This is going to sound overwrought, but it's impossible to deny the nostalgic appeal of the walk-on. They consciously take on the responsibilities of the full-time college basketball player -- the workouts, the training tables, the long trips -- with none of the benefits. No scholarship. No nationally televised fame. Little, if any, actual playing time. And why? A love of the game and a desire to be a part of a Division I men's basketball program.
We fans like to think that we'd be the same way, that we love this game so much we'd be willing to put in the work just to be a part of the team, that the "real" athletes don't know how good they have it, and man, if only we hadn't been cut from our high school sophomore team! All we need is a chance!
Another cool thing about being a walk-on? Technically, everybody does have a chance. All you have to do is sign up for tryouts, go to your school's gym at the appropriate time and show your skills. Easy, right?
OK, so it's the exact opposite of easy. Marquette Tribune student reporter Mark Strotman decided to talk to Marquette coaches and former walk-ons to get a feel for the program's annual tryouts. The good news? Walk-on tryouts are "one-tenth of a normal practice" in terms of difficulty, according to Marquette assistant coach Brad Autry. The bad news? They still sound incredibly difficult:
Autry said the tryout will be “one-tenth of a normal practice” in terms of difficulty, and while players will have a chance to show off their skill sets in a number of drills, stamina and focus will factor in largely as well.
“We do want to put some strain on them, in terms of when you get tired,” Autry said. “What is your physical condition level and how do you respond when you get fatigued? Do you just float off into space or do you keep fighting through it? As much as you can on a limited scope, you try to get an idea about the kid’s toughness physically and also mentally.”
Say you manage to outshine the rest of your hopefuls in the tryout and make the team. That's when the real fun begins.
[Rob] Frozena, Marquette’s only four-year walk-on, quickly de-bunked the myth that being a walk-on is easy or, for that matter, any different than being on scholarship.
“You have to give the same effort, the same intensity,” he said. “And even though you may not have Division I talent, you’re expected to be a Division I basketball player.
“You have to be willing to rebound for a guy at 11 p.m. if they want to get up shots, you have to be willing to push them as hard as they need to go even if they don’t want to go that hard or you don’t,” he added.
“Being a walk-on at this level takes a special kind of person,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “The work is very demanding and the rewards, if any, are limited at best. Hard work and dedication are without question the biggest attributes necessary for success.”
If you were to run a cold cost-benefit analysis on the like of a walk-on, I'm pretty sure the costs would drastically outweigh the benefits. Oh, you're saying I have to work as hard as every other player on the team, but I also have to be willing to help the guys who actually play at times that are not convenient for any college student, let alone with an already-packed schedule, and I'm still going to have a pile of student loans waiting to kick in a few months after I graduate? Gee, where do I sign up?
But few walk-ons see it that way. If they did, they wouldn't be walk-ons. Which is why we love walk-ons. In a money-gorged college hoops world where teams compete for the best players in the world -- and lesser players can be asked to give their scholarships to incoming stars at any time -- the walk-on decides that being a part of the team is still worth it. There's something deeply noble about that.