Wiry Wittman is great catch for Elis

Growing up in Manhattan, Reid Wittman was a baseball player. He pitched, played first base and carried a big bat at the plate. But when he was 10 years old, he watched arguably the greatest NBA player of all time in the postseason, and everything changed.

“I remember when I was little, I watched Jordan in the playoffs,” Reid said. “And that’s when I put down the baseball bat and started playing basketball.”

Wittman owes much of his success in basketball to a good work ethic, something his mother, Juanin, said he has always had.

“I remember when we moved into the apartment we live in now in ’96,” Juanin Wittman said. “We live on the ninth floor and from the day we moved in he said, ‘I’m going to take the elevator down, but I’m not going to take it up.’ I said, ‘Any particular reason?’ And he said, ‘It’ll help my legs.’ To this day he runs or walks up the stairs, even when he had his wisdom teeth out.”

Wittman, like so many, was inspired by Air Jordan to make basketball his game. That inspiration — along with his 6-foot-8, 190-pound frame — has led him to Yale. The Trinity-Pawling School senior will join four other men’s basketball recruits next fall in the class of 2009. From their first minutes on the court next November, these players carry the burden of filling the void left by Yale’s senior guards, Alex Gamboa ’05 and Edwin Draughan ’05.

Yale head coach James Jones said the incoming recruits could contribute this season, depending on how hard they work over the summer. In Wittman, he sees someone who can play the post or, if he gains some speed, on the wing.

“He’s a perimeter four man who may develop into being a three man,” Jones said. “I think that’s the position he would rather play in college. There are some quickness issues there that we’ll see about. He’s someone who could develop into being a very solid basketball player for us.”

Wittman had his pick of several Ivy League schools, including Cornell and Princeton, but he ultimately chose Yale in large part because of Jones’s recruiting efforts, which began nearly two years ago during Wittman’s junior season.

“I wanted a balance between basketball and academics,” Wittman said. “I really liked the environment at Yale, and I really liked Coach Jones because he was the only coach who recruited me himself, instead of sending one of his assistants — that was definitely one of the major reasons.”

Jones also made a very good impression on Reid’s parents. Juanin Wittman said that Jones was consistent in his pursuit of her son, and made him feel like they had a place for him in Eli basketball.

“I think he’s a great guy,” Juanin Wittman said. “He was very to the point with us. My husband and Reid went up to meet Coach Jones last spring, and when they came back, they couldn’t get over how welcoming he had been. Coach Jones was diligent in staying in touch with Reid — calling him at the right times and being at the right games.”

Jones was able to watch Wittman in his senior season at Trinity-Pawling, where he captained the team to the New England Class B Championship while averaging 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Wittman’s decision to come to Yale, like many of his major decisions in life, was one made with his family. Juanin Wittman said the recruiting process was at times overwhelming, but she was amazed by her son’s maturity.

“We’re a pretty close-knit family and we have walked the road together every step of the way,” she said. “It’s quite overpowering, being sought after as a 17- or 18-year-old. I was amazed how he kept everything in perspective. I think it was a process that matured him a lot. Obviously he felt special because he was being sought after, but it didn’t go to his head.”

Wittman said his maturity comes from both parents, but in sports, he draws especially from his dad, George Wittman, a former professional rugby player on the Argentinean national team.

“My father grew up in Argentina and he played for the national team,” Reid Wittman said. “He understood the politics and the pressure, so he’s given me tips all around. My mother wasn’t much of an athlete, but she’s given me support as well.”

Nearly three years ago, Wittman faced another big decision: Should he leave his local high school for boarding school in upstate New York?

Unlike his decision to come to Yale, at first, he was at odds with his parents.

“I really didn’t want him to go,” Juanin Wittman said. “I wasn’t unsupportive, I just questioned it. But he said, ‘I can do it,’ and he really wanted to do it. When I ran out of reasons [for him to stay], if the only reason is ‘I’m going to miss you terribly,’ that’s not a good enough reason. In retrospect, it was a good decision. He’s in touch with us pretty much every day. We see him every weekend. We’ve gone to every game held on the weekends. I suppose it has even enriched our relationship.”

The decision to go to Trinity-Pawling after his freshman year in high school has paid off for Wittman. He gave himself the academic edge and athletic exposure necessary to attract Ivy League recruiters.

After leading his team against some of the best schoolboy basketball teams in the country, Reid may find himself riding the bench more often than not next season, the harsh truth for most freshman athletes. But his mother said it is an issue, like most, that the family has talked about.

“It’s a reality — you might, but you might not, get the minutes you want,” Juanin Wittman said. “You were the captain of your [high school] team for two years, but now you are a freshman. But as long as he feels like he’s learning more about the game, and he’s part of the team, I think he’ll be fine. We always tell him, ‘If you get one minute, that’s the minute you have to play your heart out.'”

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