Custer’s next stand

Former Loyola basketball star Clayton Custer is back on the court—but now he's helping other players reach new heights.

By Adam Doster

Clayton Custer in the Ramblers locker room.

When asked what’s hardest about watching games from the sidelines, former Ramblers star Clayton Custer doesn’t equivocate: it’s suppressing the urge to check himself in at the scorer’s table. It’s only been a few years since Custer—now the director of player development for the Loyola University Chicago men’s basketball team—was knocking down game-winning tournament jumpers and chalking up wins. Swapping his sneakers for slacks and a clipboard isn’t necessarily a desirable trade. “I’m still young!” he says. “I feel like I can still get out there and play.”

Coaching, though, offers its own pleasures and rushes. Custer is adapting quickly. In his first year, he thinks of himself as head coach Porter Moser’s utility player. He breaks down game film, handles admin duties off the court, monitors player academic progress, and generally “tries to make the rest of the staff look good.” Moser leans on Custer when he wants the perspective of a recent player. Did you like running that play? Is that a good time to practice? Custer, in turn, passes along hard-earned wisdom to some of Loyola’s newer additions, those still internalizing the arcane terminology and serious expectations. “That’s one of my favorite parts about being in this line of business,” he says. “It’s getting to know the guys and having a relationship with them and being there whenever they need me.”

Clayton Custer watches as Coach Porter Moser embraces Lucas Williamson after winning the Missouri Valley Conference title. (Photo: Lukas Keapproth)
Clayton Custer watches as Coach Porter Moser embraces Lucas Williamson after winning the Missouri Valley Conference title. (Photo: Lukas Keapproth)

Custer’s route back to Gentile Arena wasn’t straight. After graduating from the Quinlan School of Business with an MBA in 2019, the point guard played professionally overseas for a few months before his Polish club bought out his contract. Back in Chicago, he landed a job as a financial representative in wealth management with Northwestern Mutual. He learned plenty and appreciated the stability, but found he wasn’t waking up every day enthusiastic about the work. Shaking off basketball—the organizing principle of his life for two decades—proved more difficult than he expected. Without it, he didn’t feel like himself.

After nine months and a few conversations with Moser, he stepped back full-time onto the hardwood. It speaks well of the program Moser has built that Custer would want back in, especially starting at one of the lower rungs. The parties are finding the arrangement mutually beneficial. “We grind at Loyola,” Custer says. “As players, we worked hard and practiced hard. On the staff, it’s the same thing. We’ll be the most prepared staff and prepared team every time we step out there.”

This team’s 2021 postseason run has been exciting and gratifying, if surreal. Since the Ramblers arrived in Indianapolis for the NCAA tournament, they’re doing their best to stay focused inside the “bubble” of their hotel complex, an unusual wrinkle of life in a pandemic. Each team occupies their own floor, and they practice on courts erected inside a convention center. Fresh air is hard to come by. Occasionally, though, the NCAA arranges socially distanced outings. On Wednesday, the Ramblers teed off at TopGolf. The night before, 48 hours after knocking off Illinois in the second round, they stopped by the Indianapolis Zoo. Rambunctious rhinos were the highlight. “There were a couple getting into a fight it looked like,” Custer says. “They were hitting horns and stuff, which was cool to see.”

For a new staff member prepping for some of the biggest games in school history, there have also been plenty of early mornings and late nights. Custer thrives on the pressure. And he’s buoyed by the messages that float into the group chat he maintains with his old Loyola teammates. In his phone, it’s labeled SQUAD. “These days,” he says, “we’re typing in all caps.”