Blast off with The Rocket: What it’s like to try out for a college basketball team

Published by adviser, Author: Kendall Scott - Assistant Photo Editor, Date: October 23, 2016
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Basketball has always been an important sport in my family; from the levels of my father’s pick-up games to my aunt’s position as an assistant coach to Andy Landers during the 80’s, it is safe to say that basketball is a staple to the Scotts. I have chosen my March Madness brackets with life-or-death precision since junior high, and have had the honor of photographing nearly every Rock women’s basketball home game last year.

So when the opportunity arose for me to try out for our own SRU basketball team, how could I refuse?

Despite playing a wide variety of sports over the years (soccer, volleyball, and track in high school, and now being a rugby player for Slippery Rock), there was always one that I could never get the hang of: basketball. My short and forgettable basketball career lasted three years on recreational teams before I made it to the big leagues of the junior varsity team during my freshman year of high school. I retired my basketball career after that season with three points on my stat sheet.

Regardless of my game knowledge, I struggled with shooting under pressure and using my left hand for, well, everything. It could almost go without saying that my biceps, which I can nearly wrap my fingers around, were not going to be putting up 3’s on the board anytime soon. In terms of collegiate women’s basketball, my lanky body was considered average height, and below ideal weight. The closer I looked at the tryout date, I realized that tryouts would be directly after a rugby game day (which typically meant that I would not be able to move my neck, among many other body parts), and perhaps even more inhibiting, the day after my 21st birthday.

Unheeded, I continued with my tryout registration process.

After subjecting my arms to the primitive torture of blood drawing by needles for my Sickle Cell Anemia test, I made my way down to the athletic training office to complete the final part of my physical. I entered the training room, where a trainer asked me general questions and asked me to perform a series of basic body movements. When I said that I was planning on trying out for the basketball team, Ciara Patterson, one of my favorite players from the previous year to photograph due to her athletic ability, emotion, and background story, cheered from the corner of the room.

“Oh honey, you probably won’t be cheering when you see me on the court this weekend” I thought.

With two days before tryouts, I decided to pick up a basketball for the first time in seven years to get in some practice before the big day. I’ve grown as an athlete since my freshman year in high school, I thought. I should be able to perform better than my season of three points, right?

Evidently not.

Shot after shot bounced off the rim and backboard – the ones that made it that far at least. Adjusting from simply carrying a ball while moving to dribbling a ball was awkward. I shot from the top of the paint, the corners, the free throw line, and I even further embarrassed myself by trying a few three-pointers. The only thing that seemed to go somewhat correctly were rebounds and right-handed layups. At this point, my most practical position would be a very vertically challenged center at 5’9”, because my 20 percent field goal average did not bode well for any other position on the court.

The morning of tryouts came, and I miraculously made my way to the fieldhouse with minimal bodily damage from the rugby game (and other shenanigans) from the previous day. Accompanying me were two fellow reporters from The Rocket, Cody Nespor and Eric Davies, and my personal cheerleader Emily who refused to miss out on these certainly comedic next two hours.

Coach Campbell greeted us, and told me to loosen up in the twenty minutes or so before the tryout would begin. I found a cookie from yesterday’s football press box lunch packed away in my camera bag, which seemed like an appropriate pre-tryout snack. After my sugar fix, I stretched and practiced shooting some more, surprisingly performing slightly better than I had in my practice session two days ago. Back in my track running days, sometimes we would take antacid tablets to neutralize our stomach fluids, in hopes that we would not vomit during or after the race. It had a 100 percent success rate for me in high school, so I chewed a few, hoping that would help hide my breakfast if it wished to resurface.

Coach McGraw called the two other contenders and me over to begin. He explained that he was looking for an extra girl to add some depth to the roster, and that he was looking for three things in his new player: conditioning, attention to detail and heart. I knew that I was in mediocre shape, so I was a solid OK in this category. I had not participated in any sort of basketball drill in seven years, so the attention to detail was probably going to be my shortcoming. But I could make up for that in heart, right?

Our first drill of tryouts was a series of stationary dribbling, passing and ball control drills that we would perform with a partner. Because there were three of us, I was paired up with a current member of the team. At one point, we had to perform a set of six drills in order 20 times. I was too busy trying to remember the next step to count how many repetitions had already gone by, so the poor player had to catch my extra pass every time I started to do an extra set. I could already see a major deficit in my left arm strength, but hopefully they wouldn’t notice.

The next drill required us to move our feet quickly in place, and turn our hips at the coach’s instruction. We would then run up at a coach as if we were closing in on them, then backpedal to our starting point. My stomach did not handle the constant jostling movement well, so I found the nearest trash can as soon as we were dismissed for water. I made a mental note to take the antacids earlier.

After a boxing out drill, Coach McGraw had us run one of every athlete’s worst nightmares: seventeens. I completed the drill in a second under the time he required the team to make, so maybe that would make up for the vomiting if they were unfortunate enough to witness my sprint to the waste bucket.

Coach began asking us each to shoot a free throw between drills, and a missed throw would mean a sprint down the court and back. Naturally, I missed the first two shots, and sheepishly apologized to my fellow victims.

Following seventeens, we were asked to shoot from five places around a basket until we made five shots from each point. I performed surprisingly well during the first four stations – well enough to think that I was having an out-of-body experience and watching someone else. I was quickly brought back to earth during the fifth station, which took approximately 25 shots for me to make five.

Coach McGraw called me over for one final free throw, and explained that how much he makes his team run for a missed free throw in practice is based on the academic year of the shooter. “For a senior,” he looked at me, passed me the ball, and smiled, “we make them run a full homicide.”

You bet that was the only free throw I made that day.

The next few drills required dribbling around obstacles – something that I compare the visual of myself doing to a newborn giraffe trying to walk. Coach set up another drill, where each of us would shuffle in zig-zags down the court, yelling “Dead, dead!” wherever we would change directions, which coincidentally, described how my quads felt afterwards.

Surprisingly, there was something of substance left in my stomach, because I had to make my way to a trash can after this drill too.

After finishing the tryout with a homicide, Coach McGraw called us over for a dismissal, and notified us that we would be contacted if we had made the team. We shook hands, and conducted a final video interview before celebrating with Cody, Eric and Emily that I didn’t die or go through a third vomit rally.

I think I’ll just stay on the courtside with my camera from now on.

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