As each member of the Tennessee women's basketball team nestled
under her covers in the Crown Plaza Hotel in Kansas City the
night before their NCAA semifinal game last March, Tony Perotti,
who all season had sweated through grueling practices with them,
was stretching out at the same hotel. Well, stretching out is a
stretch. One of his buddies was curled next to him in the front
seat, and another occupied the backseat of his 1993 GMC Jimmy,
which was parked in the hotel garage. "I wouldn't have traded
[being there] for anything," says Perotti. "I saw them win it
Notice he says them, not us. That describes the lot of the
Tennessee practice player, who, as Mark Arbogast, another
practice player, puts it, is "kinda in, kinda out." Time to
stand motionless, hands held high, so supershooter Kristen (Ace)
Clement can squeeze off some practice jumpers? The practice
player is in. Time to trot onto the floor of Thompson-Boling
Arena in Knoxville as 10,000 crazed fans shout your name? The
practice player is out. Time to play defense as Chamique
Holdsclaw spins and jukes and eats your lunch in a one-on-one
drill in which only she gets the ball? The practice player is
in. Time to walk proudly to the dais at the annual basketball
banquet and accept that big orange T you'll treasure for the
rest of your life? The practice player is out. Sure, Rudy
Reuttiger got knocked around more on the Notre Dame practice
field than these guys do on the court, but for one glorious
moment, Rudy got to play during an actual game. There are no
moments of glory for the Tennessee practice player, a volunteer
but, alas, no Volunteer.
Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt began signing up male practice
fodder as soon as she got her job in 1974. "It was the most
natural thing in the world for me," she says. "When I played
internationally"--she co-captained the U.S. Olympic team to the
silver medal in 1976--"we always found men to practice against."
She has no idea who was the first women's coach to field male
practice players, but many Division I programs now use them. Jon
Harper, the 6'8" fiance of Tennessee point guard Kellie Jolly,
was for two seasons a formidable practice player for the Auburn
women's team until he became the Tigers' manager. Yes, it's
true: On the food chain, team manager (which at many big
schools, including Tennessee and Auburn, is a scholarship
position) is a step above practice player. Being a practice
player, in fact, requires more pride swallowing than jump
shooting, more ego suppressing than ball handling. A practice
player is neither campus hero nor campus buffoon, because no one
but his roommate knows that he disappears into the Summitt
cauldron for three hours on most fall and winter evenings.
March 15, 1999
Nobody comes to Tennessee to be a practice player, but some
young men seem destined for the job. Lady Vols manager Andrew
Johnson, a practice player when he was a freshman two years ago,
and current practice player Grant Gibbs played their schoolboy
basketball in Pat Head Summitt Gymnasium at Cheatham (Tenn.)
County High, Summitt's alma mater; Johnson's mother, Adrian, was
a teammate of Summitt's at the school. Other practice players
just stumble into the job. Arbogast, for example, went through
his freshman year ignorant of the practice squad until his Aunt
Dottie, a diehard Lady Vols fan, told him about it. "Sounds like
fun," said Arbogast, who signed up in September of his sophomore
year and is now in his second season.
The requirements for the job are not elaborate. (Hey, it's not
an elaborate job.) Summitt trusts her managers to do the
recruiting, such as it is. Several of this year's practice
players signed on because they know Johnson, and they, in turn,
told some of their friends. Summitt wants 10 to 12 bodies. Most
of the practice players were good enough to have played in high
school but not good enough (or big enough or quick enough) to
have played at a level higher than Division III. Summitt's
instructions to them, delivered by a manager before the first
practice of the season, are simple:
--Play below the rim. (Most practice players are between 5'8"
and 6'2", so that is no problem.)
--Do not be overly physical, such as jumping over backs on
rebound drills. (Sometimes a problem.)
--Never, ever roar in to take an out-of-control layup when a
pull-up jumper will suffice. (Only occasionally a problem.)
"What it boils down to," says Summitt, "is that I don't want
guys with their own agenda." A Tennessee practice earlier this
season typified the practice players' sweaty three-hour
saga--and boy, is this not their agenda. They played dummy
defense as the women dribbled among them. They rebounded balls
and passed them to the women on shooting drills. They played D,
and only D, in four-on-four, three-on-three, three-on-two,
two-on-one and one-on-one drills. They applied a full-court zone
as Summitt's team worked on breaking pressure, and then they
went into a 2-3 as the Lady Vols sharpened their half-court
offense. When the men had a chance to take off on a fast break,
Summitt usually blew her whistle and yelled, "Hold up. Bring it
back." Her quest for an unprecedented fourth straight NCAA
championship (and seventh overall) does not depend on Arbogast
and Perotti's being able to convert on a two-on-one.
What Summitt feels she gains by having her team practice against
males is obvious: athleticism. "It's a simple fact that guys, on
the whole, are quicker, faster and stronger," says Summitt.
"What guys do is cover space, make the court seem a lot
smaller." If the court looks small in practice, it follows that
it looks bigger, more inviting, during games.
"When you see situations in practice that are unexpected, things
you have to react to, it prepares you for games," says Jolly.
