Photo by Jesse Denton.
Spotlights give the polished parquet floor a warm glow at the Memorial Athletic Convocation Center. Cheerleaders and dance team members chant in unison as the sound of squeaking sneakers fill the arena. The bandbox gymnasium is packed with faithful, blue-and-gold-clad fans, all attentively watching Kent State finish a blowout victory against Northern Illinois.
The game clock winds under three minutes when the first requests for Brian Frank are made.
The chant first starts slowly, with a few dedicated, gutsy student section members quietly repeating the expression. Unsuspecting students nearby pick up on the chant, and it quickly grows.
“We want Frank,” they chant.
“We want Frank.”
Soon, the entire golden sea of fans joins together as one, calling for the player hunched over in his seat toward the end of the bench.
“WE WANT FRANK!” they scream. “WE WANT FRANK!”
Frank, a 6-foot-5 walk-on Kent State basketball player, leans forward and looks in the direction of his head coach, Rob Senderoff, seated at the other end of the bench. Frank hasn’t done more than clap his hands or stand and wave a towel in support of his teammates. He hasn’t taken a jump shot since warm-ups following halftime. Senderoff keeps his eyes fixed on the game.
The clock nears two minutes, and the student section is relentless with their request, restating the chant, getting louder and more demanding with each repetition. They want to see the walk-on enter the game.
Senderoff looks down toward the end of the bench and motions for Frank. The students erupt with cheers as Frank rises from his seat, rips off his warm-up shirt to reveal his No. 30 jersey and quickly jogs to the scorers table at mid court.
Everyone’s favorite walk-on takes the floor.
A native of Gainesville, Fla., Frank was first recruited and enrolled at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. His time at Wooster was brief, however, and after struggling to find common ground with the coaching staff, he soon transferred to Kent State, where his father served as the university’s provost.
Wanting to be involved with the sport, Frank approached then-head-coach Geno Ford about volunteering his time as a team manager — but Ford had a different idea for the new arrival and suggested he instead walk on to the team.
Thanks to his father’s occupation at the university, his tuition was already paid, so why not join the team, Ford proposed. Frank gladly accepted, but the transition wasn’t quite as simple.
Walk-ons fill the rosters of nearly every college basketball team across the nation, but few stay with the team and dedicate all four years of their college experience to a team for whom they will rarely ever play. Frank isn’t Kent State’s only walk-on; sophomore guard Shakir Dunning is entering his second season with the team. Dunning’s profile on the university’s athletic website simply lists “appeared in 2 games on the season” in 2011-12. Thus is the popularity of a typical walk-on.
Frank now relishes the attention students give him at the end of a big Kent State victory, but that wasn’t always true. The first time the student section, nicknamed “The Krew,” called for Frank’s participation in a game, he was embarrassed.
“I kind of just looked at my teammates and was like ‘Is this serious? Are they really doing this?’ Then, as it happened from game to game, I really started to appreciate it,” he says.
“I used to play into it; I would hear a couple of them, and then I’d look over and egg them on and tell them to get louder. Then, I’d point to my coach and stuff like that, play around with it. It’s an honor, really, to be the one that they’re cheering for, and it puts a smile on my face every time that happens.”
Frank’s teammates encourage Senderoff as soon as the students begin calling for him, but the coach claims to remain unfazed.
“For me, nothing goes through my mind, but for him, I see he gets a little tight,” Senderoff says. “I know the first time that happened, I think there was an intentional foul, and I put him on the foul line. In practice, he’s probably a 90 percent free throw shooter, but he clanged the first one because I think he was a little nervous with everybody chanting for him.”
In one instance, Senderoff decided to have a little fun with it himself.
“When he did finally put me in, he kind of gave me a hard time about it,” Frank says. “He said, ‘Well, let’s give them what they want.’ Then he told me to go in.” “Usually, when I hear people chanting for Brian Frank,” Senderoff says, “I’m happy because that means we’ve won.”
It took more than a few weeks for Frank to acclimate himself to the pace and lifestyle of a Division I college basketball player. It took about as long for him to hit it off with his new teammates, most of whom were scholarship student-athletes.
“You’ve got to earn guys’ trust; you’ve got to warm up to people,” Frank says, “especially since you’re not contributing that much on the court. “I make jokes about being the walk-on. I’m not there to steal anybody’s minutes or embarrass anybody.”
Frank’s participation in practice fluctuates, he says. One day, he’ll be needed to play the entire practice, and other days, he will rarely see the floor. When he first arrived, Frank wanted to be on the floor at all times. It took him two years to figure out his role and how he can best help the team in practice.
“I’m not going to be the guy who is taking reps away from the younger guys,” he says. “I’m kind of over that ... Last year is when I figured out I know the plays; I don’t need to take time away from the guys who are going to do the majority of the playing ... It’s an ‘I’m ready to go whenever called upon’ kind of thing.’”
