Mariners Elementary students greeted UC Irvine basketball players Wednesday afternoon with about as much fanfare as one might expect if a teenage pop sensation visited the Newport Beach campus.
The students clamored around the college athletes for their chance at an autograph and, if they were lucky, a selfie with one of the basketball players.
Six men and women from UCI's basketball programs visited the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classes at the Newport Beach elementary school to talk about sports and the importance of earning a degree.
"Basketball only lasts so long," said Michael Lenahan, director of basketball operations at UCI. "Most pro careers only last a few years. Academics will last a lot longer."
Lenahan emphasized that in order to get accepted to a university, students must also be scholars, not just athletes.
The students ran drills with the team, practicing defense, shooting and passing. Each of the participants received their own UCI basketball or dark blue T-shirt.
Students cheered as UCI's 6-foot-10 forward Mike Best slammed the ball into the net with a reverse dunk.
"I grew up loving sports, especially basketball," he said. "These are the kids that are going to be future players. We should try to inspire them like people inspired us."
The best part of the day for fifth-grader Lily Larkins was meeting Mamadou Ndiaye, the Anteaters' 7-foot-6 center.
Ndiaye, the tallest college player in basketball this year, moved across the court with ease, stopping quickly to — somewhat effortlessly — drop the ball into the hoop during practice drills.
With an arm span of more than 8 feet, Ndiaye can reach the rim without leaving the ground.
"He's so tall," Larkins said after playing on the court with him. "His finger is as long as my hand."
Students hesitated going back to class after the drills were over, instead crowding around the player for autographs and one seemingly unusual request: for the center to lift them above his head into the air.
As uncommon as it might seem, Ndiaye said he's asked to do it all the time.
"At first it was odd, but I'm used to it now," he said. "The people that see me every day aren't as impressed by it anymore."
Libby Doughty and her husband, Tom, who are both active in the athletics program at UCI, organized the meet and greet with the team.
Mariners has its fair share of talented student athletes and the couple thought it would be the perfect opportunity to introduce kids to college sports while integrating the importance of academics, Libby Doughty said.
"If these kids can get exposure to what college athletics is like, then it makes it more real, more attainable, for them," she said.