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 3� 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.
"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."