By J.J. Marshall Jr.
Being a walk-on is a strange job. You can go from unseen and undervalued to in the spotlight and overhyped in one fell swoop.
I was a basketball walk-on at Louisiana Tech from 2004-2008 and even served as team captain my final year. Early in my career, I saw how “fan-favorite” sometimes translated into “team mascot” effectively, and I often wondered about the implications of having my small successes outshine the efforts put in by teammates with a far greater impact.
I see each generation as an iteration on the last. Evolution. And this current LA Tech squad is certainly the evolved version of my best Bulldog experiences.
Tech is 15-3 and coming off two convincing wins over Southern Miss, the first a blowout capped by an already legendary shot by former Calvary standout and current Tech walk-on Ben Ponder.
With 0:30 left in a 23-point homecourt victory, Tech’s LaDamien Bradford brought the ball up the court with an eye toward Ponder. Usually, this is when the winning team dribbles out the clock. Everyone in the building knew that Tech had other ideas. Bradford found Ponder coming off of a down-screen just at the 3-point line.
“I took a dribble and wasn’t expecting to shoot it,” Ponder said. “But something in me was saying ‘Go for it’ — and I shot it. It was one of those things where I couldn’t even feel the ball in my hands. But once it was in the air, I knew it was good.”
When the ball swished through the net, the Thomas Assembly Center erupted in a collective roar. Naismith Award nominee Kenneth Lofton Jr. and company waved towels from the bench, students hi-fived, and Ponder trotted down court like nothing had happened.
“(Bradford) almost gave me a hug at half court on my way back down,” Ponder said. “I couldn’t help but smile at that point. The crowd was so loud.”
Video of Ponder’s shot has been seen and shared more than 50,000 times on Twitter. It was a special moment for a special player from Shreveport/Bossier who put in the work and has the self-awareness to know his role.
“Actually, it brought tears to my eyes,” Ponder’s high school coach, current Calvary head coach Victor Morris, said. “I know how hard he worked to make it to that level. To see the crowd and his teammates give him that type of reaction is a coach’s dream.”
“I’ve been sent the video by at least 30 different people,” Ponder said. “It was getting a bit out of hand. I mean, it’s just one shot. But, it just shows the type of support that everyone is giving me and I’m so thankful for that.”
Ponder’s career is just starting as a Bulldog. I predict more 3s from Ben in his Tech tenure. Still, there’s nothing like that first basket. Few walk-ons will ever reach the heights he found on his first one.
The roar of the crowd will echo in his mind as he replays his shot over and over for the rest of his life. He can always return to that video clip whenever he needs a dose of confidence. That stage, Division 1, conference play — it takes guts just to take that shot, much less drain it. He’s living the dream of countless teenagers.
Then again, there aren’t many teenagers out there like Ben.
As a walk-on, your most valuable skill is often just knowing your role. Being a glue guy. A player/coach. It’s a unique skillset, and one that usually cannot be taught. The way Ponder has handled this experience is further proof of his bona fides for the job.
People will move on from the shot as Tech continues to win games. New moments will present themselves. Ponder will get more shots. When you don’t revolve around ego, there isn’t the need to cling to accomplishments past their shelf life.
Ponder and company have their eyes on bigger prizes. Moments like his first basket as a Division-1 athlete are part of the bigger picture, albeit one that we in Shreveport/Bossier are particularly fond of.
(This story originally ran in the Shreveport Bossier Journal on Jan. 20)
Photos by TOM MORRIS/courtesy Louisiana Tech
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