Evan Eschmeyer cherishes his six years at Northwestern in the 1990s. The last 25 years were filled with plenty of basketball-related pain, too.
There was nothing but joy as the 6-foot-11 Eschmeyer watched the NCAA Tournament Selection Show from his Colorado home on Sunday evening.
Northwestern made the NCAA Tournament field for the first time, ending a 78-year drought, the longest wait for any major conference school to join the Big Dance.
“It was historic, no other word for it,” he said by phone Monday. “A great deal of pride.”
No one player is associated with the Northwestern program’s history of futility more than Eschmeyer, who spent six years in Evanston in the 1990s. The Wildcats went 59-109 from 1993-99, including 19-85 in Big Ten play.
A rare top recruit to wear the Wildcats uniform, Eschmeyer is Northwestern’s only All-America team selection in the last 50 years and the only player drafted into the NBA in the last 40 years who played exclusively at the school.
In high school, Eschmeyer said his finalist list of schools included Notre Dame, Xavier, Michigan State and Purdue, all programs with NCAA Tournament histories.
“I wanted the highest-level education I could get, combined with the highest-level basketball,” the Western Ohio native said. “Northwestern was it. Today, that’s still the case.”
Eschmeyer also sought to reverse the program’s curse.
“I’m going to take these guys to the tournament, first year, go pro in two,” Eschmeyer said. “I was very arrogant.”
The pain started his freshman year. A broken foot kept Eschmeyer out those first two seasons.
Several doctors told him he’d never play again. He received a rare two medical redshirt years, making his college basketball stint the better half of a decade.
Eschmeyer led a Northwestern team that had won five games in 1994-95 to a 15-14 record in his last season. But that was only good enough for an NIT berth.
Eschmeyer grew up trying every which way to get out of school early in March to watch opening-round games. He filled out brackets for as long as he can remember. Even while at Northwestern, stuck in Evanston watching friends play across the country.
To this day. His 10-year-old twins registered for email accounts to enter bracket contests online starting a few years ago.
“It hurts that I never played,” he said. “It’s one of those few things that I have to live with as far as regrets for the rest of my life.”
In 1999, the New Jersey Nets took Eschmeyer with the 34th pick in the NBA Draft. But chronic knee problems forced him out of professional basketball after four seasons and five surgeries.
Eschmeyer remembers a nadir, feeling like somebody shot him in the leg warming up for a 2003 playoff game with the Dallas Mavericks. He received a cortisone shot solely for the purpose of propping him up should he need to enter the game later to foul somebody.
A doctor — from Northwestern – later told Eschmeyer that if he wanted to be able to play with his future kids, he needed to give up basketball.
Eschmeyer said he hasn’t played in an organized game since. Only in the last year has he played one-on-one with one of his 10-year-olds.
“I miss it daily,” he said. “Every day.”
Eschmeyer has lived in Colorado the last five years with his wife, former Northwestern player Kristina Divjak, and their three children.
He put that Northwestern education to good use. Eschmeyer is a CFO of a telecommunications development company, among other assets.
“Kind of a boring sort-of financial investor lifestyle,” he said, though his passions include hunting, hiking and teaching archery to area kids. The kind of pursuits that lead Midwesterners to the Rocky Mountains.
Eschmeyer’s basketball memories are mostly boxed up, but he is proud of one photo in his office. It’s of the center diving for a loose ball with his teammates.
Eschmeyer said he would gladly trade his personal success at Northwestern, which boosted his NBA Draft potential, to have played in the NCAA Tournament. But only if his teammates remained the same.
“It’s a special place where kids still stay for four years,” he said. “It’s a family. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Eschmeyer is also proud of Northwestern coach Chris Collins. Eschmeyer said he actually hosted Collins on an unofficial recruiting trip to Evanston in the early ‘90s, even though Collins is one year older.
Collins, a McDonald’s All-American high school player, chose Duke, enrolling there after the Blue Devils won back-to-back national championships.
“It was definitely an uphill battle for Northwestern versus Duke,” Eschmeyer said, “but we got him out for a visit.”
The coach brought Eschmeyer back this season to speak to the team after a win over Iowa on Jan. 15.
“[Collins] made some very kind comments about what I had done when I was there, and just the history of the program,” said Eschmeyer, who tried to attend about two games per year. “I think that, from comments he made and the rest of the staff has made, it was important for them to build some sense of family around the program.”
Eschmeyer empathized with the current players carrying the weight of the program’s history.
“I don’t want to say they’ve been playing tournament games for the last four weeks, but there’s been a high level of pressure on them,” he said. “Everyone’s been counting games. Everyone’s been doing the math every time. That’s tough for anybody, especially when you’re 19.”
Eschmeyer has carried some of the burden, too. He hates being remembered as the star of a team that never made the tournament.
“Now [junior point guard] Bryant McIntosh will get phone calls instead of me,” Eschmeyer said, laughing. “It’s not that I don’t like a little attention once in a while, but no one likes attention for negative reasons, right? I will be very happy to pass being the last guy to be X, Y, Z to some young blood that has better things in their bios for what they accomplished at Northwestern.”
Eschmeyer spent the first day after the bracket announcement on message threads with friends and former players firming up travel arrangements.
Eighth-seeded Northwestern will play No. 9 Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City on Thursday. If it wins, No. 1 seed Gonzaga likely looms Sunday.
Eschmeyer will be in the crowd, perhaps the tallest person in the building wearing purple. His bracket will be filled out with Northwestern winning it all.
“There will be a sense of nostalgia,” Eschmeyer said. “I’ll be with a lot of old friends enjoying the moment.”