Home > College Basketball > The Life, Times and Rules of the Walk-On (Part 1)

The Life, Times and Rules of the Walk-On (Part 1)

February 28, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Where am I in this picture? No, not in the middle. I'm the one barely peeking out of the right side of the photo, still in warm-up attire, of course. I kid you not, this picture is hanging in my parents house even though only 1/6 of me is actually in it.

With March Madness rapidly approaching, there will be an amazing amount of attention on one particular group of players: the walk-ons.  Nobody is able to provide a better emotional piece of footage for CBS, and our boy Gussy Johnson, after a big shot than the group of three to four white kids at the end of the bench.  Our real moment in the spotlight typically comes during crucial late game free-throws during the ‘linking of the arms’ tactic.  Benches who don’t participate in the linking of the arms tactic, stand no shot at TV time though.  This move was created by walk-ons to look good and get on TV or in print, not to show team unity…

...and look at the effectiveness! BU's bench was able to make an appearance in Sports Illustrated because of this technique. Incredible work fellas.

(I’ve also been very inspired by the works of Mark Titus, walk-on bad ass at Ohio State.  Mark’s blog, Club Trillion, is about his experiences at the end of the bench and it is worth a daily read, trust me, go visit it.)

This will undoubtedly lead white kids across the country into the belief that they could be one of those guys, always in warm-up attire, at the end of the bench. Well boys, this rodeo isn’t for everybody, and with that in mind, I’m going to shed a little more light on this unheralded group of elite athletes and the special rules that apply to them if you want to be successful.

What are my qualifications for such a story, you ask? I spent 3,071 minutes (51 hours or 2.13 days for those keeping score at home) at the end of the Bradley University bench as a non-scholarship, walk-on athlete for 2.75 seasons. (I played my freshman and sophomore years, dropped out of school, missed BU’s Sweet 16 run, then came back for a majority of the following season.)

For those who aren’t quite certain of what a walk-on is, it means that the school didn’t enjoy my hustle and determination enough to give me a scholarship like all the talented and athletic kids. Now to the rules:

1. Practice = Game Time:

The most important thing for the walk-on to know is that you own the practice floor. You don’t get real playing time, so your time to shine is in the practice gym in front of zero fans, zero hot chicks, and zero NBA scouts.  This is also more enjoyable, and memorable, if you can have your favorite team manager (we’ll get to their importance later) keep stats for you.

It’s also a freaking blast if you’re on the scout team as the opposing team’s best shooter with the greenest light on the planet.  For some reason, I was selected as Creighton’s Nate Funk for an entire week of practice.  I’m pretty sure I went an impressive  7 for 59 from three-point land that week, it was awesome.

You must also get used to the fact that you will learn the offense of opposing teams in your conference better than your own.  I can run Wichita State’s or Creighton’s offense blindfolded, but I don’t think I remember one set from Bradley that didn’t involve me joking around with my other walk-on brethren while poking fun at Michael Rembert’s inability to remember said sets.  I’m pretty sure we ran some sort of dribble weave though.  I had that shit down to an art, because let’s face it, there’s nothing that a walk-on does better than dribbling away from the basket and getting rid of the ball.  It’s like the offense was created for us.

I still attempt to run it on NBA2K10, but everybody just stands around and watches LeBron dribble while Mike Brown nods in approval .  The realism of that game is frightening.

2. Never, ever, muck up a drill bad enough to grind it to a hault:

The walk-on is part of a tricky catch 22.  Let’s face it, you’re on the team only for team GPA raising purposes and because sometimes you can make the coach laugh. This means that your overall skill and talent isn’t equal to that of a scholarship athlete and the coaches know it.  You will get routinely embarrassed in 1-on-1 drills, and that’s okay.  This won’t bring practice to a stopping point and it actually makes the scholarship players look better, so it’s all good.

If you find yourself in a team drill in which you can easily visualize yourself booting the ball three rows into the bleachers because you aren’t good enough to handle a real double team, be prepared for the head coach to jump your shit faster than Chris Johnson ended my fantasy football season.

To offset this, you should use my highly effective and patent pending ‘Reverse Skipski.’

