One Last Shot: A story about trying out for the Butler men’s basketball team

Staff reporter Drew Favakeh participated in tryouts for the Butler men’s basketball team. Photo by Drew Favakeh.

DREW FAVAKEH | STAFF REPORTER | dfavakeh@butler.edu 

In the HRC, deep into the night, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A friend had some surprising news: Butler basketball open tryouts. Tomorrow.

Butler basketball tryouts? Tomorrow? The club basketball team?

No, Butler men’s basketball had open tryouts on Oct. 4.

Their first open tryouts were held in 2014, and back then, Trey Pettus made the team. The year before, Pettus was Butler club basketball’s leading scorer. Butler currently has two walk-ons, junior guard Campbell Donovan and redshirt freshman Mike Parker. Butler was looking for another piece for their roster.

Could it be me?

At first, I scoffed at the idea: me? A division-one basketball player? I am not a club basketball player, nor have I played basketball religiously in years.

As I untied my shoes, for whatever reason, the idea festered in my mind. Drew Favakeh. Division-one basketball player. It had a nice ring to it.

Making the Butler basketball team would be a dream come true. Growing up, I wasn’t a fan of Butler basketball. My two teams were Illinois — my father’s alma mater — and Duke — since I attended their summer basketball camp for three years as a child. There, I received an outdoor Duke basketball. It became worn-down over time.

On my gravel driveway in rural Illinois, I dribbled that Duke basketball for hours and hours on end. I lost that ball — my dream, too. The furthest I got was varsity basketball. I had one division-three offer. But I chose University of Illinois, which I attended for two years.

Last September, I tried out for the G-League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants. I knew I didn’t have a chance to make the team. The Butler men’s basketball tryouts were different because I had a chance. At least, I thought I did. I would only know if I tried, right?

***

The next morning, in the South Campus apartments, I searched “Butler Men’s Basketball Tryout.” 

In wrinkled khakis and ripped Sperry’s, I lugged my Adidas basketball bag and one-strapped my backpack, I stumbled out of Irwin’s doors. To the HRC, I went.

”Where is everyone?” I asked the HRC receptionist, who looked at me like I was a tourist that jumbled the native language. He pointed to the Efroymson Family Gym, likely wondering where my sense of pride was.

I arrived in the newly-renovated gym, where five or so participants practiced, alone. Some were form-shooting, others stretching.

It was clear: we were lone wolves, intent on catching the prey of the coaches’ attention.

Straddling the entrance to the gym was coach LaVall Jordan, clad in a Butler basketball sweatsuit. Next to him stood his assistants. Against the wall leaned Butler senior center, Derrik Smits.

On the wall was the shot-clock, which read 8:32. I quit admiring my surroundings and tied my shoes. I jogged over to the shot-clock table and greeted manager Kai Bates-Diop. I signed the necessary paperwork. When I finished, I was surprised to see there were still four minutes left on the clock.

I jogged to the bathroom, where I changed into my basketball attire — a fitted Nike t-shirt and high school basketball shorts. I tied my Kyrie Irving 4’s. As I bent down, my hamstring buckled, Achilles heel tightened — reminders that I had played basketball the morning of and ran six miles the day prior. Also, a reminder that this decision was spur-of-the-moment.

I licked my hands, rubbed the souls of my shoes, and pounded my chest — the same routine I had in my high school basketball career.

The clock buzzed. After a few more players rushed into the gym, there were eleven of us. Brandon Crone, Butler basketball’s coordinator of operations, added more time. Two more minutes, he said. Two more minutes until my dream lived or died.

***

The Butler basketball open tryouts were no Rudy knockoff. It wasn’t a case of one human overcoming tremendous odds through numerous trials. Rather, it was one tryout for one spot. Everything was on the line. Furthermore, the worst player’s best performance put them in the running; the best player’s worst performance eliminated them.

What made it fair, then, was our similar skill sets. While unique, our skill sets had a way of evening out. My time playing with the other players in pick-up games at the HRC confirmed this: where one player was a windmill artist, another was a ball-handling whiz, another a shooting deadeye.

