clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Walk on this way: Trying out for Wisconsin basketball

New, 35 comments

When the Badgers held open walk-on tryouts for the men's basketball team, I air-mailed passes and took charges with hopes of fulfilling a dream. Looks like they'll have to make three straight Final Fours without me.

On an unseasonably warm October evening in Madison, Wis., there was every reason for students to soak in what may have been Mother Nature's final gift of 2015.

As the sun went down over Picnic Point's peninsula on Lake Mendota, pedestrians took in the view from atop Observatory Hill. Dozens lounged on the Bascom Hill grass.

In the southeast corner of campus, however, a collection of students opted to forego the amicable weather in exchange for the unlikely chance to walk on to the Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball team.

One of those students was me.

On Oct. 9, the Badgers announced the team would be holding open walk-on tryouts. All current undergraduate students were eligible to earn their way onto a program coming off consecutive Final Fours.

In 2007, guard Wquinton Smith earned a spot on the team after a walk-on tryout and guard J.D. Wise did the same in 2009. Since Wise made the team, Wisconsin had not held an open tryout.

"We do that every once in a while," head coach Bo Ryan told me. "We've been able to find some guys. Plus, it lets the campus know, ‘Hey, is there somebody out there?'

The Real Walk-Ons

"We need a lot of numbers. So we need 17 or 18 players. Injuries, class schedules, tests, things like that. This year, we're able to have 18. So we're going to see if there isn't that guy out there that can help us."

For 90 minutes, 39 other students and I ran up and down the floor at the Nicholas Johnson Pavilion adjacent to the Kohl Center, turning an otherwise mildly air-conditioned gym into an overheated box to see if we could be that guy.

When Division III UW-River Falls squares off with the Badgers on Nov. 4, they will hold a better chance of pulling off the upset than I did of making the team.

At 20 years, I'm in prime physical condition. Supposedly. Just under a year ago, I achieved a longtime goal of running a marathon. It was at times peaceful and at times more grueling than anything I've ever done physically, but the sticker reading "26.2" on my laptop serves as my championship banner.

That could have been the beginning of a life chock-full of races. But after four years of high school track and field and cross country and years as a catcher in baseball, my knees scoffed with that notion. The marathon effectively served as my tearless retirement from running.

Physically, I clearly wasn't in the same place I was in one year ago. As I went through the active warm-up in the XXL jersey that clearly didn't fit my 6'6, 175-pound frame, between increasingly heavy breaths I thought, Is this supposed to be the demanding part of practice?

It wasn't.

The tryout itself was as much of a challenge as getting cleared to participate was. From the day the Badgers announced the tryout, I had one week to get a physical examination and send in all necessary paperwork and a copy of my medical insurance card.

During the physical at University Health Services -- which tacked an extra $50 onto my tuition -- the physician's assistant noticed I had swollen lymph nodes.

"We're actually going to get you tested for mono," she said.

Great. Here I was just wanting to get cleared to participate for the sake of journalism, and now I might find out I have mononucleosis?

Thankfully, that wrinkle in the plan was suppressed (shout out to my immune system) when results came back negative -- just like my jump shot.

Leading up the tryout, I gathered advice on how to best impress the coaching staff.

"Whatever you do, whatever your one niche is, exploit that and do it the best you can and go hard," Badgers forward Vitto Brown told me at Big Ten media day. "Just be the glue guy. Be the next Josh Gasser and you will make the team."

Sorry to disappoint, Vitto, but I am not the next Josh Gasser.

"Well, I've never seen you play and I'm seeing you in a shirt and tie right now, so with some of the guys I know that are trying out, I think you got a pretty good shot at 6'6," guard Bronson Koenig said.

Possibly the best advice I received was via text, when a friend calmed my tremulous nerves by telling me to be "wet as water".

Once I was at tryouts, it was Strictly Business -- literally. After observing the actual Badgers practice for one hour, I went to a Kohl Center restroom to change into the proper attire and realized I accidentally packed one high black Nike sock and one black dress sock.

The tryout was run by Wisconsin assistants Greg Gard, Lamont Paris and Gary Close. "We may or may not take someone from this group," Gard told the huddled gathering of 40 students before practice began.

The basketball cognoscenti Gard blew his whistle and directed the practice. It began with a zig-zag dribbling drill against a defender after warm-ups, then transitioned into a three-man weave.

"Slow it down," Gard said. "No need to rush it. Take your time with the passes. Hit your man in the chest."

Naturally, I took Gard's advice to heart and air-mailed my very next pass. I knew that was the end of my hoop dreams.

The rest of the way, my goal was simply to play solid basketball and draw no more negative attention. I achieved that to a point in the next drill, which was a class five-man weave down the court followed by a three-on-two attack back down. I caught the ball both times downcourt after the lay-up to complete the weave and passed it to an outlet, never to hear back from the rock again.

The highlight of the night for me came during three-on-three play. With under 30 seconds left in the four-minute scrimmage and trailing by one, I set a screen at the top of the key and slipped back atop the arc. I caught the pass from my teammate and, without ample time to remember my three-point percentage is somewhere in the low 20s, put up a three that found the back of the net.

It was, to quote Wayne Larrivee, the dagger as we went on to win.

Eventually, things got quite physical. Given my frame, that usually isn't the path I would prefer to go down.

During three-on-three play, I drew a charge and landed with a thud on the pavilion hardwood. While boxing out in five-on five action, I caught a hefty elbow to the jaw -- not even a Flagrant One was called. Two minutes later while battling for a loose ball, I went knee-to-knee with an opposing player.

Come Friday, my body no longer loved me.

Through it all, I learned an important lesson: taking a charge might be the world's most liberating feeling in the moment, but come Friday, my body no longer loved me.

I didn't do it a favor in regard to nutrition that day, either. I honored my temple with some scraps of Panera Bread for breakfast, a chicken sandwich for lunch and a Cliff Bar one hour before the tryout began at 6:30 p.m.

The jersey I was handed had No. 189 on the back, possibly making me the first player with that number in basketball history. I was not Steph Curry with the shot nor, though the jersey fit me like an apron, was I cooking with the sauce, Chef Curry with the pot.

About half way through, a flock of Wisconsin players took seats on the sidelines to observe the tryout. Koenig, Brown, Ethan Happ, Andy Van Vliet, Matt Ferris and others wanted to get a look at anyone that could become their next teammate.

Spoiler: that wasn't going to be me.

The coaches didn't treat it like a throw-away practice, which ratcheted up the intensity.

"We coached them, you were there, we coached the guys up," Paris said. "I saw Greg Gard get on a guy, I got on a couple of guys about things. We treated them like they were college players and they feel like they were college players when they were in there."

Eventually, the tryout came to a close. Forty players had just asserted their skills to three coaches of one of college basketball's most successful programs. Gard thanked everyone for clearing the time in their nights to come and reiterated the staff may or may not retain one player from the practice (as of Sunday night, nothing had been announced regarding a decision).

"I thought it was a really good experience," Gard told me the next day. "Just putting myself in those shoes as a 18, 19, 20, 21-year-old, as a college student, to be able to have that opportunity was special."

Ryan was not present at the tryout, but said he gets the DVD from the practice.

"I'm not looking for a Rudy story every time we do it," he said. "I'm looking for, if we can give one more chance to one more young man because we have class schedule conflicts. When I talk to other coaches, we have more conflicts than anybody."

Worry not, Bo. You weren't going to find a Rudy story in me, at least. If the Badgers are to reach their third consecutive Final Four this season, it will have to be without me.