It took a moment for Chris Chiozza Sr. to recall his son’s first assist.
“Probably when he was 4 years old,” Chiozza Sr. said. “The ball was bigger than him.”
A few years later, Chiozza Sr. realized his son was capable of becoming a passing prodigy. In a youth basketball league in Bartlett, Tenn., a then seven-year-old Chris Chiozza whipped pass after pass downcourt to his awaiting teammates.
“They figured out pretty quick that if they could beat the other team down the floor that Chris was going to find them,” Chiozza Sr. said.
Senior Day will take on even more significance for point guard Chris Chiozza on Saturday in UF’s regular-season finale against Kentucky at the O’Connell Center. Not only will Chiozza be one of three seniors honored before the game, but with one more assist, the six-foot Memphis native will become UF’s all-time assist leader. Chiozza is tied with Erving Walker with 547 career assists, despite playing close to 1,000 minutes less than Walker.
“It means a lot,” Chiozza said. “It’s not something I never really thought about when I got here. I knew I was a good passer, everybody knows I was a good passer, but getting the chance to break the record Senior Night, it’s a blessing. Kinda glad it worked out that way, that I didn’t get it last game, and I can do it in front of the Rowdies and everybody that’s been here for four years with me. My family and everybody.”
Fate intervened. Chiozza was stuck on 547 career assists for the final 5-10 minutes he played Tuesday night against Alabama.
“I had, like, three plays in a row down the stretch guys had open looks and they missed them,” Chiozza said. “So when they told me that after the game that I tied it, I’m like, I’m glad that they missed them so now I get to do it at home.”
Chiozza has provided electric moments for fans during his UF career — a last-second, running 3-pointer to beat Wisconsin in overtime in the Sweet 16 last year, a steal and breakaway layup in the closing seconds to beat Missouri in an SEC game in early January. But he’s had to deal with his share of adversity along the way. Recruited by former UF and current Alabama assistant John Pelphrey, Chiozza played his freshman season under Billy Donovan before Donovan left to pursue his NBA coaching dream with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Chiozza could have left, especially after Pelphrey was passed over the job and Mike White was hired, but instead stayed to finish what he started at Florida.
“I’m just glad I stuck here and stayed with my teammates,” Chiozza said. “It’s something we really wanted to do. We had a discussion about it. Everybody was here when (Billy Donovan) left, and we just wanted to stay together. We had a rough season my freshman year, but we all got along well, liked each other. We just wanted to stay connected and stay here. And I’m just glad I made that choice.”
There were growing pains along the way. Chiozza briefly won the starting point job during February of his sophomore year, then lost it due to inconsistent play. Early in his junior year, Chiozza struggled playing behind Kasey Hill. Then came a face-to-face meeting with White last season that changed the course of Chiozza’s career.
“At that point he just sold out to the Gators and to his teammates,” White said. “It’s a really cool example for his teammates to learn from and it’s a story we’ll be able to tell future teams and players.”
Chiozza joked he had “a lot more hair and no tattoos” in his first game as a freshman at UF against William & Mary (Chiozza estimates he has 11-12 tattoos now, including one that honors his late maternal grandmother). He remembered his first assist, a lob to walk-on forward Jacob Kurtz, “He caught an alley,” Chiozza said. “He didn’t dunk it, though, He laid it up.” Chiozza said his favorite assist was to former UF teammate Devin Robinson, “It was an alley I threw to D-Rob,” he said. “I forgot who we were playing. It was a pick-and-roll – like went between my legs and threw it. He came out from nowhere and just dunked it.”
Chiozza said he’d like to be remembered as an unselfish player who cared more about assists than scoring. He’ll have close to a dozen family members in town for the game, including his parents, Chris Sr. and Curtistine Chiozza, his paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings.
Chiozza comes from athletic bloodlines. His father, Chris Sr., was a former point guard at Christian Brothers University in Memphis. His great-grandfather, Dino Chiozza, was a former Major League Baseball player with the Philadelphia Phillies. His great-uncle, Lou Chiozza, also had a six-year career with the Phillies and New York Giants and made Major League history by being the first batter ever in a night game, leading off for the Phillies against the Cincinnati Reds in Crosley Field on May 24, 1935.
Like his great-grandfather and great uncle, Chiozza himself gave baseball a try, playing shortstop, the outfield and pitcher until committing to basketball full time in high school.
“Chris had pint-point control,” Chiozza Sr. said. “He could throw a change-up behind in the count for a strike. I think that’s what he does now with the basketball, he throws strikes with either hand.”
The Gators could use a few more strikes from Chiozza in a critical game to close the regular season against Kentucky. The winner of the game would secure a bye and the No. 3 overall seed in the SEC Tournament next week in St. Louis. If Florida loses, it could still get a bye as the four seed, but would need Arkansas to lose at Missouri.
The stone-faced Chiozza does not show emotions easily, but admitted his last game at the O’Dome and the ceremony before the game could cause him to shed a tear or two.
“It’s gonna be emotional,” Chiozza said. “I’m gonna try not to let the emotions get too high. Just come out there and play like any other game. Even though it’s my last one, just gonna come out there and play hard. And let the chips fall where they may.”
Who: Florida Gators (19-11, 10-7 SEC) vs. No. 23 Kentucky Wildcats (21-9, 10-7 SEC)
Where: O’Connell Center, Gainesville
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G;KeVaughn Allen;6-2;Jr.;11.3 ppg; 2.2 rpg
G;Chris Chiozza;6-0; Sr.;11.1 ppg;6.1 apg
G;Egor Koulechov;6-5; GSr.;13.7 ppg;6.6 rpg
G;Jalen Hudson;6-6; Jr.;15.4 ppg;4.0 rpg
C;Kevarrius Hayes;6-9; Jr.;5.0 ppg;5.1 rpg
KENTUCKY PROBABLE STARTERS
G;Hamidou Diallo;6-5;Fr.;10.7 ppg;3.7 rpg
G;Shai Gilgeous-Alexander;6-6;Fr.;13.0 ppg;4.9 apg
F;Wenyen Gabriel;6-9;So.;6.2 ppg;5.3 rpg
F;Kevin Knox;6-7;So.;15.8 ppg;5.4 rpg
C;Nick Richards,6-11;Fr.;6.0 ppg;5.0 rpg
Notes: Florida is 39-100 all-time against Kentucky and 25-35 against the Wildcats at home. After beating Kentucky 66-64 at Rupp Arena on Jan. 20, the Gators are seeking their sixth sweep of the series against the Wildcats and their first since 2014. … Florida leads the SEC in turnover margin (plus-4.3) while ranking second in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3-1), third in steals (7.0) and tied with Vanderbilt for third in 3-pointers made per game (9.0). … The Gators have been outrebounded in 10 of 17 SEC games this season and were outrebounded 46-31 against Alabama, giving up a whopping 20 offensive rebounds, “We’ve got to do a better job of having stronger hands in securing the basketball and finishing possessions,” Florida coach Mike White said. “We’ve watched it. We watched the offensive rebounds we gave up. We did a defensive rebounding drill again. We’ll continue to stress it.” … Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza leads the SEC in assists (6.1 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.4-1) while ranking second in the league in steals per game (1.9). … Florida is facing a ranked team for the eighth time this season and are 5-2 against team. … Florida is 11-5 at home this season entering its home finale. … Kentucky has won four straight games, making 30 3-pointers during that span. … The game will be a homecoming of sorts for Kentucky freshman forward Kevin Knox, a Tampa native who is averaging a team-high 15.8 ppg. … Chiozza, grad senior forward Egor Koulechov and senior center John Egbunu will be honored before the game in Senior Day ceremonies.
— Kevin Brockway