- The Washington Times - Friday, January 31, 2003

There are less than two minutes left in Georgetown's pre-Christmas thrashing of Norfolk State. The competitive portion of the game has been over for well over an hour. Hoyas All-American Mike Sweetney sits smiling on the bench. He's taken his game face off and put his warm-ups on. The scoreboard shows the Hoyas have a 40-point lead on the hoops have-nots from the MEAC.
It's Trenton Time.
For the first time since tip-off, the sparse crowd at MCI Center rises to its feet in anticipation. The only man capable of keeping them from the exits has sprinted to the scorer's table. Georgetown senior walk-on Trenton Hillier races onto the floor, a determined blur among nine others trudging along in various stages of boredom, fatigue or resignation. Hillier personifies enthusiasm, and the crowd loves him for it.
He takes an inbounds pass under the Georgetown basket, and the MCI Center erupts. For some, this is a moment of vicarious bliss, as the 5-foot-10 Everyman in a Georgetown uniform scoots across halfcourt.
For many, it's conquest's ultimate exclamation point, the perfect finishing touch for a roundball rout.
And for a few, it's simply a comic sidelight, a parting chuckle after the serious business of Division I basketball.
The roar of the crowd reaches a crescendo as their hero confronts a defender at the top of the key and makes his move. Unfortunately, the ball is deftly swiped away from Hillier, who compounds his miscue by fouling to stop the resulting fast break.
The spell is broken. The moment has passed.
Some fans moan sympathetically. Others laugh cruelly. But most simply smile at the predictability of the sequence and head for home happier somehow thanks to Hillier.

Similar scenes are played out nightly in other arenas. Blowouts mean substantial bench minutes. And occasionally, if the margin is particularly wide and the mood particularly mellow, a coach reaches the very end of his bench. And there, at virtually every major-conference school in the nation, you will find a Hillier.
At Maryland, his name is Darien Henry. Top-ranked Arizona features bench-warmer Fil Torres. After Duke is through mercilessly pounding on you with it's rack of McDonald's All-Americans, Coach K might introduce you to Andy Means.
These guys are almost always walk-ons. And more often than not, size is as responsible for their status as skills. Some, like the 5-10, 150-pound Hillier, are like twigs among trees. Others, like former Georgetown bench denizen Brendan Gaughan, are 5-9, 195-pound chunks. And commonly, like yet another former Hoya, Pascal Fleury, they are 7-foot stick figures.
You see, awkward basketball shapes are crucial to the popularity of these players among fans, who in hoops parlance often refer to these last-second subs as "mascots." Nicknames are handed out to favorites. Fleury was known to all Blue and Gray backers as the "Canadian Nightmare" and the "Mantis." Gaughan was dubbed "Gong," paying homage to both the '70s game show and his erratic jumper.
Often drowned by the crowd's enthusiasm, however, is the fact that these are not mascots cavorting in fuzzy costumes for the purpose of amusement. Their efforts are in earnest. And not once has one of these players dribbled a ball off his foot and then screamed at a mock-adoring student section, "Are you not entertained?"
"It's kind of bittersweet," said Hillier when asked about his relationship with the fans. "I like the fans cheering and everything, but then I don't want to be that person that's just getting pity cheers. Still, it's great that they've come out for us, and so you try to have fun with it."
Hillier and those of his ilk spend their entire hardcourt careers trying to make the most of a difficult situation.
"Let me tell you about walk-ons," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, himself a former walk-on at Northern Michigan. "It's a brutal, thankless deal. These guys work their tails off in practice, often harder than anyone else. And there's no NBA contract waiting for them at the end of the rainbow. There usually aren't even any minutes for them, much less starts or glory. That's why the day I got to offer [sophomore Tim] Bograkos a scholarship was one of the highlights of my career."
Bograkos represents the walk-on paradigm. Last season, injuries and a thin bench forced the freshman from Flint into Izzo's rotation. Bograkos responded by becoming one of the Spartans' best perimeter defenders. And when Marcus Taylor departed early for the NBA last spring, Izzo gave Bograkos his scholarship.
There are a slew of similar success stories fueling the dreams of walk-ons around the nation. Current Alabama starter Antoine Pettway spurned scholarship offers from smaller schools and walked on because he always wanted to play for the Crimson Tide. He quickly made himself invaluable to coach Mark Gottfried, earning both his scholarship and his nickname ("Full Ride") before last season. He still wears the garish crimson sneakers he brought with him to Tuscaloosa to remind him of his roots.
"I got my red shoes because I wanted coach to notice me so bad when I was a walk-on," said Pettway, who loves it when opposing fans call him "Dorothy." "I still wear them so I don't forget that you can never quit working."
The most bizarre walk-on story this season, however, belongs to Duke, where top-100 recruit Lee Melchionni wanted so desperately to play for the Blue Devils that he agreed to pay his way as a freshman, effectively giving coach Mike Krzyzewski a sixth scholarship for this season's incoming players. We'll put that down as reason No.1,081 to hate the Blue Devils.
But Bograkos, Pettway and Melchionni are obviously exceptions to the rule. The so-called mascots typically reside at the opposite end of the walk-on pantheon. They are basically practice players, guys who are forced to glean the bulk of their satisfaction by running alien offenses and defending superior players behind closed doors.
"I have a blast in practice," said Hillier after watching Georgetown's overtime victory over West Virginia earlier this month. "That's where I have fun. I treat that like other guys treat games. And I hold my own, definitely. That's my time."
In fact, few if any walk-ons subject themselves to the daily rigors of college basketball for the sporadic 30-second appearance in mop-up time. And they certainly don't do it for their oft-derisive ovations.
"I do it to be a part of this tradition," said Indiana walk-on Joe Haarman recently. "I get to wear the candy-striped pants, man. I get to put on that uniform. And do you know what number they gave me? No.11 Isiah Thomas' number. How sweet is that? If fans want to be sarcastic, let 'em. They can chant my name all they want, because I know they'd love to have this jersey on."
Georgetown assistant coach and former player Chip Simms (1990-92) also endured life on the end of the bench for the chance to experience tradition.
"The single biggest factor in my decision [to walk-on at Georgetown] was the chance to learn from Coach [John] Thompson," explained Simms, who credits the Hall-of-Famer with planting the coaching seed in him. "His gym always was a classroom. Maybe I could have played more at other schools, but playing for Coach Thompson was a tremendous learning experience."
And Simms isn't the only local coach who learned his trade from the end of the bench. Marymount's Chuck Driesell was the fan's choice for blowout duty when he played for his father at Maryland in the mid-'80s.
"I wasn't a walk-on. I just wasn't very good," Driesell said last week. "And I guess I did become kind of the crowd favorite. It wasn't a bad thing, necessarily, but I wouldn't have preferred it. I don't think too many guys really like that type of treatment. But it was certainly worth it to experience a program of that caliber."
And it certainly prepared Driesell for coaching at Marymount, where there are no athletic scholarships.
"Certainly, I can relate to a lot of the guys and empathize," said Driesell. "But you know what? All guys should play ball for the love of the sport and no other reason."
Therein lies the beauty of the bench jockey. No amount of humiliation can dent his determination. You can question his talent but never his commitment, because his love of playing the game runs far deeper than any fan's love of playing games.

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