Each Friday we will count down the 10 greatest basketball players in the history of Virginia Tech. This week we talk with one of the most popular Hokies of all time..
Adrian “Ace” Custis | 6’8″ Forward | 1993-1997
INTERVIEW WITH ACE CUSTIS:
Transcript is at the bottom of this article…
Part 1 (7 minutes) – Ace talks about everything Virginia Tech.
Part 2 (3 minutes) – Ace talks about being in Japan during the tragic 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
- Points: 1706 (10th)
- Points per Game: 13.7
- Rebounds: 1177 (3rd)
- Rebound Average: 9.5 (5th)
- Steals: 199 (7th)
- Ace became the third Hokie to have his jersey retired and hung from the rafters of the Cassell. The honor was bestowed before his final home game in 1997.
- One of just four Hokies with 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds
- First Team All-Atlantic 10 1997
- First Team All-Atlantic 10 1996
- First Team All-Metro Conference 1995 (finished second for player of the year)
- Led the Metro Conference in rebounding – 1995
- All Freshman Team, Metro Conference – 1994
- Ace is the only player to average more than 10 rebounds per game for an entire season in the last 38 years (10.5 rpg in the 1994-95 season)
- Featured in this 1996 Sports Illustrated Article
Why He’s in the Top 10:
If this was a popularity contest, Ace might just be #1. He has an infectious personality that just makes you want to be around him. I mean, how could you not love a guy nicknamed “Ace”? Oh, and Ace also had a heck of a career.
The Virginia native was part of a golden age of Virginia Tech sports. The football team’s bowl streak, that still lasts today, started his freshman season in 1993-94 (Ace redshirted the year before due to an ACL injury). But Virginia Tech wasn’t just a football school. The Hokie basketball team rose from a rough stretch under Custis and won the NIT his sophomore year and made the ncaa tournament his junior year, even cracking the top 10 in the rankings. And Ace was the Tech star for his entire career on teams that included a lot of quality players. Ace was named First Team all conference in two different conferences (Metro and A-10).
Ace was a fantastic rebounder, to say the least. It is very easy to say he is Tech’s best rebounder in the last 35 years since Allan Bristow. In Custis’s sophomore year and Metro Conference finale (the newly forming Conference USA had decided not to invite Virginia Tech and bought they out with $1 million after the 1994-95 season), Ace averaged 10.5 rebounds per game. This is the only time in the last 38 years a Hokie has averaged double digit rebounds. Custis was extremely consistent as a rebounder – he averaged at least 9 rebounds per game all four seasons, leading VT each year. Only two other Hokies, John Rivers in 1990-91 and Jeff Allen this past season, have averaged 9 rebounds or more for a season since 1980.
On offense, Ace was not a flashy scorer. He had a dependable short jumper from about 12-16 feet, but did not wander out on the perimeter (something he alludes to as a regret in his interview). Custis did most of his damage in the low blocks, whether it be moves inside or getting second chance points. He didn’t have a big ego and didn’t have to be fed the ball 1,000 times per game. Ace was fine letting Shawn Good or Damon Watlington work on the perimeter, or Shawn Smith on the other low post block. Ace knew he’d get his points when they missed, and if they didn’t, that was good for the team and he was fine with that. In fact, Ace wasn’t necessarily even the #1 option on offense at the end of games (he passed the ball at the end of the NIT quarterfinals for a better shot).
Custis never averaged 15 points per game for a season, and only led the Hokies in scoring two years (his last two). That said, he still finished his career with 1706 points and still sits in 10th place all time. That’s because Ace was extremely consistent. You knew what you’d get every night. Pick up the boxscore the next day and you’d see 10-18 points, 8-12 rebounds, and 1-2 steals by his name. He was truly a team player.
Honestly, I cannot think of one, and keep in mind I was at, saw, or listened to every single one of his games his last three years. That’s because Ace was truly a quiet superstar, and he was consistently great in all his games. He didn’t have 30 point games. As I said, he scored 10-18 every single night. He pulled down double digit boards every single night. Ace was a lunchpail guy on the hardwood, doing the dirty work to help the Hokies win.
That said, one memory does stand out in my mind. In Ace’s senior year, he was a man among boys. Gone were four starters from the previous year and Custis had to be the man at the end of games. Against gw, who was one of Tech’s big A-10 rivals, the Hokies were tied at 43 (yeah, it was a rough game to watch) in early February at the Cassell. With time running out, the Hokies got the ball to Ace and he nailed a jumper at the buzzer to give the Hokies a 45-43 win. While it was a somewhat disappointing season, that game was memorable to me and Ace was the hero.
