The rise of Uncle Mark: How UMass’ Mark Gasperini quickly became a fan favorite and impact player

  • Mark Gasperini has stepped into a larger role over UMass' past two games with Tre Mitchell's injury. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Mark Gasperini has stepped into a larger role over UMass' past two games with Tre Mitchell's injury. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Mark Gasperini played three seasons at American University and scored more than 900 points in his career there before joining UMass as a graduate transfer for this season. AMERICAN ATHLETICS/MITCHELL LAYTON

Staff Writer
Published: 2/19/2021 11:18:51 AM

Mark Gasperini’s first UMass 3-pointer galvanized the Minutemen’s bench, the cheers drowning out fake crowd noise. Dyondre Dominguez windmill strummed an air guitar like Pete Townshend. Noah Fernandes pounded three fingers into his temple. Tre Mitchell Godzilla-stomped toward the scorer’s table.

All this for a shot that put the Minutemen up 13 with two minutes left in a win at Rhode Island on Feb. 6, though it was more about who hit the shot.

They call the senior center “Uncle Mark,” and roast him for being old. Gasperini is 23, and he’ll turn 24 in May. He provides a stable, veteran presence for a young team in an abnormal season.

“Mark is a humble dude. He comes in every day, does what he needs to do, takes care of business, chips away,” UMass senior captain Carl Pierre said. “We all just want him to succeed. He’s an easy guy to root for.”

Gasperini, a grad transfer from American University, was starting his second consecutive game in place of Mitchell, the team’s star center. He had already air-balled a 3 late against Fordham, and it took him nine appearances to score his first points as a Minuteman. Adversity has always been more of a speed bump than a roadblock for Gasperini.

“It was almost like because of all the things that he’s gone through since he’s been here, he deserved to make that one,” UMass coach Matt McCall said.

He played his best game of the season against the Rams. Gasperini dunked to open the second half, whipped left-handed passes to cutters and dove on the floor. On the bus ride back to Amherst, coaches and players’ phones lit up with memes and jokes from the Minutemen’s fanbase about Gasperini. His face was photoshopped on grandma bodies and Mark Wahlberg as a member of the Funky Bunch, and he was compared to Captain Hook. Gasperini shared some himself.

“That was as fun of a bus ride coming back from a game as I’ve had since I’ve been at UMass,” McCall said.

Amid the revelry, Gasperini texted his old high school coach Tom Nelson: “Tom, how incredible I just helped win an A-10 game.”

Nelson watched the game on ESPN2. He saw the skills he and Gasperini honed over challenging hours in the gym blossom.

They first met at a high school summer league game in Brookline after Gasperini’s freshman year at Brookline High School. Gasperini was running the scoreboard. Nelson, the coach at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, wondered why such a big kid wasn’t in the game. All of the freshmen had to take turns out of the rotation to help with game management tasks.

“How about you come play with me, and I’ll make sure you play more often,” Nelson told him.

Gasperini was skeptical at first. He considered basketball more of a hobby then. Soccer was his first love coming to Massachusetts from Russia. He was born there in 1997 and lived there for 10 years. Gasperini still lists Moscow as his hometown on his team bio and hangs a Russian flag in his room. His sister still lives there with his niece, so he actually is someone’s Uncle Mark.

“It’s important to me,” Gasperini said. “I have memories playing soccer in the yard, first kiss and all that kind of stuff.”

His father, William, is from New York and worked in Russia as a foreign correspondent for CBS News. He wanted to come back to the United States and got a job on Cape Cod. William was one of the first people that suggested his son could have a future playing basketball.

The pieces clicked after a conversation with his mother, Irina Gasperini. She sat Mark down and told him if he wanted to go to a good college, he would probably need a scholarship. That was shortly before he met Nelson.

“That’s when I decided to focus on (basketball),” Mark said. “I didn’t have any sense of direction when I first came to America. Basketball gave me a sense of direction, something to focus all my energy on.”

Gasperini played his sophomore year at Brookline then transferred to Brimmer & May and reclassified. He trained with Nelson on the side and in the summers, working on his game. It needed polishing.

