Categories: Inspiring People

Taking in the NCAA Tournament with former Hokie

Jay Purcell was used to winning. His high school basketball team in Blacksburg, Virginia, reached the state championship semi-final game his junior year. When he joined the Virginia Tech Hokies in 1990, Purcell thought the winning would continue there too. Instead the freshman point guard found out what it was like to lose, a lot. Virginia Tech finished that season 10-18.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics.

“It can be frustrating to lose,” Purcell said. “The food doesn’t taste good, it affects your life outside of basketball.”

These days, Purcell doesn’t feel the pressure he once experienced during his time at Virginia Tech. He’ll watch the team take on Wisconsin tonight, remembering what it was like to be a player in high pressure games. Although his college basketball days are behind him, important skills he learned on the court now serve him well as a recruiter at Lowe’s.

Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, the coaching staff changed. The team once known as the “Hurrying Hokies” had to slow its pace under new coach Bill Foster, who had previously led teams at Clemson and UNC Charlotte.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech Athletics.

Purcell called the first year with Foster challenging, noting players had to get used to new coaching. The team had seven scholarship players and five walk-ons. The most notable game in Purcell’s college career came that season in December 1991, when Virginia Tech faced Michigan’s “Fab Five” during a Christmas tournament in Orlando. Purcell was known to be a defensive stopper; that game he guarded Jalen Rose, who went on to play 13 seasons in the NBA.

In that sophomore season, Purcell broke a Virginia Tech record when he averaged 38.6 minutes per game. That record still stands.

“As a point guard, you’re expected to be a coach on the floor, expected to lead the team in difficult situations and make sure everyone is in the right place.” Purcell said. “If anything bad happens, you’re looked upon to correct the issue.”

A coach told Purcell before his junior year there were seven incoming freshmen and he could lose his starting spot. Purcell took it to heart; the news motivated him to work even harder. He and other upperclassmen moved back on campus so the team could bond.

A year later, the Hokies won nine of their first 10 games. Virginia Tech traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, for the Metro Conference tournament. The team won its first game against Virginia Commonwealth University before facing a Louisville team led by three future NBA picks and Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum. The Hokies fell to the Cardinals, 67-76.

“I remember being in the Virginia Tech locker room watching Selection Sunday,” Purcell said. Virginia Tech had an 18-10 record and finished fourth in its conference. Purcell was stunned to not hear the team called. “When we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, we thought about the NIT. Our name wasn’t called there either.”

It hit Purcell hard – he didn’t expect the game against Louisville to be his last as a college athlete. He still had another semester at school to finish his marketing degree. Purcell was invited to play in the Portsmouth Invitational, a tournament for top college basketball seniors. He also tried out for the Los Angeles Clippers; Purcell called it a learning experience and realized he wasn’t pro material.

He worked at companies in Virginia for years after graduation, then moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. He came across a corporate recruiter position at Lowe’s corporate office and applied. After interviewing at Lowe’s and meeting the manager, Purcell knew the company would be a good fit. He appreciated that Lowe’s was family-oriented.

“Coach Foster was someone who was very principles based. He was very honest with you, always gave each player a sheet of paper with the practice schedule and Coach Foster’s nugget of the day. There was always something motivational shared that day that was also motivational for life. You could always tell he cared about you as a person and not just an athlete,” Purcell said.

Purcell’s biggest influence in life was his father. He was a disciplined man who taught his son structure and how to get along with others. As a school teacher, he taught his son to respect those who respect you. These were core principles Purcell brought with him to Virginia Tech.

He lost his father on May 3, 2015. Three weeks later, Coach Foster passed away. Purcell had lost touch with Foster after college, but reconnected a few years earlier when he moved south to North Carolina.

Purcell still remembers his time at Virginia Tech and how it helped him get to where he is today. Through basketball, he learned teamwork, communication and how to have difficult conversations, all necessary for being a recruiter.

He typically returns to Blacksburg for a few football games and a basketball game each year. Purcell is excited to watch his alma mater play in this year’s NCAA Tournament. The Hokies play Wisconsin on Thursday night. At least once a week, Purcell can be spotted in Virginia Tech apparel at Lowe’s.

Purcell and his wife have two children, a 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. They both play basketball at the University City YMCA in Charlotte. Purcell said his son is already interested in becoming a Hokie. Maybe we’ll see him in the 2030 NCAA Tournament.