For years, astronomers were baffled by dark spots in the night sky. I mean, sure, most of the night sky is dark by nature, what with the sun being on the other side of the Earth. But as telescopes grew from basic to big, those studying the movements of the stars started to notice the same occasional phenomena.
Where there should be a star, there sometimes wasn’t. As they tracked the movements of the objects nearby, astronomers were sure that some massive body at the center of it all was affecting the pieces around it, but nothing showed up on their telescopes. They didn’t know what was going on with these invisible stars.
Turns out, as is often the case in scientific discovery, they just didn’t have enough information. More specifically, they didn’t know how to look at the stars. Over time, astronomers learned that stars emit different types of light based on their temperature, and some stars shine light that the human eye doesn’t naturally see.
Sometimes, you don’t have to look harder; you just have to look a little differently to see what’s going on.
Back on Earth, here in Starkville, Mississippi, Ben Howland’s Mississippi State basketball team has an invisible star of its own. You can’t see it on the court. You can’t see it in the stat sheet. You can’t even see a picture of it – not a game picture, anyway.
But if you look with a different lens, you can clearly see the presence of Abdul Ado by the way he affects the players around him. The 6’11” freshman forward from Tennessee, by way of being born in Nigeria, is sitting out this season due to issues with his transcripts, but that hasn’t stopped him from having an impact on his team.
After acing his classes with a 4.0 GPA in the fall, Ado was allowed to start practicing with the team in December. It’s no coincidence that Howland thinks the practices have improved in quality since that time.
“It’s made our team better,” he said.
Ado has made that impact through a few different avenues. Surely, his great size and talent are a big part of it, providing his teammates with capable competition in practice. But his attitude and approach, those around him say, are what set him apart.
“The thing that’s special about him is he’s such a great competitor,” Howland said. “Ask our players. Please, ask our guys.”
If you insist.
“He just brings it every day,” freshman Mario Kegler confirmed when asked. “He’s different. He has a motor every day. He comes to practice ready to play.”
Consider the claim now peer-reviewed.
“I mean,” Howland finished, “it’s ridiculous how hard he plays.”
As Ado got more and more into the swing of things after returning to the floor, his role in practice increased. By the time MSU reached SEC play, the freshman was helping to simulate State’s opponents as well as he could, and it was working. The Bulldogs went on a three-game win streak in early January, and behind it all, Ado was in practice helping his team prepare. Even when MSU lost to Kentucky last week, they did so in impressive fashion, playing far better against one of the country’s biggest and most talented teams.
Then, in practice between that mid-week game and the following Saturday’s match-up on the road at Tennessee, Howland let Ado rest. The freshman wasn’t a part of the preparation as they practiced how to defend and attack the Vols.
On Saturday, MSU played perhaps its worst game of the year and ended up losing to Tennessee 91-74, largely because of a lack of defensive effort and intensity.
“I made a mistake,” Howland told reporters before practice the following Monday, “and I can’t ever do that again for the rest of the year … Today, he’s not coming out. Someone’s gonna have to deal with him all day long. That makes you better.”
That afternoon, Howland put his team through one of the toughest practices of the season, with Ado literally at the center of it. On Wednesday, MSU blew out SEC foe Missouri 89-74 in The Hump, based largely on a defensive intensity reminiscent of State’s three-game win streak.
Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, but it’s fair to say that, once again, Ado’s invisible presence was felt.
“He never comes out now,” Howland said after Wednesday night’s win. “You’re not coming out. Our fives are gonna have to deal with him. When we’re going through their stuff, preparing for another team, he’s always on offense. When we’re working on our stuff offensively, he’s always on defense. He just makes it really hard. He makes everybody better out there.”
It’s not a principle that’s new to Howland, of course. He’s seen it happen time and again in his long and successful coaching career, and it was one of the most important factors in his Final Four appearances.
Howland watched current NBA All-Star and one-time UCLA freshman Russell Westbrook improve on a daily basis by going against Aaron Afflalo and Darren Collison in practice, two outstanding professional players in their own right. He saw the same for Collison in school when he had to face Jordan Farmar in practice, a future NBA Champion with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“The best players I’ve coached, the best teams I’ve had, are when guys are really competing against each other and really trying to take it at each other between those lines,” Howland said. “You’re talking about players over the years competing against one another. That’s how you get better. That’s what we’ve gotta have every day out there. That’s why getting Abdul back in practice [is so important].”
Iron, as it is said, sharpens iron.
Ado won’t get a chance to show his mettle in a game until next season, but he’s already considered the best rebounder on the team, the most physical presence in the paint and one of the most important pieces of what Howland is building in Starkville. He can score, he can defend, he can block and he can rebound. Most importantly, he competes, and even from behind the scenes, he makes his team better.
Invisible stars can be seen. You just have to know how to look for them.