For more than four years, David Velasquez had brought the basketballs out before practice and put them away when it was over.
He’d edited film for the coaches, put out uniforms before games, driven the head coach to the airport and gone to the gym to rebound when players wanted to work on their shot.
As a manager for the San Diego State men’s basketball program, Velasquez wore his Aztecs polo shirts with pride and felt like a valued part of the team. He was a guy who got thousands of assists every season without ever getting a chance to score a point.
Then, one day in January of 2007, that changed.
In his fifth season as a manager, Velasquez -- who’d played in high school and served as a point guard for the scout team in San Diego State practices for a year and a half -- got to live out the dream of everyone who’s ever handed out a towel.
Coach Steve Fisher made him a player.
Because of a shortage of guards and Velasquez’s work on the scout team, the Aztecs needed a body on the bench, and he went from putting out uniforms to putting one on.
In the team’s first home game after he was activated, against 13th-ranked Air Force, Velasquez was sent into a game the Aztecs had well in hand with about 90 seconds remaining.
Five years later, he recalls how strange it felt.
“I was so eager,” recalls Velasquez, now on Fisher’s staff as director of player development. “But at the same time, I’d been in this gym for four-and-a-half years, every single day, at every practice, at every game, and the only time it felt foreign to me was when I finally stepped on the floor and checked into a game.
“I looked around like I had never been there in my entire life.”
* * *
Over the years, managers have been activated to play at big and little programs across the country, but their numbers are small.
Some -- plucked from an anonymous herd of thousands -- have called their chance to play surreal and said it was something they never imagined. Most got to play only a few minutes; others played for a full season or more, with a tiny minority becoming starters.
For each, their common denominator has been a love of the game.
Many became managers because they were high school players or hoop junkies. Quite a few saw managing as a route to coaching, such as Velasquez and current Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel, who started three seasons for Div. III Juniata College before transferring to Kentucky to be a manager and learn from Rick Pitino and his staff. While there, he also played for the Wildcats’ junior varsity team.
If you’ve got hoops fever, you can manage it by managing.
“That’s actually what made me want to become a manager, because I just couldn’t picture myself not having some kind of interaction with the game, or any game, really,” says Jamie Booker, in his second year as a player at Tulsa after three years as a manager for the Golden Hurricane. “Because if there wouldn’t have been basketball, I probably would have tried to be a manager for the soccer team, because I really like soccer, too. But basketball is my passion.”
That, too, was the case for Michael Santa, who grew up in basketball-obsessed Indiana, played in high school as a 5-foot-8 guard and signed on as a manager for Indiana University because he says it “never occurred” to him that he could play for the Hoosiers.
“Just to be a manager was an honor, and then to find myself dressing and actually get in a game, it’s just absolutely crazy,” says Santa, who was activated for the last five games of his sophomore year after being a manager for nearly two seasons.
Like Velasquez, Santa had played a role in team drills during practices, scrimmaged with the team and played “dummy defense,” when head coach Tom Crean decided to activate him for the last five games of the 2008-09 season.
“I was raised an IU fan, so my whole life I grew up watching Indiana University basketball and seeing the candy stripes run out and all that, and to actually get my name called and to walk up to that scorer’s table, it’s still an experience I can’t really describe,” he says.
* * *
Ryan Darling’s story is a bit different than that of most managers who get to play, in that (A) Darling became a significant contributor for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a member of the Big West, and (B) he was one of the tallest managers in the NCAA at 6-8.
After managing during his sophomore season, he was activated, redshirted one year and then played two seasons for the Mustangs. In his senior season he played 26 games, averaged more than 13 minutes and 3.5 rebounds while playing against programs including Wisconsin, BYU and Saint Mary’s -- and showed enough skill to play a season of professional basketball in Germany.
As a kid, he’d played hockey and soccer, but didn’t take up basketball until his junior year at Tehachapi High in Central California, when his height caught coaches’ eyes.
Though he played well for the small-division school, he got no college offers and went to Cal Poly for the academics, never thinking he had the talent to play in Division I.
“I didn’t take it seriously,” says Darling, who now works for a financial consulting firm in San Francisco.
But once on campus, Darling got the bug. He tried out as a walk-on his freshman season but didn’t make it. He started playing with members of the team, got serious and tried out again the next year.
“I did great in the tryouts. I was having slam dunks over people,” Darling recalls. “I thought, ‘Hands down, I’ll probably make the team.’ But they actually just had tryouts as kind of a formality. They had a full roster, but the coach recognized that I was serious, and I told him that I’d do whatever I needed to be to be a part of the team, and he offered to let me be a team manager.”
