Robbie McKenzie never intended to play basketball at Baylor University, at least outside the intramural courts.
He earned all-district honors at his tiny high school in Gainesville, Texas, but he wasn't a college prospect, and that worked out just fine for him. McKenzie, his class valedictorian, planned to major in premed and go on to become Dr. M, not Dr. J. But despite the rigors of his academic schedule, he always managed to find time to lace up his high-top sneakers.
"I probably played more when I came here than I did in high school," he said.
He never intended for basketball to be more than a recreational break from his studies. But his plans changed after he won a spot on the Baylor team after an open tryout in October.
"It's been crazy," said McKenzie, 22, a senior academically. "I've made some sacrifices, but it's all been worth it."
McKenzie, five other walk-ons and a handful of lesser-known scholarship players, forming perhaps the most hodgepodge roster in major college basketball, have started the healing process for a program, a school and an entire community rocked by tragedy and turmoil.
Last summer, Patrick Dennehy disappeared and later was found shot to death. Teammate Carlton Dotson was arrested and charged with his murder. If that weren't enough, coach Dave Bliss resigned weeks later when officials learned he scandalously tried to cover up alleged NCAA violations by concocting a story that Dennehy was dealing drugs.
With the school placing itself on two years' probation, including a one-year ban on postseason play, the top players _ forward Lawrence Roberts, point guard John Lucas III and guard Kenny Taylor _ all transferred. Given the extraordinary circumstances, the NCAA allowed them to play immediately at their new schools, and each has prospered.
Roberts averages 16.5 points and 10.8 rebounds for No. 19 Mississippi State, Lucas averages 12.5 points and 5.1 assists for No. 24 Oklahoma State and Taylor averages nine points for No. 16 Texas.
"Our guys follow them and wish them the best, except when we play against them," said coach Scott Drew, who left Valparaiso after his first year as coach. "Because of those players leaving, it's created some opportunities some of these guys wouldn't have."
Sophomore forward Corey Herring had three points last season. He averages more than twice that. Sophomore forward Tommy Swanson averaged less than a point and a rebound last season; he averages 7.4 points and 4.7 rebounds and has a team-high 13 blocks.
But Drew has needed the walk-ons, if for no other reason than to have 5-on-5 practices.
Enter McKenzie, a 6-5 junior forward. After encouragement from senior guard Matt Sayman and senior forward Terrance Thomas, McKenzie decided to give the open tryout a shot. He was one of 40 wanna-Bears. Drew chose one. McKenzie got the call on his cell phone about five minutes before a biochemistry quiz.
"It was kind of tough to concentrate," he said with a laugh.
"Socially and academically, they've been great for the team," Drew said of the walk-ons. "And then basketball-wise, in practice and games, they've really helped us."
But more than providing extra bodies, McKenzie and fellow walk-ons Will Allen, Ryan Pryor, Turner Phipps and Nino Etienne (a sixth, freshman forward Mark Shepherd, was added Thursday), have provided some soul.
"We really feed off of the energy they bring," Sayman said.
Though McKenzie and Allen, a sophomore guard who also was a walk-on last season, play the most (about 13 minutes combined a game), Drew has inserted the original five as a group in six games for a total of 19 minutes.
The Bears have been outscored 42-24 in that stretch.
Not that you'd ever know it from the crowd.
"The first time I saw that happen, that was the loudest time I've ever heard it," said Tim Watkins, a senior business major who for the past three years has played the baritone in the pep band, the "Courtside Players." "To see five undersized, not as talented guys come out and really hold their own, fighting for every inch, it was wonderful."
"I get more excited to see a guy like Robbie McKenzie, someone handpicked out of the student body, than guys who've been playing competitive basketball their whole lives," said Jeff Leach, a junior political science major and the student body president. "I think the students are far more supportive this year than in recent years. They have rallied behind this team and the new coach."
Folks appreciate moxie.
"It's been fun to have the crowd behind you," Allen said.
Wins have been scarce for the Bears (5-11 overall, 0-3 in the Big 12), who host Iowa State tonight. But despite an ever-changing roster, they have maintained a positive attitude.
"We're the closest group I've ever been around," Sayman said. "Every day, we work hard, but we joke and keep everything upbeat."
"We've had to come together from everything that's happened," Allen added. "Everybody really does get along so well. We're here with our friends playing basketball."
If Drew has done nothing else in his short time in Waco, he has helped create and nurture that mood.
But that is his nature.
"Scott always sees the glass half full, not half empty," said his father, Homer, the longtime Valparaiso coach who reassumed the job this season. "He's always had to work hard for what he obtained in life, and that background made him a perfect fit for the Baylor situation where you've got to find the good. And to me, as long as players work hard and put the effort forth, they're winners."
Texas Tech coach Bob Knight sees it that way, too, no matter what the standings indicate. His No. 18 Red Raiders trailed the undermanned Bears 55-54 late in the Jan. 17 meeting in Waco before rallying for a 75-66 win.
"I thought Baylor played very well in our game," he said. "People underestimate the talent that Baylor has there right now. They've got good talent and they've done a good job with it."
But the Bears intend to do more.
"Having gone through what we did, there's a responsibility on the part of everyone here to say, "That's a low point, but that's not how you can characterize Baylor University,' " McKenzie said. "Baylor stands for a lot."