Do walk-ons shower after games in which they have not played? I posed this to James Gaddy, a Georgia Tech guard whose reward for about 20,000 minutes of practice last season was six minutes of game action.
"Of course we shower up after the game," he said a trifle defensively. "We've warmed up harder than anybody."
I met Gaddy last winter on a nationwide walk-on tour, a two-week immersion in the universe of the nonscholarship college basketball player—the guy who discovers after a game that his elbows have left indentations in the flesh above his knees, the guy who speed-reads his team's schedule in the preseason muttering, "Close game. Close game. Blowout—I might play. Close game. Blowout...."
Thereafter, at Gaddy's suggestion, I paid closer attention to my subjects in pregame warmups. Gaddy was right. Walk-ons hustle, make crisp passes and grimly bury their layups. Stars and other starters are more inclined to scope the cheerleaders, case the arena for family and friends, throw down experimental dunks. Most walk-ons would not think of risking a dunk in warmups (on the slim chance that they could dunk). If a walk-on attempts to dunk and fails, or clangs a layup off the front of the rim, he fears that you, the spectator, will think, That guy belongs on the court as much as I do.
November 25, 1991
Bunk. Walk-ons had sparkling high school careers and enjoy a certain fame in their hometowns. They could be big fish in Division III ponds, could be breaking scoring records, could be swaggering around campus and having beers bought for them. Walk-ons, however, tend to have big dreams and little masochistic streaks. They have opted to become amoebas in the ocean of Division I, to plunge their parents into mammoth hock by playing without a scholarship at a big-name basketball school instead of taking a free ride at a lesser place.
Why? Former Creighton walk-on Porter Moser answers for the fraternity of 600 or so nonscholarship players now taking charges and diving for loose balls in big-time programs across the country. He says, "I didn't want to be some 40-year-old on a bar stool saying, 'Yeah, I could've played Division I ball.' "
But walk-on need not be a synonym for scrub:
•In the summer of 1981, the man destined to become the patron saint of walk-ons, Jeff Hornacek, had just graduated from Lyons Township High in LaGrange, Ill. Hornacek, a 6'4" guard, wanted to attend Cornell, but he fouled up his chances by not applying for admission until July, too late to be considered for the fall semester. After working several months for a paper cup company, Hornacek was invited by Iowa State to give hoops another chance—provided, of course, that he pay his own tuition.
Hornacek enrolled at Iowa State for the spring semester of 1982 and worked out with the Cyclones at point guard. Coach Johnny Orr scared up a scholarship for Hornacek for the fall of '82 and played him sparingly in the early part of the '82-83 season. Then, to shake the Cyclones out of some mid-season doldrums, Orr started Hornacek in a TV game against Oklahoma State. Hornacek played 40 minutes and was named player of the game. "After that he never came out," says Iowa State assistant coach Ric Wesley. Hornacek was elected co-captain his junior and senior years and set Big Eight assists records of 108 for one season and 337 for a career. For the last four seasons he has been the Phoenix Suns' starting shooting guard.
•Freddy Hunter was right under Michigan coach Steve Fisher's nose and would have stayed there, unnoticed, but for Dave Balza. Two summers ago Hunter, a 6'5", 195-pound intramural player who had just finished his sophomore year at Michigan, was toying with opponents at the Gus Macker three-on-three tournament in Ypsilanti, Mich. Balza, a student manager for the Wolverines' basketball team, spotted Hunter and advised him to try out for the varsity.
Fisher was at first reluctant to let Hunter audition—too many bodies make for cluttered drills—but that reluctance dissolved after one practice. "Freddy won all of our hearts," says Michigan assistant Jay Smith. "He left his guts on the floor every day." Hunter started 12 games last season, averaged 3.6 points a game and became a defensive terror.
Says Hunter of his most memorable game during his "freshman" season: "We went down to Columbus to play Ohio State. They were ranked Number 2. It was Big Monday on ESPN. I saw Dick Vitale hanging around. I was pretty excited." Hunter blocked three shots in helping the Wolverines stay with the Buckeyes for the first half; after that, Ohio State pulled away. "Even though we lost, I couldn't help being a little happy, considering I'd been playing intramurals a year before," he says.
