by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It’s true, playing big-time college basketball can get you fame, money and lots of female admirers. But sometimes you’re happy with a black eye.

“That was my proof that I was really on the team,” says Michigan’s Erik Szyndlar, who took an elbow from Robert Traylor in practice a few years ago, and got a shiner the size of Brazil. “My eye was so swollen, I couldn’t see or read anything. But I was telling everyone, ‘Robert Traylor gave me this!’

“It showed people that I really did play for Michigan.”

Szyndlar is what they call a walk-on, a guy who wasn’t recruited to play but through open tryouts somehow made the team. Walk-ons — and you might find this hard to believe — comprise nearly half of the Michigan basketball squad this season. When the Wolverines play Saturday at Duke, arguably the premier college basketball team in the world, they will be armed with such highly recruited players as Louis Bullock, Robbie Reid …

…and with guys like Blaine Denning, whose mother sent U-M coaches a videotape of her son in high school.

“I made the winning shot in the city championships for Cass Tech,” Denning says. “We were hoping they would see that tape and know I was a winner.”

Denning is a 5-foot-11 guard who, like a lot of walk-ons, was recruited by smaller schools, but passed in hopes of a better education at U-M — and somehow making the basketball team on his own.

That opportunity came, as it comes every year, in the open tryouts early in the fall semester. It’s what you might call the flea market of basketball talent. There are kids in silk uniforms and there are kids with book bags and jeans. They lace up their shoes, grab a ball and start running, shooting and dribbling.

And the coaches see what they have.

The thrill of making it

“It can get pretty wild,” says Brian Ellerbe, the U-M coach who was forced to scout the open tryouts more diligently than usual this year, due to the difficulties of recruiting after an NCAA investigation and Steve Fisher’s firing. “There are some guys who right off the bat you know have no business being there.

“But you have to give everyone a chance.”

Can you imagine this scene? Hundreds of basketball players, many of them out of their league, but all of them thinking, in the backs of their minds, that if they have a really good day, they might be dressing at Chris Webber’s old locker. It’s “A Chorus Line” meets “Rudy,” the collision of dreams with cold, hard reality.

Reality usually wins. This year, an older medical student (someone claimed he was 40) tried out and was upset when he didn’t make it. Some people take it harder than others.

“I was as nervous as you can get the first time out,” says Darius Taylor, a senior swingman who tried the open tryouts as a freshman and didn’t make it. He waited a whole year for another shot.

“It’s tough, because they start you in lay-up lines, then three-on-three drills, and then they have you play a game. You’re trying to show your skills, so you have to be a little bit selfish, but not too much, because you don’t want the coaches to think you’re a ball hog.”

Taylor admits he watched the coaches. He looked to see when they scribbled something down. He knew from talking to players that they were looking for guys willing to play defense and who had the ability to push the big-name players.

Still, he couldn’t resist the chance to dunk in a crowd, and when he did, he knew it was noticed.

Two days later, he was told he had made it. And he did what every walk-on does: He called his parents.

“My dad is a math teacher in Chicago,” Taylor says. “And I got him out of class and said, ‘I made it! I made it!’ “

“I called my parents and grandparents,” adds Denning, “but for me, the biggest moment was when I got my uniform. I kept looking at it, over and over, with my name on the back. I was so excited, I took a picture in it.”

A picture?

The reality of sitting

Now for those of you thinking that next year this could be you, or your son, or your grandson, a few pieces of advice from those who have made it.

First, as Szyndlar says, “We’re not here to play for Michigan, we’re here to make the team better. In a lot of ways, we’re just glorified tackling dummies.”

As proof, Szyndlar, a senior, has appeared in only three of the 10 games this season, has played eight total minutes, and has one basket. Taylor has been in three games, with no points. The other walk-ons, Denning, Donte’ Scott, Herb Gibson, Ron Oliver and Ramal Hunter, have scored, all together, three points all season.

So you don’t get into it for the numbers. Another piece of advice? “Class schedule,” Taylor says. “The most horrible thing is to make the team and then find out that your classes are the same time as practice.”

Almost as bad as making the team, then realizing your eligibility papers were never filed with the NCAA.

This happened to several Wolverines walk-ons this year, and as a result, they were not allowed to travel with the team to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational.

Still, if you make it, there’s the thrill of being on the same team that once boasted Webber, Terry Mills and Cazzie Russell. There’s the travel. The friendships. And if you last long enough, you can even earn a full athletic scholarship, as Szyndlar and Taylor have done.

So yes, it is odd that Saturday, against Duke, half of Michigan’s team will have come from open tryouts. But there’s something reassuring about that as well. It means that not every player was hounded with phone calls, sweet-talked by coaches, visited at home and flown in for visits. Some of them simply showed up at the gym, put their best sneaker forward, and let it fly.

“I always go back to the open tryouts, every year, just to watch,” Taylor admits. “It’s sort of like where I came from, you know?”

Everybody needs roots.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com. Albom will sign copies of his book “Tuesdays With Morrie” at 2-3 p.m. Saturday, Barnes & Noble, 4940 Monroe St., Toledo.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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