Life on the Pine
by David Mosse
As March Madness is once again upon us, the eyes of the basketball world will be firmly planted on the many stars trying to lead their schools to glory. These are the players who carry the hopes and dreams of a university and in some cases an entire state on their shoulders. These are the players accustomed to the limelight, who spearheaded their teams throughout the season.
Yet, one story left untold is that of another group of players. The young men, who make the same sacrifices, run the same suicides, lift the same weights, and represent their school colors with the same pride as the stars but don’t receive any of the accolades and certainly none of the attention. They are the walk-ons who log time at the end of the bench for major college programs.
Ron Garber is a senior at the University of Michigan who has spent the past two seasons as a walk-on for the basketball team. Garber always dreamt of playing collegiate ball, but after not receiving any scholarship offers out of high school he came to Michigan to concentrate on academics and a career in business. Yet he never let go of his dream, and after spending two years building up strength and refining his game, he successfully tried out for the team his junior year.
In the past two years, Garber has experienced the highs and lows of being a part of a major program. The highs include shooting a pair of foul shots at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium and playing in front of friends and family in his home state of Minnesota. The lows include watching the coaching staff that gave Garber his shot be unceremoniously canned at the end of his junior season.
He has endured a rigorous schedule juggling an intense business school curriculum with the incredible time commitment that comes with playing basketball at the collegiate level, a commitment that includes early morning weight lifting sessions, evening practices, and several road trips. Through it all he has never wavered in his determination to make it all work.
“All of us have pressure to do well,” Garber says. “It is definitely hard but then you take a step back and realize you are playing basketball for the University of Michigan.”
The overwhelming sacrifices would seem far more tolerable were Garber and his fellow walk-ons rewarded with an opportunity to contribute during games. To date, Garber has played a total of 12 minutes in his Michigan career. Such is the life of a walk-on – all guts and very little glory. They work extremely hard, but in the competitive world of college basketball the reality is coaches will invariably place their faith in the hands of their best players.
“It’s sometimes a helpless feeling to know that no matter how hard you work in practice, other players are just more talented,” Garber admits. “But the bottom line is they work hard too and they can play at a higher level.”
Confined to the bench during games, walk-ons must find other ways to contribute and involve themselves in the successes or failures of the team. This opportunity comes at practice where they take part in the all the drills, scrimmage against the first team, and often times act out the offensive and defensive schemes of an opponent to help prepare for the upcoming game.
“The scout group gets together, we each get assigned a player and really have to play the part, ” Garber says. “The main thing is we try to be as enthusiastic and vocal as possible because in the grind of a long season, the thing that suffers the most is enthusiasm.”
Throughout the next month, television stations covering the various conference tournaments and the NCCA tournament will likely flash countless shots of a team’s sideline to capture the emotion following a crucial play. The average viewer will dismiss the players sitting at the end of the bench as overzealous scrubs jumping frantically and waiving towels for no apparent reason. After all, they are not real players. They have nothing to do with the outcome
What these fans fail to realize is walk-ons have the same emotional investment in the final score, as do other players. They revel in the victories and suffer with the defeats. They exert a great deal of energy in helping the team prepare for a game and thus look upon the team’s performance as a reflection of themselves as well.
“I didn’t think it would be that way when I first started,” Garber admits. But now when we win I feel on top of the world and when we lose I feel terrible.”
While coaches justifiably spend greater time with players likely to see action during the games, Garber claims his coaches have worked with him on his individual skills and he is better player for it. And while he says there are no status differences on the team, he has developed special bond with other walk-ons who are in the same predicament as him.
“When we are running the scout team and beating the first team, we get really pumped up,” Garber says. “And I root extra hard for those guys when they are in the game.”
Perhaps the biggest difference separating a star player from the last man on the bench comes away from the court, in the notoriety each receives in their everyday life. A marquee player at a major school enjoys unparalleled status as the big man on campus. His fame stretches beyond the university and into the community. He is recognized everywhere he goes and constantly showered with praise.
This is not the case for a walk-on whose work largely goes unnoticed. He is rarely sought out for interviews, seldom approached in public, and has little trouble blending into the student body. But Garber for one feels no resentment towards the more visible players on the team and actually prefers to side step the limelight.
“Those guys worked hard and earned it, ” Garber states. “It feels good to work behind the scenes. The people whose opinions matter are the coaches and the rest of the team.”
So as teams throughout the country ready for the exhilarating month that follows, where some dreams will be fulfilled and others dashed, walk-ons everywhere will continue to punch the clock and quietly go about their business. Their dreams have already been reached. They ware their uniforms with pride knowing the sacrifices they make each and every day to be a part of the team.
They will continue to work hard and receive very little recognition for their effort. Their only solace will be in knowing they did all they could in their own small way to help their team win. It may seem like a thankless role not everyone would be willing to play, but for the many walk-ons throughout America who toil in virtual anonymity, it is the best job in the world.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Garber says. “It’s been hard and challenging at times but the things I’ve learned and the experiences I’ve had have been so gratifying, I am so glad I did this.”