Written by

John Zant

It's been a long time coming...

Four former UC Santa Barbara athletes have achieved professional big league prominence in 2021-22, but none of them took an easy path to get there.

Kayte Christensen was drafted by the WNBA in 2002. When her playing career ended after five years, basketball was still in her blood and on her brain. She landed a broadcasting job as a sideline reporter and studio analyst with the Sacramento Kings, and the past season she became one of the few women to work as a live-action color commentator in the NBA.

Kristen Mann entered the WNBA in 2005, and after five years in the league, she went to Europe to prolong her career. She played for teams in France, Turkey, Latvia, Spain and Portugal. She also made time to finish her degree in 2012, completing her last class online. At age 38, she celebrated the 2022 EuroCup Women championship with the French club Tango Bourges Basket.

Dillon Tate was the fourth player chosen in the 2015 MLB draft, but baseball is a sport where “can’t-miss” prospects commonly go missing. He was traded twice and played for eight different minor league clubs before securing a place on the Baltimore Orioles’ pitching staff.

Gabe Vincent was undrafted by the NBA in 2018. Sacramento signed him to a contract but soon released him. The Miami Heat sent him to the G League, where he polished his game for three years, culminating in his becoming a full-time player with a two-year, $3.5 million contract.

Former UC Santa Barbara women’s basketball coach Mark French called it “the advantage of being a Gaucho.” Coming out of a mid-major collegiate program, he explained, “You don’t get things handed to you. One of the lessons you learn is persistence. Hang in there, and great things happen after lots and lots of hard work.”

Photo: Courtesy image

When Tango Bourges overcame a seven-point deficit...

in the last three minutes and defeated Galatasaray, 69-67, in this year’s EuroCup semifinals, Kristen Mann flashed back to an epic night in the Thunderdome.

“I got the final rebound, and I put my arms up, just like the end of the Houston game,” she said.

In that 2004 NCAA tournament game, the Gaucho women defeated Houston, 56-52, to advance to the Sweet 16. Mann pumped in a jump shot in the final minute to give UCSB enough of a margin to hold off the Cougars.

“Kristen worked hard to fine-tune that shot,” French recalled. “We ran that play – pump fake, one dribble to left, it’s going in.” It was the reward for UCSB’s effort to recruit Mann, whom French described as “the most skilled” player in his 21 years as Gaucho women’s coach. “There wasn’t a whole lot she couldn’t do, handling it, shooting it, passing it.”

Mann admits that she was “extremely talented at 18” but had some things to learn at UCSB. “If I don’t meet Coach French and Cori Close, I’m not here,” she said by telephone from France.

“They taught me how to develop good habits, to apply yourself in everything you do. At a video session, Cori called me out: ‘You’re walking here. … This is half-assed. … What are you doing?’” Close, then French’s top assistant, is now head coach at UCLA.

Mann said she has signed a two-year contract with Basket Landaes, another French team, that will keep her playing at 40. “I never thought I would last this long,” she said.

Meanwhile, she’s been sharpening another skill, as a musician. A singer/songwriter, she performed a solo 30-minute set before a crowd of several hundred at a festival in Bourges, and released her first single, “Bourbon.”

Dillon Tate

Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles

A month into the 2022 baseball season...

Dillon Tate established himself as a dependable relief pitcher with the Orioles, as his ERA dipped below 2.00.

He displayed his confidence and maturity during the seventh inning of an April game in Anaheim. Dispatched to protect Baltimore’s 5-4 lead over the Angels, with one out he walked MVP Shohei Ohtani on a 3-2 pitch. Ohtani stole second while Tate worked the count to 3-2 against Mike Trout. His next pitch was a fastball that tailed over the plate and caught Trout looking. Tate then retired Anthony Rendon on a fly to left. The Orioles won the game, 5-4.

“I feel real comfortable out on the mound,” Tate said before the season opener. “Sometimes I get nervous before a game, but [the mound] is a place I calm down. I find peace on both good and bad days.”

Tate worked hard to reach that state of mind in the major leagues, beginning with his three years in Santa Barbara. “His work ethic was off the charts,” UCSB baseball coach Andrew Checketts said.

One of his teammates was Justin Jacome '19, now the Gauchos’ director of baseball operations, who remembers Tate as a “skinny freshman” and “an average right-handed pitcher” who strengthened his body and mind to become a highly sought prospect.

