By Jessica Bernheim
UMBC Assistant Director of Athletic Communications
He had his chances to walk away.
There were six games left in his junior season when Justin Fry suffered a knee injury that required surgery, but he missed just five contests and returned in time to make a huge impact in UMBC's run to the 2009 America East championship game, scoring 19 points in the Retrievers' quarterfinals upset victory over Boston University.
With the graduation of Jay Greene and Darryl Proctor after the season, Fry was supposed to be a key component on UMBC's 2009-10 squad. But he reinjured that same knee during a late-September workout and underwent another surgery that kept him out for his entire senior campaign.
Fry could have called it quits, especially while watching his teammates struggle to a 4-26 record. Instead, he took a medical redshirt and worked hard on his rehab, determined to come back for this season to complete his eligibility.
"Basketball is something I love to do," he said. "I've been playing since I can remember, and my years are running out that I can play at a high level, so I'm just trying to take in every moment. I try not to take it for granted, so I hopped on the opportunity to come back and play again."
While the team is struggling again this season, the 6-foot-10, 230-pound Fry has made his fifth year count. He finished the regular season averaging 10.3 points per game against America East opponents, ranking second on the team, and he is UMBC's leading rebounder with 6.0 boards per contest. In addition, he became the first Retriever in UMBC's Division I era to record 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game when he did so Feb. 19 on his Senior Night.
"Justin has been playing solid basketball this year," head coach Randy Monroe said. "It took awhile to get his game legs, timing and stamina up, but he has put together a good stretch of basketball lately, and it is well-deserved. He has given UMBC a total commitment throughout his five years, and I'd like to see his career end on a high note."
Acknowledging that commitment and dedication, Monroe made Fry a team captain this year, entrusting the fifth-year senior with the leadership of a relatively young team.
"He is a tremendous, classy young man," the coach said. "He was very supportive and an extremely important leader of this team even when he couldn't suit up. He leads by example, and we're definitely going to miss his quality on and off the court."
One of the better students on his team, Fry earned his bachelor's degree in financial economics last spring and is competing this season as a graduate student, working toward a master's degree in economic policy analysis. He will be the first to admit that balancing the demands of his basketball schedule with the rigors of his class work is not as simple as he originally expected.
"You take less classes, so you might think it will be easier, but the work load is definitely a lot tougher," he said. "It's something that I've had to adjust to. I didn't think I would, but it kind of hit me this past semester that it's a lot more intensive, you have to devote a lot more time to studying and reading."
But Fry has made the adjustment successfully, earning good grades in his first semester of grad school. A member of the 2009 America East All-Academic team, he acknowledges that the high academic standards of the university was something that drew him to UMBC in the first place.
"I realize I'm here for something more than basketball," he said. "You need a good education to get a good job, so I've put a great deal of importance on my academics, trying to help my future."
While Coach Monroe has instilled a sense of family on the men's basketball squads over the years, creating a special bond among teammates, Fry has also been able to turn to his actual family for support. With home just two hours away in New Bloomfield, Pa., just north of Harrisburg, Fry's mother has made the trip to every Retriever game this season, both at the RAC and on the road, and the son admits just how much that means to him.
"It means a lot to have someone there to talk to after every game," he said. "She doesn't have to do it, but she wouldn't miss this season for the world; it's the last time she gets to watch me play. I can't express how much it really means to me, because it's a lot of time, a lot of sacrifice on her part to make it to every game."
With his collegiate basketball career coming to an end, Fry can look back and know that he was part of history, as he was a sophomore on UMBC's 2008 America East championship squad, starting at center for the final 14 games of the season as the Retrievers made their run to the title.
"That was a very special team," he said. "We had a bond on and off the court that was really rare. Cutting down the nets and sharing that with my friends and family and my teammates, that was probably my most cherished memory that I will carry with me."
Now the last remaining link to that squad, which set a school record with 24 victories, Fry confesses that while sometimes it seems like just yesterday, he also realizes how long ago it really was.
"Sometimes I think back to it and it seems like just last week we were making our run, we had the championship game here in the RAC, we were playing Georgetown (in the NCAA Tournament)," he said. "But then some days I look back and think of all the years in between and see where I am now, and it seems like it just keeps getting further away. But it's still fresh in my memory.
"I've seen myself grow in more ways than one through my five years here," he continued, reflectively. "I give a lot of credit to the friends that I've met here, as well as the coaches. They've really taught me a lot, not only in basketball, but in life, and it's something that I will cherish forever."