Over the next year, he did all the duties managers do.
But he said he’d be “cleaning up the sweat [on the court] when somebody takes a charge when I just wish that could have been me taking the charge.”
As time went on, Darling got to participate more and more in team drills and worked out with the team in the offseason. The next year, “I started practicing just like nothing had happened, and the next thing there was a jersey waiting for me in my locker.” He had made the team.
He says that season of managing -- being so close to the court, yet so far away -- became a driving force.
Darling realizes his “entire journey” from his two failed tryouts to becoming a manager to making the team and then playing in Europe is something he never dreamed of. He says being around the team as a manager pushed him over the top.
“It gave me the drive and ambition to say ‘I need to try to do this for myself, or I’m always going to regret it,” he says.
* * *
For Tulsa’s Booker, the final chapter of his story has yet to be written.
After playing six minutes over 10 games for Tulsa last season after earning his roster spot via his work on the scout team, he’s played seven minutes in two blowout victories this season.
He’d been a 6-2 post player at Booker T. Washington High in Tulsa, but was happy managing.
“I got to help those guys and be with those guys every day, helping them with drills, helping them with other things,” he says of the players. “I never really felt an ego about it, like I should be out there.”
When coaches asked if he wanted to be a player, however, he jumped at it.
And when he finally scored on a put-back basket after an offensive rebound, he was sky-high -- even though he could hardly celebrate because it came at the tail end of a lopsided loss to Memphis.
“They were excited for me,” Booker said of his teammates. “But it was kind of hard to really celebrate it because, I mean, we were getting beat. … I was happy for what all it took to get there, but I kind of wish it’d come in a different kind of atmosphere.”
At Indiana and San Diego State, meanwhile, the moments in uniform for Velasquez and Santa were brief.
Santa was active for five games, played in three and went back to being a manager for his junior and senior seasons (he graduated in 2011).
“When Coach [Crean] officially told me I’d be dressing for that first game, we kind of had a deal,” recalls Santa. “‘After this year, it’s back to being a manager.’ I said that’s no problem.”
Today, the Indiana jersey he wore is framed and in the safe hands of his father, a Hoosiers fan, and he says he has no regrets about going back to managing. He can always tell people he was a D1 basketball player.
The only thing he regrets is not cashing in on his one big chance.
“I don’t know if you’d call it a highlight or a lowlight,” he says. “I played at Wisconsin and actually got an offensive rebound. I thought I was going to have a put-back opportunity, but I got fouled and went to the free throw line. I missed two free throws. But that game I played a few minutes, I recorded a foul and got an offensive rebound, so I officially got in the books that game, at least.”
Velasquez, too, is in the books with one stat: a steal in his first game against Air Force.
“Oh, the ball was as big as a beach ball,” he says, laughing. “I went and grabbed that thing as fast as possible. I took it from the back side. I’ll never forget that moment. I remember stealing it and not knowing what to do next.”
Velasquez had come to San Diego State because he wanted to be a coach like his father and brothers. A family friend, former Stanford coach Mike Montgomery, now at Cal, recommended him to Fisher.
He says managing suited him, and he learned more about the game by being with the coaches, listening to them, watching practices and sitting in on meetings while also playing on the scout team.
After walk-on tryouts his final year, he says assistant coach Brian Dutcher told him they might need him if their roster got too thin. Late in the season, when that happened, another assistant came out of a meeting and told him, “It looks like you’re going to suit up. Would you want to do that?”
Says Velasquez: “I’ll never forget looking at him and saying, ‘Well, what would you do?’ And I thought to myself, ‘Before you answer that, yeah, I want to suit up.’”
Like the other managers suddenly activated, he had to fill out paperwork and make sure he was NCAA-eligible.
Soon he was in the San Diego State pregame layup line at the Thomas & Mack Center, getting ready to play UNLV and being congratulated by opposing coaches and players.
His total playing career came down to three games, two shots taken and zero points.
He learned, too, that when he got into games in the final minutes, it was every man for himself.
After all those years managing, Velasquez couldn’t wait to put up a shot and see his name in the box scores. Trouble was, everyone else had the same idea.
“When I got in, I was so upset with the freshmen and other walk-ons that got in with me, that they took three shots before I even got a look at the basket,” he says, laughing. “There is no sharing the wealth at the end of a basketball game, if you really watch. … The first open look you get at the rim, it’s fire away.”