Skip to main content
Publish date:

Virginia star Landesberg on Tony Bennett, a celebrity crush and more


The latest subject of our Hoops Q&A series is Virginia's Sylven Landesberg, a 6-foot-7 wing guard who's averaging 17.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists as a sophomore. On Monday, he hit a shot with 2.2 seconds left to beat UNC-Wilmington as the the Cavaliers improved to 12-4. Virginia has been the surprise team in the ACC this season, off to a league-best 3-0 start despite being picked to finish 11th in the preseason media poll. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Luke Winn: When your new coach, Tony Bennett, was hired away from Washington State this offseason, how much did you know about his NBA career?

Sylven Landesberg: I knew nothing at all about Tony before that. The only Tony Bennett I knew was the singer.

LW: I think they met once in an airport in Green Bay, in some staged publicity thing. You ever ask about that?

SL: Really? I had never asked about it. But when he was hired, the people here passed out these short biographies on him, so we read up, and found out how he'd been in the NBA for like three years, and found out about his coaching career.

LW: Did the sheet say he was Muggsy Bogues' backup?

SL: He actually tells us stories about Muggsy, about things he picked up from him on the defensive end. If [Bennett] sees us doing something wrong, he might say, this is a little thing I learned from Muggsy: "When you see a man turn his back in the post, then you can fully commit to jumping him when he dribbles."

LW: What was Coach Bennett's overhaul process like when he arrived at UVa.?

SL: He just came in with a positive attitude. We had just gone through a tough season. Everyone on the team wants to win, and we hated how it went last year. We didn't like the situation we ended up in. So we all appreciated it when he came in so positive, and we did whatever he told us to do, because we felt like we cold learn a lot from him, with where he'd played, and what he'd done as a coach. I think everyone bought into the system, and we're seeing the result.

LW: He put in the famed Bennett Pack-Line defense, right? Explain how it works.

SL: Basically, when you're off the ball, you don't stretch out. We don't deny our man. If your man is on the 3-point line, you'd let him catch the ball, but if he's inside the "Pack" -- 15 feet and in, or 18 feet and in, you've gotta make it difficult for him to catch it.

When your man does get ball-pressured -- last year, if your man had the ball, you were basically one-on-one, you had to contain him. This year everyone is more confident in the fact that you can go out and pressure your man, and if we do get beat a little bit, someone will be there to help until we recover.

LW: You hit a game-winner on Monday against UNC Wilmington with 2.2 seconds left [for a 69-67 victory]. You're taking those big shots for Virginia ... but let's say you were a coach and you had to pick one other player in college hoops -- not from your current team -- to take a last-second shot. To whom would you give the ball?

SL: Depends what the score is.

LW: Down two, time for one shot.

SI Recommends

SL: And we're going for the win? Then I'd give it to that boy [Andy] Rautins from Syracuse. He can really stroke it. So I'd have a lot of faith in him to hit a three.

LW: And if you're only down one?

SL: I'd take Damion James from Texas. He seems so dominant inside and on the boards. With the way he attacks the rim, he's so athletic that he's real tough to guard in the post.

LW: Can you explain the role your father, Steven, played in your basketball development. I've heard the stories about him working with you non-stop, even quitting his job at a hospital to focus on your training.

SL: My father played a huge part in my development. I would have to say most of it, if not all of it, is because of him. On days I was tired, or days I just wanted to be a regular kid and hang out or be lazy, he would push me. He'd say, "Come on, let's go to the park. Let's go get shots up. Do some ball-handling drills."

That took me a long way. It helped me grow as a player and in life. Taught me a lot of discipline -- that if you want something, it's not handed to you. You've gotta go out and work, and go get it yourself. Taught me a lot of lessons in basketball and life.

LW: This stuff would start early and go all day in the summer, right?

SL: It would start at 6 a.m., with a light shootaround, and then go on throughout the day. I'd have 5-6 workouts throughout the day, and usually get done at about 6 or 7 p.m. After that I'd be so exhausted that I'd just go to sleep. All of that was preparing me to be able to compete at this level.

LW: You had a dribbling coach, a shooting coach, a weightlifting specialist and a boxing instructor, for footwork. I'm most curious about the boxing instruction -- how did it help?

SL: I've taken boxing now for the past 2-3 years. When I first started, it was basically something just to work on my conditioning and footwork. The first few times I went, I hated it because I was getting so exhausted. My arms were killing me. After a while you start to pick it up, though, and a lot of stuff actually converts to playing basketball -- like being able to make moves or defend with quick hands and quick feet.

LW: What's a move you might make that has a relation to a boxer's footwork?

SL: I think a lot of people, when they watch a game, think a crossover is all in the hands. But a lot of it is in your feet. You've gotta be able to change directions quickly -- real quickly -- to get to that spot, and you have to move yourself in the right way to keep your balance. If I come at a guy with an in-and-out crossover, I have to be able to move quickly, but also control my body to be able to get by him.

LW: Did you ever actually fight someone, or spar, or was it just training?

SL: You know, I was basically just doing the training, and I shadow-boxed with a few people. I never really boxed. I might've sparred once, and I held my own a little, but the guy I was sparring with was pretty good, so it ended quickly.

LW: I watched a video of one of your old basketball trainers, Jerry Powell, who's well-respected, and also pretty hilarious. He has that line about how, "If my mother was to ever guard me in a 1-on-1 basketball game, I'd run her right the f--- over."

