MADISON, Wis. During the long, quiet nights alone with his thoughts in the gym, Ryan Evans wondered if chasing this basketball dream of his really was worth the agonizing sacrifice.
Was it worth the late hours away from friends and family every night weight lifting, speed training and jump shot honing until total exhaustion took effect? Was it worth being an outcast in two entirely different worlds on the basketball court that felt all too similar?
On one court, playing as a high school sophomore against grown men twice his age at the local LA Fitness in Phoenix, no one wanted him on their team because he was too young and not physically mature enough.
On the other court across town the one at Desert Vista High School where he'd tried out for the junior varsity team the coaching staff didn't want him because he wasn't good enough to earn a roster spot.
It was a precarious position for a 15-year-old who didn't understand why he had been cut in the first place but loved the game so much that he wasn't willing to give up.
"It was tough," Evans says now. "I was a kid. I wasn't really mature. But I thought I was better than the other kids on the team. I dominated them a little bit in tryouts."
Evans says he didn't get along with some members of the Desert Vista coaching staff, prompting his dismissal. Ryan's father, Greg, calls the move political, saying Ryan did not play on the school's summer club team where stronger bonds were formed with coaches.
Evans' former Desert Vista coach, Doug Harris, says he simply hadn't developed yet, calling him the "10th to 15th" best player on a freshman team that went undefeated the previous year and would go on to win a state championship as seniors.
Whatever answer was provided at the time did not soothe Evans' pain. The night he received the bad news in Harris' office after tryouts, his first phone call went to his father. Greg remembers their brief discussion well all these years later. Ryan asked if his father could purchase a membership to LA Fitness immediately in order for him to have access to a basketball court. Greg signed him up that evening.
"Typically after you're cut as a sophomore, you're told you're not good enough and kids give up," Greg says. "Ryan wasn't that character. Ryan got cut, and he really had nowhere to go."
Evans continued returning to the gym, the only place where he felt comfortable, even if others didn't recognize his potential. Devastation ceded to determination, and he worked each night with a singular purpose: to make sure he would not be placed in a similar position again.
"He reached a crossroads where he said, OK, I can quit or I can get better and do something about it,' " Harris says. "And he did something about it."
Six years later, Evans is a starting forward at the University of Wisconsin, achieving his dream of earning a Division I scholarship. His winding path toward gaining recognition as a basketball player is uncharacteristic of most major Division I players but one Evans can appreciate with the benefit of hindsight.
"If I didn't get cut that year," Evans says, "I probably wouldn't be here today."
Having been humbled in front of peers and equipped with immediate motivation, Ryan Evans began a workout routine that would last months, well past the end of his sophomore year.
Every night after school, while former teammates at Desert Vista practiced and played games, he would either take a bus to LA Fitness or receive a ride from his father. Sometimes, he wouldn't come home with his basketball until 11 at night.
"He pretty much lived there for a while," Greg says.
Evans' recurring presence at LA Fitness caught the eye of Anthony Blakes, who would become instrumental in his development.
Blakes, a professional basketball player from the Phoenix area, had recently finished his first season playing for the Rockford Lightning of the Continental Basketball Association and soon took a liking to Evans. After speaking with Evans' father, Blakes agreed to train him.
The first thing that stuck with Blakes was that Evans possessed the work ethic and devotion to remain with the sport, no matter what shooting or ballhandling or running drills Blakes threw his way. Despite Evans being a 5-foot-11 string bean, Blakes could see his potential and pushed him even further when the summer arrived.
"He definitely used that and took advantage of it," says Blakes, also in his 10th year as a Harlem Globetrotter. "I saw the work he wanted to put in, and he was dedicated. He started changing his diet. I was like, OK, if you really want to do this, we'll get up in the morning and work out.' He was there bright-eyed and bushy-tailed."
By the end of that summer before Evans' junior year, Blakes was regularly taking him to gymnasiums around the city for exclusive pick-up basketball games against professional and top-level college basketball players. While Evans hadn't reached that stage in his own game, he acquitted himself well and regained the confidence he lost during tryouts.
His game and body composition had so drastically improved that by the time he returned to LA Fitness for pick-up games in late summer, the older players who once steered clear of Evans suddenly held a newfound interest in playing on his team.
"He went from the kid who nobody wanted on their team at the beginning because he was so young to being captain all the time at the gym," Blakes says. "They'd run at him, he'd go by them, and next thing you know he's dunking on someone's head."
The regulars at LA Fitness were among the first to witness Evans' transformation as a basketball player, but they certainly weren't the last.
When school began in the fall, Greg Evans opted to transfer his son to Hamilton High School, which some of Ryan's cousins attended. He had already grown 5 inches from the year before, to 6-4, and his ascension as a basketball player was just beginning for all to see.
Kevin Hartwig took notice of Evans' presence in the gym during tryouts. His length and versatility were attributes Hartwig, Hamilton High's boys basketball coach, immediately recognized as assets to the team.
When tryouts ended in fall 2006, Evans had made the squad. There would not be a repeat of the previous year's setback.
"Once we started working with him, he had that great passion to want to succeed," Hartwig says. "He loved challenges."
As a junior, Evans began the season as a role player off the bench, but he worked his way into the starting lineup by the end of the season, helping Hamilton finish 25-5 and reach the state quarterfinals in Class 5A. He averaged 8.7 points and 5.4 rebounds.
When his senior season arrived, the keys to the team were handed to Evans, who took full advantage of the opportunity.
"I think the confidence started to come," Hartwig says. "That was a hit in the stomach when he got cut. He wanted to be that kid to take the big shot, have the ball in his hand. He got a lot stronger."
Evans possessed the strength and length to post up bigger defenders and the quickness to take guards out on the perimeter. His versatility allowed him to average 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds and guide Hamilton to the state semifinals. He also earned honorable mention all-state status.
Despite Evans' breakout senior season, however, he had not yet received any scholarship offers from major Division I programs. That required a little luck.
Evans' uncle, Dave, had once been an All-American wrestler at Wisconsin. Dave's good friend there knew Badgers assistant coach Howard Moore, now the head coach at Illinois-Chicago, who passed along Evans' game tape to Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan.
It wasn't until March of Evans' senior year, following the Big Ten men's basketball tournament, that he finally received an offer from Wisconsin. Evans wasted little time in accepting.
"I put in a lot of hard work," Evans says. "I stuck to what I believed, which is getting a D-1 scholarship. It was a good story for me, but it was just a start to what I want to accomplish."
Since arriving on campus in 2008, Evans' journey to crack the rotation has been difficult. He sat out his freshman season as a redshirt, still not physically mature enough to compete in the Big Ten.
But, much like in high school, Evans bided his time and continued to improve in the gym and the weight room.
After appearing in 67 games his first two seasons without a start, he became a starting forward this season for the 3-0 Badgers, ranked 14th in the country. And he has turned into one of Bo Ryan's most reliable players.
Through three games, Evans, now a 6-6, 210-pound redshirt junior, is averaging 11.0 points and 6.0 rebounds. Ryan believes Evans can achieve even more.
"He has the potential to be a good all-around player," Ryan says. "Every team needs a few of those that really don't have weaknesses. Ryan's pretty good at every facet of the game. His challenge is to always get better at each one."
That is a challenge Evans no doubt will continue to welcome as long as he pursues his basketball dreams.
"Everyone's got to persevere in life," Evans says. "Some people back away from it. Other people go into it. I've always kind of seen myself as someone that goes right into it and keeps moving forward."
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