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Photo Courtesy: Wake Forest Men’s Basketball

Wake Forest basketball enters a new season with purpose and inspiration

As the team prepares to battle on the court, Johnetta Forbes’ own fight gives motivation

WINSTON-SALEM, NC – Just over a month out from Wake Forest’s first game of the 2023-24 season, head coach Steve Forbes patrolled practice with fervor. His commanding voice carried throughout Shah Basketball Complex, intermingled with the shouts of his players and fellow staff-members. Whistles shrilled, adding to the tune of organized chaos.

Forbes’ team, fresh with both new faces and program veterans, displayed a distinct gritty aggressiveness. Within minutes, balls were poked away from the offense, players made hard drives to the hoop and bodies crashed to the floor for charges. An identity is developing.

“A lot of teams…find their identity in their defense and their toughness,” senior forward Andrew Carr said. “We’re trying to get there…I don’t know if we’re there necessarily yet. Through these days of practice, pushing each other, I think we’re gonna be able to find our identity.”

Carr is one of Wake Forest’s quasi veterans, entering his second season with the Demon Deacons after transferring from Delaware. Following a productive early first year that was later hindered by injury, Carr enters this season as a team leader, a guide to the new players.

“It’s been great being able to be here all summer trying to gain some chemistry with all of them,” Carr said. “They worked really hard. That’s infectious.”

One of those newcomers stood out early — guard Hunter Sallis. A transfer from Gonzaga, one of the perennial powers in college basketball, the junior understands that steps need to be taken for Wake Forest to return to its first NCAA Tournament since 2017.

“Discipline every day,” Sallis said, emphasizing the program’s room for growth. “We’ve got to show up and get better every single day. That was a big thing that we focused on at Gonzaga. We do that, we do a good job here. We just gotta keep going.”

Sallis’ toughness was evident quickly, a nod to what Forbes believes his team must rely on — hard defense.

“We have a very physical team,” Forbes said. “A [much] bigger team. [We] can really guard and [we’re] getting better at it. How far we can go and how far we advance depends on how well we defend and how well we rebound. That’s been the emphasis.”

“I think Hunter is one of the better defenders I’ve ever coached,” Forbes continued. “He’s got tremendous length, really good feet. He can go smash the ball. He can guard one through three. He’s a really good player. Hunter could be an elite defender. He will be.”

Sallis represents one of the many new Deacons that Forbes will look upon to make an impact. The former Zag — named the ACC Preseason Newcomer of the Year — is joined by another in seven-foot center Efton Reid, who awaits a waiver to play as a second-time transfer. No update has been given on his status.

Kevin “Boopie” Miller, a guard from Central Michigan, and former UCLA forward Abramo Canka both figure to play a large role in the Wake Forest rotation, while freshmen Parker Friedrichsen, Aaron Clark and Marqus Marion all have shown promise.

The team will also be waiting on another new arrival of sorts — redshirt senior Damari Monsanto’s 2022-23 season ended tragically with an achilles injury at NC State, and his return to the court is much anticipated. Though not yet ready to fully suit up, watching his teammates play has left him hungry.

“I’m watching these guys practice, it’s motivating me in my workouts to get back on the floor with these guys,” he said.

Monsanto believes he’ll be ready to go come November or December.

Like Monsanto, guard Cam Hildreth is one of the longest-tenured Demon Deacons. With a clear purpose in place, making the “dance,” Hildreth recognized the latest iteration of Wake Forest basketball must improve on years past, but believes the team has “made great progress” on the path to success.

More than anything, Hildreth is ready to play against a team wearing different colors.

“I’m itching to play a game,” he said. “I say to these guys all the time, ‘I’m tired of playing against you guys.’ I’m ready to have an opponent. I’m really excited to have that first test and see where we stand as a team.”

With that desire to play ball against a new foe, a step forward to a dream in March, Wake Forest has its purpose. The nature of the first exhibition is where the team finds inspiration.

Eight days before the Deacons open up the season against Elon, they will battle Alabama in a charity game benefitting stroke research, a cause near and dear to the team’s heart. Forbes’ wife, Johnetta, suffered a stroke in mid-August.

“It’s been really rough,” Forbes said, pausing with tears in his eyes as the emotion took hold. “It’s been tough. I’ve seen a lot in the last couple months. Not just my wife, but the places that I’ve been, there’s some people in some tough situations, not just with strokes but with brain injuries. If we can help alleviate somebody’s pain, then it means a lot.”

“I am so grateful to my children, family, friends and the entire Wake Forest and Winston-Salem community for their outpouring of support since [Johnetta’s] medical event,” Forbes added in a released statement announcing the exhibition. “Additionally, I want to thank my players and staff for their understanding and support as I have been back-and-forth in Atlanta for the past six weeks before we were able to bring Johnetta home just over a week ago.”

In the face of true struggle, Forbes chose to stay not only with his family, but his team too. His players, in turn, rallied around him.

And, when the Deacs finally square off with a team not in gold and black in late October, the purpose will be evident, but the inspiration will be even clearer. Wake Forest will play with Johnetta’s battle in their minds and hearts.