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 all."
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" fiancé 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.
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.