One by one, they checked into George Mason’s lopsided victory over Delaware last week: the former team manager, the Marine corporal and, finally, the aspiring singer.
Those who had stuck around Patriot Center roared their approval, saluting the exiting regulars and supporting the end-of-the-benchers making rare appearances.
Every night across the country, as one-sided college basketball games unwind in emptying arenas, coaches reward their non-scholarship players, or walk-ons, with a precious wedge of playing time. Few, however, will call on a group with backgrounds as striking as those who filled out George Mason’s roster this season.
Jacob Hoxie, a 24-year-old sophomore guard-forward from North Carolina, was stationed with the Marines in Okinawa, Japan, before pursuing basketball again. And Bryce Lewis, a junior guard from New Jersey, worked behind the scenes with the George Mason program two years ago before being encouraged by the players to try out for the squad.
“I didn’t think I could ever play Division I,” said Lewis, a 5-foot-9 ballhandler. “There’s definitely a bond with the three of us. We all know we’re not on scholarship and there’s a certain sense of work ethic. We’ve got to push the scholarship guys and maybe get some time out there.”
Of the three, Lewis has made the most appearances (five) for the Patriots, who are 17-5 overall and 9-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association entering Saturday’s home game against James Madison. Combined, the trio has played 11 minutes, with Baird and Hoxie making one basket apiece and Lewis posting two assists — standard numbers for players whose value is measured in practices, not games.
Ten players tried out this season, and although the coaching staff planned to select two, “we felt those three really fit what we were looking for,” said assistant Mike Wells, who oversaw the preseason process. “You are looking for guys who are serious about basketball and won’t be overwhelmed physically.”
After his senior year at Stonewall Jackson High in Manassas, Baird was among thousands at an “American Idol” tryout in Orlando. He sang Nick Lachey’s “What’s Left of Me” and Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” to Simon Cowell and the other TV judges. A short clip appeared on the show. “The girls liked it,” he said of the four judges, “the guys didn’t.” His Hollywood dreams were dashed.
Baird had more success in 2010, submitting a video for a national contest sponsored by Sony and Six Flags. He was chosen to perform at the amusement park’s location in Prince George’s County as part of an opening act for pop group Hot Chelle Rae and British boy band JLS. That led to an offer to record a song for Sony’s Jive Records. “Grateful,” an acoustic solo performance, went up on iTunes and YouTube last year.
He tried again with “American Idol” in 2010 — but again failed to earn a ticket to Hollywood — and traveled to Seattle last year for auditions in “The X Factor,” a first-year Fox talent show. He performed in front of several thousand at Key Arena but wasn’t chosen as one of the 17 national finalists.
The George Mason athletic department has invited him to sing the national anthem before the Feb. 4 game against Old Dominion.
Long term, “I don’t know if it will be at a church directing music or touring, but coming here [to George Mason’s music program] has given me another avenue.”
Hoxie took a globe-trotting route to George Mason, starting his college career on the junior varsity at Montreat, an NAIA program in North Carolina. After two years he went to work for a moving company and a Walgreens near Raleigh, N.C. While behind the counter at the chain store, he met a Marine recruiter.
“I was just being nice because he was a customer and he gave me his card,” Hoxie said. “I didn’t have any interest. At some point, I decided to go.”
Following basic training, he was sent to Japan. His job was administrative, keeping tabs on thousands of Marines, and he had month-long assignments in South Korea (twice), Philippines (twice) and Thailand, as well.
In his two-plus years in Asia, he found it difficult to make time for basketball. “It was the farthest thing from my head,” he said.
Upon returning, Hoxie began to explore returning to school. While stationed at Quantico, he became familiar with George Mason and enrolled last fall as a business major.
“I loved playing basketball and wanted to get involved again,” said Hoxie, who is 6-3 and 205 pounds. “Besides school, I didn’t have a lot going on and wanted to give it another try.”
Lewis, a three-year starting point guard and football standout at Union (N.J.) High, had no intention of playing collegiate athletics and chose George Mason for its sports management program. He served as the team’s student manager in 2009-10, and although he wasn’t involved last season, he played pickup games with the players in the offseason.
“They were yelling at me, ‘Just try out!’ ” said Lewis, an Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother with sophomore forward Paris Bennett and senior forward Mike Morrison. Early in the season, with the back court struggling at Towson, Coach Paul Hewitt turned to Lewis in the first half.
“Coach told me to be ready, but when he actually called my name, I was surprised,” he said. “I pointed at myself and said, ‘Really?’ ”
When tryouts began, the coaches were unaware of the trio’s distinctive backgrounds. As the season has unfolded, though, they’ve learned bits and pieces.
“They’ve made big sacrifices to be part of this team,” Wells said. “The payoff, the reward, is to get into a Division I game. Hopefully, the opportunity will come up again.”