Playing DI Ball…Barely
“It sucks to be at the end of the bench.” A player’s love-hate relationship with that bench.
by Nancy Singer Mautner
There’s always a chance that last year’s college bench warmers will turn out to be this year’s studs. The luckiest and most talented may even find themselves in the NCAA Tournament come March. Just like the top high school players from last year who instantly vault into the rotation at big-time college programs. What about the player who is not a superstar, just a solid role player? The 6-0, 175-pound guard who has great skills, an incredible work ethic, but isn’t being courted by recruiters from high profile programs. Is it all over for him when the buzzer sounds at the last game of the season? Mike Horn, a freshman at Binghamton University is that player. He’s a guy who’ll tell you basketball is his life. He’s not ashamed to admit that after his high school team’s season ending loss in the states last season (his senior year), he cried on the bus ride home because he didn’t know if, for him, “there would be a tomorrow.”
Unlike some of his high school teammates who ended up answering the call from DIII recruiters, Horn opted for academics over athletics. He headed off to DI Binghamton, last season’s America East Conference champions, knowing his chances of ever playing organized ball again were one in a million. Defying the odds, Horn recalls “a series of unfortunate events for the school, but a great opportunity for me.” Star player Tiki Mayben, arrested in September, wound up pleading not guilty to possessing and selling cocaine, but was kicked off the team. A couple of days later, the school booted five more players, including DJ Rivera, last season’s leading scorer, for conduct detrimental to the school and the program. The final blow was the indefinite suspension of head coach Kevin Broadus for an apparent NCAA recruiting violation.
Right about now, Horn is starting to salivate. “The next thing you know there are open tryouts, and I didn’t have to worry about being the only kid trying out for the team.” Horn admits he was nervous when he tried out, but says what helped was knowing what they were looking for. “Yeah, they were looking for the best skills, but also who was going to work this hard every day. Everyone is going to work hard in tryouts, but who is going to work that hard every day? What players out of the fifty kids who tried out will make the Binghamton University men’s basketball team a better team?” Suddenly, Horn is on a DI team.
Sounds like a “Hoop Dream” come true, doesn’t it? Now the reality check. While Horn practices and travels with the team, the odds of him getting court time are back to one in a million (although he did get in the game for about a minute at the end of the November 17th blowout against Pitt). “I know I’m not even close to being as talented or as strong as some of these players. I know I’m not the best shooter or the best dribbler, but I can work as hard as or harder than anyone else on the court. That’s the way I come across when I play.”
Horn has been down this road before. In fact, one could say his basketball career has come full circle. He says he never made if off the bench his freshman year at New Jersey’s Pascack Hills High School. He remembers when the Varsity coach came up to him and praised his skills and said he was looking forward to watching him play the next year. “I’m like, what does that mean? I’m sitting here on the bench and not really doing anything. But that was my motivation and I just worked hard every day because it sucks to be at the end of the bench.” Sophomore year they noticed him and by senior year he was one of the starting five, earning first-team all-conference honors. Now, once again, Horn finds himself as a freshman at the end of the bench, this time as a Bearcat. But now it’s different. “I thank god every day that I’m in the situation I’m in right now.” Say what?
Horn says the walk-ons weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the returning members of the squad. “It took awhile for them to accept me because the team already went through so much as it was. I’m not a Division-I basketball player, but I will work as hard if not harder than a Division-I player.” Horn says it’s taken about a month to earn that acceptance and approval, a month that involved a little good-natured trash talking at his expense. Now, he says, they accept and respect him because they know he’s there to play and he’s the real deal. “That was just another tryout for me,” says Horn. “I know I’m at the bottom, but I’m still on the team. We always put our hands in the middle and say ‘family.’ I’m part of the family now.”
Being part of the family also means taking some of the heat the entire team has faced on the road from opposing fans chanting things like “you sell coke!” “We go to away games and we hear chants that are disturbing, but that’s our motivation,” says Horn. “That’s how we’ll overcome it. I really feel like this team can do special things.” In a recent interview, interim head coach Mark Macon said putting this team back together is a “day-by-day process,” but the new walk-ons are working hard, giving him everything, and getting the experience they need to go up against college athletes.
“The number one thing is being the best teammate I can be. On the bench or off the bench,” says Horn, who is now profiled just like the rest of the guys on Binghamton’s website. In the meantime, he says he’ll keep trying to improve his game. “I know I’m not good enough to play right now but being on the bench is just amazing. Being in a Division-I program and playing against some of these other teams is amazing.” You heard him right. Being on the bench is amazing.
Nancy Singer Mautner is a freelance writer and editor. Her past experience includes staff positions at ABC, NBC and Unistar Radio Networks.