“Dillon not only led by example but he would bring others along and want those around him to get better,” Jacome said. A younger pitcher on that Gaucho staff, Shane Bieber, had a meteoric rise to a Cy Young Award in 2020.

Tate took longer to reach the majors. The Texas Rangers drafted him but traded him to the Yankees organization. “That shook me, but I got used to it,” he said. Finally, he found a home in Baltimore, but only after visiting minor league outposts from Spokane, Washington, to Norfolk, Virginia.

“I always feel I have something to prove,” Tate said. “The years have put a chip on my shoulder in a way. But I’m thankful more than anything the way things have turned out.”

Kayte Christensen

Photo: Rocky Widner / NBA

Kayte Christensen had a lot of work to do when she arrived at UCSB...

She grew up on a ranch in Likely, a tiny dot on the map in northeastern California. “It was a rough-and-tumble background,” French recalled. “The first time I called her, she was out deer hunting with a bow and arrow.”

Her toughness served her well on the basketball court. “She had a beauty queen exterior,” French said of the 6-foot-3 forward. “When we played against male scout teams, most of them wanted to guard Kayte. After five or six times down the court, they’re bleeding through the nose or bruised around the sternum.”

Christensen got a wake-up call in the classroom. “I had a good GPA in my small town,” she recalled. “I got a D on my first paper at UCSB. I took advantage of every tutor, and by the end of school I became a tutor myself. I was not comfortable in public speaking, but Coach French wanted us to be able to speak publicly. That’s a huge factor in what I do now.”

She was a four-year Gaucho basketball starter and Big West Player of the Year as a senior. A classics major, she was the keynote speaker for arts and humanities graduates at UCSB’s commencement ceremonies.

Christensen went on to play for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky. Then a producer suggested she take a TV test in Los Angeles. “There were 200 people there,” she said. “I shot demo reel, and they offered me a one-year contract. I didn’t have media experience. My resumé was playing.”

Now she’s been in the business 15 years, carried along by her knowledge of the game. When NBA veteran Doug Christie left his commentator’s position, Christensen was elevated to take his place alongside Kings play-by-play men Mark Jones and Kyle Draper.

Christensen says she received her highest compliment from a fan: “Listening to you makes me understand the game better.”

Gabe Vincent

Photo: Adam Hagy / NBA

From a team standpoint, Gabriel Nnamdi Vincent had a much better year than his one-time basketball idol...

While LeBron James and the Lakers did not make the NBA playoffs, Vincent and the Miami Heat went into the postseason as the East’s No. 1-seeded team.

“LeBron’s career speaks for itself,” Vincent said. “My game doesn’t reflect his. It is a team game. My role changes night in and night out. Whatever I can do, I try to find ways to increase my impact.”

The Heat knew what they were doing when they added the former UCSB guard to their roster. During the 2021-22 season, in games when Vincent played, Miami’s record was 47-21. The Heat went 6-8 in games he missed.

“We harped on team success at UCSB,” Vincent said. In his senior year, success was a 23-9 record in Joe Pasternack’s first season as head coach. A big reason was that Vincent stayed after Bob Williams, the coach who recruited him, left the program.

“I was concerned with my career, my health [he had a serious knee injury the previous season] and my teammates,” Vincent said. “Joe and I sat down and talked, and I decided to stay.”

That loyalty did not surprise his former coach. “What separates Gabe is how coachable he is,” Williams said. “He gives a program exactly what they need. Miami develops what they need better than any other NBA team.

Vincent said he had ups and downs in his road to the NBA, but Miami proved to be “a perfect fit.” The Heat needed him to start several playoff games when veteran point guard Kyle Lowry was out with an injury.

Vincent prepared last summer by playing for Nigeria at the Tokyo Olympics. In an exhibition game at Las Vegas, he scored 21 points to lead Nigeria to a 90-87 upset of the United States.

“We lost to them by 60 or 70 points last time,” he said. His Miami teammate Bam Adebayo was on the U.S. team. “When Bam dangles his gold medal in my face,” Vincent said, “I remind him of Las Vegas.”

Heat Check

Watch Gabe Vincent and the Miami Heat take on the Boston Celtics in game 1 of the East Conference Finals

click to watch Gabe Vincent highlights on Youtube

Watch on Youtube

While they were at UCSB...

 

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