•In 1987, Keith Owens was a 6'5" forward-center at Birmingham High in Encino, Calif. He'd gotten feelers from coaches at Hawaii and Cal Poly-Pomona, but they backed off when Owens had two poor games in the Los Angeles city playoffs. So he walked on at UCLA, grew two inches, improved his offensive skills and ended up lettering for four years. Last season he was a Bruin co-captain, averaged 6.3 points and 5.3 rebounds a game, blocked an extraordinary 61 shots and yielded the quintessential image of life as a walk-on. Recalling the ostracism he endured during his first weeks with the team, Owens said, "At the beginning the feeling was like all the players were enclosed by a fence, and I was hanging on the fence, trying to get in."
Owens, Hunter and Hornacek all got in. They're the exceptions. Most walk-ons make their teams but remain somehow outside them, hanging on Owens's metaphoric fence—often excluded from the training table and from travel to away games, given no recognition and very little playing time. Walk-ons suffer countless petty slights that mock the bromide of so many coaches that "every player on this team is an equal." Walk-ons know better than anyone that some players are more equal than others. Those who don't like it are free to walk off. Few do.
"I looked at it this way," says Owens of his freshman year. "O.K., so I'm not playing much. I've got the best seat in the house."
Owens played so rarely as a freshman that he calculated his points and rebounds by the minute rather than by the game. Before big conference games he and some other UCLA pine-riders would contemplate wearing street clothes under their warmups. But by last Feb. 1, the day before the Bruins hosted Pittsburgh, he had been an integral squad member for two seasons. Coach Jim Harrick described Owens as "the best post defender we have—a real force for us."
Walk-ons get minute(s), I: To accommodate a national telecast, the UCLA-Pitt game started at 10:30 a.m. Owens got in with just under seven minutes gone in the first half, fouled the Panthers' Brian Shorter twice in four minutes and got the hook. In the second half, Owens was whistled for three more fouls in the space of 58 seconds. After committing number five, he spiked his mouthpiece, which rebounded off the hardwood a good eight feet in the air. It was his most memorable athletic feat of the-day. Maybe he's just not a morning person.
"LOOOOO! LOOOOO!" The Pauley Pavilion crowd took up this insistent chant with 3:31 to play. Two minutes later their call was answered: A lusty cheer erupted when a scrawny, begoggled point guard named Lou Richie checked into the game with the score 106-83 in UCLA's favor. Richie was a freshman walk-on from Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High. He was also known, he said happily, as the Legend of the Wooden Center, the student recreational facility to which he often repaired between practices and games, the better to keep his skills sharp. Richie was popular because of his Mars Blackmonesque stature and his walk-on status. Having made the team, he embodied the daydreams of every hack with a high school varsity letter who has played shirts-and-skins at the rec center.
Richie wanted to be more than fodder for daydreams, though. He wanted a scholarship, and he hoped to succeed starting point guard Darrick Martin, who was a junior. But even as the Bruin coaches told Richie how pleased they were with his play, they were pitching major league woo with Tyus Edney, a senior at Long Beach Poly High and the top-rated prep point guard in the West. Richie insisted he was not upset by the coaches' love affair with Edney. "All I ask is that we be graded on the court," he said after the Pitt game. After making some small talk and signing an autograph for a 40ish woman—"My daughter and I admire your attitude very much, Lou," she said—Richie politely excused himself. The minute and change of playing time he had gotten against the Panthers was insufficient. He was off to the Wooden Center to see if he could get in a game.
Logging the same amount of garbage time as Richie was Pitt's Brian Brush. "This is a pretty big thrill for me," the 6'5" forward had said before walking on to the Pauley court. "I mean, this place is like some kind of, temple." As a senior at Sharpsville (Pa.) High in 1988-89, Brush had entertained offers from frostbelt schools like Lehigh and Colgate. Brush thought he was better than the Patriot League, however, and he called Pitt to offer his services. Coach Paul Evans, in dire need of bodies—he had signed five Prop 48s—welcomed Brush to walk on. As a freshman, with just 11 other players on Pitt's team, Brush actually broke a sweat once in a while. By last year, however, the Pitt roster was back up to 17 players, and Brush's playing time was way down.
