The Bruins prepped all week to play the University of Maryland in its first round of 64 NCAA tournament games in four years.
The team was loaded with talent. The miracle season featured a dramatic win over the University of California Los Angeles, a buzzer-beater over rival Lipscomb University and an unforgettable win against Temple University in Dayton, Ohio.
The campus buzzed with talk of an upset, and Bruins fans welcomed the challenge of beating Maryland on national television.
But as the 2019 season crescendoed, one of its early contributors was no longer in the lineup.
Caleb Hollander spent days leading up to the Maryland game throwing up. He didn’t know if it was a stomach bug or food poisoning, but it got so bad that he had to get IV treatment for dehydration.
Brett Levy, one of Belmont’s basketball managers who helped take care of Hollander while he was sick, recalled Hollander’s state.
“He was upset that he couldn’t be present at the game to support his team,” said Levy. “He just couldn’t get into a healthy position to play.”
This was just the latest mishap for Hollander, who at one point was a highly-ranked high school player in the state, according to MaxPreps. He had started his redshirt freshman season playing his best basketball, and he ended it out of the lineup, watching his team play from afar.
It was a long fall from where his expectations laid.
Now as Hollander prepares for his third playing season, he thinks moments like this one helped him detach from certain expectations.
“I want my career to be defined by overcoming. Not just necessarily the instances that I have been through,” said Hollander.
“At a certain point, you have to face yourself. And face your reality that you’re not perfect, and nothing you’ve done will be perfect. So for me, overcoming is the one thing I want people to remember.”
During Hollander’s career, he has dealt with far more than just the pressures of playing well on game days. He’s had to grapple with the reality of caring for his father, who suffered a stroke that confined him to a wheelchair and left him unable to speak or see clearly.
“Dealing with all this has been really hard on my mom and me. There is so much people don’t know about us,” said Hollander. “It’s like with him, we are reliving a death every day.”
Hollander’s father was essential to his athletic pursuits. The two are very close – he used to coach Caleb in baseball.
After the stroke, Caleb doubled his focus on basketball.
But he was unable to go to a large prep school like most talented basketball players his age. Instead, he was homeschooled, giving him enough time to play basketball for Nashville Central Christain and take care of his father.
“I think his dad’s stroke forced him to take on some responsibilities,” said John Hyland, a family friend and former president of the Warriors organization Hollander played for. “There was an importance with keeping him around people that cared about him and people who knew who he was. So he stayed to play for us.”
Though he played for a small homeschool team, his natural talent got the attention of colleges around the country. Belmont’s own Rick Byrd first started watching him play in eighth grade.
“He was someone that really just got the game,” said Byrd.
One of Hollander’s most impressive high school games came against Brentwood Academy with former Indiana head coach Tom Crean and Kentucky coach John Calipari in the stands.
Both were there to watch Darius Garland play – and though a future first-round NBA draft pick was on the court, it was Hollander who stole the show. He totaled 34 points, many of them scored against Tate Pierson, who now plays alongside Hollander on the Bruins.
“I vividly remember blocking one of his threes, and it still went in. It was from the top of the key, I got a finger on it and it still went in. I ran down the floor saying to myself, ‘Man, can he miss?’” said Pierson.
The game provided insight into the type of player Hollander was in high school. He worked hard, and he didn’t just play well – he played with intent.
His coach Michael Claybrooks said he “played with a chip on his shoulder, like he had something to prove. The only thing stopping him was if he got in his own head.”
Hollander had 20 Division I offers by the end of his senior season, but he chose to play for Belmont.
His reasoning was simple. The school was close to home – close to his dad.
“The first college game I ever went to was actually at Belmont,” said Hollander. “And then the next one was actually just me and my dad. So that was something that kind of played a factor because I had already been here a couple of times. I watched the programs, and Belmont was really important to my dad.”
Belmont’s proximity to home allowed him to still play basketball while giving him the ability to be available if something were to happen to his father.
But that decision didn’t make everything easy.
During a night when Hollander was wrestling with an injury that would cost him his freshman season, his father made a surprise trip to Alabama without telling anyone in the family. The event, for Hollander, was a moment of intense worry.
Hollander’s father’s health can put him in a bad state, and often Hollander would get calls about things that would happen with his father. This surprise trip to Alabama was one of those moments, he said.
They initially didn’t know where he’d gone, but by good fate, his dad ended up at his brother’s house.
“My dad drove down there and like, my dad can’t use his right side. He’s partially blind. He can’t speak, he didn’t have any credit card, he somehow ended up at his brother’s house in Alabama,” said Hollander.
His father’s uncertain health forced basketball into the background of Caleb’s life. Hollander’s inability to initially handle his family’s stress played a part in derailing what was a promising collegiate career.
There were days where he couldn’t get out of bed, he said.
“When you have to put something in the back of your mind that’s so significant like your family, you sometimes lose sight of important things,” said Hollander. “I didn’t know how to cope with it. I didn’t know how to handle it.”
Little by little, Hollander’s ability to focus on the sport he loved chipped away. And for two years, he was seemingly lost, trying to reckon with his career’s intangibility and the uncertainty of his father’s health.
As basketball became less of a concern, his confidence on the floor waned. And the sport – something Hollander used as an outlet – became a source of stress.
“At first it was hard going through it,” said Hollander. “I was hurting … I just was not doing what I needed to do and not playing as well as I needed to play.”
Everything in Hollander’s life was changing. His teammates noticed it, and even new head coach Casey Alexander noted the hardships. So when his role on the floor changed, he had an even harder time adjusting.
“His role was completely different. We brought in Tyler Scanlon and that changed some things probably for Caleb more than anybody,” said Alexander.
As his minutes decreased, his will to push through difficult circumstances did as well. There was no longer joy on the basketball court, or in his life, he said.
As his redshirt sophomore season came to a close, due to the pandemic, Hollander had an out. He could have easily given up, but he didn’t want to be remembered for that.
He wants to be remembered for overcoming.
Hollander said he found strength in his religion. He began to detach from the need to control the things around him. His father’s health, his own sickness at the NCAA tournament, his spot in the rotation – these were things he couldn’t control. And with the support of his teammates, he came to accept that.
“The type of people on the team were not going to let me dwell on my circumstances all day … But it was still hard,” said Hollander. “I found encouragement in a painful situation. If you go through something, you can’t just sit in bed, you have to get up and do something. You have to go do your own thing because later on, that’s going to hurt you more if you don’t.”
He chose to live life through the adversity, not let it defeat him. And he carried that understanding over to his basketball career.
In changing his perspective, Hollander said he found comfort in the game again.
“This is probably the happiest I’ve been on the court in a really long time,” said Hollander. “I think there is more joy in it for me. And joy is constant, that is something I’ve tried to learn.”
His teammates and managers have seen it.
“He is just in such a better place than last year,” said basketball manager Bryce Gerlach. “He’s playing better at practice and just looking better out there.”
Hollander is far from the same person that hung 34 points on Brentwood Academy five years ago. He’s become his own man. He’s garnered a more complete sense of the world around him through trials and tribulations.
Hollander learned basketball isn’t everything, and that change in his worldview helped him find himself on the basketball court again.
Coach Alexander agreed, saying the change he’s seen in Hollander will help Hollander grow on and off the floor for years to come.
“I’ve known Caleb for a long time, and watching him navigate through hardship it seems to me he’s been able to gain a better perspective,” said Alexander. “That’s such a big piece of Caleb’s future, not just as a basketball player, but just in life. How he continues to put all those pieces together, and come out on the other side.”
This article written by Ian Kayanja.