Team Record: 81-42 (12-12 in the Metro Conference; 20-12 in the A-10)
Before Ace suited for the Hokies, Tech had endured six losing seasons in seven years. That ended on Ace Custis’s and Bill Foster’s watches, producing winning records in Ace’s first three years.
The Hokies went 18-10 his freshman year, flipping their record of 10-18 the year before. But Tech got jobbed and did not receive a NIT invite.
In Custis’s sophomore year and Metro Conference finale, Tech again got jobbed, this time seeing their ncaa tournament bubble burst. The Hokies had won 20 games and taken a very strong #3 unc team that featured Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace to the brink, as well as a strong #13 uva team, too. Instead of pouting, the Hokies rolled through the NIT, smacking clemson at home in the first round, providence on the road in the second round. That set the stage for one of the great moments in VT basketball history.
In the 1995 NIT quarterfinals at Virginia Tech, the Hokies jumped out to a huge double digit lead on new mexico state. That lead slowly but surely chipped away as the game went on. The aggies finally tied the game with a few seconds left, which led to this…
In the NIT semi-finals, Tech rolled past canisius. The finals were a nip and tuck game, with Tech trailing marquette* 64-63. Shawn Smith, who was approximately 6’4″ yet played power forward, got the ball in the low post where he always did his best work, got fouled, and calmly drained two free throws with less than a second left to give Virginia Tech their second NIT Championship (also in overtime), 65-64. And I should mention the Hokies won the NIT with basically just seven players (sound familiar?). Back in Blacksburg, Main Street had to be shut down that night as students had taken the street over, partying like it was Mardi Gras.
Ace’s junior year was one of the great seasons in VT basketball history. The Hokies won 25 games that year, which is still tied with the 2009-10 Hokie team for most ever. Tech was ranked the entire season, and reached #8 at one point. The Hokies were #10 in the nation in mid-February and faced #1 massachusetts (Marcus Camby, John Calipari) at the Cassell. Students, me included, camped out for FIVE DAYS to get tickets, enduring an ice storm. The Cassell was rocking that day, but unfortunately Tech fell to the top-ranked minutemen 74-58. The Hokies went 13-3 in the A-10, but lost in the first round of the A-10 Tournament and, despite being ranked #22 in the nation, received just a #9 seed in the ncaa tournament. The Hokies beat wisconsin-green bay team in the first round but lost to #1 kentucky in the second round (that team was loaded and were led by Rick Pitino — they went on to win it all).
Custis’s senior year saw a drop in talent. Gone were Ace’s running mates, Shawn Good, Damon Watlington, Shawn Smith, and Travis Jackson (all multi-year starters). Tech managed to go 7-9 in the A-10, but finished just 15-16 overall and did not make the postseason. VT would not sniff the postseason for another 10 years.
* marquette featured William Gates, one of the stars of the documentary Hoop Dreams. Great movie, well worth watching.
What a player and what a man. Ace is truly one of the great Hokies of all time, on and off the court. It was a great time to be a Hokie in the mid-1990s, and Ace was BMOC. He checked his ego at the door every day, worked hard to become a great player, and gave Tech everything he had. He overcame a lot of adversity – lost brother, murdered stepbrother, severe car accident, and torn ACL – to become a great player. Custis was as solid as you get – a good scorer, great rebounder, and excellent low post defender. He brought his toolbox every day. And like Ace, every time I walk into the Cassell and look up at the rafters, I smile when I see his jersey hanging there.
Transcript of the Ace Custis Interview (linked above):
Niemo: This is Niemo with TechHoops.com with Ace Custis, one of the greatest basketball players of all time in Virginia Tech history. Ace, thanks for joining us.
Ace Custis: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.
Niemo: How does it feel to have your jersey hanging in the Cassell every time you make it back and be considered one of the best of all time at Tech?
Ace Custis: You know, even though I know it’s in the rafters when I go back to visit I always look up there and glance and I reflect on the night that it was retired. It’s a great feeling.
Niemo: Walk me through what lead you to on deciding to go to Virginia Tech in the first place.
