Being a basketball walk-on is a labor of love. This year's Iowa walk-ons are a special bunch.
I was fortunate to have walked on to the Iowa basketball team in 1979-80, the same season it would reach the Final Four.
I had a front row seat for that drama. And at every home game, I got to bask in the fanatical atmosphere of the sold-out Iowa Field House. I was equally grateful to have had the opportunity to play for a future hall-of-fame coach. Perhaps best of all, I was able to share the experience with my folks — former basketball players in their own right, who made the round-trip drive from West Des Moines to Iowa City for nearly every game.
But the life of a typical walk-on has its downsides, too. The end of each December marked the end of my playing time. The Big Ten season arrived post-New Year’s Day, and my minutes within Olson’s eight-man rotation dwindled to nothing.
I certainly was no Nicholas Baer (an exceptional walk-on), and perhaps I wasn’t even his brother (fellow walk-on Michael). Like team managers who work thanklessly, I sometimes felt invisible. Signing autographs, I frequently encountered a look that asked: “Who’s this guy again?”
Whether standing like a wingman witnessing the rapturous love Iowa fans fawned on my teammates to the mom-away-from-home relationship the recruited players had with coach Olson’s delightful wife, Bobbi, there were times I felt more like hired help than a member of the club.
But during practice, in the locker room or on the road, there were no such distinctions. We were all for one and one for all. We worked hard as a unit, lived in the dorm as a unit, ate at the training table and went to study hall as a unit. We fought over clothes and girlfriends and minutes on the court.
And yet, most of the time, we were able to check our egos at the door for the greater good of the team.
Having been the best player on my high school team, I could never quite shake the thought that sitting on the bench was a sign of failure. One way I gained solace and a sense of worth was playing on the scout team. Made up of the bottom five guys on the roster, the scouts had the responsibility to run the opposing team’s offenses to prepare our guys for upcoming games.
Blessed to play in a conference loaded with talent at my position (a 6-foot-5 forward), I was frequently tasked with emulating the opposing team’s best player. In other words, I was told to shoot — all the time. Frankly, nothing could have been better, shy of a bit of court time when it mattered.
Our scout team took great pride in running the opposing team’s offense well enough to confound those top eight guys, and to beat them on occasion. We lived for those days when we beat the starters. But it also felt odd, and we kept our celebrations to ourselves. After all, the better we played against the first team, the angrier coach Olson would get.
Walk-ons seek to create distinction for themselves in a quest to make the team better, and the current Hawkeyes are no exception. Michael Baer has a reputation for putting in long hours outside of practice. Nicholas Hobbs supplements hard work with personality, attitude and an approach off the court that enhances team chemistry. Austin Ash, a scrappy 6-2 guard, adds grit and an uncanny ability to confound Iowa’s renewed emphasis on defense by throwing in shots from anywhere on the court. Riley Till’s flashes of brilliance remind everyone how special Iowa basketball must be, because he could be a major contributor at several Division I programs.
One way that I sought distinction during my three years at Iowa was to be the first guy up off the bench at timeouts. I’d venture as far as midcourt in an effort to make contact with each player returning to the huddle. I don’t know if it made a difference, but it was one way I could demonstrate solidarity, emotional support and encouragement.
It was as close as I would get to meaningful game time, and I think the coaches appreciated it.
I came to Iowa because I wanted to play on a team that had a chance to win a national championship. That was more important to me than guaranteed playing time or stardom, but it was hard not to fantasize the “what-ifs” of going to a school where I could have started.
It took me several years to get over the “Oh, you played at Iowa. Were you a starter?” question. Any answer but “yes” took the air out of the conversation, of course. It reminded me of very tall people who never played basketball having to go through life hearing the inevitable icebreaker: “Oh, you must have been a basketball player?”
I once asked coach Olson how I could get more playing time. He invited me to his office and carefully explained.
“I sat in the living rooms of your teammates promising them and their parents that I’ve give them every opportunity to play. As a walk-on, you can’t just be as good, or even a little better than those guys,” he said. “You have to be night-and-day better before I will sit one of them to play you.” I hated his answer then, but it was fair and made perfect sense.
When you watch Till, Ash, Hobbs or Michael Baer patiently waiting, doing whatever they can to pump up their teammates while dreaming about contributing on the court, don’t feel too sorry for them. Being a scrub on a good team under a good coach can be a real gift.
I learned many valuable things sitting in University of Iowa classrooms, but nothing prepared me for life after college better than the discipline, teamwork and humility necessary to sit the bench.
Jon Darsee was a member of the University of Iowa 1980 Final Four team and a three-year basketball letterman. He now serves as chief innovation officer at the UI.