Tom Crean is sure it exists, and after a little prodding, Derek Elston admits to it.
Yes, Elston does have a Crean impression at his disposal, and no, he will not show it to the assembled journalists.
Even his mother, Christina, has seen it only a few times.
It is not his only one, though. Impressions in general are but one weapon in the senior forward’s arsenal to lighten the mood when the team needs him to, in good times and bad.
Of the seniors to be honored Tuesday evening in Assembly Hall, Derek Elston has neither the statistics nor signature moments of Christian Watford or Jordan Hulls. He has missed more than a third of this season and plays a fraction of the other two’s minutes.
The senior forward’s place on the team is found in neither numbers nor film, but rather in leading goofy chants of encouragement from the bench.
And in his idiosyncratic pranks and habits, known as ‘Derekisms.’
And in moments of explanation to the team’s young post players when he pulls them aside in practice and takes on the role of coach.
And in the handful of minutes when he is on the floor, dashing around on defense, staying in his man’s face and grasping at scoring and rebounding opportunities when they arise.
“The past couple years when parents email me and tell me I meant so much to their kids during camps and kids come up to me after games and tell me I’m their favorite player just because of the energy I bring on the court, that right there tells me I’m still doing something,” Elston said. “It’s nice to go out on the court and still score and rebound. I know lot of cases it really doesn’t come to you. To go out there and have people notice my energy — I’m still out there giving 100 percent — that means a lot to me.”
Elston was nearly as ballyhooed as anyone in his recruiting class when he arrived on campus in 2009. A 4-star recruit according to Rivals.com and the son of former NBA pro Darrell Elston, Derek was a holdover commitment from the Kelvin Sampson era.
Christina remains in touch with Sampson, thankful for first extending the opportunity to her son.
Crean waited several weeks to contact Elston so as to not run afoul of recruiting rules, but Christina Elston said Derek never had any thought of looking elsewhere. He remained committed to Crean, and arrived as part of a six-man class with sights set on an IU return to relevance.
The first season played out much as many expected, slight improvement from IU and prominent contributions from freshmen, but with just 10 wins. IU was still down, to the amusement of its foes.
“A lot of times we were saying the league just didn’t like us,” Elston said. “They liked the fact that we were down. You look at videos of the past and how everyone was making fun of us. We were the butt of every joke, and now we’re playing so well.”
Elston started seven times that year, his role increasing as the season wore on. As IU Associate Head Coach Tim Buckley took Elston under his wing, Elston said he learned to ask questions he’d lacked the courage to ask early on. He started 10 games as a sophomore.
“When Coach Crean would get on me about things I was doing wrong, Coach Buckley would pull me off to the side and say ‘I realize he was yelling at you, but you’ve got to realize what he was saying in those words,’” Elston said.
By the end of that second season, one with 12 wins, the six-man class was down to four, and guard Maurice Creek was already mired by injury woes. Yet national prominence, be it sooner or later, remained the goal for those left. For Elston, transferring was never an option.
“You need that core group of people to say ‘No matter what, we’re going through, we’re going to see it pay off,’” Elston said. “If it wasn’t going to be us, we’d see what we’d instilled in people later down that line. We knew that definitely we’re going to stay and to get this program where it needed to be.”
In his time at IU, as IU’s ranking has risen, Elston’s numbers have fallen. He is not shy about the fact, speaking quickly and candidly about it as he does about most things, still smiling.
His scoring has dropped each year, from 5.8 points per game as a freshman to 1.5 this year entering Tuesday.
“My freshman year, toward this part of the year, I was one of the main scorers on the team. I was in double figures almost every game,” Elston said. “Injuries have come up. Now I’m coming off the bench. It’s fun. It’s all part of it. When Coach calls my number, I expect myself to go in there, and give it my all and when I come back at the end of the bench, giving everybody a high five. I’m just doing what I need to do to help everybody out.”
Just about any player would like to be out on the court as much as possible, and Elston is no exception. Christina said she is convinced that with just a little more playing time, he could really shine.
But his role this season is established, and beyond his 7.2 minutes per game on the floor, Elston has made he presence felt on the bench as well. Photos of a wide-eyed Elston leading the bench in cheers have graced the internet and the pages of this newspaper.
“We just bring energy. Anytime somebody makes a shot, especially a 3-pointer, we’re up there doing any kind of dance we can,” Elston said. “We feel like we’re just as much a part of it as the five guys on the floor ... When our name gets called to go in the game, we’re alert, we’re energized, we’re ready to go and that’s what Coach is asking for.”
From Jordan Hulls’ shaggy hair to Christian Watford’s long beard, each of the three seniors taking Branch McCracken Court for the final time Tuesday has a distinguishing physical attribute.
