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Behind The Story: Ryan Toolson's lost game

In the March 9, 2009 issue of ESPN The Magazine, Tim Keown wrote a piece about the little-seen 63-point effort put on by Ryan Toolson this season for Utah Valley. Go here to read it, if you're an Insider. () Here now: some barely-ever-seen video from that contest and a Behind The Story piece with Keown.

The routine for reporting a magazine piece on a college basketball player is pretty much what you'd expect: a look at the team's schedule, a call to the school's sports-information department and a request for interview time. Sometimes there's wrangling—he's got a midterm that day so it's no good, or we don't know what time practice is that day, or Coach doesn't allow the guys to talk on Mondays unless it's in a 15-minute window between lunch and film. Really, sometimes it's almost that random.

The best approach, at least in my experience, is to conduct an interview after I see the subject play. No amount of research or video can compete with drawing observations from watching an athlete play in person.

In this case, the subject was Ryan Toolson, a little-known guard from little-known Utah Valley University. There's not much out there on Toolson—a few YouTube videos, some of them in gyms so empty you wonder if there was a quarantine in effect. But he can score, and he found his way onto our pages after putting up an NCAA season-high 63 points in a game against Chicago State. That game was seen by so few people nobody had video for the highlight shows that night. SportsCenter mentioned it, but there was nothing to show. It felt a little like 1973.

It's a general rule that lesser-known athletes and lesser-known schools are more receptive to our requests. They're eager to get their players some recognition and their schools some publicity. No shock there, and the Utah Valley people were gracious and hospitable. But when I scheduled my visit to Orem to watch the Wolverines play Lamar on a Monday night and meet with Toolson on Tuesday, sports information director David Kimball asked that I keep my plans a secret until after the game.

I didn't quite understand. "You mean…don't talk to anybody?"

"Well, it's just that coach doesn't want anyone to know you're here. He doesn't want Ryan to know you're here. He doesn't want it to become a distraction for the team."

This was a first. I've never been considered a potential distraction. It's not like I attend games in ESPN regalia. It's not like I travel with a posse. And there's no danger in me being recognized in Orem, Utah, at a basketball game on a Monday night.

In a weird way, I was kind of flattered. The coach, Dick Hunsaker, has been around enough to understand what's best for his team. He had a successful run at Ball State before a textbook scandal cost him his job, and he picked up for Rick Majerus at Utah for a year when Majerus stepped aside for a year because of health concerns.

The whole cloak-and-dagger thing made me more curious about the scene in Orem. I thought about wearing a disguise, before realizing nobody there knew what I looked like, anyway. I also knew Utah Valley, in the final year of a seven-year transition to Division I, was a basketball afterthought with BYU just up the street and Utah about 40 minutes away. I knew the Salt Lake newspapers never staffed the games, so there was a chance Hunsaker was right. Maybe it would be just me and the guy from the student newspaper, in which case I might stand out enough to be a distraction.

There were maybe 800 people in the arena, and there were more seats folded up than available for use. About 20 die-hard UVU male students sat at the end of the Lamar bench and harassed the opposition relentlessly. There weren't many of them, but they were loud, especially whenever a Lamar guard they called Slim Shady—pretty predictable if you'd seen him—had the ball. The game was on a local-access television channel, and the production looked professional if limited.

There were three media people there. The guy sitting next to me to me was stringing for a Texas paper. He didn't say a word until there were five minutes left and they started playing "Sweet Home Alabama" during a timeout. Then it was on—pens for drumsticks, feet tapping, head tilted back in the traditional baying-at-the-moon position. Talk about distractions.

Toolson played great—scoring the 2,000th point of his career in the process—and UVU won big. Hunsaker took Toolson out of the game with about 3.5 minutes left. Then, during a timeout, he stood at the back of the huddle with a towel around his neck, he started waving and smiling while looking straight at me.This was different. Had my cover been blown?

By this time, there were maybe 500 people in the building, and roughly 490 of them were on the other side of the arena. So I stole a glance over my shoulder and saw an older couple in the first row above the press seating. They were waving, which relieved me greatly.

It turns out they were Margaret and Ron Baker, Toolson's grandparents. They drive 2.5 hours from Monroe, Utah, every time Ryan plays at home. And they get that same happy, gracious greeting from their grandson every time.

After the game, when I told Toolson he wasn't supposed to know I was coming, he rolled his eyes and shook his head. "That's coach," he says. "If scouts come to the game, he won't tell me because he thinks I'll press too much and get out of my game. I know he's looking out for me, but I think I have to be able to handle that if I want to keep playing next year.

"It would not have changed the way I play at all if I'd known you were here." And here Toolson paused. "No offense, of course."

Trust me, Ryan—none taken.