I didn’t feel out of place like I did at the Fort Wayne Mad Ants open tryouts. There, a 7-foot-4 man made me look like Bilbo Baggins. Here, I did not stand out for my height, a driver’s license five foot, 10 inches. It was my above average ball-handling skills which kept me afloat. Or was it my hot-and-cold jump shot? Whatever it was, I had a chance.

Crone called us to the middle, huddling us up. Speaking carefully and thoughtfully, he told us to do the drill two times.

The first drill indicated the tryouts would be easy. The mere name of “cut shooting” made it seem simple enough. We ran over to the same basket, where we split into two groups. On opposite wings, we lined up.

Midway through the drill, the drill stopped. I waited for the ball. I stood there: One. Two. Three.

Next! Coach Crone yelled.

I buried my head into my sweaty shirt. It was then that I realized I did it three, not two times. Then, somehow… I did it again. After doing so, I scurried back to my line, hiding behind another player. I peered over towards the sideline. No one is watching, right?

Sure enough, there he was — coach Jordan — stroking his chin, approaching the drill slowly. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to.

Midway through the drill, Coach Crone halted the drill. Questioning our lack of communication, he said, “Hey, we gotta talk more.”

Later, I sat down with coach Crone in the meeting room. To him, I explained my mindset, from which the quaint environment was born. Here’s how I saw it: others’ success was a downfall in my existence. While Crone understood my perspective, his is more of an optimistic nature.

“Anytime in life, even outside of sports, when you’re rooting for others, or you’re okay with seeing others do well, you’re going to do well,” Crone said. “It’s hard to have fun in a quiet gym, but once I said something, the energy picked up.”

From there, the gym echoed with “Let’s go!” or “Nice shot!” The amount of hand-clapping was unquantifiable and probably unnecessary.

As we moved onto the next drill, Butler assistant coach Jeff Meyer stopped us. He had a buzz cut. Neatly tucked into his black athletic shorts was a Butler basketball t-shirt. An assistant coach for 40 years, Meyer has amassed 772 wins and 16 NCAA tournaments. In short, he’s seen a lot. 

Still, he told us, this was the most energy he’d ever seen in an open tryout.

Strutting to the next drill — called “zig-zag,” a full-court one-on-one game — I was confident. We would do the drill four times down-and-back. Before doing so, we had to partner up. The problem was, there were eleven of us. Someone would have to play defense twice. Fine by me.

I had already crowned myself the title of my high school’s unofficial charge leader, “imma speak it into existence.” Gritty is used to describe a player who compensates for a lack of skill and/or height with sheer effort. If nothing else, I’m gritty.

Playing defense sapped my energy, though. Before we moved onto the next drill, I propped my elbows on my knees. Eagerly, my peers waited for the next drill: the five-on-five scrimmage. I feared it.

***

I crossed over and slung a left-handed pass to a teammate under the basket. It flew out of bounds. Call it risky, call it dumb, but don’t call it miscalculated. I’ve made some nifty passes in the HRC, I promise.

The only time it mattered, though, was in that moment. I knew it mattered because coach Meyer halted the practice again, this time not beaming with positivity.

As he stared into my eyes, he said something along the lines of, “Take care of the ball or you will not make the team!” 

Whatever it was, it pierced my soul.

Butler senior center Derek Smits laughed at how we — ahem, code word for I — responded to Meyer.

“That next possession was a minute long and no one looked at the rim,” Smits said. “It was really funny. No one wanted to shoot. Saw a lot of fundamental passing and no shooting whatsoever. It was hilarious.”

Every season Crone played at Butler, from 2003-04 to 2006-07, the Bulldogs were top three in the NCAA in fewest turnovers. To no surprise, then, did he take note of my turnover.

“That’s been a staple throughout Butler basketball,” Crone said. “Our lenses are always on that. I would say your pass today was not any worse than Bryce Nze tried to throw yesterday. We had to run for it, too. I just didn’t make you run because it was a walk-on tryout.”

