Former walk-on Varun Ram defies expectations, earns scholarship for Terps

October 25, 2013
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When the broadcast went to commercial, Varun Ram went to work. He was much smaller then, a young boy growing up in Howard County with dreams of emulating the Maryland basketball stars he saw on television. After watching Steve Blake and Juan Dixon dominate on the screen, he grabbed a miniature basketball during timeouts, zeroed onto the miniature hoop hooked onto his door frame and mimicked their moves. He shimmied and shook and hoped that, one day, he could play like them — or at least for the same team.

Years later, Ram wakes up every morning inside his College Park bedroom and practically pinches himself, having secured a role as Maryland’s pesky scout-team point guard. He wonders if this feeling of blessed euphoria will ever go away.

“It hasn’t faded,” Ram said in early October. “I’m so happy to get up and be a part of this team and help it in any way I can.”

In a way, Ram represents the American dream, condensed into a spry bioengineering major with a soft soul patch and a 4.56 high school grade-point average. His mother works for the Environmental Protection Agency as a toxicologist. His father works in informational technology for the National Weather Service. Neither expected their son to grow into a Division I basketball player.

Except Ram has spent a lifetime defying expectations. On the AAU basketball circuit, playing for HC Elite, Ram remembers the raised eyebrows and scoffing laughs from rival teams. “Then as soon as the game would start,” he says, “we’d kill them.” He would make his first move, be it a deadly crossover or a lethal stutter-step, and hear: “Oh dang. He’s quick.” At 5 feet 9 and 150 pounds and of Indian descent, Ram always felt opponents judged him differently, like some soccer reject imported onto the hardwood to fill roster space.

Ram has built a reputation on annoyance. He is that try-hard pickup menace everyone hates to face. He pressures you full-court. He swipes at your dribbles and deflects your passes. He ticks off players six inches taller than him, then smiles. He loves that part of basketball.

“I try to get in people’s grills,” Ram said. “Playing AAU, my coach told me you’re not big, but you got to be scrappy, and that’s what college coaches like. Pressure the ballhandler. Annoy them. Everywhere I’ve gone, everyone says, ‘I hate playing against you just because you’re so annoying on the court.’ I take pride in that. I’m not going to out-power them, but I like to use my quickness, especially at this level. I try to use that to help me.”

Ram will play this season. How can he not? He has already developed a fan-favorite reputation on the Maryland blog TestudoTimes.com, if only for his relatively diminutive stature and Rudy-esque demeanor. After all, who transfers from a Division III school in Connecticut — Trinity — to a power-conference Division I program, walks onto the team and lasts through an entire redshirt season?

Varun Ram. That’s who.

“He’s good, isn’t he?” Turgeon said. “Varun’s good.”

Maybe more so than people realize. His first step rivals any on the Terps. His mid-range jumper surprises. He hounds ballhandlers like a plague. He might be the most frustrating scout-team player in the ACC.

That’s where his goals lie: on the scout team. Last season, Turgeon held Ram as a shining example of hustle. Whenever Ram dived for a loose ball in practice, Turgeon would yell: “Why is he diving for the ball? He can’t even play.” As a junior now, one year deep into the program, Ram hopes to lead the scout team alongside senior John Auslander, showing up to early-morning meetings and scheming to help the regulars improve.

He would have it no other way. His life consists entirely of basketball and class. He wakes up, heads to 8 a.m. practice, attends class, puts up shots, finishes his homework, eats and showers. When friends and family ask him, “Don’t you need a break? Don’t you want other things?” he replies with one word:

No.

“I feel like people don’t realize how important the scout team is,” Ram said. “I see myself as one of the leaders on the scout team. It’s pressure I put on myself. I feel like it helps me perform better. When we’re competing at practice with the starters, they’re getting better, we’re getting better, practicing so much better and coach is happier. When I’m not practicing well, we don’t compete as well, then when they’re kicking our butt, we’re not doing anything for them. Sometimes it gets ugly. I have expectations to really compete at practice, then just stay ready if the opportunity ever presents itself to play significant minutes.”

The first athlete in his extended family, Ram faced some skepticism when he attempted to walk on at Maryland. Friends and relatives used to pressure Ram into accepting the idea that he’d never play organized basketball again, and for a time he thought that too. But after moving from Trinity, where he averaged 7.8 points per game his freshman season, Ram conditioned all summer, working on his defense and shooting. He knew hard work could punch his ticket onto the Terps.

It did.

Last season, Ram experienced little pressure. Every player could get hurt, and he still would be strapped to the bench during games because of NCAA transfer rules. He and Evan Smotrycz developed a friendship in this manner, often comparing outfits after their grueling game-day workouts with director of basketball performance Kyle Tarp.

Before this season, Turgeon offered Ram a scholarship.

“It’s not really Indian tradition to go this route for basketball,” Ram said. “All my parents, their friends were like, ‘What are you doing with your son?’ Coming back here makes everything worth it. They’re so happy. Even just one year. I played for Maryland. I was on scholarship. It’s unbelievable. I have to pinch myself every single day. It’s a dream.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt | October 25, 2013