Do you know me? Not likely. I was once the last man on the worst basketball team in the Big Ten. I was a freshman walk-on for Northwestern during the 1985-86 season, which meant I received no scholarship, practiced two hours a day, rarely made road trips and played a total of 3½ minutes for a team that would finish last in the conference with a 2-16 record, 8-20 overall.
In my senior year of high school I dreamed of becoming a college basketball star, and when I first got to Northwestern, my dreams were very much alive. I would be playing with Big Ten-caliber athletes who were above-average students and audacious enough to sign with a program that had had only one winning season since 1968-69. How good could the players be who met those criteria?
Plenty good. Despite my 6'5" frame and schoolboy all-state honors in Michigan, I found my abilities overshadowed by those of the other recruits. Still, I thought I had made coach Rich Falk's squad even before he held his annual tryout for walk-ons. During my senior year of high school in Grand Haven, Northwestern assistant coach Walt Perrin came to one of my games, and he later wrote to me that I had an "excellent chance" of making the squad.
A month later, when I visited Northwestern's campus just north of Chicago, I stopped in at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the home of the Wildcats. Perrin gave me a tour. We began on the arena floor. Eyeing the BIG TEN painted along the free throw line, I grabbed a ball and took a jump shot. Swish! Perrin tossed it back with a smile.
March 21, 1988
"So, can we expect you this fall?" he asked.
"Sure," I said. I sensed I belonged at Northwestern. I sensed I had a spot in the Big Ten.
I returned to campus as a student in September and had pretty much gotten into the routine of going to class well before the Oct. 30 open tryout. About 35 hopefuls showed up. Afterward, Perrin told me to report the next day—for practice. I had made the team.
The next afternoon I was issued practice gear, including a pair of purple and white high-tops. I tugged the laces tight against my feet to break in the leather, jabbed at the air like a prize fighter and then hustled onto the court to get my Big Ten career under way. Despite my enthusiasm, though, I wasn't considered a Big Ten player by any standard but my own. That became even clearer when Falk arranged to meet with each player to discuss his "role on the team." He didn't give me an appointment, but I went to see him anyway.
I waited outside Falk's office until he finished a meeting with another player. Falk studied me in silence for a moment, as if trying to recall my name, and then glanced at his watch and waved me in. "This will have to be quick. Chip," he said.
I had somehow expected that. "Don't put any pressure on yourself," he said as I sat down. "You just watch until you can run the drills."
But can I scrimmage, coach? Can I play?
"You don't go in until a coach tells you to," he said. "You can learn a lot on the sidelines, if you pay attention."
During the rest of the season, I often rode my bike to practice, pedaling furiously into the fierce winds that blew off Lake Michigan and babbling to myself like a madman to release my frustration. Inevitably I would start to think of foul shots. At the end of practice, every player shot a free throw. A miss meant a wind sprint for everyone. I always shot last, and whenever I stepped to the line, the other players would stare at me, as they silently demanded that I make the shot. I was angry with my teammates for thinking I would miss, and I was angry with Falk for not letting me play. At least I gained a reputation for accuracy at the line.
The insults and humiliation continued to build. I was told I could not be in the team photo. I wasn't even in the press guide. John Peterson, a graduate assistant who had received a full ride after walking on his freshman year, put things pretty plainly. "If the other players don't accept you, you're out of here," he said. "That goes for anybody, scholarship or not. What you've got to do is stand up and cheer all the time during the games. That's what your job is, and that's what Coach Falk is looking for."
I cheered for a while, but the guys who sat with me on the bench told me to knock off the rah-rah stuff, so I stopped. I did continue to applaud some players. One was Jeff Grose, who had been Indiana's Mr. Basketball in 1985. He always greeted me with a huge grin and his rich Indiana drawl: "Rooowe!"
On the other hand, I had a tough time cheering for 6'7", 220-pound Rocky Saviano. He threw a lot of elbows. During one workout I ran to grab a rebound and he snarled, "If you block me out, Rowe I'll kill ya." I was so startled I couldn't reply. If anything, Saviano's threat made me more determined, but my determination didn't make his elbows an) less sharp.
I still hoped to play in the daily scrimmages, although Falk's whistle signaling the end of drills continued to be my cue to head for the sideline. Falk would stand on the far side of the court, and I positioned myself directly opposite him so that he could see me at all times. Bu he said nothing.
After five weeks of practice, the sea son began. Our first game was at home against Illinois Wesleyan. When we held a 20-point lead late in the second half, I counted each tick of the clock with growing impatience. Milan Petrovic, my seatmate at the end of the bench, disappeared onto the floor with three minutes remaining. A minute later, Falk walked down to the end of the bench and knelt in front of me. "Go in for Joe," he said quietly.
The game crawled up and down the court as I waited at the scorer's table. Then, finally, the horn. "Into the game for the Wildcats—Number 12, Chip Rowe!" The pep band rose to cheer.