Elston has his tattoos — a seemingly ever-expanding mass on his left arm, chest and back that, for better or worse, has come to be a prime signifier in his four years at IU.
The cross, a tribute to his grandfather, came first.
“My mom hates them,” Elston said. “She won’t ever tell you that she hates them, but she hates them. She finally bared down and said ‘OK, you can get a cross, but I realize it’s going to get bigger.’ I said it wouldn’t. Obviously, I was lying.”
Christina went with him to have the work done and remembers the tattoo artist increasing the original size of the design, knowing Elston’s arms would grow with college strength training.
Three angels, one each for his mother and two sisters — “the three ladies in my life,” as he calls them — were next. Despite her reluctance to any ink in the first place, Christina admits the gesture was “very sweet.”
The mass on his left arm grew, adding a whimsical design with his nickname, “Diesel,” and most recently, an eye with crosses for each of his deceased grandparents, an addition that came just before this season.
He tried to hide it from his mother, but that did not last.
While his chest and back tattoos were inspired by his father, he keeps his right arm bare, at least for now.
“My mom still has a picture of just this arm, because it doesn’t have anything on it,” Elston said. “She has it on her phone. I don’t know why. She gets a kick out of me having a normal arm, I guess.”
On Oct. 24, news broke that Elston tore his meniscus and would be out for up to eight weeks.
He suffered a similar injury before his senior year of high school. This appeared to be an aggravation.
An IU spokesman joked in October that it must have been from one of the team’s dance routines at Hoosier Hysteria. Elston will probably never know for sure.
Whatever it was, the reality was the start of his senior year would be delayed. He would miss the non-conference season when players jostle for playing time and rotations are set. He would have to sit out the much-publicized showdown with North Carolina, his father’s alma mater.
“The beginning of the season, I had done so much to get ready for the season, and not only to tear your meniscus and have to sit out six to eight weeks, but to not even know how you did it, it’s unbelievable,” Elston said. “I was so ready for the season to get going and that happened ... I’m trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel for myself. I realize I can’t get out there and do what I used to do, but I realize that somewhere on this team, they’ve needed me and I kind of pulled through.”
Elston’s No. 32 jersey took the court in the season opener against Bryant even if he did not.
Watford, in a show of respect to his injured teammate, approached Crean in the days before the game and requested permission to borrow the jersey for one game only.
“Anytime you go into battle with somebody for so many years, you’ve been in the hole with somebody for so many years and they can’t experience the fruits of their labors, you just want to make it easier for them to deal with,” Watford said. “I can’t play for him, but I just wanted to show him some love and do that for him.”
Creek, who has missed part of three seasons with leg injuries, offered further advice. Elston credits Creek with keeping his own injury in perspective.
While he was out, Elston was still a regular at practice, his understanding of the game so far above what it was originally that Crean allowed him to stop practice and offer his own instruction to his teammates.
Elston returned Dec. 19 against Mount St. Mary’s. He scored four points in his first six games, sitting out a road contest with Penn State after a setback.
On Jan. 30, though, when IU demolished Purdue on the road, Elston scored five points, more than doubling his total thus far. He matched that total Saturday against Iowa.
“After the Purdue game, he was just elated that he played well,” Christina said. “He kept saying ‘I’m back. I’m back.”
Perhaps to the chagrin of Hulls, his roommate for the past three years, Elston came about his sense of humor honestly.
Christina said she would thrill her children with farfetched tales and is not surprised he has taken after her side of the family.
Though Elston claims it is Zeller, others point him as the team’s leading prankster and comedian.
From his many impressions to soaking a teammate’s carpet with an emptied jug of water, having Elston as a roommate means there is “never a dull moment” for Hulls.
“Far too often, I’ll say to myself ‘Why am I living with this guy?’ but I need that in my life, I think,” Hulls said. “I’m not the most outgoing person, so having Derek helps me out.”
Pranks aside, Hulls has seen, perhaps better than anyone, who Elston is and what he has dealt with in four seasons at IU. He has seen the coaching of freshmen big men in practice, the injuries, the return of IU to the national rankings and more than his fair share of Derekisms.
“After a long day of practice or whatever it is, Derek’s always there for a laugh,” Hulls said. “But he’s also done a really good job, when he was hurt and not playing, of being vocal on the sidelines and taking a senior role and leadership role ... He can be serious and help us on the court, but off the court, he makes everybody smile, laugh, does a little bit of everything.”
Elston fights back from injury, savors final days as a Hoosier
Tom Crean is sure it exists, and after a little prodding, Derek Elston admits to it.