Isaiah Reese knows where and what he comes from. In fact, that sentiment is inked on his chest.
“It's a tattoo that says ‘Against All Odds,’ with the city of Miami underneath,” said Reese, a junior guard on the Canisius men’s basketball team. “Nobody gave me the opportunities I should have been given, and it’s always motivated me.”
C.J. Massinburg is just as enthusiastic about his upbringing, and his path to Buffalo. If you want to know the UB guard's passion for basketball, just ask him.
“It was based on faith,” said Massinburg, a senior. “I was thankful for the opportunity UB gave me, and I took it really, really seriously. I worked on my game, I stayed in the gym and when I came here, I felt like I had a chip on my shoulder. I was hungry. And that’s why I felt like I was able to have success so quick, because I was so determined to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Not a lot of people in college basketball gave Reese or Massinburg a chance, except for two coaches in Western New York. Reese and Massinburg came to Buffalo from different cities, but under similar circumstances.
Nobody expected Massinburg to blossom into a preseason All-MAC selection. The same goes for Reese, who tested the NBA Draft waters in the spring.
They’ve cut their college basketball experiences from a similar cloth.
“That has to be an internal belief,” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said of players like Reese and Massinburg. “There has to be an internal belief, a trust, a discipline and a vision that you’re going to get there.
“There also has to be a certain semblance that, as you look around, you have to see yourself being able to compete with the most talented people in your sport. That’s difficult. If you don’t recognize that person in yourself when you look in the mirror, it’s difficult for someone to force that.”
Reese and Massinburg continue to fulfill that conviction in Buffalo.
How they got here
Miami isn’t a basketball hotbed. Reese had to play AAU basketball and travel to tournaments to draw attention from college scouts.
He had extra motivation each time he faced a high-profile AAU team loaded with Division I basketball prospects.
Reese knew someone was watching him, and that someone wanted him on their team. He also knew opposing players didn’t see much from him, which made him elevate his game.
“When you face those kinds of players in those kinds of games, that’s what you live for,” Reese said. “Those teams, those were the guys. You’d dribble the ball down the sideline and you’d hear them on the sideline, talking, yelling, ‘Take the ball from him!’ And I liked that they were doubting me.”
Weatherspoon recruited Reese when he was an assistant at Tennessee-Chattanooga, but Reese prepared to go to Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., with the plan to earn a Division I basketball scholarship.
When Witherspoon took over the Golden Griffins in the summer of 2016, he reached out to Reese. Witherspoon wanted Reese to be his first recruit at Canisius.
“I wasn’t going to turn down a D-I offer,” Reese said. “I didn’t have many. Every kid that plays basketball wants to go Division I, that’s the dream. When I got that phone call, and it’s July and everybody has already signed, it was like, ‘Wow.’ Definitely, a blessing from God that I got this opportunity. And as I packed to go to Canisius for summer session, I just kept telling myself that it felt like such a blessing.”
Reese didn’t know what to expect of moving to Canisius, but he was stunned by the compact, urban campus. He was taken aback because he was in a largely homogeneous college community – he didn’t see a lot of people who looked like him, but he got used to it.
Reese felt most comfortable on the basketball court, and knew he wasn't the only one who'd gone through that adjustment.
“If other players were able to do it, I’d be able to get through this, too,” Reese said.
Massinburg wasn’t sure where basketball would take him after South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas. An opportunity to go to the University of San Francisco dissipated when a player committed before he did; if the player hadn’t committed, Massinburg had a spot on the team.
The next day, Buffalo’s coaching staff contacted him. Massinburg committed to UB within three days of his visit in May 2015.
“It was either here or junior college,” Massinburg said. “I knew nothing about Buffalo, but I did see on TV that a team had ‘New York’ across their chest. I had seen their jerseys before, but I didn’t know what Buffalo was. I got a call and I asked what Buffalo was. Then I did my research. I saw they were in the NCAA Tournament , and I thought, ‘Man, this is a good school and this is a great opportunity.’ ”
Just one chance
Massinburg came to UB knowing only that he had a spot with the Bulls. Understanding he might redshirt in his first season, he entered the office of Bulls coach Nate Oats with a plea.
“When he got here, all he asked for was a shot,” Oats said.
Oats didn’t argue. Massinburg’s humility and character already had impressed him. And Massinburg did his best.
Coming off the bench in 2015-16, Massinburg averaged 11.3 points per game. He scored 17 points against Duke and 36 against Ohio -- the most points ever in a game by a UB freshman -- and earned a spot on the All-MAC Freshman team. Massinburg averaged 14.5 points as a sophomore despite being hindered by mononucleosis and a stress fracture in his foot, and averaged 17 points and 7.3 rebounds as a junior.
“C.J. has worked for everything he’s gotten here,” UB associate head coach Jim Whitesell said. “The expectation was that he would come in and work for this. He has earned everything he has gotten. He came off the bench, and a lot of kids would be disappointed they didn’t start, but it didn’t faze him. He was all about the team.
“He’s always had that attitude of “I have worked for everything I’ve got.’ ”
Reese took a similar path at Canisius.
The 2018-19 All-MAAC preseason player of the year averaged 16.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists as a sophomore, a year after he averaged 7.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists as a freshman.
Witherspoon knew Reese had an uncanny ability to see his teammates and his opponents on the floor, and that helped him be productive as a basketball player, fundamentally and statistically.
Witherspoon also saw how Reese became more willing to hold himself accountable.
“He will come out more often and own his mistakes,” Witherspoon said. “He more often will go to his teammates and notice that they might be struggling, too, and find a way to help them.”
That has helped Reese mature into a leader of the Golden Griffins, and as an individual.
“Sometimes, the better players have to become (a leader), because more is expected from you, on and off the court,” Reese said. “I’ve learned a lot since I’ve gotten to college, especially from coach Witherspoon and his staff. They teach you vital points in life that carry on, off the court. When you have kids, when you have a wife and a family. When you become a man. That step into becoming a man? They’ve definitely helped me, in that aspect.”
Massinburg and Reese don’t know each other personally. They have played against each other twice over the last two seasons. Reese scored two points and had three steals, and Massinburg scored 16 points and had five rebounds in Canisius' 94-87 overtime win against UB on Dec. 17, 2016. Reese scored 20 points, and Massinburg had eight points and five rebounds in UB's 80-75 win at Alumni Arena last year.
Their shared stories of making the most of college basketball resonate with each other.
“I don’t know C.J.'s background, but it goes to show that sometimes, it’s not always where all the hype is at,” Reese said. “That tends to happen, that a certain player has all the attention, so let’s go after him. But there are guys who get slept on, which would be me and him, and they go out and have the college career they have.”
When Massinburg learned more about Reese’s path from South Florida to Western New York earlier this month, he saw his counterpart in a different light.
“I definitely respect that guy, because it is definitely a hard path to take,” Massinburg said. “You see everybody else and they’re getting all these offers and you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m just as good. I deserve something, too!’ You’ve got to faith. I had faith. I know he had faith, too.”