Everyone can picture the scene on Signing Day for ascending high school seniors who have been fortunate enough to be offered full ride scholarships at multiple Division 1 college basketball programs. The players are usually flanked on either side by their parents, siblings, friends, significant others, or former coaches that helped them get to where they are today; with the ability to grab one of three hats in front of them on the table and sign their letter of intent to play for the Kansas Jayhawks, UCLA Bruins, or Virginia Cavaliers, for example.
There are other, less ceremonious avenues young men and young women pursue to join college basketball teams though. It can involve texting, calling, or visiting assistant coaches on staff, or powering through difficult conditioning drills in an empty gym. It may entail following current players on the team in an effort to study and mimick the ways in which they get ready for a practice or a game. Regardless, the life of a prospective or current walk-on college basketball player is filled with a lot of hard work.
Walk-ons can be classified in a few different tiers by basketball programs. There are preferred walk ons, who usually have a guaranteed roster spot, and enjoy many of the same perks as full scholarship or partial scholarship athletes from a training and educational resource perspective. However, they do not receive any scholarship assistance from the school, and would have to pay their way through college(if they don’t transfer somewhere else with scholarship assistance).
There are walk-ons who are recruited by a college basketball program, and receive interest from the coaching staff—but are not offered financial scholarship assistance, and do not have a spot on the team reserved for them.
At the very end of the spectrum are walk-ons who make it without being recruited. Since they aren’t recruited and wouldn’t otherwise be on a school’s radar, prospects usually have to go out of their way to make themselves known by submitting high school/junior college game film, standing out by asking questions/discussing strategy with assistant coaches to display their acumen for the game, and other additional measures to get their feet in the door. This is the most difficult way to get on to a college basketball team, but most schools do leave the possibility open for talented and ambitious young men and women to get an opportunity in this fashion.
Kaitlin Cole can attest to this, as she walked on to the highly acclaimed Notre Dame women’s basketball team in 2017-2018. While realizing that she missed playing basketball competitively in college(after averaging over 18 points her senior year in high school), Cole reached out to the team to see if they would be willing to try out any new players. They told her that they would conduct walk on try-outs leading up to that season, and she spent her summer getting back into game shape. That good fortune, coupled with her hard work, paid off.
The concept of athletes “betting on themselves” has been much discussed when it comes to players in their contract years who are heading into free agency, but the term can also apply to a hungry, determined athlete who is comfortable receiving little of the glory and support their teammates might earn. Lamar Hull was a walk-on at Davidson University during the years when another, slightly more acclaimed guard named Stephen Curry was making a name for himself at the school. Hull only got into 12 games in two seasons during his two years with Davidson, but took a very cerebral approach towards how he would get noticed by head coach Bob McKillop and the coaching staff.
In his own words, Hull outlined several aspects of his success, which he was able to parlay into an opportunity to play professional basketball overseas. He highlighted the fact that while players often times look for splashy clips to send to programs in order to prove their worth, coaches are actually looking for players who have a strong command on the fundamentals, and who are in tip top shape.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a big man or a point guard, you should put every ounce of effort into making your lay-ups and jump shots within the 15-foot range. It seems like that is all I did in my walk-on tryouts. You will be stunned when you tryout and see that many of the players didn’t practice enough or work on these skills during the summer and can’t pull it off.” Via InspriationalBasketball.com
The former Wildcats guard also talked about using his tryout to specifically fill in needs that the basketball team might have. Hull actually recommended tailoring your workout or your footage(if possible) to highlight areas that the team you are trying out for might be deficient in, so that coaches don’t automatically dismiss you due to redundancy.
The good news is that in this day and age, it’s never too difficult to connect with someone who is going through a similar experience or challenge. The prevalence of social media has made it easy for prospective players, or players who actually achieve walk on status, to connect with each other and share encouraging messages. In 2014, two walk-ons at Gonzaga University and Auburn University found each other over Twitter, and formed a bond. Rem Bakamus and C.J. Holmes could talk about busting their tails off in practice, and working with other scholarship players in hopes of getting them prepared for the game, without ever expecting to play in a West Coast Conference or SEC game themselves.
The two players found the interaction beneficial, and decided to broaden the group to include walk-on players from all over the country. Eventually, the underground walk-on fight club reached about 60 players, who became very close despite usually not having met in person.
Even if a walk on position never does reap its rewards on the court, the networking opportunities that present themselves to get into scouting, training or coaching might be worth its weight in gold. Relationships cultivated over this time period could allow a walk on player to develop a career in basketball in many different roles, which could be another important factor for a forward thinking individual.