This tale begins on a Saturday night on the streets of Isla Vista, somewhere between the front of my place on D.P. and the walk to Estero at one in the morning. I mentioned offhand to some of my friends who had been drinking too heavily that night about a tryout for walk-on spots open to all Santa Barbara students for the UCSB men’s basketball team the next day at 5 p.m.

I figured there’d be 6’10” monsters of mash tomahawking jams all over the joint, or 6’6″ wingmen scorching their way through the lane. All this to secure a nice, warm seat on the bench. The players trying out would be swooping birds, and I’d be the one-inch worm.

Though there were no players that completely dominated, the caliber of talent was high.

The Gauchos are a Division I basketball program, and there’s nobody on the planet that can take that away from any of the players. Santa Barbara might not reach any Final Fours in the next few years, but the team is still loaded with D-1 talent that can probably defeat any college team in this country on any given night.

And after deciding to go the tryouts just to see what it takes to get pulverized by Adama Ndiaye and Branduinn Fullove in practice, I realized how tall an order that was. I would learn how hard each and every one of the scholarship players on Head Coach Bob Willliams’ squad works day in and day out. Regular season and off-season. 12th man to four-year starter.

I woke up Sunday morning, groggy but in fine spirits. By the end of the day, I knew my place in the world, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be on a basketball court in Rob Gym. Me on a basketball court against top-notch basketball players is the equivalent to finding Dom DeLoise relishing burning all those calories in a Bally’s.

There I am, actually walking into Rob Gym in And 1 mesh shorts with some tar on them from sitting on the beach too long. I’m a slacker. I’m also wearing an old Oakland Athletics mean green Tee, a sign of things to come. I enter the gym.

* * *

The court is slick at Rob Gym, and 16 guys are ready to fight for one or two spots on the practice squad, according to Assistant Coach Marty Wilson. 12 scholarships are given, and there is room to carry two walk-ons for practice purposes.

The coaches are going to make up their minds in an hour. One hour of skills, endurance and persistence – and only two guys would survive.

Wilson and Assistant Coach Matt Stock tell the group that they’re simply looking for a body to be abused in practice. And normally the Gauchos wouldn’t even need that. But injuries are unavoidable.

Freshman swingman Cecil Brown is probably going to redshirt the 2001-02 season due to a back ailment. That’s one spot for certain.

Now two. Sophomore center J.J. Todd, the biggest and tallest body on the Gauchos’ roster, has been nursing a herniated disc in his back since June, and the pain is radiating to his leg.

No offense to the second guy who was selected to walk on, but I’m hoping J.J. gets back on the court healthy in time for the Nov. 17 home opener against Westmont. Any kind of nerve damage, especially in the back, is scary to think about, and neither J.J. nor the coaches have an accurate estimate of when he’ll return.

* * *

I don’t think Williams and Assistants Wilson, Stock and Campbell are looking for a 5’10”, 140 lb. shooting guard slower than molasses whose playground name on the blacktop in high school was Ill the Thrill. If I was even considered to make the team, then studying physics through osmosis would be thought of as the ideal guideline for all studying. That said, I think my younger brother would have a better shot than I would.

My brother David is three inches shorter and he’s got 15 pounds on me, but he’s all muscle. Yeah, my bro can bench 240 right now He’s four years younger and he can jump higher than me. I can jump over a can of kosher dill pickles. He can jump across the Potomac River. Yeah, he’s good.

But I’m still here trying to find out what it’s like to be a D-1 player.

* * *

Wilson and Stock lead the drills. Williams is watching while stretching out on the side. Campbell is watching stoically on a folding chair.

I feel like a piece of meat.

First thing, we run up and down the court a couple times to loosen us up. Ok, I’m not panting yet. A couple of stop, look over the shoulder, sprint drills were followed by a three-man weave. Basic dribbling skill tests followed.

Then came the man-on-man dribbling drill where one guy has to stop the other guy from getting by in a reasonable amount of time. I’m matched up against a shorter but stockier and quicker player. He did a great job of getting in front of me and slowing me down considerably. I had to work like hell to get by him. When I defended him, my man slipped twice and I poked the ball away from him another time. That’s a slippery floor, not my astute defensive skills.

After some shooting drills, we play some 4 on 4. I am the last player picked up. No feelings hurt, I still defend hard in both of the short games. My highlight came in the first game when I used two picks to bury an 18-footer at the top of the key. Other than that, I just tried to play hard defense and try to help my team win. No turnovers, picked up a loose ball here, passed for an assist there. Not bad. The tryout ends – I didn’t collapse -and walked out on my own two feet.

Five minutes to six, the players huddle and finally disperse after the coaches let us go. One guy staggered to the stoplight in front of the gym looking like he just got out of a pub in Dublin and got the beating of his life. Half those guys were hurtin’ for certain. Nearly all of them before leaving Rob rested against the bleachers. But they were troopers, all of 15 of them, working hard to play a game they love.

Trying out for the UCSB men’s basketball practice squad team as a walk-on was one hell of a way to conclude a weekend. I knew I didn’t have a prayer even before thinking about going against top players who were the cream of the crop outside the team. But that wasn’t the point of my going out there on a Sunday afternoon.

Now I have even more respect for the guys working, who give their hearts and souls to the team. Wilson likened regular practice to being three times as intense and then some.

The guys who play for UCSB’s team are exceptional athletes and extraordinary basketball players. I’m just glad I got a taste of what competitive basketball at one of the highest levels is all about.