Ace Custis: You know, I had, two relatives from the Eastern Shore. Quinton Nottingham played basketball for Virginia Tech back in the day. And I had some more people that go to Tech and play sports. William Boatwright was another guy. And I tried to follow them. They told me good things about Virginia Tech. So I decided to go and visit the campus. And it sold me.
Niemo: When you first got to Virginia Tech, what were your goals as a Hokie?
Ace Custis: I wanted to come in, I promised my mom that I was gonna get my degree, first and foremost. Second of all, I wanted to come in and try to earn some playing time because when they recruited me they told me I would have opportunity to get playing time right away. So I wanted to come in and work hard and show my efforts on the court so I could get a little playing time.
Niemo: And what were your keys to your growth as a player while you were at Virginia Tech, what are the things that helped you develop?
Ace Custis: I think my coaches. My coaches really, really on me trying to push me to get better and work hard. And my teammates. The closeness that we had on the court, on and off the court. I mean, that really had us, gave us the opportunity to grow as a team. And, the closeness we had resulted in a lot of wins for us.
Niemo: And that was Bill Foster was the head coach, and the late Bobby Hussey was an assistant. Tell me about those guys and how much of an influence they were on your game.
Ace Custis: Coach Hussey came and told me when I was a freshmen that his job was to make sure I was the best basketball player possible that I could be when I left Virginia Tech so he was always hard on me and giving me a hard time telling me I just need to work harder, you need to do this. You know he criticized a lot of things I did but he also complimented on the things I did well.
Niemo: Looking back on your career at Virginia Tech, what’s the thing you’re most proud of?
Ace Custis: You know the experience. The experience that I had at Virginia Tech, the university itself, the basketball players, you know we are friends for life, and just the opportunity to go there and live in Blacksburg. So you know basketball wise and academically it was a great 5 years of my life.
Niemo: I have to ask, what meant more, winning the NIT championship in ’95 or making it to the ncaa tournament in ’96?
Ace Custis: It felt better when we won the NIT because we ended our season in a win. But it was a great accomplishment making it to the NCAA Tournament, winning in the first round against Wisconsin Green Bay but then getting eliminated to the eventual champions in Kentucky.
Niemo: Yeah, I won’t get into. I won’t even get into how he got screwed on the seeding [laugh] in that one. But [laugh] that’s a story for another day. Being ranked in the top 20 all year and then drawing the number 1 seed in the entire tournament and the eventual national champion in the second round.
Ace Custis: [laugh] Yes. [laugh] Yes, we had made it as high as number 8 when we lost to UMass in the Cassell.
Niemo: Believe me. I remember that game. I think I spent 5 days camped out on the ice. In a tent to get into that game and that was to sit in the top row at a castle. So, yeah. I remember that game very well, but.
Ace Custis: [laugh]
Niemo: And you did get that degree eventually also right, like you promised your mom?
Ace Custis: I graduated with a Marketing degree and you know when I left campus I left with great memories on the court and my paper in hand.
Niemo: Now, moving ahead to your, to your career since Virginia Tech. You were playing with the Panasonic Trians this year in the Japanese League this year when the earthquake hit Japan. How close to it were you?
Ace Custis: We was actually in northern Japan. We was in an area called Tochigi, which wasn’t too close, but not too far. We felt the earthquake, but the tsunami part, we didn’t experience. I live in southern Japan, in Osaka, but we had traveled and we had just arrived around 2:00 to the hotel in Tochigi. We departed for practice at 3:30, and approximately between 2:45 to 2:50 is when the earthquake actually occurred. And it was something. I mean, it was a tremendous shake going on, and my teammates was calling to make sure I was okay and to see where I was at and everybody just ran downstairs outside. People were sitting on the ground to keep balance, I mean it was unbelievable.
Niemo: For those who weren’t there how terrible was the aftermath from what you were able to see?
Ace Custis: You know my coach, he’s roughly 65, 66 years old and he’s seen many and felt many earthquakes in his time and he said this was by far, no comparison to the most devastating earthquake that he’s ever experienced, you know. He was the elder on our team so listening to him and; we knew it was a serious earthquake and we was even in the area, the most devastated area, and you know we was kind of out far from there and it still felt like the main earthquake was happening, the center of the earthquake was happening where we was located at. I mean the hotel was shakin’, the windows in the hotel was bustin’ out, I mean it was unbelievable.
Niemo: How difficult was it for you to make it back to the United States, and how long did it take you to get back after that?
Ace Custis: I contacted my parents, my parents and my wife that night through texting because there the phone wasn’t working. The next day we were able to leave the northern part and go back south. And in the south where I was located at in Osaka there were no problems at all. You know, I stayed another two weeks before I even departed Japan to come back home and everybody was talking about the radiation in the northern part, but where I was located, people was coming from the north to the south to escape that area. And it was normal living where I was at for 2 weeks, and then, you know, once they canceled the season, the coaches and everybody said, okay. It’s okay for you all to go back home.
Niemo: You mention that the season was canceled. What are your plans for next year? Back to Japan for another year?
Ace Custis: You know, we were currently tied for first place, and I got hopes of retiring this year. I want to someday get into college basketball, I want to coach at the division 1 level and that was my plan for this summer – come home and try to land a job and with the jobs being taken up this summer and what have you, coach offered me to come back for another season to finish what we started this year and to keep an employment, I’m going back to Japan for one final season. No matter what this will be my last.
Niemo: Well, you know Tech’s got a couple openings right now. I’m sure that weighed on you mind, too.
Ace Custis: Yes they had to talk with me about the director operations job available and now with Adrian Autry departed that position’s available as well but It doesn’t look like I have the opportunity to come back to Virginia Tech to coach now.
Niemo: Now, I have to move back. As I was looking at your stats, which are very impressive. They show what a well-rounded player you were. You still rank 10th all time in scoring. You’re 3rd all time in rebounding. And you’re 7th all time in steals. But I didn’t see you in the top 10 in blocked shots. What happened there?
Ace Custis: You know, I was always told that everybody says why you don’t block shots? I guess, I was, my timing was off on block shots, or I never was aggressive enough in pursuing block shots. But, you know, this year I started to block a little more shots and it kind of felt good. This was the best year we blocking shots in my whole career.
Ace Custis: One thing I wish I had done more in college is work on my perimeter game. Once I got to the Dallas Maverick’s I seen how hard the guys on the perimeter was working after practice. For instance Hubert Davis would stay after practice for hours, just shooting, shooting. So when I went overseas in order to keep a job you had to be versatile and now, I mean I’m a three point shooter – I shoot a lot of 3′s every game and I’m one of the top ten three point shooters in my league now. So when I was in college, I wish I had worked on my perimeter shooting a lot more and shot more 3s.
Niemo: You should have spent more time working with Travis Jackson I guess on the outside.
Ace Custis: Exactly. You know, it. Yes, when Travis hit that shot against New Mexico State, I was the one passing the ball. I don’t know why the guy came running to me instead of staying with Travis. I guess he didn’t see the scout report back then.
Ace Custis: [laugh]
Niemo: Well, if I remember correctly, they had played less than forty-eight hours before, I think, out west. Had to travel all the way across to Tech. And then play a couple nights later in the NIT quarterfinals. So who knows. Maybe they hadn’t had time to pull together any film or, or anything like that. But, yeah, it worked out to our benefit. And you guys went up to New York, beat canisius in the semi-finals. And then marquette, who featured the guy from Hoop Dreams in the finals, on Smitty’s free throws with a couple seconds left.
Ace Custis: Yes that’s, that’s something that’s forever etched in your memory. The NIT was a great run for me. The experience of going to The Garden and, playing and winning the championship there, Shawn Smith hitting the free throws. I mean, there’s so many memories in that 2 week or 3 week period that really is embedded in my mind for life. And it’s crazy because now, playing overseas and playing in the pros or playing wherever I’ve played at since college, a lot of those guys we still run into and I see those guys and we always reminisce about those games, whether it been a Virginia Tech player or a Marquette player or some other guy that I played against during that time. We always reminisce about our college days.
Niemo: Ace, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today. We appreciate you sharing your memories and helping bring back a lot of fond memories for me since I overlapped with a lot of your career at Virginia Tech. I wish you the best of luck going forward.
Ace Custis: Thank you, I greatly appreciate it. Back for one more year and then hopefully a position will open up somewhere for me.
Niemo: Thanks so much, Ace.
Past Interview with Ace (from March 2010):
I found this quote from VT Head Coach Bill Foster from back in 1996 in the SI article, “In the eyes of the NCAA establishment, Virginia Tech is like a bastard at a family reunion,” Foster says. “Our acceptance is a slow process, but we’re becoming harder and harder to ignore.”