Steve Novak comes full circle

Alum reflects on life under Crean, return to MKE


Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics

Kobe Bryant played his final game in Milwaukee Feb. 22. Fans showed up in droves to the BMO Harris Bradley Center to show their support for the legendary shooting guard. In the waning minutes, as the Bucks held a sizable lead over Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers, a chant poured down from the capacity crowd: “We want Novak!”

Earlier that day, the Bucks announced the signing of veteran forward and Brown Deer native Steve Novak. Ten years after graduating as one of the most prolific scorers in Marquette history, he stepped onto the Bradley Center floor in a home uniform for the first time in his NBA career. He entered the game with 1:24 remaining and missed his only three-point attempt.

“I said to my wife after the game – and I ended up tweeting it – saying it was one of the most memorable nights of my life and I didn’t even score a point,” Novak said.

It was a long time coming for Novak, who truly embodies the term “journeyman.” The Bucks are the ninth NBA franchise he’s played for in 10 years. As a local product, it was always a dream of Novak’s to someday play for his hometown team.

“You’ve been away so long, do they remember you?” Novak asked himself. “But then my first game back, it was Kobe’s last game so there was so much energy in the building. For me, I was very uncertain coming into that game of what that reception would be like. I didn’t even do anything and was shown a lot of love and it made me say, ‘Wow, I’m home.’”

Home. That’s a term Novak has had trouble grasping over the past decade. All the moving trucks, apartment hunts and school changes for his children – ages five and two – have been exhausting for Novak and his wife Christina, who he met at Marquette. Lucky for him, he’s specialized his craft as a long-range shooter; a coveted skill in today’s game.

“Early in my career, it was just me and my wife bouncing around and it was kind of fun,” Novak said. “It was cool seeing different cities and being in different places but I think as a player you hope to find a home, which hasn’t really happened for me. I attribute it to the fact that either nobody wants me or everybody does. Maybe it’s both. My skill set is one that can be plugged in to most teams. I think the ability to fit into most teams and the fact the game is going more and more toward three-point shooting has allowed me to find homes in a lot of different places.”

Novak, 32, often draws from his experiences at Marquette when he needs motivation for carrying on in the league. He specifically recalls his freshman year at Marquette, when the Golden Eagles were led by All-American guard Dwyane Wade to the Final Four.

“I absolutely didn’t know if I’d be good enough,” Novak said. “I didn’t know if I could work that hard and get to a level where I could compete. We had a team with guys like Wade and Rob Jackson who were physically imposing. You’d look and them and ask ‘Am I ever going to be a player at that level?’ Those were thoughts I had freshman year. You just stay with it. You have dreams of playing in the NBA and winning a national championship that kind of feel you all the way through it.”

As someone who built his career from the ground up, he now passes that experience along to his younger NBA teammates and to Marquette’s burgeoning players, especially in his recent conversations with Henry Ellenson.

“One of the things I always speak about is it’s not always going to be obvious like ‘He’s going to be in the NBA and you’re not,’” Novak explained. “It’s such a broad conversation of people telling you you’re good enough or you’re not. It happened to me as a freshman. I literally almost quit because I thought ‘This is too much work and I’m not going to be good enough.’”

His Marquette career was a blur. Days lasted from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. with schoolwork and workouts interspersed. He had little time to socialize, but he knows he wouldn’t have made the league if not for that grueling schedule.

“Coach (Tom) Crean was a demanding, tough coach,” Novak said. “He was the perfect coach for me because I needed to get tougher and better or I wasn’t going to get to the level I wanted. It was a time in my life when I felt like I had an opportunity to put complete focus and work in to try to get to the level I wanted to get to as a basketball player and as a student.”

His relationship with Crean spawned a trust that opened a window of opportunity. Novak still ranks 15th on the all-time scoring list at Marquette and first in three-point percentage and three’s attempted and made.

Novak was an All-State player at Brown Deer high school before Tom Crean recruited him to Marquette in 2002. Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics

“I trusted Coach Crean,” Novak said. “He said ‘What are your goals?’ and I said ‘To win a national championship and to play in the NBA.’ He said ‘I agree, those are the goals I have for you but you have to trust me to push you to achieve those things.’ As an 18-year-old, you don’t really know what you’re agreeing to, but you’re basically agreeing to be pushed to the point you don’t think you can do it … The days went by so fast and the intensity of the practices was so hard, there was times I didn’t think I was going to be good enough and there were times I was the best player on the court.”

Novak carried that mindset through his professional career. He recalls playing for the D-League’s Reno Bighorns in 2011 with future NBA stars Jeremy Lin and Danny Green. Novak said he often needed to remember the hard work he put in at Marquette that got him to that point.

“All of us were told by the (general managers) that we’re not good enough,” he said. “There’s 450 spots in the NBA and we’re not good enough for even one of those spots as 15th man on the bench. Fast-forward one year from that and we had all signed over $50 million worth of contracts. You realized the smartest minds in the basketball world can’t predict if you’re going to be good enough or not. It has to be the hard work that gets you there. You think back to those intense practices when you literally passed out sometimes and know that wasn’t in vain.”

That hard work is needed now more than ever. Just three games into his Bucks career, Novak tore his MCL and underwent season-ending surgery in March. Though he hopes to be back on the court by June 1, he once again enters free agency needing to prove he still deserves one of those 15 roster spots.

Novak doesn’t know where he’ll end up this summer. With his particular ability, he believes he can play in the league for several more years. Although it’s ultimately the team’s decision, he’d like to stay with the Bucks.

“Wisconsin is absolutely home,” he said. “When I’m done playing, this will be where we live. How many years I can play, I have no idea. Guys try to put a number on it but you never know. I like being home and it being a good fit.”