With just two minutes remaining in USC’s 65-42 drubbing of Stanford on Thursday night, junior walk-on guard Eric Strangis stepped on to the Galen Center court for the first time in his collegiate career.
The entrance lacked the typical Hollywood-esque feel you’d assume would accompany a young man’s final fulfillment of an improbable dream.
There were no raucous chants or thunderous ovations from those still in attendance.
My guess is that from the opposing bench, to the few loyal souls still remaining in the student section, Strangis’ appearance on the court went largely unnoticed.
But if ever there was a journey in amateur sports that personified the rarest kind of persistence and optimism, it’s the one told from the heart of the Trojans’ No. 20.
The life of a walk-on athlete is typically not the stuff of legends. The same long hours that future professional athletes dedicate at the collegiate level still apply whether you are a starter or a third-stringer whose only exploits come by way of filling water cups or slapping high fives in the layup lines.
A sane person likely would laugh at that job description, admit his or her finest athletic days are gone and slowly migrate into the university’s intramural leagues.
For Strangis, walking on to a Division-I program didn’t seem like social purgatory or an athletic death sentence, but instead an opportunity to be a part of something that people search for their entire lives.
“Being a part of a team like this is more than I could have asked for,” Strangis said. “I came in with no expectations, but now I have been given the chance to be part of something that is bigger than myself.”
If anything though, the chance was earned, not given.
For most students, the transition to USC is defined by going Greek, searching for a suitable on-campus organization or, if all else fails, watching reruns of favorite movies on Netflix.
When the 6-foot-4, 190-pound guard came to the university back in August, he did the one thing that had come naturally to him his entire life: basketball.
Through his connections with a trainer in the athletic department, Strangis began competing in offseason scrimmages with members of the USC basketball team.
“As soon as school started, I just started hanging around the gym all the time,” Strangis said. “I started talking to some of the coaches, and from there it all just started to happen.”
Strangis started to really assert himself in scrimmages, workouts and conditioning sessions, but the one man who had yet to see the native of La Crescenta, Calif. was O’Neill.
But Strangis, the grandson of former USC track star Sam Nicholson, was undeterred by the fact that he had still yet to meet the Trojans’ coach.
When even the most patient of players likely would have called it quits, the former guard at Moorepark College and Cal Lutheran failed to give in to what seemed like an exercise in futility.
“The funny thing is it never formally happened, believe it or not,” Strangis said with a smile. “It’s crazy even to me. I was told that [the USC coaching staff] thought I could walk on, but there was a chance they wouldn’t open up any spots.”
Although Strangis wasn’t guaranteed a spot even when the team opened up season workouts on Oct. 15, the junior left it all on the practice court, as if he had nothing to lose.
And frankly, if the pursuit of the dream had ended before USC opened their 2010-2011 campaign on Nov. 13 against UC Irvine, no one would have faulted him for coming up just short.
But eight days after his first practice with the team, Strangis was informed by O’Neill he would be playing in the annual Cardinal and Gold scrimmage.
Although zero points and one rebound during his 14 minutes of playing time during the scrimmage isn’t the type of idealistic dream-come-true moment Disney likely engraved into your subconscious, the light at the end of the tunnel was finally in view for Strangis.
Including his stint last week against Stanford, Strangis has played a total of seven minutes this season, while logging two personal fouls.
But if this absurd tale of pipe-dream-turned-reality teaches us anything, it’s that the junior guard isn’t infatuated by statistical accomplishments or glorified attention.
“It’s a mentality that you have to have because we practice more than we play,” Strangis said. “You’re not really having expectations of playing in the games. You just want to do whatever you can to help the team win.”
Strangis will never play professional basketball. It is a fact he knows just as well as you and I.
But sometimes it takes an athlete who continues to compete as if he has nothing to lose to reaffirm that at its core, sports still promote the selfless, steadfast devotion and unjaded ability to dream.
“For The Love Of The Game” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Dave at email@example.com.