“He was not good. He couldn’t shoot it. He couldn’t dribble it,” Nelson said. “When he was younger, he used to fall down all the time. I was like, ‘You’re too big to be on the ground.’”

The work wasn’t always pleasant. Long hours in the gym honing his handle and touch raised tensions. Nelson sometimes yelled at Gasperini, telling him he needed to be tougher and play harder because he saw the potential. Two years into their relationship, Gasperini was becoming frustrated at a lack of results. He wasn’t speaking to Nelson during a camp at Holy Cross the summer between his sophomore and junior years at Brimmer & May. The Crusaders staff pulled Gasperini into a meeting and offered him his first scholarship.

“It was a huge weight off my shoulders and all this effort and energy paying off,” he said.

Gasperini left the facility and wrapped Nelson in “the biggest hug you’ve ever seen.” He apologized for being so mad.

“It brings goosebumps to me,” Nelson said. “When you’re around him, you feel good. He wants to hug you. You’re like, ‘You’re way too big to be hugging me.’ He’s very warming to be around. He laughs and he’s adaptable. He just makes you happy.”

Holy Cross wasn’t the last school to offer. Gasperini eventually decided to play at American University in Washington, D.C., but by his junior year, he knew it wasn’t the right fit.

“I knew the whole time that I wanted to leave. I love the school of American, I love my friends, I love my teammates,” Gasperini said. “The program itself was not my favorite, to be honest.”

He thought about transferring earlier, but didn’t want to skip a season sitting out due to transfer restrictions after already missing his sophomore year with a concussion. Instead, Gasperini played out his senior season and entered the transfer portal March 11, so he would be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer.

Programs like Wake Forest, Northeastern and Hawaii came calling. UMass needed a frontcourt player after Djery Baptiste graduated. UMass assistant Tyson Wheeler was aware of Gasperini because of his relationship with Nelson. He and McCall called twice a day, according to Gasperini.

“With the year that Tre had, it was going to need to be someone that had an unbelievable level of humility and someone that was going to be really focused and about the team,” McCall said. “It was strictly, ‘I want to win.’ Right then and there I knew he was the guy I needed to get.”

Gasperini didn’t drag the process out. He transferred to UMass in April. No one met him in person until he arrived on campus in August. One fall day after practice, Gasperini complained about being sore. His teammates began roasting him, calling him old man, then someone said Uncle Mark. The nickname stuck among his young teammates, 10 of whom are freshmen or sophomores.

“To still have a positive attitude and still keep everyone else upbeat shows his character and how valuable that is to our team,” McCall said. “The veteran presence piece, not only in games or in practice, but none of us have ever dealt with what we’re dealing with, and Mark has continued to be upbeat and positive through all of this.”

The early part of his UMass tenure knocked Gasperini down. He suffered a concussion relatively early in the season after taking a hit from Mitchell’s elbow.

“Pretty big elbow to be caught by,” Gasperini said.

He sat out for about a month.

“As I was getting better from the concussion all of a sudden we all got COVID, like five of us got COVID,” Gasperini said.

That knocked out another two weeks. Then once the team returned to practice, Gasperini’s knee started bothering him in a scrimmage a few days before the Minutemen opened the season against Northeastern. He played with a leg sleeve for the first few games and wasn’t very mobile. Eventually he received an MRI to figure out what happened: a torn meniscus. Gasperini received a cortisone shot and had fluid drained from the knee.

His minutes gradually increased once he got back into shape. Gasperini finally made the first basket of his UMass career against Davidson on Jan. 24, the same game Mitchell injured his shoulder. That opened the door for him to start the next two games against Fordham and Rhode Island. He averaged 10 points, five rebounds and three assists in nearly 30 minutes per outing.

“It was extremely, extremely satisfying. Up to that point I’d been playing extremely poorly,” Gasperini said. “For it all to come together and for me to have to go out here and perform, and for me to not only to play well but for us to also win, it was a culmination of a lot of effort and paying off after a long year of struggling.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy