BATON ROUGE, La. – The YouTube video is simply titled “Tallest Tuba Player I've Ever Seen.”
Uploaded in November 2009, it shows the Louisiana State marching band filing out of Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., after a football game. The scene is relatively unremarkable until about 27 seconds into the video, when the aforementioned tuba player turns the corner and comes into view, towering above his bandmates and the crowd. One man can be heard off-camera asking: “Wow. Is he on the basketball team?”
The answer then was no. Three years later, it is yes. The tuba player, the 7-foot-3 Andrew Del Piero, made his first start at center for LSU in a victory against Seton Hall on Nov. 29. His statistics were unremarkable – 2 points, 2 rebounds and 1 blocked shot – but what was remarkable was the series of events that led him to that moment.
When Del Piero was a freshman at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, a school that counts the NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees and Nick Foles among its graduates, he was already tall for his age.
He played on the Westlake basketball team for one season, but was not really good, nor did he enjoy it all that much.
“I was really uncoordinated when I was younger and I got discouraged,” Del Piero said. “It wasn't what I wanted to do. At the time, anyway.”
Del Piero chose to focus on music. While he may have resembled an awkward, gangly puppy on the basketball court, Del Piero found he had a talent on the tuba. “Things were just going better for me in that aspect of my life,” he said.
Del Piero grew to almost 7 feet by the time he was a high school senior, but said he never really had any desire to give basketball another try nor did he feel much pressure from others to play.
“A lot of people at school had seen me play, and they knew that I wasn't a basketball player,” Del Piero said.
His tuba playing continued to progress, however, and he earned a music scholarship to LSU, which has one of the country's best collegiate music programs.
“He was of two tuba players we brought in from Texas that year who were over 7 feet tall, and both of their names were Andrew,” Roy King, the LSU band director, said about Del Piero and Andrew Stephenson, still a member of the Tigers' band. “He was musically talented. He was academically talented. He was a good student, a good person of high moral character. So he had all the attributes that you're looking for in a musician to be in the Tiger band and to be a music major in the School of Music.”
But when he arrived on campus, Del Piero began feeling the pressure to play basketball he rarely felt at Westlake. It did not help that LSU's basketball program has struggled in recent years.
“On game days here, it kind of turned into a big deal,” Del Piero said. “A lot of people saying things like, 'Hey why aren't you on the basketball team?' and heckling me and stuff.”
Before one football game, a man dressed in a Big Bird costume walked next to Del Piero as the band marched to the stadium. One day during his freshman year, while dining out with his then-girlfriend, Del Piero was approached by Collis Temple, a former LSU basketball player who had two sons, Collis III and Garrett, who also went on to play for the team.
“He came up and said, 'The coach would love to have someone like you on the basketball team,”' Del Piero said. “He sort of put the idea in my head.”
Del Piero then began making occasional trips to the student recreation center on campus to participate in pickup games. The more he played, the better he became, eventually dominating games against his fellow students. His confidence began to soar.
“I felt like an all-star at the rec,” Del Piero said with a smile. “I was dunking on people. I felt like I was Shaq at the rec center. So here I am thinking I was pretty good from my time playing at the rec center, and the seed had been planted a couple of years earlier from the meeting with Collis Temple.”
By the time he was a junior, he wanted to present himself as a candidate to join the basketball team. Not really sure how to go about doing that, Del Piero said that he contacted an LSU basketball player on Facebook. Then, after finding out the names of the coaches and the location of the basketball offices, Del Piero stopped by to introduce himself. Soon after, he signed paperwork allowing him to join the team as a walk-on, a step that meant he had to give up his music scholarship.
He quickly realized that he was no longer at the rec center.
“The workouts were really tough for me,” Del Piero said. “Everyone was just bigger and stronger and faster, and I wasn't used to running up and down the floor at all. It was a reality check for me.”
He took a redshirt year, and then, in his first season under the then-coach Trent Johnson, Del Piero played a total of 12 minutes. So when Johnny Jones took over as coach in the spring, he was presented with a quandary: What to do with the giant former tuba player? Was he worth offering a scholarship?
“I wasn't sure if he would be able to make the type of progress he needed to make to help us,” Jones said. “We just weren't sure if the coordination was there, if the desire was there.”
Del Piero, however, worked on his coordination and his on-court skills during the offseason, impressing his new coach with his commitment and earning a scholarship.
“He's clearly the most improved guy we have on the basketball team,” Jones said. “He's the most improved guy from Day 1 up until today. We're really pleased with him.”
Jones added that Del Piero had earned the respect of his once-skeptical teammates – now “his biggest fans.” “They are so happy for him,” Jones said. “They cheer for him, not just in games, but also in practice. He's earned a great deal of respect from them.”
And so it came to be that Del Piero made the first start of his basketball career against Seton Hall, a little more than three years since the YouTube video of him was posted. Del Piero's unexpected rise has even inspired LSU fans to create the Twitter hashtag, (HASHTAG)tubapower.
“The big thing I want people to understand is that it's not a circus act with him,” Jones said of Del Piero. “He's started and has had the opportunity to play several minutes because of the hard work he's put in.”
Del Piero said that he hoped to get the chance to play basketball professionally, perhaps in Europe, but he has not put down his tuba for good. Del Piero said that he would eventually like to return to music, perhaps even make a career of it by playing in an orchestra. For now, however, his focus remains on the court, a development that seems to surprise even him.
“I can't really believe it sometimes,” Del Piero said. “If you'd have asked me five years ago what I'd see myself doing, this certainly wouldn't have been it at all.”