Dec. 14, 1999
by Bo Rottenborn
The walk-on. Every high school basketball
standout who does not receive a college scholarship has at
one time or another considered the prospect of becoming a walk-on. In the
increasingly skill-oriented world of college basketball, the presence of
walk-ons indicates that there is still room for a player who works hard.
There is still room for a player who puts the team first, even though he
does not have quite as much raw talent as a scholarship
So each fall schools across the country hold tryouts where all the
former prep stars have the opportunity of making their dreams come true
by moving on to the next level as a collegiate player. If a player is good
enough, he can earn a roster spot on his team and play every day in
practice. Very rarely do walk-ons ever get playing time in games, but it
does occasionally occur. Once in a great while, a walk-on is even upgraded
to scholarship status after years of hard
work. But it is ridiculous for a walk-on to even dream about becoming a
key player on his team, playing in every game and even earning a couple
starting nods. And it is seemingly impossible for a walk-on to eventually
become a captain of his team.
Someone should explain all this to Skylard Owens. The former
walk-on is now in the middle of living an incredible dream, serving as one
of the three co-captains of this year's Notre Dame men's basketball team.
"It's a great feeling," says Owens of his role. "To know that
you're going to be remembered in Notre Dame history as being a captain of
1999-2000 squad is pretty awesome."
Owens says the captaincy caused him to look back and reflect on
what had gotten him there.
"After I was told, I kind of looked back at
the last three years. I was a walk-on who played in one game his freshman
year. Each year I kind of built on that and now I am actually a captain.
I cant even describe what that's like."
The selection places Owens in the company of such Irish greats as
Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley and Pat Garrity. Not bad considering how his
career at Notre Dame started - or rather - almost didn't start.
Basketball had no influence on Owens' college choice.
"I had my mind set on coming to Notre Dame for the education,"
Owens said. "That was the only concern I had about college."
This was the case despite a quality prep
career that saw him average 13 points and 11 rebounds per game during his
In fact, Owens did not even decide to try to walk on to the
basketball team until
two days before tryouts began. At that point he was at a
restaurant with his friends and the topic came up in conversation.
"My friends said, 'Why wouldn't you try out?' I wasn't going to do
it, but they said 'You have nothing to lose. Just go ahead and do it.' So
two days before tryouts, I decided to try and walk on."
At that time he
could not have imagined how thankful he would be for his friends' influence
Owens remembers those tryouts with vivid clarity, recalling that
there were about 40 guys trying out for a few spots. He says that they
began doing drills and then were put into 3-on-3 situations. From these,
the coaches grouped everyone into teams for 5-on-5 scrimmaging, which
lasted for two days.
Remembering a time of naive uncertainty, he comments that he "luckily" made
it into the top group. On the second day, Owens was one of the two players
invited to walk on to the Irish.
As you might expect, this drastic turn of events over the space of
a four-day span proved to be a tremendous thrill to the green Owens.
"It was pretty exciting," he recalls, "I was shocked because I didn't think
I was in the shape or had the mindset to play college basketball at that
He wasted no time spreading the news, saying that he "stayed on the
phone for about four hours that night, telling people I made the team.
I was very excited."
Owens immediately noticed differences between the high school and
college game, saying, "The college game is a lot more physical. You've got
to have the body to go out and take a beating because the refs don't call a
lot of touchy fouls."
This difference combined with the normal adjustment to college life
and the transition to a practice player made Owens still question his
decision to play basketball at times.
"My freshman year I was kind of iffy about basketball because I
didn't know what to expect," says Owens, "In high school, you're kind of a
go-to guy on your team, but you get here and it's completely different. I
tried to take it one day at a time. I didn't want to think that maybe I
was wasting my time doing this and that I could be doing other things."
Owens made his collegiate debut on December 10, 1996, against New
Hampshire, seeing two minutes on the floor. He responded with a blocked
shot and two steals, but would not get off the bench for the remainder of
his freshman year.
Sophomore year saw the Shreveport, La., native improve enough to
receive more consistent playing time. Owens appeared in 14 games in
'97-'98, averaging five minutes per game. He scored the first eight points
of his career and played a career-high 19 minutes versus Miami (Fla.),
scoring two points and grabbing three rebounds. This set the stage for
Owens' junior year - his breakout season.
