Former Quinnipiac forward Ike Azotam is back on the court in the U.S. after a short professional stint overseas. But now he’s in a suit and his teammates wear burnt orange jerseys.
Azotam had an accomplished career at Quinnipiac. Although unable to push the Bobcats to their first Big Dance, the 6-foot-7 forward climbed the charts and became one of the program’s best frontcourt players. A short professional career overseas followed, but physical limitations pushed the Boston native to pursue a new career path—coaching at the University of Texas.
His eventual move into coaching was never even a thought during his playing tenure, but signs throughout Azotam’s time at Quinnipiac foreshadowed a brief run as a professional.
Azotam suffered around a dozen incidents of what team officials diagnosed as anxiety attacks over his four years with the Bobcats. These occurrences were few and far between, but popped up without warning. Sudden shortness of breath and lightheadedness would force the power forward off the court at a moment’s notice.
The week before the 2014 MAAC tournament, Azotam suffered an MCL sprain in practice. That injury, combined with another flare up of the breathing symptoms, put his trip to Springfield in doubt.
His MCL sprain was just the latest in a string of late-season Quinnipiac injuries that forced the Bobcats to run through some practices down the stretch with as few as six healthy players.
“I got the call when I was in my car and I felt like driving off the road when I got that news,” Quinnipiac head coach Tom Moore said at the time of learning about Azotam’s injury.
Despite doubts about his health, Azotam did make the trip to Springfield and helped lead the Bobcats to an 89-80 quarterfinal win over Niagara. Quinnipiac fell to eventual MAAC champion Manhattan 87-68 in the semifinals, but Azotam averaged 18 points and 8 rebounds in the two contests.
“He’s as good as any [player] that we’ve had,” Moore said following the semifinal loss to Manhattan. “His consistency as a player and a person puts him right at the top. … One of the best to ever wear this uniform.”
Azotam finished his Quinnipiac career with 1,605 points and 1,043 rebounds, making him at the time one of only two Bobcats to pass the 1,000 mark in both categories at the Division I level. He helped lead Quinnipiac’s seamless transition from the NEC to the MAAC in the 2013-14 season, averaging 16.3 ppg, 10.2 rpg, and being named to the All-MAAC First Team while the Bobcats finished the regular season third in the league.
Following his graduation, Azotam played a year overseas in Spain with Marín Peixegalego of the LEB Plata. In the fall of 2015, Azotam signed on with the Island Storm of the National Basketball League of Canada, but returned home due to a personal matter before he could suit up for them. Over the winter, Azotam returned to Spain and signed on with Básquet Coruña of the LEB Oro.
Doctors detected an irregular heartbeat during his physical with Coruña and failed to clear Azotam to play. According to Azotam, it was likely that irregular heartbeat—which remained undetected during his time at Quinnipiac—and not bouts of anxiety which caused his symptoms in college.
Although the lightheadedness and shortness of breath never occurred during Azotam’s first year in Spain, the failed physical put an end to his playing career and left him searching for other ways to stay involved with the game.
“When this opportunity presented itself, I was like why not, everything happens for a reason, maybe this is what I was supposed to be doing,” Azotam said of the move to Texas and his pursuit of a coaching career. “While I was playing I never even thought about it. One thing I did know is that I wanted to be around basketball, and this is the way now to give back. You can’t play basketball forever.”
Azotam was first introduced to the position at Texas by current graduate manager R.J. Evans who played a graduate season at UConn in 2012-13. One of Evans’ teammates in Storrs that year was guard Shabazz Napier, who played on the same AAU squad as Azotam.
In order to move forward with the Longhorns, Azotam had to win the favor of the man at the helm: Shaka Smart. Smart, who earned national renown after leading VCU to the Final Four at the 2011 NCAA Tournament, is in his second year as the head coach at Texas after compiling a 137-46 record in six season with the Rams.
“We were looking for a graduate assistant and we’ve been fortunate over the years going back to VCU to have some terrific GA’s that have been huge parts of our program,” Smart said during Texas’ recent appearance in the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center. “We had a bunch of people express interest, but the more that I learned about Ike, the more I thought this guy would be terrific for us.”
Azotam’s entrance into the Texas program comes at an opportune time for two of the Longhorns’ star recruits. Freshmen Jarrett Allen and James Banks, both centers listed over 6-foot-10, project to be a big part of Texas’ future and Azotam has the experience to take them under his wing.
“We want guys that have done something similar to what our guys are trying to do,” Smart said of Azotam’s experience playing professionally. “Even guys that maybe played overseas for a little while, because they have a sense of perspective that some of our guys don’t have yet still being in college.”
Allen, the top-rated center in the 2016 recruiting class according to ESPN and a McDonald’s All-American, pairs with Banks, the #57 prospect in ESPN’s rankings, under the nickname the “Fro Bros.” Banks, whom Azotam has come to affectionately refer to as his nephew, didn’t begin playing organized basketball until his freshman year of high school and has plenty of room to improve.
“We’ve still got to move them along,” Azotam said of the duo. “They’re a bit young so they’re going to make mistakes, but they’re both going to be great players if they just keep working at it.”
Texas posted a 20-13 record in Smart’s first season, capped with an NCAA Tournament bid. However, the Longhorns found themselves on the wrong end of one of the tournament’s magical moments when Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson banked in a half-court heave to send the Longhorns home in the first round.
The team has gotten off to a middling start in 2016, but the young core made up of Smart’s key recruits has plenty of time to learn and improve. And with his new perch along the bench and a fresh suit in lieu of a gold uniform, Azotam will learn and grow with them.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.