He remembers the scruffiness of the beard that gave Max Strus the appearance of a washed up 30-something. That was DePaul Blue Demons forward Brandon Cyrus’ first impression.
In high school, Strus was three inches shorter and several pounds skinnier as he waited for his muscle and his facial hair to come in. So high profile coaches came and went without scholarship offers. And if he judged Division II Lewis University as critically as these coaches evaluated him, Strus might have missed out on becoming perhaps the best collegiate player in Illinois.
The bridge between Strus and Lewis was built by his older brother Marty. He played there, introducing Max to the quality of this level of basketball, and he also facilitated a relationship between Max and his coach, Scott Trost.
Marty made sure the two of them really got to know each other well.
“He would come to my games and he would see the level of competition,” said the 28 year-old, who now coaches at Max’s high school alma mater. “There’s obviously a comfort level there when you see your brother played there for 4 years and you know the coaches and the guys.”
Once Max started playing for Lewis, he and Trost turned their relationship into one of the best stretches in the program’s history, and it didn’t take long for Max to outperform his brother. The Flyers went 46-17 in Max’s two seasons, and Strus scored over 1,000 points in an offensive system designed to accentuate his shooting. Trost said shooting touch and strength was almost as rare a combination as his work ethic and motor. So he designed plays to get him the ball on the wing. Over and over, he got to pull up on the perimeter and lead Lewis to wins.
It didn’t surprise Trost that he had to let him go. After losing in the DII tournament in Strus’ sophomore season, he confidently walked into Trost’s office with a plan. “He said he was going to transfer to the ACC, Big Ten or Big East and if he didn’t get offered from any of those conferences he was coming back,” Trost said.
“He thought in two years he probably did what he can do here. He won a conference championship, and he did very well individually and he needed to showcase his skills and the opportunity to get to where he was trying to get to.”
Trost said he took Max’s decision well. No hard feelings. But Delaney Blaylock, who calls Strus his mentor, workout partner and motivational guru, said he had a hard time accepting Strus would be leaving Lewis.
“After the season, he called me to his room and we talked,” Blaylock said. “He talked about me being a leader, he talked about how proud he was of me, and then he basically just said I’m transferring what do you think?”
Blaylock took a second to respond.
“I’m not going to let you stay here because I want you to do it. You should have been D-1 anyway.”
After opening his recruitment to the schools in the three power conferences with schedules that wouldn’t take him far from home, Strus’ phone lit up. Chris Mack wanted to talk. Butler wanted a visit. DePaul tried whatever they could to tap into his local sense of pride. They haven’t had much success bringing in local recruits recently, but Dave Leitao hadn’t found someone whose childhood legends played for him.
“Back in the day, I used to watch Drake Diener all the time,” Strus said. “Then, you’ve got guys like Quentin Richardson. Man, I would come to the games all the time.”
Strus’ mother Debbie was a Hall of Fame volleyball player at the school, so Leitao was virtually the only one in the athletic department he didn’t know. Eugene Lenti, the longtime softball coach? Known him since he was a toddler. He has the same history with athletic director Jean Ponsetto.
After his transfer season, it didn’t take long for Strus to bring momentum to DePaul. At the PK80 Invitational in Portland against Michigan State, he led the Blue Demons to a tied score at the half against one of the best teams in the country, and he scored 33 in a 77-72 loss at Xavier. 26 games into the season, he scores more per game than any player in Illinois who plays in a power conference..
“I’ve definitely been in this role where I have to become a leading scorer,” Max said. “They put me in a situation to get the ball every time.”
Said Marty, “The thing that has surprised me is him being able to put up his numbers with the focal point he’s been for opponents. You can just see how other teams are trying to take him out of games.”
Maybe the last player to recognize Max’s potential was the one who thought he was old. He thought he was shy. He thought he needed a shave. And when Cyrus matched up against him at their first open gym together, he said realized there’s more to this player than he first thought.
“He came in our first open gym and started spraying it,” Cyrus said. “He hit a lot of threes and is really athletic, so he surprised me because I didn’t expect that out of him.”
As the ninth leading scorer in the Big East in his first season in one of the nation’s toughest conferences, Cyrus said he’s finally learned to look beyond the surface. And that scruffy, old-looking transfers can hoop.