"I knew my time was going to decrease, and I accepted it," Brush said recently. "I'm a realist. I'd sulk, but there are enough people around here who are going to sulk anyway."
Walk-ons get minute(s), II: The Panthers were down 106-83 with 1:33 to play when Evans thoughtfully inserted Brush. "Now entering the game for Pitt," intoned Don Sawyer over the Pauley public-address system, "Brian Bush."
Bush/Brush made his presence felt right away. He tugged down an offensive rebound, pump-faked and went right back up with the ball—to the delight of UCLA's 6'9" Rodney Zimmerman, who tomahawked the ball into Brush's larynx. On the Panthers' next possession Brush scrapped for yet another offensive board and went right back up with it. Zimmerman flicked this offering into the Bruin pep band. Later, Brush ended up with a loose ball in the paint near the Pitt basket and passed it back outside. Walk-ons are quick studies.
Walk-ons range from a very few starters to some first or second guys off the bench to a whole lot of catastrophe players or WBPs (Warm Bodies for Practice), a category in which Georgia Tech's Gaddy unashamedly includes himself. So do others. "Lends depth to Tech's backcourt" was the five-word assessment of Gaddy's hoops talent in the 1990-91 Tech media guide. Has a player's presence on the roster ever subtracted depth? "Well, what do you want me to write?" whined Mike Stamus, who composes Tech's media-guide bios. "That he's got limited talent? That he's not an ACC-caliber player?" That he was a team manager in the right place at the right time?
At a preseason practice in 1989, as Gaddy was going about his appointed managerial rounds, picking up paper cups and collecting sweat-soaked towels, he overheard coach Bobby Cremins ask, "How about that kid from Macon?" Gaddy pricked up his ears—walk-ons quickly learn to respond to references to them that don't include their names. Cremins wanted to run a certain half-court defensive drill, but injuries had left the Yellow Jackets short of bodies. Gaddy suited up and practiced.
He suited up again the next day and then every day for six weeks. The day before the season started Gaddy was getting his ankle taped when trainer Crandall Woodson asked him what number he wanted.
"Give me 10 if you got it," said Gaddy with atrociously feigned nonchalance.
"I wanted to whoop and holler," he recalls, "but Kenny [Anderson] was in the room, and I didn't want him to think I thought it was a big deal."
Why would Anderson have thought that? Why would making the roster of a perennial top 20 team have been a big deal to a guy who'd gotten no scholarship offer when he graduated from tiny Stratford Academy in Macon? True, coaches at Yale had thought about recruiting Gaddy and had corresponded with him briefly, but the university admissions office had turned him down. Concluding that he hadn't been much interested in Yale anyway, Gaddy enrolled at Tech. He would try out for the Yellow Jackets. When tryout day arrived, however, he was bedridden with the flu. So he had joined the team the only way he could, as a student manager.
A year later he was actually one of the Yellow Jackets—with conditions. Gaddy could not eat at the training table or travel to away games (team policy for nonscholarship players), and he would not, as it turned out, play in a game all season. He might as well have agreed to hand over his first-born male. Yet to him this was a dream come true. "All I could picture was a uniform with my name on the back of it," he says.
Of course. Walk-ons are grateful for even the tiniest favors. After the Yellow Jackets won the 1990 ACC tournament, Gaddy, who was not in uniform for the tournament because the games were off the Tech campus, was allowed to descend from the bleachers, climb the ladder and snip a strand of the net. "Good thing they let us cut down both nets," he says, straight-faced. "Otherwise I don't think I'd have gotten a turn."
Walk-ons have no illusions about their importance to the program, as evidenced by this Gaddyism: "I guess you could say I'm a role player on the scout team." The role, embraced by many walk-ons, is defensive specialist in practice. To better prepare a starter for an upcoming game, the walk-on covers him as tenaciously as possible. Coaches love it. For the starter into whose athletic supporter the walk-on is attempting to climb, this tenacity can, over the course of a 3½-month game schedule, get old. Tempers flare. In one afternoon last season Gaddy took four elbows to the face, lost two fillings and suffered a concussion. No one was disciplined.
