By DAN JENKINS, Staff Reporter
Danny Calcatera, point guard for the University of Michigan-Dearborn men’s basketball team, naturally played other sports while growing up in St. Clair Shores as a child.
During the middle of June 2004, the baseball season was in full swing. An avid basketball and Detroit Pistons fan, he knew that the team was playing for a championship against the Los Angeles Lakers during the same time he was on the diamond.
“I remember listening to it and getting the ESPN updates from the dugout during the baseball game,” Calcatera recalled. “Steve Nash was one of my favorite players, but I always liked Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups when they were here and winning the championship.”
Just about 10 years later, Calcatera got to share a unique connection that few can with a professional athlete: he was able to wear Richard Hamilton’s signature protective face mask.
“It was actually the one he wore during the 2004 playoffs, when they won the championship,” Calcatera explained.
But wearing such an iconic piece of Detroit sports history had a cost: he had broken his nose for the third time in his career, resulting in an untimely surgery just weeks into the 2013-2014 season.
Calcatera recently returned to UM-Dearborn for his senior season after a period at Siena Heights University where he didn’t get a chance to play due to nagging injuries.
After a few weeks learning to assimilate to his new Wolverines teammates, Calcatera took an elbow to the face from a teammate during practice.
“He didn’t say much about getting hit,” Wolverines coach John Mackson recalled. “It was kind of a thing where he called me afterwards and told me that he was going to the doctor because he thought he broke his nose. We knew that he had broken it before.”
Calcatera was referred to the same specialist that worked with Hamilton during his time with the Pistons, who said that following the surgery he would have to wear the protective mask until he had completely healed.
The process of building a custom face mask like the one Hamilton used takes about a week, which left Danny with one option following surgery: use Hamilton’s.
“The doctor actually took it out of a glass case in his office and told me I could use it until mine came in,” Calcatera said.
To get him fitted for his own mask, which he said he still has, Calcatera had to have his face “wrapped up like a mummy” for about 15 minutes.
As a result, Calcatera had to halt all of his training and conditioning for the better part of four weeks, which made his return to the court that much more difficult.
“That probably hurt him,” Mackson explained. “He was a transfer player coming in that we didn’t know a whole lot about. Danny was here when I got the job, but he came in and talked to me five days later and said that he had already set up a transfer. I never really got a chance to see him play until he came back and asked if there was room on the team.”
One would think that wearing the championship mask from a local sports hero would be a good experience, but Calcatera described it as one of the most frustrating times in his career.
“As a player, you don’t look at the ball when you dribble, but when you go to make a move you can still see it out of the corner of your eye,” Calcatera explained. “I lost all of that vision. I was just doing things that I don’t normally do — I would dribble the ball off my foot or pass to someone that I thought was wide open and it would get picked off.
“It was just one of the most frustrating times ever.”
The first time walking in at practice wearing the mask, he naturally endured mass hysteria from his teammates.
“He looked like a total nerd,” teammate and roommate Dustin Sielski chuckled. “Then he told me it was Rip Hamilton’s mask so I thought it was kind of sweet. I think I remember asking him if he was going to shoot like Rip when he wore it.”
“The guys gave him a little bit of crap for it for a while, but it was pretty cool at the same time,” Mackson added.
Calcatera described Hamilton’s mask as being uncomfortable due to the two straps that wrapped around the back, which he said bothered his vision on the court, so he had the doctor fit his with just one big strap.
Even when getting back out on the court without the mask, he admitted that he was a little nervous the first few times he got the ball and drove into the lane.
“I’m 5-foot-10, so everyone’s elbows are at my head and it’s just something that I have to deal with,” Calcatera said.
Even though the Wolverines haven’t put up the type of wins they were hoping for going into the season, the team has been playing better over the last two weeks, which can be partially attributed to Calcatera’s emergence as the point guard.
“He’s the reason right now that we’re playing better basketball,” Mackson urged. “He’s a good help-side defender and his knows how to run the offense at the other end. Last week he played 57 minutes and only committed one turnover.”
Breaking his nose three times and his ankle twice created hardship for Calcatera, but he said that he seems to have found a good conclusion to his career over the past few weeks.
“It’s definitely been a bumpy ride for me, but I’m hoping to finish strong,” he said. “The first half of the season was absolutely a struggle, but I’m definitely ending on a good note.”