Playing international basketball can earn a player anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 a month. It includes free housing, paid meals, and paid transportation, but for Rusin, being able to travel while playing basketball is the ultimate experience, something he got a smaller taste of in college, playing in some of the most storied gymnasiums in the country.
Rusin is a self-described “gym rat.” Basketball is what he knows best, and when it comes down to it, it’s been his whole life. “I started out like anyone else, a young kid in a dirt driveway playing with my siblings, but if I was ever bored, I would just get an itch for playing and it consumed me,” said Rusin. “It slowly started to become more entwined in my life, and it gave me structure, it kept me out of trouble. Basketball is all my life has basically been, but what it’s done for me is unbelievable.”
A childhood filled with youth league, AAU, and high school basketball at both Twin Valley High School and Topsail High School in Hempstead, NC, led to scholarships. After seeing how his two older sisters were able to travel the country playing sports in college, Rusin realized that those years of imagining that same lifestyle for himself were very quickly becoming a reality. But Rusin was forced to be patient right off the bat. His recruitment to the University of Vermont did not work out as he planned, so he instead took advantage of a scholarship to another Division I school, Marist College. Playing for the Red Foxes was a character-building experience; the team was not good, winning only one game in his freshman year and only seven games in his second year. But for Rusin, it was a starting job on a D-1 squad, and it provided a wealth of experience before he finally transferred to UVM. But once again, Rusin had to wait.
His first year at UVM, Rusin was not allowed to play due to NCAA transfer rules. He was allowed to practice, study team plays, and get acclimated with their system, but he was not allowed to travel with the team. “It was a year for me to work on my game and advance it,” said Rusin. “A year off is a pretty long time, and a tough time too.” Rusin could only watch as his teammates won a conference championship and made it to the NCAA tournament.
When he finally got his chance, Rusin was given the nod to start at the two-guard spot on a team with a lot of depth. “ I was a little star-struck. It was different than Marist,” said Rusin. “But it’s everything you work for. All the hours spent in the gym, all the shots you work on, even all those travel hours of AAU, stepping on that court and playing in front of big crowds is unbelievable.”
In his first game as a UVM starter, Rusin had to step on the court at the University of Connecticut, and his game was not yet where he wanted it. A year of sitting out left him rusty and a midseason injury took him seven missed starts to overcome. It took nearly a whole season for him to get back into a good groove, but he managed to average 7.5 points and 1.4 rebounds per game when healthy, helping the Catamounts reach the conference championship where they lost to the University of Albany.
In his senior year, the 2013-2014 campaign, Rusin seemed to come into his own. He averaged 9.6 points and 1.5 rebounds per game and played in the biggest games of his life against teams like St. Joseph’s, Harvard, and an ESPNbroadcasted visit to Duke University, a game which turned him into a local hero. Stepping onto “Coach ‘K’ Court” that day was both awesome and jarring for Rusin and the entire UVM squad, about to face the most exciting player in basketball that year, 18-year-old future NBA first-round pick Jabari Parker.
“When you get off the bus, the first thing you see is the line of people waiting to get into the gym,” said Rusin. “In the locker room you’re like wow, I’m really about to step onto this court against Duke? They have NBA prospects, first-round picks, and grown men, you know?”
As soon as he hit the floor for shoot-around, Rusin had to block it all out: the fans, the cameras, the people staring, and the people yelling. “At tip-off, the place was really rocking, and you’re submerged in it because it’s a small stadium, and when it’s loud, it’s really loud, and you really have to lock in. To play there and be in that atmosphere is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Vermont took it to the Blue Devils, And while Parker put up 26 points on them, the Catamounts doubled Duke’s point total in the paint. With 12 seconds left, down 90-86, the Catamounts needed a big play, a chance to stay in the game, and that’s where Rusin took the shot of his life. As a teammate worked the ball inside, Rusin trailed behind at the three-point line. The ball came back to Rusin who flew forward and to the left as he took the shot. “Rusin,” shouted the ESPN announcer. “He made it, and he was fouled! A chance to tie, unbelievable!” Rusin sank the three but had to tie the game with the most nerve-wracking free throw of his life. “I watched the shot go through the net and by the time I realized what was going on, I landed on top of the defender. So I needed to make the free throw, the biggest shot of my career. I pulled myself together and I freezed for a second and realized just how loud it was. My face and brain were shaking at the same time because of how loud it was in there, I needed to get it out of my hands quick and I hit it. Thank God I did.”
Duke would win the game 91-90 on a free throw with five seconds left, but after the game, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski pulled Rusin and teammate Luke Apfeld aside and told them what a great game they had played as a team, and as individual players. “For him to take a second to pull me and another player aside and give us some words was another dream come true,” said Rusin. “He told us we played a hell of a game and that we were really on our way as players.”
Playing against Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, both 2014 NBA draft picks, was another experience all in its own. “It was unbelievable to watch him and to play against a player of his caliber. He was still a kid being 18 and all but he’s such a remarkable, explosive athlete and it will definitely show in the NBA.”
The Catamounts finished the season once again with more than 20 wins, were regular season champions, and made it to the conference championship. But once again, the University of Albany had their number, and ended their season a game short.
For Rusin, currently living in North Carolina, the work continues in September when he ships off to his yet to be determined new home oversees. While the country changes, the goal remains the same: work hard, play hard, and never take the opportunity for granted.
“It’s inspiring knowing not everyone gets the opportunity I have,” said Rusin. “So if you have that opportunity you have to make something of it and run with it. I come from a small place, but if you make something of what you love, and you put love and work into it, it doesn’t matter where you come from. It comes down to what you want to do, and how much work you want to put into it.”