The clock read 1:07. That would be my longest appearance in a game all season. I touched the ball only once, and that was to throw it inbounds to Terry Buford so he could dribble down the floor and launch one. Nonetheless, getting to play felt fine.
Three games later I got in for three seconds against Loyola University of Chicago. I replaced Shon Morris, our leading scorer and rebounder, so the fans could give him an ovation. I was happy with even three seconds, because I would be in the box score.
In December the rest of the squad took a road trip to Rollins and Duke while I went home to Grand Haven for Christmas vacation. Before I left, Morris sought me out in the locker room to shake my hand and wish me a good Christmas. I thanked him. It was a gift like no other, a gesture that meant Morris considered me among his teammates.
I worked on my game every day during the holiday and went through the drills in that first practice after vacation with an air of supreme confidence. I was sure I would get to scrimmage, because we were running a simple offense. Yet an hour later, when Falk blew his whistle to end practice, I had not moved from the sideline. Already the old frustrations were squeezing the life from new beginnings.
Our Big Ten home opener was against Indiana on Jan. 9. We lost 102-65 and would lose again and again, all over the Midwest and at home. It was difficult to be the only player who didn't see action in a 37-point defeat.
We were 0-5 in the conference by the time Iowa came to town on Jan. 23. I had yet to play a Big Ten minute, so before the game my roommate and his friends in the pep band raised a banner that read THE CHIP ROWE FAN CLUB and chanted: "Play Chip Rowe! Play Chip Rowe!" I ducked my head to hide a grin.
Falk sent me in with 38 seconds left. I got a rousing ovation from the band, and it did my heart good. Then, with six seconds to play...time stopped. A shot bounced off the rim, hit the backboard and hung in midair. I reached, reached, and suddenly a cement truck plowed into my back. The ball soared out of bounds, and a whistle blew. I spun around and found the official pointing at the guilty 6'6", 225-pound Iowa sophomore standing behind me. A foul! I would go to the line.
I checked our bonus sign on the scoreboard over center court. It wasn't lit. It takes seven team fouls in a half to create a one-and-one situation; the one on me was only No. 6 for the Hawkeyes since intermission. My chance to score in the Big Ten had slipped away, but I did get credit for a rebound.
Iowa won 76-43, but I was more than satisfied. I finally had a Big Ten stat; no longer would my name be followed by a humiliating row of zeros. From that day on, I was a Big Ten player. I had a board, a Kareem, a rip.... After the final horn, I paused at the thought of our 0-6 record before seeking out Perrin.
"One more foul and I had a couple of free throws for us, coach," I said as solemnly as I could. He didn't reply, and I knew I had said the wrong thing. We had been blown out for the third game in a row, and here I was excited because I got fouled. Bad form.
Our next two games were special to me. They were to be played in my home state, at Michigan and Michigan State. Furthermore, I was going to make my first trip with the team.
We left for Ann Arbor on Jan. 29. I chose a seat near the front of the bus, and as each player passed he looked twice and exclaimed: "Look, Rowe's making the trip!" Everything was O.K. I was on a Big Ten basketball team about to play in front of 13,609 people.
Of course, nowhere near that many were left by the time I got in, but it was a start. We lost to Michigan by 37 points and to Michigan State by 28. During one timeout against the Spartans, I looked into the crowd and met the stare of a small boy behind our bench. Despite the score, his eyes were full of admiration. I had to look away before my own filled with tears.
Thanks to Minnesota, which had forfeited its Jan. 26 game with us because of an alleged rape involving players from the Minnesota team (who were later acquitted), our conference record was now 1-8 instead of 0-9. Then we lost seven of eight games, beating only a diminished Minnesota team. Two days before our final game, against Wisconsin. I had a poor practice. Nevertheless, Falk told me to "stick with it."
"I will, coach," I said. I wanted to sink a long jumper and have Falk ask if I would be back. I wanted to run the fast break and hear him clap his hands and say, "That's the way! That's the way!"
But it was too late—for both of us. We lost to Wisconsin by a basket, and five days later, Falk learned his contract wasn't going to be renewed.
In October 1986, the new coach, Bill Foster, held his walk-on tryouts. My heart wasn't in them, but my dream had somehow survived the summer, and I wondered if things might be different under another coach. After the tryout, Foster led a dozen hopefuls into the locker room for some final comments. I was one of them.
Once inside, I sat down and leaned against my old locker. The padlock was gone, and the purple door was closed on an empty cage. My nameplate had been removed, leaving only a rectangle of sticky residue. The cushioned folding chair with CHIP ROWE painted on the back was nowhere to be seen.
The next day I returned to check the list, to see who had made the team. My name wasn't there.
Chip Rowe is a junior at Northwestern, where he is majoring in journalism.