By Shehan Jeyarajah
On Jan. 23, Baylor head coach Scott Drew pulled walk-ons John Heard and Austin Mills to the front of the room during a film session.
“I thought it was to go over some plays,” Mills said. “I had no idea what was going on.”
Baylor was in a unique position to offer both players scholarships, as it lost two players from its expected 2014 signing class. Florida guard Kobe Eubanks did not qualify academically after alleged grade manipulation occurred at the high school where he spent his senior year. Former Baylor guard Damiyne Durham also transferred out before ever playing a game.
With two scholarships in hand, Drew decided to reward the two walk-ons. In front of the team, Drew gave a short speech about how hard both players had worked and how essential both are to the program.
“What we’d like to do is to give them thanks for what they’ve done and offer them a scholarship for this semester,” Drew said to the cheers of their teammates.
While both were rewarded, Mills and Heard each took divergent paths on their way to walking on to the basketball team at Baylor.
Junior point guard Austin Mills loves basketball.
“I’m addicted. My whole life is based around it,” Mills said.
The son of Los Angeles real estate moguls Jade and Adam Mills, Austin grew up in Beverly Hills, Calif., and went to Beverly Hills High School.
But on the basketball court, Austin found peace. Mills found a place where he would not be defined by what he came from, but rather strictly by performance. He could be an underdog.
“To earn that spot, it’s always been my motivation and goal,” Mills said. “I’ve always had those haters who think I can’t do it, that’s always been motivation.”
After graduating from high school in 2012 as four-year letterman and co-MVP of the Ocean League his senior year, Mills started his college career at Pepperdine. However, after his sophomore season, Austin started yearning for something different.
“I was looking for more of a college experience and a higher-level program,” he said.
Mills found a connection to Baylor in an unusual way: playing pickup games with former Baylor star and current Oklahoma City Thunder forward Perry Jones III.
“I was playing in the summer with Perry and he was just raving about the program,” Mills said. “He made me want to get involved with them.”
Mills made a few phone calls and decided that he would move from the beaches of Malibu, Calif., to Waco.
Despite being a walk-on, Mills has found ways to contribute on the court. He has appeared in 15 games, including quality minutes in Baylor’s last five games. In Baylor’s first-ever road win over Iowa State, Mills hit a 3-pointer that ignited a game-clinching run.
“It’s a great feeling to know that my hard work is paying off,” Mills said. “I want to earn that. I’m always ready, because my name could be called at any time.”
Contrary to Mills coming to school in Texas for the first time this year, Heard is very familiar with Baylor basketball. John is the son of Baylor Regent Larry Heard and Baylor graduate Caroline Heard.
“When I was growing up, I came up to all of the football and basketball games,” Heard said. “I’ve always dreamed about being part of one of the sports programs here.”
Coming out of Episcopal High School in Houston, Heard naturally decided to attend Baylor like his parents. After watching Baylor reach the Elite Eight in 2012, he set the goal to try to walk on to the men’s basketball team.
“I came up and met with Coach Drew and tried to figure out the process,” Heard said.
However, Drew told Heard that with two walk-ons already on the roster, Jacob Neubert and Logan Lowery, there was not space on the roster for him.
“Each program does walk-ons a little bit different, but I tend to not like having guys just sit around for two-, three-, four-hour practices and only getting in for 10 seconds,” Drew said. “For that reason, we don’t have many walk-ons.”
Still, Heard was adamant, so Drew let him work as a student manager to see how the program works and whether he felt comfortable trying out again in 2013-14. While trying to transition to being a college student, he spent his free time wiping up sweat and working on his game.
“I came to the Ferrell Center and got up shots every single day before and after practices and just dreamed of the day I could be part of the program,” Heard said.
That day eventually came. On Baylor men’s basketball media day before the 2013-14 season, Heard walked into the locker room and saw a jersey with his name embroidered on it hanging in a locker.
“I can’t even explain that feeling,” Heard said.
BEING A WALK-ON
The work does not stop for a player once he earns a spot on the roster.
“There’s definitely a huge time commitment, which I feel even more since being on the team,” Heard said. “It’s a big-time commitment that people don’t necessarily understand.”
Being a walk-on means going through what it takes to be a Baylor basketball player, but without any guarantee of playing time or financial compensation.
Basketball players go through several workouts a week. In addition to practice, scouting and conditioning add another dimension.
“Practices can be three to four hours and film and gym can add two to three hours,” Mills said.
Even during practice, both players are not necessarily the focus. Heard sees his role as bringing a positive mindset
“What really keeps me motivated every day is just the number of hours that I put into this program when I wasn’t on the team,” Heard said. “Even when I’m here every day, I don’t have the opportunity to complain.”
Mills also said he brings a servant mentality, while trying to create for his teammates and fill his role on the court.
“John and Austin are tremendous because they’re great teammates and will do anything to help the team,” Drew said. “They’re exactly what we want from walk-ons and that’s why it’s special to be able to reward them with scholarships.”