SL: I trained with Jerry Powell two years ago. He's the best. It was an in-the-gym-all-day kind of thing. This past summer, I worked out five times a day, but it was different people. With Jerry I'd do 3-4 of them just with him.

The "mother" thing, he said that to me a few times. Once he had a girl working out there, who was pretty good, and he put her in a game with us. I started to fool around a little, taking it easy because I didn't want to hurt her. That's when Jerry said, "Listen, if I was playing 1-on-1 with my mother, I would run her over, score the bucket, then after that I'd tell her, 'Let's go make some cookies.' "

LW: Given how much time and money your dad spent on your training, what do you think would've happened if, at 15 or 16 years old, you'd all of a sudden decided, I really don't want to play basketball anymore -- I want to be a drummer, or a writer, or something else?

SL: Nothing would've happened. My father is fully supportive of every decision I make. He's still my father regardless of what happens. I could be musician and he'd be supportive of me just the same way. He'd probably be a little mad that I'm not playing basketball ... but he'd be supportive, 100 percent.

LW: You're one of the few Jewish stars in college hoops; is that on your dad's side, or your mom's?

SL: My father's side is Jewish, my mother's side is Christian.

LW: I only ask because I saw some chatter on an international basketball message board about your potential eligibility to play for the Israeli National Team [along with Duke's Jon Scheyer and the Lakers' Jordan Farmar]. Would you ever consider something like that?

SL: Definitely. That could be a great experience, so it's something I would consider. I got invited to play in a lot of things this summer -- with the USA Under-19 team in New Zealand; the Trinidad [& Tobago] National Team in, I think, a Caribbean Invitational, because my mom is from Trinidad; and then the Maccabi USA team in Israel. But I turned them all down because I decided I wanted to work on my skills in New York, and get ready for the upcoming season.

LW: You have to be the only person in hoops history with invites to play for Trinidad and Maccabi USA at the same time. Do you know anyone else on the Trinidad & Tobago team, and have you ever been there?

SL:Adrian Joseph plays on it, I think -- he came to UVa. 2-3 years ago, and he was here with Sean Singletary. I've never been to Trinidad, though. I've only left the country once in my life, and it was to go to Canada last year with the [Virginia] team, for exhibition games.

LW: To what extent did you look into turning pro after last season? Your name has been on some NBA Draft boards and there were rumors about it.

SL: I never looked into it too much. I only thought about it in that short period where we had no coach, and I wasn't really sure what I was going to do. But our athletic director, Craig Littlepage, called all of us to his office and told us it was under control, and that he had hired Coach Bennett. We met Coach Bennett and ever since then, the NBA stuff hasn't been on my mind.

LW: You're playing a lot on the wing at Virginia, but you do quite a bit of ball handling, so where do you think your eventual NBA position is -- at the point or on the wing?

SL: I think I could play a little bit of both. I could play the point some -- I like to make plays, get teammates involved -- but I can also handle playing on the wing.

LW: You have a Twitter account that you haven't posted on since Nov. 3. What gives?

SL: I just stopped using it. I started getting annoyed with it. And it wasn't even me who set it up -- my teammate, Mustapha Farrakhan, made it, and I said I'd start using it for a little while.

LW: You're following some interesting people on there, though. It's not like NBA players or college players or anything -- there's ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, golfer Ian Poulter, Coldplay ... I was surprised.

SL: George Stephanopoulos? I don't even know who that is. I think when Mustapha made the Twitter account for me, he just followed a bunch of people to show me how to get started. I had no clue who they were.

LW: So I'm guessing you don't know Ian Poulter, either? Man ... I was going to ask you about him, too.

SL: I do know some of the people I'm following -- some of them are my friends -- but those celebrities or whoever they are, no. The only celebrity I would follow is Hayden Panettiere.

LW: Why her?

SL: Because I have a huge crush on her, that's why.

LW: And Coldplay? Are you embarrassed to be associated with them?

SL: No. Not at all. I've definitely had some Coldplay on my iPod.

It's a band I've listened to here and there. So I'm not embarrassed to be associated with them. I don't know how I'm following them, but whatever.

LW: Do you have a go-to album before games? I hope it's not Coldplay.

SL: I listen to the same album before every game: The Black Album. I just let the whole thing play through. Jay-Z is the best rapper of all time, and that's his best album. It just gets me ready to play, every song on there. I don't skip through any of them.

LW: Have you chosen a major yet at Virginia, and what is it?

SL: I'm still undecided. I have to pick one by the end of this year

LW: Candidates?

SL: Art History, or maybe Sociology.

LW: So your fall-back job, if hoops doesn't work out, might be in a museum?

SL: I've been finding art history pretty interesting, and it would be something a little different -- but I don't know if I'd want to work in a museum. That could be a little boring.

LW: What would be an exciting, non-basketball job, then?

SL: I used to joke around with my mom when I was real young, like 7 or 8, about being a garbage man. I'm from the city -- from Flushing -- and I used to think it was so cool when they'd jump on the back of the truck and it'd drive off with them hanging off the side. I used to say, "Mom, I want to be a garbage man when I grow up."

LW: And her response was ...

SL: She would give me no response. She'd say nothing. I remember her looking at me, and then looking away, just nodding her head.