The Loyola College Prep graduate opened up the season with a
rebound and a blocked shot in five minutes off the bench against Miami of
Ohio. Not an extremely impressive beginning, but things would soon
improve. As the season progressed, Owens' role steadily increased as he
saw action in every game, playing for at least five minutes per contest.
When the BIG EAST season rolled around, Owens' contributions grew.
He had an 11-game conference stretch in which he averaged 14 minutes and
scored in every game. The highlight of the stretch came against top-ranked
Connecticut, against whom Owens had a career-high seven points and four
rebounds in 18 minutes. A few weeks later he followed with an all-around
performance off the bench against Providence. The Friars watched as Owens
played 18 minutes, collecting six points, a career-high seven rebounds, as
well as two assists.
The walk-on also had a career highlight on January 19, earning his
first collegiate starting nod against Seton Hall. Six games later he made
his second career start against West Virginia. Owens responded in these
games with six points, four rebounds, a blocked shot and a steal on 60
percent shooting in 26 minutes.
Owens finished the season with 60 points and 57 rebounds on 68 percent
shooting from the field, establishing himself as a key player on the
"Last season was pretty exciting," Owens asserts, "After my
freshman and sophomore year, that was something I'd dreamed of, actually
being able to play in every game and even to start. For the people on the
street to even know that you play at Notre Dame is something special for
me. That's something I can tell my kids in the future. Since I was a
walk-on, that made it even more special."
Owens says he has enjoyed the great support from the fans,
commenting "It seems like they pull more for walk-ons, not that they don't
the rest of the team. I think they like to see people who maybe don't have
as much talent as the scholarship players actually out there doing as well
as the scholarship players are. I think the fans really do get behind the
The hard work that caused the fans to get behind him along with his
hustle in practice combined to also make him a favorite of former Irish
coach John MacLeod. In fact, he had promised to award Owens a scholarship
for his senior season. But MacLeod's resignation left Owens wondering if
he would still be on the team this year, let alone as a scholarship player.
"I was real concerned," admits Owens, "It's not usual for a new coach
to come in and take another coach's walk-ons."
MacLeod's glowing review of Owens obviously made an impact on new head
coach Matt Doherty, who quickly decided that Owens could be an integral
part of his team. This caused Doherty to keep the former coach's promise,
offering Owens a scholarship for the 1999-2000 season.
"I feel like the past three years of hard work have actually paid off,"
reflects Owens on his scholarship, "It kept a little money in my wallet,
which was nice. It was one of the few times in my life that I have seen
hard work actually pay off. That's something special."
Owens credits Doherty for bringing about changes in the basketball
"Coach Doherty brought a new attitude to the team. We go out and
play now with the mindset that we can actually win the game. The guys go
out and play hard because they know if they don't, they're going to suffer
the consequences. He's brought an entirely new attitude to the team and
the guys are responding."
Owens sees this new attitude as a positive change that will send
Notre Dame basketball back to its former glory.
"I definitely think the program is headed in the right direction. I
seriously believe that we can make the NCAA tournament this year. The
only reason we wouldn't make the tournament is if we don't play to our
potential. I definitely think that we've got the program moving in the
right direction and this year can definitely be a stepping stone for the
Owens cites the upcoming non-conference stretch as a key to putting
together a season which would earn the Irish an NCAA berth. "We
can't look ahead because our next seven games are not against BIG EAST
opponents and we've got to keep those games in mind. Going out and playing
those games and winning helps separate the men from the boys," says Owens.
He adds that "in college basketball, if you're going to win the big games,
you've got to be able to win the smaller games against lesser-known
opponents as well. We're going to focus on those games before the BIG EAST
Owens has seen decreased playing time this season because of the
arrival of four freshmen that have each earned significant minutes. He has
seen action in two games this season (Arizona and Vanderbilt), recording
two points and three rebounds in nine minutes. Owens is an accounting and
computer applications major, saying that he likes "to work with numbers and
accounting is something where you definitely have control of the numbers
that you're working with. And computers are the future so I thought I'd
like to have knowledge of computer systems to work in a business in the
After graduation, Owens plans on getting a job at one of the "big
five" accounting firms. Then, he says, he'll "just go from there and see
where it takes me."
All in all, Owens has put together quite an incredible career with
the Irish, progressing from someone who was unsure of his desire to even
try to make the team to a team captain.
But more than that, he has provided hope and inspiration for every
athlete who has ever considered becoming a walk-on.