It’s as frighteningly simple as it sound . All you need to do is stand in line long enough to be in the on-deck position.  Then, simply float to the back of the line like Patrick Swayze in Ghost.  Another highly effective move is to act like you have to tie your shoe.  Your new lower, stealthier position will make this move a lot easier for the beginner.

If any real player attempted this move it would be sniffed out quicker than Lindsey Lohan’s purse by a police K9 unit at a nightclub, but since your development and preparation for the upcoming game is extremely unimportant, nobody will notice your lack of participation in the drill.  This saved my ass from several explosions and kept me off of the big man’s radar, this is key.

This move is not recommended, however, for drills that involve no real basketball skill. (ie: rebounding drills)  Drills like these are your time to shine, because you’re much more likely to show hustle and grit than those pampered scholarship boys. Once again, have your favorite, hand selected manager keep stats for those.

3. Always wear your team exclusive gear when going out in public.

This is the only way that anyone in the community will know who you are.  I also recommend hanging out with more recognizable members of the team to get some recognition.  You will then be awkwardly asked to sign some little kid’s basketball just because you hang out with Marcellus Sommerville, not because the kid actually knows who you are.  Some may call this cheap, but I just call it ‘doing your homework.’  This is also something that should be utilized at on-campus parties and other social gatherings.  You will then almost immediately be given a free Kool-Aid or two and introduced to co-eds.

This rule does wear off over time, however.  Now that I’ve been out of the game for 3 years I still run into people who see my Bradley attire and will strike up a conversation about the team. Eventually we’ll get to the point in the conversation where I mention that I was on the team.  This usually leads to the person(s) asking me my name, followed by, “Ohhhh yeah, I remember you.”  The look on their face gives the impression that they have no idea who the hell you are and that you may, in fact, be lying to them.

Piggybacking this point is also the fact that you should choose a school as close to your hometown as possible.  This will increase your chances of being recognized in public by a dramatic percentage, let’s go with 184%.  If you choose to walk-on at a school that is 2,000 miles away, be prepared to use the ‘team gear rule’ in extreme proportions.

4. Please, have a sense of humor about your position on the squad:

I’ll admit it, when I first joined the squad at BU I had the illusion that I would somehow work my way into the rotation with hard work and determination like that old guy from The Rookie.  This, however, proved to be difficult while being 6’2″, creamy white, non-athletic, and not in a Disney movie.  The walk-on moving into the contributor role stories are few and far between, so I’m just trying to keep your expectations in check.  Don’t believe me? Let’s have some story time, shall we?

My freshman year at BU was a particularly rough season.  We started out the season hot and then really started to blow once the conference season showed up.  We even lost 10 of 11 games at one point.  At some point during this stretch coach decided to open up the starting rotation to the five players who scored a certain amount of points based on hustle plays (aka: my wheel house, my bread and butter, walk-on friendly competition) during the two practices leading up to the game.

To make a long story short, after day one your boy KJ is sitting comfortably in second place. I’m fairly certain that I may have called my girlfriend, my parents, my hometown newspaper, the Wall Street Journal and ESPN to report that I was planning on making my starting debut in two days at Evansville.  This was all ended with one quick trip to the coaches office.  I was informed that the chances of me starting where similar to Lloyd Chistmas’s chances with Mary Swanson. (So you’re telling me there’s a chance!!! YES!!!)  I was also given the vibe that I should get very used to cuddling the water cooler at the end of the bench in 40-minute intervals, twice a week, for the rest of my career.

(Disclaimer: Looking back, I can’t say that I blame the big guy. Had he started a walk-on for a conference road game and got waxed, which we did anyways, he probably would have taken some serious heat for it.  College basketball is a business, never forget that kids.)

This leads me to the overall point of this rule, always make fun of yourself.  If you take yourself too seriously as a walk-on, you won’t make it past year one.  The average life expectancy of a walk-on at the division one level is 1.5 years.  There are rare exceptions that are able to bear the burden of being the most important member of the team for all four years. (Congrats to you Mr. Ryan Phillips, the newest member of the club…overachiever.)

