Column: Practice squad guys don't need the spotlight to shine

Josef Strak, Brandon Hebert and Shane Andriano are members of the women's basketball scout team. They receive no scholarship money and simply play for the love of the game.

So this is where the game of basketball has brought sophomore Michael Scott, here to the baseline benches at the Student Recreation Complex. It’s nearing 8 p.m. on a Friday night, and he just got done putting on a show.

He was in a forest green sleeveless shirt with MICDS, for Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School, on the right side of his chest. It’s like the former second team all-stater popped out of his YouTube highlight reel (produced by a paid professional) and was back at the private high school.

Scott can score all right. Here, he could be seen scaling the floor and finishing at the rim at 6 feet 2 inches. Sometimes he’d catch and shoot, a respectable touch indeed. But every time he did, he’d point to the guy that passed him the ball as if to say, “That was all you.”

"And maybe they do grow up to be the Jeremy Lins and the Tim Tebows. But most times they end up here, on the benches at a recreation complex."

Even more than two or three points, Scott enjoys the feeling that comes from threading the needle. Yes, a big smile etches over his face just thinking about it.

“I feel like I get more happiness off making a good pass than scoring,” he says.

Of course, that’s not to say he wants any praise after making those beauties that made some bystanders go “Ooohhh!” Still he’ll point to the teammate who scored, as if to say it again: “That was all you.”

But above any facet of his game, Scott takes pride in his defense, the aspect of the game that allowed him to get on the court when he was a toddler, when the other kids wanted their time to shine in front of their mommies and daddies and weren’t so quick to pass. His dad always told him shots were never guaranteed anyway. Defense could be.

Scott averaged 17 points and three steals as senior at MICDS,. He drew interest to play at the next level, and his choice was the UM-St. Louis. His name was added to the roster. But, with two weeks prior to the start of term, he backed out of his scholarship and enrolled at MU.

It had something to do with UMSL being only a five-minute walk from his house.

“I just didn’t want to stay around,” he says.

Rather than dedicate to a small-school basketball team, the appeal of a top-50 business school and the prospect of a better job title stood out.

So, he chased the game.

He tried walking on to former Missouri men's basketball coach Mike Anderson’s team as a freshman and turned enough eyes to merit an individual look of 30 minutes of drills in front of assistant Matt Zimmerman. He fondly recalls the quick game to three he won against Jarrett Sutton, a graduate student on the team now.

He never did get called back, but Scott chased the game once more.

He tried walking on once more this year, but the Frank Haith team that would go on to be ranked as high as No. 2 in the country seemed to have a set roster.

The sports realm has a wide population of dreamers. Kids grow up emulating Michael Jordan under their driveway lights and listen to the invisible crowd in front of them. They cradle a football and rehearse the jukes and spins they saw the previous Sunday afternoon. And maybe they do grow up to be the Jeremy Lins and the Tim Tebows.

But most times they end up here, on the benches at a recreation complex.

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It’s late in the afternoon on a Wednesday practice for Missouri’s women’s basketball team at Mizzou Arena. And this is where the game has brought freshman Brandon Hebert, donning a red penny with white tape forming the number 42. Brittney Griner, who’s singlehandedly revolutionizing the women’s game, will arrive here with Baylor in a couple days. Hebert, standing a full 6 feet 3 inches, does his best to model the 6-foot-8-inch Griner.

Hebert was signing a waiver to walk on with the men’s team when women’s assistant coach Randy Norton spotted him, impressed with his size, and told him he’d like to see him join a scout team he was putting together if the men’s squad didn’t work out. The men’s squad didn't work out.

Norton has been putting a scout team together for the past nine years coaching the women’s game, seven under Missouri coach Robin Pingeton.

“It’s very beneficial to our players,” he says.

It’s beneficial having more athletic threats to his players, especially when they prepare for a force like Griner. But, first thing’s first, Norton says.

“We’re looking for high-character guys," he says. "Good guys in general.”

Hebert, who says he picked up basketball at the age of 5, played at Red Oak High School, just about 20 minutes outside of Dallas. He was all-district as a senior, and a year later here he is, sweaty in official Missouri practice gear, posing a physical challenge to the team’s front-court members.

“We make them work,” Hebert says. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn't go hard.”

The guys don’t receive any benefits for the commitment, no scholarship money for their time and effort. And that's just fine by them.

"'I know some people think it’s weird that I’m playing with the girls, but I take a lot of pride in it,” Scott says, “You know, one door closes, another door opens.'"

At the end of practice, they walk toward the locker room. On their way, Pingeton looks them in the eyes and thanks them.

“I can’t put it into words," Pingeton says. "We wouldn’t see the growth we’ve seen without them. It’s an unbelievable group of guys … I wish I could do more for them.”

On game nights, they sit together behind the home bench, hoping to see their assistance transcribe into performance.

Norton’s had plenty of guys like Scott and Hebert come to him. There are 12 of them this year, and why? It’s quite simple, as Norton says it without even thinking twice.

“For the love of the game.”

Scott loves the game. And so, when he emailed his highlight video over to Norton and met one-on-one to join the scout team before the season began, he was chasing what he loved.

“I got over my ego,” he says. “I put my pride to the side and said, 'Hey, I’m gonna play with these girls and try and help somebody else, try to make them get better.'”

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The game leads all to different places, and the journeymen often intersect.

When he was in second grade, Hebert once met Dirk Nowitzi, who would be showered in confetti more than decade later, the hero of the 2011 NBA Finals. In high school, he played against Le’Bryan Nash, who would go on to be Oklahoma State’s freshman sensation and be engulfed by his school’s fans after leading an upset over Missouri in January.

One of Scott’s MICDS teammates, McPherson Moore, graduated with him and walked on to the roster at Georgia Tech. Throughout high school, Scott matched up with rival Chaminade’s Brad Beal, once Gatorade National Player of the Year, starring as a freshman at Florida now.

“I know some people think it’s weird that I’m playing with the girls,” Scott says, “But I take a lot of pride in it. You know, one door closes, another door opens.”

So here he sits on the recreation center bench, having come here straight after practicing with the girls. He’s watching the game played before him now, and it’s tough not to notice the guy in a baby blue Carmelo Anthony Nuggets t-shirt who keeps the ball in his hands and keeps taking all these terrible shots.

Scott smiles, shaking his head.

He knows that sometimes you have to let go and just allow the game to come to you.

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