Walk-ons get minute(s), III: Last January, Cremins emptied his bench during a 78-51 rout of Virginia. Gaddy got in for a minute and was credited with a rebound, a steal and an assist. He refers to the game as his "triple-single."
David Martin has, like Gaddy, eaten more than his share of elbows. At 5'11", 150 pounds, Martin, a Texas A&M junior point guard, is elbow-high to most of his teammates, who refer to him as Baby Dave. With the bounding optimism peculiar to walk-ons, Martin interprets every elbow he eats as a compliment on a job well done. "When I get 'em so mad they lose their cool," he says, "I feel I've accomplished my purpose."
Martin was fourth in his class of 590 at Tyler (Texas) High and earned advance credit for 39 hours of college courses. His classes at A&M have included molecular genetics, quantitative analysis, biochemistry and a 400-level independent research lab. Aside from the usual, quickly forgotten practice rhubarbs, as a walk-on last season Martin got along well with his teammates. But his best friend on the team was the manager, Mike (Radar) Ricke, whom Martin helped to fold laundry and lug the Aggies' baggage to and from the bus. "I didn't do it because it's what walk-ons are expected to do," says Martin. "I did it because it looked like Radar could use some help."
Martin's own baggy uniform makes his head seem disproportionately large, like the cranium of Francis, the sluggish son in the cartoon strip Momma. As a freshman, Martin was so unimposing that no one would choose him in the Aggies' informal preseason pickup games. Former teammate Brooks Thompson admits that at first he mistook Martin for a cross-country runner "or maybe the manager of the cross-country team."
"There were times when I wondered what I'd gotten myself into," says Martin. An aspiring anesthesiologist, Martin had turned down basketball scholarship offers from Northeast Louisiana and St. Louis University to walk on in College Station. He was attracted to A&M by its superior science departments and its medical school. Martin wants to be an anesthesiologist because, he says, "I decided I would like to be involved in medicine without being involved in cutting actual flesh."
This squeamishness did not carry over to basketball. Once official practices began last fall, Martin thrived. First-year coach Kermit Davis Jr. appreciated Martin's pestiferous defense, plus his ability to make plays and take care of the ball. As A&M's disastrous season unfolded—the Aggies would finish 8-21, and Davis would be fired—Martin's fortunes climbed. While languishing on the bench for long stretches at the beginning of the season, Martin forced himself to keep his head in the game. He made suggestions to assistant coaches. Some were heeded, most were ignored.
During timeouts, when the other Aggies formed a semicircular huddle in front of the seated starters, Martin had difficulty hearing what was being said. Worse, he and his bench-warming ilk were seldom able to take part in the concluding ritual of the timeouts, when players and coaches stack their hands and shout, "One-two-three TEAM!" To feel more involved, Martin and two other walk-ons, Mac Brink and Brian Under, started the Fun Bunch, their own three-person auxiliary huddle behind the main huddle.
As the losses mounted, Davis seemed to welcome the chance to talk about one of the few pleasant surprises of his rookie season. "I have never seen a guy as willing to do what he has to do to get his minutes," he said of Martin. Sounding wistful, Davis added, "You wish that some of your guys with a lot more physical ability approached the game with half of the discipline and heart David Martin does."
Walk-ons get minute(s), IV: In January, with eight minutes remaining in the first half of a game against Rice, Davis sent Martin in. The Aggies were trailing 27-15 and bound for their seventh straight Southwest Conference loss. The instant Martin checked in, the Owls' student section began to chant, "Midget! Midget!" Martin's adept passing and ball handling silenced them—for 30 seconds. Then Martin threw an ill-advised crosscourt pass that sailed into the Autry Court balcony. The Owls' chant was resumed with gusto.
After the loss, Martin was asked if the Rice fans had wounded his feelings. He flashed a small smile. "The Fun Bunch encourages clever abuse," he said, "even if it is at our expense."
