Story by Matthew Yoder – Ace Custis is a man who has called many places home over the course of his career. The profession of basketball has led him all over the globe, but his new job brings him back to one of the places that made all this travel and success possible. Custis recently accepted a position at his alma mater, Virginia Tech, to serve as coordinator of basketball relations, and one more time, come home.
Custis grew up in Eastville and played basketball for Northampton High School. He graduated in 1992.
“A lot has changed at the school, but a lot is still the same, it still feels like home,” said Custis. “This is the place that gave me the opportunity to further my career, it is a great time to be a Hokie.”
Custis, who spent the past six seasons as an assistant coach, first at Virginia State University in Petersburg, and recently for five seasons at division one University of Maryland Eastern Shore, will assume new roles at Virginia Tech. The position will be a departure from the hands-on qualities of coaching, but will present opportunities for player development in other ways.
“It’s another angle of getting to the players,” Custis said. “I’m gonna miss recruiting, miss being on the court, but I can talk about life away from basketball, talk about things the players can do now to set up their lives and free up the coaches to coach.”
Custis enters the position with a wealth of experience to draw from. In addition to his coaching resume, Custis was an accomplished player not only at Virginia Tech, but also professionally, playing predominantly in burgeoning overseas leagues.
In college he was the third player in Hokie history to tally 1,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds and is currently third in career rebounds, seventh in steals, and 11th in scoring. He helped lead Virginia Tech to the 1995 NIT Championship.
Custis is not one to speak about his personal achievements, but when the Hokies enter the court for practice they will know of his impact on the school by his number 20 hanging in the rafters of Cassell Coliseum.
Custis’ mantra will undeniably be hard work yields results. All his gains in basketball were a product of effort. “I was an energy guy, a hustle guy, when I played I competed,” Custis said. Strong rebounding helped Custis receive more playing time, and more exposure on the court was always to his benefit. Virginia Tech’s players will be wise to heed his advice. Custis, himself, was always told to “ride basketball as long as you can.”
“I tell people all the time I felt like I wasn’t working,” said Custis. “I played because I loved the game.”
From the talk of coaches he worked under, it seems as though he coached for love of the game as well. Custis is highly regarded by the coaches he has left behind. He first assisted Lonnie Blow at Virginia State University.
“I hired him going into the ’13-’14 season, he was trying to find his niche after playing overseas basketball,” Blow said.
Blow recounted stories of players wanting to challenge Ace one-on-one.
He laughed when describing the outcome of these tests.
“Ace was still playing, a lot of guys wanted to challenge him but he’s a different animal,” said Blow. “He more than held his own. That’s what they needed, getting embarrassed by Ace.”
Custis humbly brushed aside his victories in such contests, saying, “You’ve got to show by example.”
Although he only coached one season at Virginia State, Blow credits Custis for contributing to a seismic shift at the school. “Ace did a tremendous job getting the program off the ground, he helped changed the culture, the mentality,” said Blow.
Coach Blow’s team continues to gain attention moving forward, and he still thanks Ace.
Blow regarded Custis so highly that when a position opened at University of Maryland Eastern Shore he talked to Bobby Collins, saying, “You’ve gotta take him.”
“I hated to lose him, he has a passion for what he does, but it was a bigger job, a step up, and closer to home,” said Blow.
Upon accepting this position Ace did come home to the Shore, closer to his lifelong idol, Barbara Ruffin, his mother.
“My role models have always been the people I can touch,” Custis said.
Number one was undeniably his mother.
“She instilled hard work in me, she worked two jobs, and in her I knew you had to work for anything in life,” said Custis.
For five seasons Custis’ home was with the Hawks in Princess Anne. His boss, athletic director Keith Davidson, also spoke highly of his contributions to the school.
“He is a quality person, the strength that he brought us was that he was very hands-on with the athletes, he’s a great teacher,” Davidson said.
“We’re extremely happy for coach Custis, he has a great attitude and a wealth of knowledge.”
That wealth of knowledge will draw heavily on his playing time overseas. Custis played in Lebanon, Japan, Qatar, Indonesia, Syria, and the Philippines, and described the level of play as highly competitive.
“Once you got on the court there was no barrier,” Custis said. “You had to do everything on your own and be self-disciplined. It’s your livelihood and you’ve gotta do it.”
Basketball has become such a global affair that often Custis was not only competing against great college players from the States going abroad, but also the best players in the countries he suited up in.
“Lebanon was extremely competitive, every country was competitive, internationally the game has improved dramatically, the gap is rapidly decreasing,” said Custis.
Custis’s goal is to bridge the gap here, with the group of athletes coming up through the ranks at Virginia Tech and he will surely approach every player with the same respect and mentality.
“I treat everyone the same, starter or walk-on, I tell them leave everything on the court and be a great teammate,” said Custis.
His return to Virginia Tech comes at a time when basketball at the college level is expanding exponentially. The position Custis holds now was not around in his days, and athletes now have a lot more outlets for skill development. Often, however, simplifying the game gets to the root of what Custis believes makes players better.
“Being competitive in practice made the games easier for me. The only thing I can control is my effort, and success depends on bringing it all together,” said Custis.
Custis will miss the court time with the players, but his ability to impact their lives in a positive way seems secure in the nature of his position, and in his interactions with the athletes Custis too has hopes for his own longevity.
“It keeps me young being around the kids, keeps me in the loop,” Custis said. Virginia Tech welcomes number 20 home.