MADISON, Wis. — J.D. Wise sat at a table inside the Kohl Center on Friday afternoon, four television camera lenses and a handful of tape recorders near his face.
“Do I just like look into the distance?” Wise said. “I’ve never been up here before.”
The spotlight hasn’t shone brightly on Wise during his college basketball career at Wisconsin. He is rarely, if ever, requested for interviews from media members because he occupies a spot at the end of the team bench on game days and seldom plays.
But attaining some sort of celebrity status isn’t why Wise joined the Badgers in the first place. He and fellow senior guard Dan Fahey are here because of a true love for teammates, camaraderie and basketball with zero guarantees of playing time.
On Sunday, Wise and Fahey will be honored as part of senior day festivities before Wisconsin’s final home game against Purdue for their contributions to the program. They are contributions most fans have never seen because what the two walk-ons do takes place behind the scenes, in locker rooms and practice courts away from the public eye.
Their value to the Badgers has not gone unnoticed with teammates who earn considerably more fanfare.
“I have nothing but respect for both of those guys because the job they do is something I could not,” Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “They come in every day and they work their tails off and they bring energy. They bring a little bit of flair, a little bit of style, a little bit of swag to this team that is definitely needed.”
Added Badgers center Jared Berggren: “They bring so much energy and enthusiasm to this team. Whether it’s before games, in the locker room, doing all the stuff that they do to get guys going. Or in the weight room in the morning in the middle of the summer when guys are tired and it’s 7 a.m. and people want to go back to bed and they’re coming in there firing guys up and making sure everyone is ready to work.”
Wise and Fahey are captains of the scout team, which prepares Wisconsin’s regular rotation players for games. They show up for practices 30 minutes early to learn the opposing team’s plays and often impart their wisdom to younger scout team players. Their goal is to emulate the opponent as best they can while trying to crawl under the skin of the starters — to prepare them adequately for the rigors of game day.
It isn’t a particularly glamorous existence — two non-scholarship players busting their tails for the betterment of others — but it is one they have come to embrace. They have developed a niche, jokingly referring to their roles as members of the “Bench Mob,” a phrase that has taken off among UW students and athletes on Twitter.
“It became this huge thing,” Wise said. “Me and Dan said we’d be co-presidents. We appointed everybody their cabinet positions. It kind of skyrocketed from there.”
During practice, the two have an especially long leash as scout team members because they often imitate the best players on other teams.
Fahey said his favorite scout team player to imitate was Indiana guard Victor Oladipo.
“I don’t know if you would think I’d be the guy to emulate the lottery pick,” Fahey said. “But he was fun. I’ve had a good run of guys, especially this year. Early in my career, I was the non-shooter who would just come in and scrap, but it’s been fun this year.”
Wise’s most memorable player to emulate was Syracuse guard Dion Waiters when the Badgers prepared to face the Orange in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 last March.
“With that type of style of offense that they had, it was really fun emulating him, especially since he pretty much had the green light,” Wise said. “I love being able to just pull out some of my old tricks, too.”
Wise, a 6-foot guard from Milwaukee, has appeared in just nine of 28 games this season and played 13 minutes. He has scored a total of five points, and his only field goal came when he swished a straight-on 3-pointer in the waning seconds against Nebraska on Tuesday night.
“I honestly just completely blanked at the time,” Wise said.
In his entire four-year career, Wise has played a total of 26 minutes. For some perspective, five players on this year’s team are averaging more than 26 minutes per game this season.
Fahey, a 6-3 guard from Chicago, has appeared in 10 games this season and scored 11 points in 28 minutes played. He has played a total of 49 minutes in his career.
“I was always hopeful that playing time would come around,” Fahey said. “Towards the beginning of this year after exhibitions and everything, you kind of see things starting to pan out, see where you stand. I’ve always tried to give it my all but I definitely this year have picked it up a notch and just know that this is my last year. I’m not going to exactly crack the rotation, so I give it my all on the scout team.”
Neither player was ever promised anything by Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan other than an opportunity to compete as part of a Big Ten team. Wise earned a roster spot in 2009 when he made the cut at an open tryout among students at Wisconsin. Then-Badgers guard Wquinton Smith had tipped off Wise of the tryout, but Wise told only his roommate that he would be participating.
He’d averaged 12 points and four rebounds per game as a high school senior at Whitefish Bay Dominican, but his only offers came from Division III schools across the state. He had always envisioned being a member of the Badgers, and this was his only shot.
“My parents didn’t even know that I was trying out,” Wise said. “I didn’t want to get everybody’s hopes up. It had been such a blow to a lot of people in my family that I wasn’t playing at the time. Growing up, everybody was expecting me to be the athlete in the family. I kind of felt like I had disappointed them in a sense at the time. I didn’t want to get everybody’s hopes up before I knew for sure.”
Fahey, meanwhile, had already been accepted to Wisconsin when he received a phone call from former Badgers coach Howard Moore in April of his senior year. Fahey was a captain at St. Ignatius College Prep who averaged 12 points, six rebounds and six assists. And Moore informed Fahey that Ryan wanted to meet with him on May 11.
Although Fahey was considering playing at Division III schools, including Washington University in St. Louis and Amherst College in Massachusetts, he held off until meeting with Ryan in May.
“I was like, ‘I’ve got to decide where I’m going to college by then,’ ” Fahey said. “I was confident that they would ask me to walk on. I thought why not? I was already accepted at the university. It was a pretty easy choice after that.”
Ryan said he admired Fahey and Wise’s ability to come ready to work everyday, regardless of the minimal prospects of playing time.
“There’s never a whine, never a complaint,” Ryan said this week. “Never anything other than to the assistant coaches that have the particular scout on that team. It’s like, ‘OK, what would you like us to do today?’
“Hopefully they’re getting as much out of the experience as we’re receiving from their efforts that they’re putting in. But those two young men have been doing it for a long time. They’ve never changed. And they’re better basketball players. And they’re better people as a result of their experience I think. So it’s a win-win.”
Wise said he intends to pursue a career in marketing or sales, preferably on the West Coast. Fahey will choose between a handful of law schools for his next destination. But neither will forget the experience and opportunities they’ve earned as members of the scout team — an often forgotten but vital component to Wisconsin’s success.
Badgers fans will have an opportunity to show their appreciation for a final time on Sunday.
“I haven’t played many minutes on that floor, but it’s been an investment over the years,” Fahey said. “I’ve put a lot of time and effort in there. Just seeing the crowd one last time and having my family there, I think it will be an emotional experience.”