Then he excused himself. Radar needed a hand loading the bus.
Meanwhile, during practice at Creighton in Omaha, Moser, the former walk-on who's now a graduate-assistant coach, was doing a different sort of heavy work. He stood under the basket wielding a padded dummy with which he clobbered players as they came in for layups. Moser grinned until forward Bob Harstad inadvertently kneed him where a man least wants to be kneed. Practice was delayed for as long as it took Moser to crawl off the court.
It was appropriate for Moser to be stuck with this kind of dirty work. A high school all-star from Naperville, Ill., in 1986 he turned down a full ride at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point to take his chances under coach Tony Barone at Creighton. "I was told I would be treated equally," said Moser, "and that's all I asked." Moser made the team. But when practice jerseys arrived, Moser's was the only one without a name on it, an oversight that Moser jokingly mentioned to assistant coach Dick Fick.
Mistake. Weeks later, out of the blue, Barone got in Moser's face to explain the custom of paying dues. "I hear you're unhappy with your practice jersey!" shouted the 5'10", 230-pound Barone, who can be as intimidating as he is stout. "Are you happy to be here? Are you happy to be playing Division I ball? Are you happy to have a jersey?" The outburst typified coaches' expectations of walk-ons: Not only will you swallow elbows and humble pie, you will be grateful for the chance.
Two thirds of the way into the following season, Moser still hadn't seen appreciable playing time. That's when Barone, disgusted by his team's performance in a loss to Notre Dame, announced that the five guys who hustled the most in the following week's practices would start the next game, against Illinois State. Moser ended up starting in that game—and every other game for the rest of his college career.
After Moser's breakthrough season Barone sought him out in the weight room one spring afternoon. Barone was on the warpath. "Follow me," he growled at Moser, whom he led back to the dressing room. Some papers had been laid out in Moser's locker. "Sign these," the coach ordered gruffly, handing Moser a pen. Moser signed—and was on scholarship.
Four years later, there was Moser, waffling the Bluejays with a dummy. He belted 6'10" senior center Chad Gallagher, forcing Gallagher to miss and Fick to yell, "Make the shot, Chad—for chrissakes, it's only a dummy!"
Moser then clobbered freshman guard Dennis Halligan in a collision of walk-ons past and present. Halligan missed his shot, too, but Fick didn't waste his breath. Practice was an hour old, but Halligan's hair remained fluffy and dry: As the 13th man on a 13-man team, he often ended up watching the drills. The gym was bisected by a navy blue partition, on the other side of which Halligan's sister, junior forward Kathy, was sprinting the length of the floor like a UNLV Runnin' Rebel. Kathy, who attends Creighton on a basketball scholarship, should break the Lady Jays' career-scoring record later this season.
Naturally, the Bluejays teased Dennis about not being half the player his sister is, Halligan was an easy mark to begin with: He lived with Kathy in an off-campus apartment, and his nickname, as listed in the media guide, was Den-Den. He didn't party much with the team, and he didn't like beer. When Creighton was in Chicago for a game early last season, some of the Bluejays gathered in one of the team's hotel rooms to critique the soft pornography available on the pay-TV channels. Halligan wandered in, glanced at the television and, mortified, bolted from the room. His teammates still laugh about it.
It is impossible to tell by looking at Halligan, a polite, religious sort, that he is playing out the gamble of his life at Creighton. As a senior at West Sioux Community High in Hawarden, Iowa, Halligan was more of a running star than a basketball star. As a senior he won the state championship in cross-country and, on the track, the mile and two miles. When Iowa offered him a track scholarship, Halligan and his father, Steve, drove six hours to visit the campus. Steve, who had been Dennis's track coach in high school, fell in love with Iowa. "We'll have him running from January 1 to December 31," the cross-country coach cheerfully assured Steve.
On the drive home Steve gushed about the Iowa program, its campus and Denny's future in track and field. Denny kept to himself. "All I could think about was basketball," he says.