At the end of the tryouts, I sat in coach Crone’s office for 20 minutes. A few starters — Kamar Baldwin, Jordan Tucker, and Sean McDermott — walked by. I asked them where Crone was; they weren’t sure.

I emailed Crone. He was out of the office, so he sent his phone number. I texted him, and we scheduled an interview for two hours later. It turns out he was at Flatwater, a restaurant in Broad Ripple. Over lunch with coach Jordan and other assistants, Crone said the staff didn’t discuss the walk-on tryouts, but, rather, celebrated their new signee, Jakobe Coles, a four-star recruit according to ESPN.

I interviewed him in the meeting room. He sunk his 6-foot-6 frame into a chair. On the beige, ovular table in front of him was a whiteboard, with nine dots on it. Crone said Campbell Donovan had been “battling some injuries.” While Donovan has only seen 43 minutes of game action, he makes an impact in practice.

“He comes in every day, challenges KB, AT,” Crone said. “He knows the offense and so he’s been instrumental in helping guys get better in practice. And that’s what we wanted to see: is there someone else that can help with that?”

Crone said the coaching staff wouldn’t be looking for a player who “could hit 25 threes,” but one who could defend senior guard Kamar Baldwin, the fourth all-time leading scorer in Butler history, and handle the pressure of junior guard Aaron Thompson, Butler’s second-leading player in steals last season.

“It’s not always the sexiest thing,” Crone said. “Who blocked out? Did he block out? Did he stay in front? Can he keep his hands in front of him?”

Flash-forward a week later. On Oct. 17, I emailed Crone, asking whether the staff had come to a decision. Crone said they mistakenly forgot to email some attendees; I was one. After looking through the film captured by Efroymson’s newly-installed camera, they decided to not add another walk-on. 

While several factors played a role, the main reason was how long it would take to integrate the walk-on. Butler’s first preseason game was Indiana University-Kokomo on Oct. 26 and the regular season starts on Nov. 6 against IUPUI.

But, hey, at least Crone said he appreciated the effort and coachability I showed.

***

But there were also other Butler students whose basketball dreams were dashed.

In-between the zig-zag drill and the five-on-five scrimmage, everyone partnered up for free-throws. I partnered with freshman biochemistry major Jack Dicen.

Back then, Dicen saw me miss three straight free throws. He saw my shoulders droop, elbows prop onto my knees. So he told me, “It’s all mental. Pain is temporary.”

Dicen is all about lifting others at their lowest. This summer, he trained his sister, who played varsity basketball as a seventh-grader. At 5-foot-8, he tried to instill in his sister a “growth mindset.”

“I tell her: every day there’s someone taller or shorter but the thing that can set you apart is how hard you work,” Dicen said. “And your attitude towards everything you do.”

Dicen’s Butler Basketball fandom sparked from an early age. The first time he saw the team play was in 2011, when they visited his hometown of Birmingham, to face the University of Alabama-Birmingham. His favorite player soon became Ronald Nored.

“[Nored was a] great leader, very vocal, great defensive player, could pass the ball better than pretty much better than any player on the court.”

During the last five-on-five game, Dicen took what seemed to be a charge. Although, Crone called it a blocking foul, and handed the ball back to the offense.

“I kind of just stepped up and tried to make a play,” Dicen said. “It was the effort that was there. It was a good try.”

It was a junior strategic communication major, Joe Rowan, who shone brightest.

At 6-foot-3, Rowan flashed a complete package. After seeing consecutive plays where he sunk a left-footed and right-footed fade away, one could only wonder Rowan was not a member of the club basketball team.

“I mean, this has always been a dream of mine — to walk on somewhere,” he said.

Rowan looks up to his father, who walked on at Ball State. The night before the tryouts, he called his father.

“Give a hundred percent of your effort, that’s all you can do. Make or not make, that’s all you can do,” Rowan recalled his father saying.

To cap the night, Rowan watched Rocky IV for the first time. His favorite scene is the montage of Rocky Balboa training in snowy Russia for the fight against Ivan Drago.

Balboa ultimately wins the fight. Rowan lost this one. We all did.

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