ATLANTA -- Sunday, Tim Henderson sits as an immortal in the annals of Louisville basketball, a character from Hoosiers transposed into Bluegress reality by virtue of his back-to-back three-pointers that helped the Cardinals rally past Wichita State and make the national title game.
The subject of a week's worth of "Can he play?" speculation as a sidebar to national coverage of teammate Kevin Ware's gruesome leg fracture, Henderson lived out the consummate athlete dream. On the biggest stage of his life, given the biggest opportunity of his life, he splashed the two biggest shots of his life and emerged a hero.
His sudden star turn cast a fresh light on the role of walk-ons, especially at major basketball programs. As unlikely a story as Henderson has authored in the Georgia Dome, his path to this point is pretty well-traveled. A local who gave up lower-division options elsewhere to be any part of the team he's loved since he was a young kid, Henderson has paid his own way for three years of school. His journey as a Cardinal started in much the same anonymous way as every walk-on you've never heard of.
"I actually didn't know I was on the team until Elisha Justice -- 'The Bullet' -- was in there," Henderson said. "I knew he was a recruit and he came in. I was sitting there playing open gym with the guys. ... Coach P called me over, and goes 'Tim, this is Elijah.' I said 'How's it going?' He said, 'this is your roommate.' That's how I found out. I was like 'So wait, am I on the team now?'"
That was late summer of 2010, and yes, Henderson was now part of the Cardinals.
In an ironic twist, Henderson's ascension to Commonwealth folklore may never have happened had Justice not left the program after last season. Justice's grandfather, to whom Elisha had grown up next door, had taken ill. Justice, a prep hero in his hometown, elected to transfer to NAIA Pikeville to be closer to family. The exit of Justice, who played more than 10 minutes a game as a freshman before having his playing time trimmed in half last season (albeit still making 25 appearances), moved Henderson up a spot in the pecking order, so when Ware went down, Henderson was the next body standing.
The reaction to a walk-on co-headlining the Final Four marquee has been profound. Henderson has tried to be as humble as possible, but his teammates are reveling in his attention. Henderson said Logan Baumann, a fellow walk-on, gave him a huge hug when he walked into their hotel room last night. In Saturday's media session, starting forward Chane Behanan said Henderson was now "being carried on thrones, by beautiful women." When asked whether Henderson would share those perks with his fellow walk-ons, freshman Jordan Bond laughed and said "Tim's a selfish guy. He's going to keep that all to himself," before adding "No, he deserves it. He's earned all of that for himself."
Henderson's shots even resonated with at least one of the players he helped beat. In the quiet Wichita State locker room after Saturday's tough loss, Ron Baker -- who paid his own way as a redshirt last season before moving onto scholarship this year -- took a minute to describe the impact of Henderson's shots for a player in his position.
"It's a pretty special feeling," Baker said. "I mean, it was on the Final Four stage. I feel it a little bit, too. Couple years back, no one thought I would be in this position, so I know what that kid's feeling like. He hit some big-time shots. You gotta give him credit. He toed the line and knocked them in."
With two days of unexpected media swarms around his locker in Louisville's dressing room, Henderson tried his best to deflect praise while answering even the most bizarre inquiries about his marksmanship. He even allowed that as a kid, he had an outdoor basket at his family's home, which was located on 10 acres of property, so maybe the vast backdrop he shot into day after day made the Dome environment easier. Of course, there's almost no way that had any effect, but it's a good story and adds to his legend.
What Henderson really has done, though, is provide tangible proof for any walk-on that the seemingly impossible is possible. All most of these kids want is a chance simply to be on the team they love, and help the starters and rotation guys improve and prosper. Maybe as a younger kid, they dreamed of things like what Henderson did Saturday, but in actuality? Walk-ons basically know their role. They are to practice hard, cheerlead harder and enjoy the ride.
After Henderson's threes and Louisville's comeback, college basketball's ultimate dreamers now have something on which to cling, a sliver of hope they, too, can one day be Tim Henderson. They can be a hero in a big game, maybe a Final Four. But through all this attention, Henderson remains the humble walk-on he is.
"Mike [Baffour] was just over there all excited for me, but if Mike was called into the game, he would have done the same thing, I think," Henderson said. "I don't know. I've been here for three years. I've gotten to guard all the best players. I've guarded Russ for two years. I've guarded Preston Knowles. So I've been through it all. I've been here lifting for three years, so I'm ahead of him because this is [the freshmen's] first year. But if they were here for three years, I could see them doing the same."
Henderson's moment is a win for walk-ons everywhere. He'll always have this memory, even if he thinks it could have been anyone else's. And everyone else can believe they can have one of their own.