Not every athlete follows a straight path in sports. As I explained in my post about taking your last shot at pro basketball, life happens. Regardless, you’re a basketball player who wants to — if you can — play college basketball and maybe beyond that.
Below is your guide to doing so, and how exactly I would go about it.
Explore And Know Your Eligibility
Playing college basketball is not — at least not completely — about your basketball skills. Your past basketball success doesn’t really matter unless you’re talking to someone who witnessed it; how good you used to be isn’t important. The most important aspect affecting your playing prospects now is your being eligible to play college basketball.
College ball offers NCAA and NAIA options; it’s your responsibility to learn what the eligibility requirements are for each (and for your chosen institution), what you have or may be missing in order to qualify.
Here’s the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Eligibility site.
Here’s the eligibility site for the NAIA.
Read those sites carefully. If you’re not disciplined enough to read them, you’d never make it through a semester of college coursework. So college sports aren’t for you. Let’s be real here.
- Eligibility has derailed many athletic careers. You can make the team, dominate in practice, be in line to be a starter… and that “ineligible” stamp puts all that shit on the shelf. Prioritize knowing your eligibility and/or who can help you sort things out.
- Athletic eligibility can be subjective, meaning that, the right person in the right situation can basically decide if you’ll be eligible or not. I knew players who built relationships with school compliance officers, officers who granted these players eligibility waivers even though the player was not 100% on every black-and-white requirement for eligibility. Eligibility is not a black-and-white thing that you can know for sure without talking to a school athletic compliance officer or academic advisor.
- It would help your eligibility cause to have your transcripts from every college you’ve attended (if any), along with official documentation from said schools verifying that you did indeed attend school there and passed certain classes. So start calling, emailing, and/or visiting those places to get that paperwork. It’s vitally important.
- If you can clearly see that you’re academically deficient in some area, sign up for classes or night school or whatever you need to show that you’re making progress. Don’t expect things to magically work out for you just because you showed up on campus while doing nothing to help your own academic cause.
Get In Touch With Coaches
With you making progress on determining your eligibility, now it’s time to decide on some prospective schools and reach out to coaches.
There are 351 D1 basketball teams and hundreds more at the D2 and D3 levels. NAIA has 91 D1 schools and 142 more that are D2. That’s nearly 1,000 college basketball teams. And you can only play for one at a time. So your first step is choose a few you’re interested in (more on this below).
How will you choose? There are several factors to consider.
Maybe you choose by location. Maybe a certain major or academic program catches your interest. Possibly you know a player or coach at a program who can help get you to the door or in the door. There are lots of factors that go into choosing a school; since you’re reading this post I will assume you’ll go anywhere that would welcome you as a basketball player, with academics a secondary factor (though I could be wrong; maybe school is #1 for you). Well, you still have to find that anywhere and get the hoops program to buy into you. Choose somewhere to start, and start.
Your best foot-in-the-door strategy is to have a coach, or someone who a coach trusts, actually see you play and put in a positive word. Like D1 coach Wes Pifer said in our podcast conversation, hundreds of players reach out to basketball coaches every day. Short of an in-person audition, then, have game film and send emails. I would follow up with a phone call also.
When reaching coaches, be honest about your situation —
- Your age
- Academic status (what year you are academically, if you know)
- Why you’re in your situation (life events, family, children, etc)
- What you want (tryout, roster spot, scholarship, etc)
— And find who’s interested. Not everyone will be interested; sometimes it will be about you, often it won’t be about you at all. Some teams will have no available roster spots. Some schools have admission processes so stringent that many applicants simply don’t get admitted to school. Some coaches, though, are in win-now mode, and would value a more experienced player — like you — over freshman players who still have a lot to learn.
The more communications you have with coaches, even those who say “no,” the better you’ll learn how they think about this stuff. And, any coach who turns you down, be sure to ask what they advise you do or what schools might be interested. This question will lead to valuable insights and maybe a lead to that right person.
Just remember: You can only play for one team at a time. So you need only ONE coach to believe in you, not all of them.
Look Like A Basketball Player
When I was in college at Penn State Altoona, before and after the season, a couple teammates and I would travel around the local area looking for the best pickup and rec games (which were not always the games happening on campus). Most of the players we played against were older guys, grown men in their 20s and 30s who had “regular” lives and played ball for fun.
One day early in my senior year, before basketball practice had began, one of those older guys from Altoona came into the gym while a few of us were working out. He had been brought in the gym by the head basketball coach. The guy didn’t play with us that day, but stood on the sideline and watched us. We later found out he was considering enrolling in school and playing on the basketball team. Thing was, he was old (to us; he was probably 28-29 at the time) and not in shape. He didn’t look like he could play. I don’t think the coach was seriously considering having him on the club. The ending is we never saw him again, so I guess he (or the coach) changed his mind.
If you’re going (back) to college as an older player, don’t show up with a used-to-play body. Even if you haven’t played serious ball in five years, don’t look like you haven’t played serious ball in five years. Especially if no one there knows you. Despite the advice of the saying, we all judge books by their covers. But even if the book sucks, extending the metaphor, a nice-enough cover can at least get some people to consider buying. Look the part.
Have Your Money Ready
Barring a coach offering you a scholarship (I wouldn’t bet on it) or any other academic scholarships and grants you receive, you’ll be paying your own way through school. And we all know college isn’t cheap.
You have to be enrolled and a full-time student to be eligible to play a sport, so take this into account as you plan your moves for playing college ball. That money has to come from somewhere. All schools set their own prices, so find out what those prices are for the places you’re looking at.
Choosing A School Makes This Process Much Easier
There are close to (or more than) a thousand colleges that have basketball programs. Being that you have to consider your eligibility (and transferring of past credits, if this applies), the coaching staff (and their interest level in you), and cost at each school you’re looking at, it would help you to narrow down your choices through some criteria you come up with to make this a manageable process.
Consider playing level (D1, D2, NAIA, etc), how many years of eligibility you have, school location, and anything else important in your life (if you have a job, family, kids to take care of, etc), and make a list of, I’d say 10-15 schools you’d attend if they (school + basketball team) would have you. Then, go to work in finding out what’s possible and who’s interested.
If I were you, I would make a spreadsheet and fill in all the above info (school, location, costs, b-ball coach). Start with the basketball teams and the coaching staffs; if the basketball team is not interested then cross that school off (again, that is, if playing ball is your priority). Call around enough, and you’ll find someone who’ll have you or at least give you a shot to earn a roster spot. It will then be up to you to factor in your life and decide what makes sense or doesn’t.