Thank You, Princeton

"Welcome to Princeton kid!"

Every student that attends Princeton has their, "Welcome to Princeton" moment at some point or another. For some, it comes in the middle of freshmen year when you are figuring out how to finish your freshmen seminar papers, problem sets and upcoming midterms. For others, it happens when you are sitting in class and realize the kid next to you has his own non-profit organization that works to provide people in Africa with clean water. But for me, this moment came much earlier, before I was even an actual student at the University.

I remember being an eager, naïve high school sophomore going to play pickup at Princeton on an unofficial visit. I had played pickup at a few other colleges, so I was pretty confident I could hold my own against some "Princeton guys." Man, was I wrong. About 45 minutes into pickup, I realized I had no business on the court. My confidence was gone and I couldn't get a single shot to fall. Quite frankly, I was getting my butt kicked. One play in particular stands out in my mind. I was on defense and someone dribbled at my man. Next thing I knew, I turned my head and the guy was laying the ball up at the rim. Everyone on the team yelled "Welcome to Princeton kid!" A classic Princeton backdoor cut and I fell victim.

I was so mad after and didn't really want to talk to anybody but the team had other ideas. All the guys treated me like I was already on the team. They were cracking jokes, asking me about my family, and just showing me the ropes. Before I knew it, I forgot how badly I had just played. This is when I had my welcome to Princeton moment. I laughed to myself like, "Wow, this is what it's like here.'' On the court, it didn't matter if you were a recruit or a senior, they were going to try and kill you. And off the court, everyone was family, no matter where you were from or who you were. That's the Princeton way and at that moment I knew I wanted continue my education at Princeton University.

A few weeks ago, I was able to accomplish something that I have been dreading ever since freshman year. Every student at Princeton must complete a Senior Thesis before they graduate. For the entire year, you research your own desired topic and basically write a book. It's the culmination of your academic pursuits at Princeton. I turned in an 80-page thesis to the Politics department and it was the most rewarding thing I have ever done. I'm proud of many things I've accomplished, but there was something about finishing this project that I convinced myself I would never be able to do my freshmen year. Thank you to my teachers and classmates for continuously challenging me throughout my academic career here. Thank you for challenging a shy kid to speak up in precept and to take classes in all different subjects.

In essence, the true beauty of Princeton is that it seems like everyone is always willing to give up their time to see you succeed. It's not only just the teachers, but all of the staff of the University and the members of the athletic department who work so hard behind the scenes to make Princeton a great place. I'm truly thankful for all of the work and effort that goes into making sure we can practice and play games on a day to day basis. I remember coming into the gym at like 6am once this summer thinking I was getting an early workout in, and there is George Boccanfuso who is 91 years old and has been working at Princeton for 71 years, already sweeping the floor in the gym. I still haven't been able to beat him to the gym in the morning, he's always the first one in there. That blew me away, the University is really built on extraordinary people. The same thing goes to the incredible group of alumni. It's still surprising to this day that people 20 years removed from the University are so willing to lend a hand to a sophomore they don't even know, because they want so badly to give back to the University and the students.

"Oh, he's just a kid from East Brunswick." It's funny, I used to hear that all the time as a freshman from Coach Henderson when I made a mistake. I would get super frustrated, but this year when I heard that same remark I would smile. I guess this happens as you mature and realize how much your coaches care about you as a person and your success. Coach Henderson, thank you for investing so much time into mine and the team's success throughout my four years. Thanks for teaching me how hard it is to win and guiding me to be better person and leader. Coach MacConnell, Coach Kittles, Coach Ettin and Coach Mongilia, thank you for investing so much extra time into our team and spending all of your time trying to make sure we're our best. It's easy to forget you guys have families and lives of your own, so I appreciate you guys. Each and everyone one of your work ethic is contagious and made me so excited to come to the gym every day to get better.

During my time as a Princeton basketball player, we were able to accomplish a whole lot. This year we had a big win over USC in their gym where we got to celebrate with Bill Walton after the game. In 2017, we were the first team to go 16-0 in Ivy League play, winning the inaugural Ivy Tournament and earning ourselves a bid to the NCAA tournament. We ended up losing to Notre Dame by two in the first round in a game we should have have won. These moments and accomplishments were truly special, but it has always been bigger than wins and losses as a member of the team. Throughout my four years, I gained a group of brothers and I'm going to miss them so much. I'm going to miss the long bus rides, team dinners, and sitting on the couch doing absolutely nothing. Yea, yea, I know that is really cliché, but sometimes the cliché is real. It's crazy, but when I walked into the locker room, I walked right into another family. That's what the culture is at Princeton basketball and I hope it stays like that forever.

