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BILL PLASCHKE

Trojans Build a Walk of Shame

Basketball players who endured a lot finally quit when they are told to give up front-row seats.

February 15, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

Who cares?

They were only walk-ons.

Why are we wasting space on walk-ons?

They played for the USC basketball team, but only sort of.

They weren't good enough to earn a scholarship. They were given uniforms only out of the goodness of Coach Henry Bibby's heart.

They usually played only in practice, only as fodder for the starters, only as bodies around which Brandon Granville could dribble and Jeff Trepagnier could dunk.

When they did get into a game, it was only in the final minutes, and they understood. They knew the rules. To endure all of the work for none of the glory was their choice.

They were only walk-ons.

Who cares?

Turns out, somebody cared.

Jamie Hooper, Abdullah Elmagbari and Rob Eres cared.

For two years the Trojans' three basketball walk-ons endured numerous petty slights without complaint.

They would suit up for the games but sometimes be denied postgame pizza given scholarship athletes.

They would actually play in a holiday tournament game but not be given the welcoming gifts offered all participants.

Every uniformed player on the team but them received new midseason sweat suits this season.

Elmagbari played in 10 games last season, yet, like the other two walk-ons, this year his biography was not in the media guide, and his name was not even on the media guide roster.

This season, in fact, only one of the three walk-ons was supplied with shoes.

Not that they were griping. They weren't. They figured this is how USC does business with the least of its student-athletes.

They kept their mouths shut, thankful for a chance to sit on the bench.

Until three weeks ago.

When they were told they couldn't even do that.

They were ordered to sit in chairs behind the bench. It was an hour before the home game against Oregon State. A team manager gave them the news.

They requested a meeting with Bibby outside the locker room for an explanation.

"We weren't asking for shoes or sweats or anything anybody else gets," said Elmagbari, a senior forward. "We just wanted to know why, since we practiced and worked and dressed with the team, suddenly we couldn't sit with the team."

According to a letter they mailed Athletic Director Mike Garrett, here's what Bibby told them:

"[Bleep] that, you guys either suit up and sit behind the bench or you guys are off the team for good! I don't need to talk to anybody that's a walk-on on this team."

So the walk-ons walked off, quitting on the spot.

And, truth be told, the Trojans haven't lost any games or sleep because of it. A couple of other kids were given uniforms and used as practice meat. Nobody has to worry about ordering that extra pizza.

Who cares?

Maybe somebody should.

It was once said that the true measure of a society is in how it treats its least fortunate.

If the same standards apply to a local university, private as it may be, perhaps we should all care.

The only complaint of these least-fortunate walk-ons, surprisingly, was the issue about the bench.

Bibby addressed this Wednesday, saying, "I need team doctors and managers on the end of the bench so they can get to the players faster. That's why I wanted them behind the bench."

Then why not explain that to them?

"Look, it was only an hour before the game when they confronted me," Bibby said. "I didn't want to hear that then. The right thing to do would be for them to come in and see me the next day and I could have explained."

Bibby said the problem was not in his order, but in the walk-ons' reaction to it.

"The problem with kids today is ego and pride," he said.

Any ego or pride in these walk-ons, however, was surely embarrassed or berated out of them long before this game.

The players said Bibby's profane diatribe was the final insult.

"We have always admired Coach Bibby," said Hooper, a guard. "But when we are treated with such disrespect, we didn't have a choice."

There are no good lessons from quitting in the middle of the season.

The question is, why did these three obviously intelligent athletes stick around past the start of season?

"We aren't making an issue of the other things," Hooper said. "Everything that happened to us, we accepted it, and we won't complain now."

Fine. So let this outsider complain.

A university raising money to build a new basketball arena cannot afford to give all of its uniformed players shoes?

"After giving so many pairs to the scholarship kids, we sometimes don't have any left," Bibby said.

If a player is good enough to wear a uniform, shouldn't he be good enough to wear the same new sweat suit as the other uniformed players?

"We didn't have enough--even my trainer didn't get one," Bibby said.

Those high marks that President Steven Sample recently gave Garrett for his fund-raising, maybe he's grading on a curve.

The biggest snub, in this outsider's mind, is not even the missing pizza, or forgotten gifts, or refusal to house the walk-ons in the team hotel the night before Saturday home games even though they might play the next day.

The biggest snub is USC's refusal to officially admit these walk-ons exist.

It's not only their player biographies that are absent from the media guide. USC doesn't even list their names in the media guide roster.

Last season they combined to play 12 games. This season, they combined to play in eight games.

So they're not star players. Are they not even people?

"I just think that walk-ons do not belong in media guides," Bibby said.

After all, who cares?

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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