Picture the Walk-on Retreat in Las Vegas.
Custom dictates it takes place at a casino on the very end of The Strip. Each guest arrives to chants of “We want (state-your-name).” No comp rooms at this convention — walk-ons pay their own way. No drinks until last call, and then it’s a rush before the buzzer to drain a triple.
Should be a blowout weekend, which is when walk-ons are at their best.
There is talk of such a thing, a get-together to celebrate the characters at the end of the bench. They are the ones who make their mark as human victory cigars. They grow into crowd favorites because they’re often the size of normal people.
“People think of walk-ons as funny,” Wichita State senior J.R. Simon said. “We like to let people know the stories about our side of it.”
On Tuesday, Wichita State (25-4, 15-1 Missouri Valley Conference) plays host to Evansville (14-15, 5-11) in the final regular-season home game.
It is likely the final Koch Arena appearance — barring an NIT game — for Simon and Zach Bush, who are WSU’s only seniors.
Bush, from Eisenhower high, is the lone Shocker remaining from 2012-13, the Final Four season in which he redshirted. Simon, from Oklahoma City, came the next season. He is on scholarship as a senior.
Bush has played in 60 games during his career; Simon in 81.
Both took to their roles enthusiastically by working hard in practice and leading the cheers from the bench. Simon was trusted enough in previous seasons to finish the first half or start the second at point guard when foul trouble hit starter Fred VanVleet.
Most walk-ons know their role. Bush gave up a scholarship offer to NCAA Division II Washburn to play for the Shockers. At Kentucky, Tod Lanter played three seasons knowing he gave his best minutes as a bruiser in practice tasked with defense and rebounding.
“I knew my role would be miniscule,” Lanter said. “My job was to sacrifice my body and push people around.”
It is that spirit and experience they share with around 70 other former and current basketball walk-ons in a group known as the Walk-on Fraternity on Twitter (@WalkOnFrat) and in their private GroupMe chats.
“You’ve got to have a sense of humor,” said C.J. Holmes, a former walk-on at Auburn. “You’re not the team’s go-to guy. You’re actually probably the 14th or 15th option.”
Bush, Simon, Holmes, Rem Bakamus at Gonzaga are among the group’s first members. It started during the 2014-15 season, according to Bush’s memory, when Bakamus and Holmes started contacting other walk-ons.
It grew into a Twitter account. ESPN’s Jay Bilas took notice. There are hopes for a walk-on retreat in Las Vegas. They’ve discussed entering a team in The Basketball Tournament, a summer event with prize money that attracts ex-NBA players. They follow each other through box scores and highlights and meet when their teams cross paths in tournaments.
Getting on TV for a sideline celebration — Gonzaga walk-ons specialize in the “Three guitar” and the “Three drums” after a three-pointer — is a victory they all savor. When a walk-on makes ESPN’s highlights, it’s a highlight for all of them.
“We always try to keep up, every game, see if the guys score, see if they get in the game,” Simon said. “You cheer for them. We’ve all been through it.”
The main point of the conversation is to swap stories.
“There are a lot of inappropriate stories that we can’t tell,” Bush said.
Here’s one: Bush and Simon quickly noticed not all walk-ons are coached at a scholarship level. They feel WSU coach Gregg Marshall instructs them just as diligently as he does Landry Shamet or Shaq Morris, which is just the way they want it.
“Coach Marshall says we deserve to be coached just like everybody else,” Bush said.
That, they discovered, is not true for all coaches.
“One of the guys — I won’t mention any names — he said that his coach came up to him at practice and asked him where he had been the past few days,” Simon said. “He’d been there every day. The coach didn’t notice him.”
Holmes said he had a scholarship to Virginia Tech before a coaching change ruined those plans. He followed high school teammates to Auburn. He almost committed a walk-on faux pas when he started dunking in warmups before a game at South Carolina to impress a girl in the crowd.
That was OK until the officials took the floor, at which point dunks were not allowed under previous rules. Holmes dunked and his teammates looked at him strangely, expecting a technical foul.
“The whole gym went silent,” he said. “I was really feeling myself. The only reason I didn’t get a technical was the refs weren’t looking.”
at No. 25 Wichita State
- When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
- Where: Koch Arena
- Records: UE 14-15, 5-11 MVC, WSU 25-4, 15-1
- Radio: 103.7-FM
- TV: Cox 2022
- Online: ESPN3.com (blackouts apply)
at No. 25 Wichita State
Evansville: (14-15, 5-11): Brown leads the MVC in scoring and is on track to keep that title at Evansville for a fourth straight season. D.J. Balentine won it the previous three. … The Aces led Bradley by 14 points with 14:02 to play before losing 84-72. Bradley made 13 of its final 20 shots while the Aces missed 13 of 17. … Evansville shoots 71.7 percent from the foul line and has attempted 669, most in the MVC. … The Aces can finish anywhere from sixth to 10th in the MVC.
Wichita State (25-4, 15-1): The Shockers defeated the Aces 82-65 on Jan. 17 after trailing by 13 points in the first half. WSU made 11 of 19 three-pointers. Shaq Morris scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. … WSU’s scoring margin of 19.3 points ranks second nationally behing Gonzaga (23.7). The MVC record is 22, set by Cincinnati in 1959-60. … McDuffie averaged 12.5 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 70 percent from the field in two games last week.
RPIs as of Friday: UE 195, WSU 41