A few days later Dennis broke the news to his father: He liked running, but he loved basketball. He decided to walk on at Creighton, betting that he could eventually earn a full scholarship.
It was as if he had decided to become invisible. Let's just say that as Division I shooting guards go, Halligan is a hell of a two-miler. By the end of last January he had seen action in only three games, never for more than a minute.
Walk-ons get minute(s), V: A whopping 3:07 remained in the Bluejays' game against Illinois State in January when Barone sent Halligan in for Darin Plautz. Halligan eagerly checked in at the scorer's table but then had to endure Walk-on Hell: 82 seconds without a single stoppage of play—no fouls, no timeouts, no turnovers. The radio play-by-play guys were thanking their engineers, people were flocking out of Omaha Civic Auditorium, and Halligan was not-so-quietly losing his mind.
"Somebody foul!" he shouted. "Somebody double dribble! Somebody please do something!"
Harstad finally bounced the ball off his foot and out of bounds. Halligan went in with 1:45 to play, still plenty of time to show Barone a little something. Halligan was playing nice, tight defense, covering the Redbirds' Todd Wemhoener like ugly on a gorilla—but Wemhoener stuck a jumper with Halligan right in his face. Dumb luck. Moments later the Bluejays' Derek Bain, also a freshman, led a three-on-two break with Halligan wide open on Bain's right wing. An assist, however, held no fascination for Bain: He took the rock to the rack, blew the shot and picked up a charging foul. On Creighton's next possession Bain unapologetically jacked up a 28-foot air ball. Time expired before Halligan could touch the ball.
The debacle only strengthened Halligan's resolve. "I'm not an ingrate, but I am hungry," he said. "I want a scholarship. It's like my grandparents say, 'Good things come to those who work hard.' "
By the time the season ended, Halligan's future at Creighton seemed shaky. He didn't play in another game as the Bluejays advanced to the NCAA's round of 32. Barone became a hot coaching property, took the Texas A&M job vacated by the fired Davis and took Moser along as his graduate assistant.
I ran into Moser in a St. Louis watering hole last March. The Bluejays were in town for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, which they would win. I asked Moser if he had heard any talk of whether Halligan would get a scholarship next season.
"I'm not sure he's going to be around next season," he said.
A few months later I phoned Halligan. "I've been meaning to call you," he said. "Great news! Last week Coach Johnson put me on scholarship." Rick Johnson is Barone's replacement.
A week later I got a call from David Martin—Baby Dave, the nerdy Texas A&M point guard. "I have some news that applies to my life as a walk-on," he said happily. "I'm not one anymore."
Barone had struck again.
Not all walk-ons everywhere were having full rides thrown at them. After Edney, the blue-chip point guard from Long Beach, signed with UCLA, Harrick gave Richie more bad news: There was no scholarship for him. Richie traded in Pauley Pavilion and the Wooden Center for the gym at Merritt College, an Oakland junior college. Richie hopes a strong season there will attract favorable attention from a Division I school with a spare scholarship. As for Richie's old teammate Owens, he pulled off the ultimate walk-on this fall by making the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent.
I phoned Gaddy, worried. What was his status? "We lost three players and Coach Cremins signed four, which doesn't exactly help me," he said. "Looks like another off-season in limbo."
One of the departing Yellow Jackets was 6'11" senior reserve center James Munlyn. Though highly recruited, Munlyn had turned out to be an ordinary player by ACC standards. But he was an ordinary scholarship player. When I told him I wanted to talk about Gaddy, Munlyn got to laughing so hard he had to lie down for a minute or two.
Let's talk about Gaddy's strong points, I suggested once Munlyn's hysteria had passed. There followed an uncomfortable silence that Munlyn finally broke by allowing that "even though he gets the crap knocked out of him, James keeps coming back the next day, smiling and ready for more. That takes a special person."
Walk-ons are special people, aren't they?
"They really are," agreed Munlyn, getting the hang of it. "They're an important part of the team. Say something happened and a bunch of people got sick or hurt or something. The walk-ons would have to get out there and play."
Then a spasm of candor seized Munlyn.
"Then again," he said, "that probably would never happen."