"Anyway, most of us grew up playing against boys. It seems
Are the boys sometimes too physical? Earlier this season
Holdsclaw, the best women's player in the country, got a hip
pointer and was poked in the eye by one of the guys. Perotti
broke the nose of forward Tamika Catchings, the Vols'
second-best player and one of his closest female friends. He
sent her a card to apologize.
Then, too, practice players sometimes forget that they are there
to serve. In November, Arbogast was too aggressive defending
fiery guard Semeka Randall during a ball-handling drill. "Man,
would you back off!" Randall shouted at him.
"If you'd handle the ball better, you wouldn't have to worry
about it!" snapped Arbogast. Practice came to a halt as Randall
threw down her mouthpiece and more words were exchanged.
The most dangerous case of testosterone overload occurred two
seasons ago when a practice player, Todd Droz, drove to the
basket and caught guard Misty Greene with a knee to the
forehead, giving her a concussion. If one practice rule is
strictly enforced these days, it's the one mandating a pull-up
jumper over an out-of-control drive.
On the rare occasions when practice players are asked about
their duties, one question dominates: Is an average male player
better than a terrific female player? (That's what you, too,
want to know, right?) The players aren't sure how to answer the
question. Each gender damns the other with faint praise.
Arbogast says the Lady Vols "are better than a lot of teams I
played against in high school," while Holdsclaw figures that
with a little work, the practice players would be "one of the
top three women's teams in the SEC." The practice players who
were decent high school players--Arbogast, Gibbs, Josh Liner and
6'3" Dave Hedge, who dominates the boards against even the
taller women--feel they could hold their own in one-on-one games
against most of the Lady Vols. They're probably right. Most
practice players also feel that the 6'2" Holdsclaw would school
them. They're right about that, too. "I think of it like a game
of checkers, and Chamique's playing with all kings," says Liner.
"She can do too many things we can't." Shyly but emphatically,
A team composed of the best male athletes on campus would, on
quickness and jumping ability alone, destroy the Lady Vols. But
that wouldn't mean they're technically superior basketball
players. None of the current practice players has the skills and
court savvy of, say, Jolly (who's listed generously as 5'10"),
but she would probably lose to most of them in a one-on-one game
because she's too slender to compete with them on the boards.
In the first girls-against-boys scrimmage this season the Lady
Vols won by 60 points. They won the second scrimmage by 35. In
the third, on Nov. 21, six days after the Lady Vols lost 78-68
at Purdue for their first defeat of the season, the women were
weary and depressed as they took the court. The guys were down
71-59 late in the game when the women seemed to completely run
out of gas. During a timeout Tennessee assistant Al Brown, who
usually coaches the practice players in scrimmages, told the
men, "You want to make Pat mad and do something to wake up the
team? Then go out and win." They did. Arbogast hit two free
throws with six seconds left to give the guys an 81-80 victory.
Three weeks later they beat the women in the season's fourth and
final scrimmage, 81-79, "doubling our margin of victory," as
Perotti puts it. Once again they came from behind as the Lady
Vols grew fatigued.
Though scrimmage victories are highlights of the practice
player's season--Arbogast and Liner keep the statistics packet
from that first victory enshrined in their off-campus
apartment--the guys long to feel that they belong, to have a
sense that they're an integral part of Summitt's phenomenally
successful program. They rarely get that. NCAA rules allow the
practice player to receive a workout shirt and shorts--nothing
more. No tickets, no road trips, no accommodations at the Final
Four, not even a pass to the postseason banquet. "I feel a
little underappreciated," says Arbogast. "I'm not in position to
make any demands or anything, but man, not even a free ticket to
the game? After we work that hard?"
The men sense, though, that the Lady Vols appreciate their
efforts. The following pat on the back from Holdsclaw is
typical: "To do what they do without a scholarship, without any
glory, without anybody noticing, is great." But even better is a
nod from Summitt, whom most of the practice players hold in awe.
Sure, some of the guys get to know her off the court. (Liner did
some remodeling work at her house last summer.) Sure, each
season the coach good-naturedly adopts one of the players as her
designated whipping boy. (This year she exaggerates the lazy
practice habits of the hometowner, Gibbs.) Every once in a while
she lines up the guys and give them high fives for effort. But
what's really special is when the coach indirectly praises
something about a practice player's game, when she says, "You
gotta guard Mark; he's a shooter," or "You gotta clog the middle
against Tony; he's a penetrator." Those moments don't come often.
"We're better prepared because of these guys, and I hope they
know I appreciate that," says Summitt. "But they get a lot out
of this, too. They get to play basketball in one of the finest
facilities in the country, work out with some of the best
players. Most of them would be playing pickup ball anyway."
At the very least the practice players have had their
consciousnesses raised more than most college-age males. When
Perotti tells his roommates about a moment from practice, maybe
an outstanding move by Holdsclaw or a terrific pass by Jolly, he
realizes how unusual his experience has been. "They just look at
me and say, 'Hey, Tony, they're girls,'" Perotti says, and he
shakes his head. "They have no idea how good these women are and
what it's like to be a part, even a small part, of this program.
No idea at all."
"I'm not in position to make demands, but not even a ticket to
a game? After we work that hard?"