To quote the famous artistic wrestler and now Disney movie puppet, Dwayne Johnson: “Know your role and shut your mouth.”

5. Befriend every manager and trainer:

This one should be relatively easy because you’ll be spending so much time in their general area at the end of the bench during games, and on the sidelines during practices.

I would argue that the walk-on/manager relationship is more closely related than the walk-on/scholarship player relationship. The walk-on and the manager are both in the program for the same reasons.  You both love the game of basketball and have an itch to be around it at all times, you both just aren’t good enough to actually play.  The only benefit of being the walk-on is the ability to claim membership to the team and being able to put on a show during pre-game warm-ups for the kids.  That and the lack of having to do any laundry.

Managers are probably the #1 friend of any walk-on.  Luckily for me, my go-to manager at BU was a very good friend of mine from Pekin, so I was immediately in. What can managers do for the walk-on the is so important? Let’s see:

a. Show you a practice plan before practice starts. This is key when planning which drills to turn into a phantom during, we’ve been over this before.

b. Provide non-standard food and drink during games: I won’t lie, I never had water in my H20 bottle during my first two-year run at the Hilltop. My boy always hooked me up with the usually half-time only Powerade, Gatorade or other juices. I was also able to score some energy bars and orange wedges at half-time. Not because I needed replentishment, but because I was hungry and most likely sleepy. We always talked about somehow getting me a pretzel or hot dog while I was actually on the bench during the game, but we never had the balls to pull off such a move. In retrospect, we should have gone for it.  Only legends take risks.

c. Provide extra swag: In rare occasions, the manager may have access to some extra shirts or something. Use this to your advantage.

d. Keep your stats during practice: Who are you kidding? Of course it’s important to know the numbers that you put up on the starting five during scrimmages.  Usually managers are running the clock at the scorer’s table anyways, so it’s really not out of their way to write down a stat or two.  You can also choose to keep these stats to show to your grand kids at some point to prove your dominance on the practice floor.

e. Provide friendship: Life at the end of the bench can be lonely if you haven’t struck up a friendship with a manager, trainer, or strength coach. My good friend at the end of the bench during my third year at BU was none other than long-time strength and conditioning coach Ronnie ‘Reginald’ Wright. See below:

Coach Reginald (in white) shoving me out of the view of the camera lens so he can get some more run for himself and his amazing Captain Morgan pose in the paper.

Ronnie was great to be around because he had some pretty awesome stories about his growing up in the world of football and bodybuilding, and his one-liners during games in reference to both our team and opponents were legendary. Ronnie was the kind of guy who usually hated freshmen, walk-ons, and had a particular distaste for freshmen walk-ons.  How I was able to get on his good side is something I still haven’t figured out.  It must have been my dedication to the weight room. (ie: 30 minutes of light lifting, mixed in with long periods of casual conversation.) Oh wait, I figured it out…let’s segway to my next rule!

TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW……(UPDATE 3/1/10-PART TWO HAS NOW BEEN POSTED HERE.)


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  1. February 28, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Congratulations for your “walk-on” status. Sounds like you had a entertaining experience. Just being in the environment can be amazing.

    My take on walk-ons is that they are extra resources to help a team win. There are a limited number of scholarships, so I believe the walk-on role should be for a player who has”scholarship talent” and could earn one-eventually… if things fall into to place. However, once in the fold, all players-including walk-ons should have the opportunity to earn minutes. True, walk-ons must be patient and basically maximize every opportunity that presents itself (tough task) to move up the ladder. They should not be denied opportunity just because of their “status.”. It’s like Indy 500. Not everyone’s sitting on the “Pole”, but everyone-even the guys in the back have a chance to win.

    I think it’s the right thing to do to create a healthy competitive environment- top to bottom. If in the end , the player becomes a game-time contributor.. he or she should be awarded the next available scholarship–if at all possible.

  2. March 1, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    Troy,

    Thanks for the comment. I poke fun at my fellow walk-ons and myself, but we really do have a place of importance in our respective programs. We are the American dream, in a sense.

    Thanks for reading the blog and keep the comments coming!

  1. March 1, 2010 at 8:55 pm

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