In the summer of 2008 I went to southern California after a friend in the AAU scene had tipped me that Leonard Hamilton was putting the full court press on a high school junior from the area. In a hot, stuffy, gym that eventually got smoked out when the popcorn machine caught fire, I watched this kid play. These games featured virtually no organized defense - just five guys in one color jersey guarding five guys in another color jersey in what appeared to be several different one-on-one games happening on the same court. But this kid - Michael Snaer - stood out the same as if he were wearing a neon uniform and everyone else wore shades of gray. It wasn't that he was that much better than everyone else (he was raw), or that his size/athleticism combo was that freakish (lots of good athletes), but rather, it was his effort. He was possessed. The team with the ball was offended that he played so hard. And he didn't slap fives. He didn't huddle his teammates. He didn't do things to get attention. He just stopped his man.
When the whistle blew he'd disappear into himself. You could see the wheels spinning. He both pounded his chest and looked shy at the same time - he couldn't help himself but he didn't really want anyone to see. Later, alone in a corner of the gym with the next games going on, I watched him put his bag down and spend 20 seconds defending - over and over - an invisible offensive player who appeared to be jab stepping him.
His high school coach said, "His work ethic was almost obsessive, and I was a little worried about him. I didn't know if it was that healthy for someone his age to be that driven. But he said he knew what he was doing."
A few months later he committed on live television.
That commitment came on November 14, 2008. At that point the Seminoles were coming off back-to-back 7-9 ACC seasons and hadn't been to the Tourney in a decade. Snaer had taken an official visit to Marquette, who'd been to back-to-back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. He turned them down. He went to UCLA, who had been to back-to-back-to-back Final Fours. He turned them down. He went to Kansas who had just won it all. He turned them down.
Instead, he picked Florida State.
He didn't want to be just another cog in an already established machine. His goal was to help start something new.
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Years later, with Snaer's career winding down, I asked Luke Loucks what it was that made Mike such a special player. After going through the various physical advantages Snaer has - he's big, he's quick - Loucks got down to it. "Mike is one of the few players that consistently works on his defense as much as his offense. He was always challenging guys to play 1-on-1 to try to shut them down after practices. He watched film by himself on the opponent's offensive tendencies to gain an advantage," he said. Snaer was a year behind, so he spent his first two years with Derwin Kitchen and Chris Singleton, and his first three years with Loucks and Deividas Dulkys. He was the brash newcomer. He was the young guy. But in a "get buckets" era he spent his time learning how to do the opposite. He learned to stop buckets. Two years later Coach Hamilton would say that Snaer understood how to play defense better than any player he'd ever coached.
Any reservations his team had about him disappeared during Snaer's freshman season. He played at least 16 minutes in every game that year. Near the end Coach Hamilton could no longer keep him out of the starting lineup. Ham needed a defensive stopper, and he saw that his freshman was the man for the job. There aren't many four year starters in college basketball, but there aren't many Michael Snaers either.
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The impact of his career numbers is self-evident. He finished 8th on FSU's career points list, sandwiched between George McCloud and Al Thornton. He's 5th in made 3s and 8th in 3-pt%. He's 2nd in games played, and 3rd in games started. He played in three NCAA Tournaments and was the MVP of the ACC tourney when FSU won its one and only ACC Title.
And then there are the six game winners, the ones which turned his name into a verb.
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In his first game at FSU he scored 14 points. Later he had a game with 4 steals and 4 assists. Once he became a starter he played 33 minutes and had 8 assists in a 1-point win over Miami which locked up an NCAA bid.
As a sophomore he had any number of remarkable games, highlighted by making 3-4 3s against Notre Dame in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament, the same game where his defense on Notre Dame's point guards had their entire team fighting amongst themselves.
Then, as a junior, he was simply the man. He would lead FSU in scoring in his final two years - once as the scrappy youngster on a team full of seniors, and then again a senior, scoring in what often felt like the dark.
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What happened in that senior year?
Things turned ugly from the start when Florida State dropped the season opener to South Alabama. With six seniors departed, we all knew it could be a tough start. Snaer though, was the rock in the storm. And sure enough things immediately turned around. Eight days later FSU had just finished dismantling excellent competition in Brooklyn and things were looking up.
Then Ian Miller, one of the few experienced players, got his foot stepped on. He wouldn't recover all season.
FSU began to struggle. The Noles would lose four of their next eight, and through it all Snaer did his best to keep his team together. When a teammate was out of position he got in his face. When a teammate made an awful decision he'd give them a stare that made Leonard Hamilton's stare seem tame.
And this is when I remembered that trip to southern California nearly five years earlier. Snaer is a gym rat in the best sense of the term. He works harder than 95% of college athletes. But he internalizes it all. He doesn't understand that his work ethic is abnormal. If he could understand the defense as a freshman, why couldn't all the new kids? If he responded well to being yelled at by the veterans on the team, then these new kids should as well.
Initially, it worked. ACC play came and FSU won two straight road games. The first game they lost was a heartbreaker to North Carolina. But how far had the program come when FSU could legitimately gripe - during a down year - that with just a few more plays for the good guys the Tar Heels game would have been in hand?
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When Terrance Shannon was injured I wasn't worried about Snaer. I wasn't worried about anyone besides Shannon. He was taken off the court on a stretcher, with his head pinned in place. The early word was that he was staying in a Charlottesville hospital with Coach Williams at his side, while the rest of the team flew home.
We didn't learn for a few days that everything would be alright with Shannon - just a bruised spine - and then I was free to worry about Snaer and his team.
Sure enough, the season came apart when Shannon went down. FSU went from 2-0 in the ACC to 7-9. The Noles were able to muster back-to-back impressive wins to finish 9-9, but it wasn't enough to go dancing. FSU fell in the 2nd round of the ACC Tourney, and then finished the year at home, in the NIT, in front of a spoiled student section that could barely fill a thousand free tickets.
But that's what Snaer wanted to create, right? He wanted to build something where a fan base felt entitled to more than just four straight Tourney appearances.
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So what is Snaer's legacy?
I'm only one person, but I'm 100% certain that his jersey belongs in the rafters. In the 15 years prior to his commitment FSU had been to exactly one NCAA Tournament. The last time they'd been ranked was during the 1997-98 season, and that was only for a few weeks in the middle of the season. Now, a down year means a .500 record in the nation's toughest conference.
All of this makes me forget the Snaer who yelled at his teammates when they needed encouragement. It makes me forget the workaholic who expected those around him to care as deeply as he did. The Snaer I'll remember one is the cocky one. The one who hit six game winners. The one who put on one-man presses just to show that he could. The Snaer that jacked NBA 3s and didn't care if you thought it was a good shot. He was capable at any moment of laying down some jaw dropping display of athleticism, after which he'd generally eye his opponent, letting them know that it was their turn. Bring it if you got it.
I'll remember the Snaer practicing by himself in the corner of an AAU gym, facing off against invisible opponents. FSU fans were lucky he chose Florida State, and the fact that many fans don't realize how lucky they are just shows that Snaer accomplished his goal.