For me, it started with guys like Hans Brase and Mike Washington. Those two are my big brothers. Talk about the epitome of good teammates. They would sacrifice everything they had for the success of the team, no matter their individual circumstances. From them I learned what it meant to be a true teammate and how special it was to put on the Princeton jersey. They showed me that on this team you invest in your teammates, just as much as you invest in yourself. Whether that means bringing people to the gym to get extra work in, or helping them with homework, you did it, and above all else, it was about just being present in each other's lives. It didn't matter that they were upperclassmen, their door was open every single day for whatever you needed. I remember before the start of my freshmen year, one of my fellow senior teammates, Aaron Young, was getting a surgery done at a hospital close to school. This guy Hans Brase went and sat next to Aaron's bed for the entire night. Hans had barely met the kid and he's next to him at the hospital making sure he's good. From that moment, I wanted to be the type of person that Hans is. Hans and Mike taught me what it means to be a teammate, how to be a college basketball player, and how to be a student-athlete in the Ivy League. Mike still calls me to this day, just to say, "What up?" and check on me. Man, I look up to you guys, appreciate you guys for showing me what it means to be a Princeton basketball player. You really don't know how much you guys have impacted me.

I could go on for days about my teammates and how they have impacted me, but it'd be a disservice because I can't talk about everyone. For all the guys I didn't mention, you all know how much love I got for each of you. To my other seniors on the team, Alec Brennan, Aaron Young and Mike LeBlanc, it has been one hell of a journey. I mean, we really have come a long way since those first weeks of school when we could barely find our way to our classes. Alec had a buzz cut that we should have never let him get away with; Aaron looked like he should be playing football and Mike was rocking the boot cut jeans like they were high fashion. It wouldn't be right if I didn't try to get a few jokes on you! But honestly, we've been through so much together, from taking all of the same classes one semester, to all those hours spent in the gym and the weight room and all the hours spent just getting on each other's nerves. We definitely had a lot of highs and our fair share of lows, but I wouldn't have chosen another group of guys in the world to have by my side for four years. I can't wait until we graduate on June 5, not because it's the end of our time at Princeton, but because it's the beginning of the rest of our lives of family. Thank you, Princeton, for giving this family to me.

I'm not going to sit here and act like my time at Princeton was always perfect or that everything came easy. Not going to lie, a lot of times this place was hard. I'm talking about when it's 7pm, you have two problem sets and a paper you haven't started that is due the next day, but you're just getting out of a long, hard practice. Or when you take that midterm after studying for days and still have no idea how to do a single problem. Or when you just can't figure out how to tell your friends there's just not enough time in the day for them in between basketball and school work. Funny thing is, the struggles and hard times are what I'm most thankful for. Princeton taught me to fail, to fail often and that failure was necessary. I learned that the way I responded to adverse situations would define me as a person. In high school, everything came pretty easy, whether it was school, basketball or social life. That changed very quickly once I got here and I'm so thankful that Princeton humbled me so quickly. From the moment that I stepped on campus here, I knew I was going have to work. If I wanted to be good at basketball, I was going to have to show up to practice an hour early to get shots up. If I wanted to do well in a class, I couldn't sit back, but I'd have to go to office hours and participate frequently in precepts. This place really shows you who you are and forces you to grow as a person. I'm constantly itching for the next opportunity that forces me to fail. Because of Princeton, I know the next time that I fail, I'll be more than ready to meet the challenge. Man, I'm so happy that those "Princeton guys" busted that sophomore's butt that day, which seems like forever ago. And thank you to my parents and sister who made sure I made the right decision and pushed me towards Princeton. I know you probably think I forgot about you guys, but thanks for all the love, support and guidance throughout my time here.

Seven years after my unofficial visit, my days on Princeton campus are becoming numbered. As a freshman, you can't wait for the day you'll finally graduate and walk through the famous gates of Nassau Hall. Nowadays, I try my best to ignore the little time I have left and enjoy every possible second left with my fellow seniors.

It's impossible though, because you start experiencing a lot of "lasts" as a Princeton student and athlete. A few months ago, I had my last practice. I lifted my last weight. I attended my last banquet. This week, I'll go to my last lecture. I'll participate in my last precept. I'll write my last paper and hand in my last problem set (Thank God. I won't miss those). I'll even have my last meal with my friends and teammates.

Damn. Just like that, it's all over. It's finally starting to hit me, I'm really about to graduate from Princeton University, the best institution in the world. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that. I think as a student here, we all get caught up in the day-to-day grind and forget just how fortunate and blessed we are to be in this position. Hopefully there's someone reading this that gets to have their very own "Welcome to Princeton" moment and experience all that Princeton has to offer. I'm certainly a better person today than I was six years ago when I made my decision to come here.

Thank you, Princeton.

Amir Bell

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