During one afternoon pre-season practice in late October, the team’s conditioning was placed in Frank’s hands. Two free throws, in the form of a one-and-one, lay ahead for the senior. Make both, and the next man is up for his attempt — but miss one, and his already-fatigued, sweat-drenched teammates have to run to the other end of the court and back in less than 10 seconds.
Frank approaches the free-throw line.
“Come on, B-Frank,” a teammate shouts.
Frank takes the ball, dribbles it twice and smoothly flings it off his fingertips, calmly sinking the first shot. Teammates wait nervously on the baseline as the captain sizes up his next attempt. He slowly looks up, cocks the ball above his head and releases.
The ball falls through the net. The senior leader proves why, whether he is a star player or walk-on, he belongs on this team.
While he may be best-known for his clapping and towel-waving abilities on the bench, make no mistake — to the lighthearted Frank, these are finely tuned skills.
“We use those huge towels,” Frank says. “They aren’t like a rally towel. You’ve got to like fold it in two and twist it around the wrist so it doesn’t fly off and hit somebody. It’s a technique; not everybody can do it.”
A version of musical chairs, a juvenile game typically played at children’s birthday parties, often occurs on the Kent State bench during games. Frank spends much of his time during games encouraging his teammates, all the while shuffling up and down the bench, seat by seat.
“Guys always want to go to the end of the bench when they’re tired or at the end of the game,” Frank explains, “so I would always end up scooting forward and sitting next to the coaches.
“I usually start near the end of the bench and then kind of work my way up and back down as the game gets more intense or less intense.” Frank wasn’t always as bold in his seating endeavors.
“Last year was the first year when I really started venturing up toward the front of the bench,” he says. “I never wanted to be that close to [Coach] Sendy. I never wanted him to look over and be like, ‘What are you doing up here?!’”
Daring quests and emotional advancements aside, Frank knows where he is most comfortable.
“My spot is at the end of the bench,” he says. “That’s where I live.”
While he may live at the end of the bench during games, Senderoff is quick to vouch for Frank’s character and leadership, so much that he named Frank one of three captains for the 2011-12 season. The move was unexpected to Frank, but he was honored and thankful for the responsibility. The new role is a rare one; it isn’t often in major college sport that a walk-on player eventually becomes captain of a team. But Frank has taken full advantage of his title and has become more vocal in practice.
Senderoff attributes Frank’s increased leadership to his class standing as a senior and the team’s overall lack of experience with eight newcomers.
“He knows that he’s a captain and he knows that I’m gonna have his back on the things that he says, because he’s gonna say the right thing,” Senderoff says. “I think it’s given him more confidence and more of an ability to speak his mind and say what he wants to say, because he knows he has an important voice on the team.”
Respect is not an issue when it comes to Frank and his teammates, Senderoff says.
“It is difficult when you’re a guy that doesn’t play, to be one of your leaders, but I think Brian does a really good job with that,” Senderoff says. “He knows what he can do, he knows what he can’t do and he knows that when he gets mad at guys, it’s mostly because of work because the one thing he can do is work hard, and he does work hard. He does a great job, and I think all our new guys respect him.”
Frank struggled with his position at first, fearing he might have a difficult time influencing his teammates when he doesn’t see much playing time himself. But his involvement with the program and his firsthand experience with a few of the greatest players in Kent State history provided him the leverage to voice his suggestions and encouragement.
“I’ve been here for so long, and I’ve seen the people that have been some of the greatest to come through here, you know, Chris Singletary, Justin Greene, Mike McKee, all these guys that played here and had long, really good careers,” Frank says. “I kind of just took it as, ‘I know what they did, and that’s what we should be doing.’”
Despite the raucous cheers at the end of victories, Frank knows his playing time is very limited and will remain that way in 2011-12. But he’s OK with that; he’s not one for the spotlight, anyway.
“I’m fine being the guy that lays low and doesn’t get as much notoriety because at the end of the day, it’s about the program,” Frank says.
Senderoff isn’t sure how much playing time Frank might receive this season, but he is dead set on one starting lineup, even if it doesn’t arrive until the final home game.
“I don’t want to say that there’s no chance that he will play, and I will say this, he’s going to start senior night against Akron,” Senderoff says. “I couldn’t care less if we’re playing for the championship or not; he’s earned that for sure. He will start that night. If we lose because of that, then we lose because of that; I don’t care. He’s earned the right to start that night, and he will.
“I love the kid and have the ultimate respect for him and appreciation for what he’s done for our team and our program.”
As the substitution buzzer sounds, Frank trots out onto the court to wild cheers from members of the Krew. A few possessions later, a teammate finds Frank wide open on the right wing, just outside the 3-point line and not a single Northern Illinois defender in sight. Frank catches the pass, lines up his shot and fires from deep.
The ball floats softly through the air, arcing high toward the hoop positioned just in front of the student section. The students hold their collective breath, hoping, praying for the ball to fall through the net.
The crowd roars, and the walk-on is officially in the box score.blog comments powered by Disqus