SI Vault
 
Put Me In, Coach
Austin Murphy
November 25, 1991
Playing time is the dream of the Division I walk-on. Bench time is the reality
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 25, 1991

Put Me In, Coach

Playing time is the dream of the Division I walk-on. Bench time is the reality

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

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.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8