six feet. Slaughter misses off the rim, clinching the game for Mendez-Valdez.

"Best of three," Slaughter muses.

"That was best of three," Maresca interjects.

"Ok, best of seven," Slaughter says. And the game plays on.

The trick shots get even harder now.

Mendez-Valdez shoots it off the wall, off his head, off the ceiling. The ball goes in.

"You are the luckiest person ever," Walker says, sitting on the counter.
Then, an idea hits.

"You could put it in the microwave, pull it out and shoot it," Maresca offers, before the group bursts into laughter.

Then, Slaughter hits his big shot, bouncing the ball under his leg, catches it and shoots it. Swish.

"Kobe! Let's go home!" he yells.

Maresca wants in on the action. Then, Evans pops in the front door, wearing a white t-shirt with paint stains all over it. His Air Jordan sweatpants are splattered with paint as well. Evans explains that he had to paint something for his art class. He comes in with the intention of getting a trash bag, but that soon changes.

"I got Mike!" he yells.

Then Evans looks for what the rest of the group has been devouring: Sour Power candy strips. One piece resembles a long strip of Sour Patch Kids candy. The guys all go through them like, well, candy. The 'originals,' according to Mendez-Valdez, he brings them back from San Antonio, because he can't find them near Bowling Green, much to the delight of his roommates.

What once was a stack of eight on the coffee table turns to empty wrappers.

"No!" Evans yells as he grasps the handful of empty wrappers. His roommates burst out into teenage laughing again.

Evans gets in on the trick shots and playing around. Then, his girlfriend opens the door.

"Jeremy, can you come here for a minute?" she asks.

"I'll be back in five, y'all," Jeremy tells the guys, before leaving to his apartment.

Malia, is now curled up on the couch in his apartment, watching what is a nightly activity for the players.

"They're so silly," she says, laughing.

Then, as Slaughter shoots the ball, Evans opens the door and comes rushing in, blocking the shot.

"Return to senderrrrrrr!" he yells.

By this point, the eldest of the group, Mendez-Valdez has retreated to the side of the living room, leaning against the wall and watching his teammates. Then, he sits on the couch and watches.

"Y'all can get hurt doing that," he scolds quietly as the guys horseplay.

Now, it's moved to shirts and skins. Slaughter and Maresca go skins, as Walker and Evans stay in their shirts. It begins to get intense, with all four sweating.

Then, the front door opens.

"Ok, game over," Evans' girlfriend says and the game quickly ends.

Panting and out of breath, the players all say they're retiring to their rooms for the night. Maresca makes clear that he has to shower now.

So tonight, it ends. The players quickly disperse to their rooms, with Mendez-Valdez staying in the living room to watch Sports Center.

It's part of the bonding process that has made this Toppers team so tight and together. For the next few days, the apartment game will stop, while the team is at the conference tournament. But when everyone returns, it will resume, Mendez-Valdez promises. And the trick shots and extra practice will resume as well.


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