Despite being a BC walk-on, Peter Rehnquist already has scored his first college points. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Justin A. Rice Globe Correspondent / January 4, 2010
James Rehnquist surprised his band of five basketball-crazed children 10 years ago, taking them to shoot on the “highest court in the land’’ - the gymnasium located above the chamber of the United States Supreme Court.
The kids’ grandfather, William H., the 16th chief justice of the Supreme Court, served more than 33 years on the bench and was known to preside over sharp-elbowed games on the basketball court.
This fall, Peter Rehnquist had a surprise of his own for his father: He had earned a roster spot on the Boston College basketball team as a walk-on.
A 6-foot-4-inch sophomore who starred at Sharon High, Rehnquist is thrilled with the opportunity to carve out a role on the Eagles’ scout team and sit at the end of the bench.
“The first couple days were tough,’’ he said. “I’d never been dunked on before and the first three days of practice I got dunked on. This is Division 1!’’
Rehnquist helped power Sharon to back-to-back appearances in the Division 2 state tournament before averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds per game in a postgraduate year at Deerfield Academy. He had his sights on Division 3 ball, like his father, who starred at Amherst in the 1970s.
James Rehnquist collected 1,512 points during an All-America career at Amherst, then knocked around semipro leagues in Europe.
While attending law school at Boston University, he coached Thayer Academy, including an undefeated season and NEPSAC championship in 1986.
“Jim is an amazing individual. He’s totally amazing,’’ said Sharon High boys’ coach Bruce Jackman. “I still get some of his youth league kids and they do a great job.
“He and his wife are two of the most supportive parents I’ve ever seen.’’
Peter says he considers going into coaching, even if it is just coaching his children’s teams, like his father did when he was growing up.
At one point, James simultaneously coached all five of his children despite being a partner at Goodwin Procter LLP in Boston. He even attended all of Peter’s freshman games at Sharon High that tapped off at 3:30 p.m.
Peter’s younger brother, Tomas, made the varsity at Roxbury Latin as a sophomore this season. His sister, Grace, a freshman guard at Williams, is the second-leading scorer for the Ephs.
“I had to get the UNIVAC out to crunch the scheduling numbers to see how many games I could go to,’’ James said.
“My wife [Anna] and I figured out we could cover pretty much all the games and even go to some together.’’
Peter Rehnquist bypassed Division 3, deciding to attend a larger university and focus on academics. But he missed organized basketball during his freshman year when he caught on with a friend’s intramural team.
“We lost to the football team in the finals,’’ said Rehnquist. “They had a 6-7 receiver [Ifeanyi Momah] guarding me, so it was pretty tough.’’
In April, on a lark, he sent an e-mail to Eagles assistant coach Mo Cassara, inquiring about trying out for the men’s team.
“They were very receptive, I was amazed,’’ said Rehnquist.
Cassara asked him to attend summer workouts. In the fall, head coach Al Skinner invited him to join the team.
He got on the floor for two minutes against Dartmouth in the season-opener Nov. 13 and then ripped down a rebound the following game in a three-minute stint against Saint Francis, earning knee-buckling praise from his friends in the student section.
His only career basket, a hard drive in the final 30 seconds of a 72-46 win over Bryant Dec. 20, sent his teammates on the bench into a frenzy.
“It was pretty loud. It was during break, so it was a smaller crowd than usual but a couple of my family members were up to see, so it was pretty cool,’’ he said, adding that his father, who makes most games, was away on business. “He was a little upset. I told him I’d score another one for him next time he comes if I get in.
“Luckily it went in,’’ he said. “One of my friends sent me a text message saying, ‘You’ve scored more NCAA points than Kobe [Bryant], Dirk [Nowitzki], and Kevin Garnett combined.’ ’’
For Rehnquist, who was a high school center, his biggest challenge is learning BC’s system on the fly. As a scout team player, he also has to learn opponents’ offenses and defenses. Although Rehnquist said he relies on his mind to make up for his lack of athleticism, Skinner said he wouldn’t be on the team if he couldn’t keep up.
“It’s one of the more difficult positions to be in because walk-ons get as much criticism as anyone else, as much heat as anyone else, but don’t get any glory because they don’t get a chance to get on the floor [a lot],’’ Skinner said. “You have to have a tremendous love for the game to be in this type of environment. Obviously he appreciates that and has been a good teammate.
“When he does play, he wants to fit in and that’s the real challenge, to be part of it, so when he does participate, he doesn’t hurt the team.’’
Nobody can accuse Rehnquist of taking advantage of the family name. Skinner, in fact, was surprised to learn of his background.
Off the court, he has had to adjust to juggling his academic load around four practices and two games per week. After returning from the Eagles’ trip to Michigan at 3 a.m. in early December, that morning he had to make up a psychology test given while the team was in the Virgin Islands for a tournament the previous week.
The Virgin Islands trip was well worth it, however, as he ran into Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, a Sharon native, in the hotel elevator.
“I actually thought, ‘What happens if I run into Bruce Pearl in the elevator? I gotta mention I’m from Sharon, Mass.,’ ’’ said Rehnquist.
James Rehnquist said he never pressured his children to play basketball or go to law school, saying he doesn’t want to encourage something that’s not there or discourage something that is.
Although he’s never mentioned it to his father, Peter Rehnquist sees the law in his future.
“It’s never like you have to live up to the Rehnquist legacy or anything like that,’’ said Peter, who nevertheless inherited his granddad’s competitive spirit. “We’d play croquet and he’d try to get in our heads while we were playing the game. He’d always win somehow, too.
“He was really competitive, that’s where we get our nature from.’’
Attending the Clinton impeachment and Bush v. Gore hearings was just a sidebar to an otherwise normal relationship.
“To us, he was our grandfather, not the chief justice,’’ Peter said.
William Rehnquist died Sept. 3, 2005, after presiding as chief justice for nearly 19 years, the fourth-longest tenure in history.
“Some kids last year went on Wikipedia and quizzed me on my grandfather because they didn’t believe me,’’ Peter said.
His father, however, couldn’t avoid the long shadow of the highest magistrate in the land.
“The attention is good for my ego,’’ James told People magazine during his junior season at Amherst in 1976, “but I realize that part of it is because of my old man, and that bothers me. I also think the constant puns about both of us being on the court and the bench are juvenile.’’
James also told People he chose Amherst after drinking free beer at a frat house.
When asked if his son chose Boston College in the same manner, he said, “God, I hope not. I think he had a lot more maturity than his father.’’