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MADISON - Walk into any given practice of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team and the stars will be out. In past years, you could have seen Michigan State guard Drew Neitzel shooting from the perimeter, or Ohio State forward Evan Turner posting up on the low blocks.
If you come on the right week, you can see former Wisconsin commit and current Marquette guard Vander Blue taking shots against the Badgers’ starting five, getting them prepared for his up-tempo style and quick cuts.
Those players aren’t there in the physical sense, of course, but senior walk-on Dan Fahey has brought each of those players alive on Wisconsin’s scout team with a relentless devotion to his craft.
“I’ve been everybody and it’s been a lot of fun,” said Fahey. “Some guys you like more than others. Some guys shoot more than others. It’s fun assignments.”
Fahey – a 6-3, 195-pound senior from Chicago- had no recruiting stars next to his name. He does not have NBA scouts making special journeys to the Kohl Center to analyze his abilities, and he didn’t have college coaches knocking down his door. Instead, he has a special gift and talent that winds up on the basketball court for every Badgers game.
“He’s experienced and has been around forever, so he knows what we are looking for to prepare the starters,” said assistant coach Gary Close. “The effort is there, and that’s the big thing you need. You need guys who can compete so you can make up for what you lack in size, athleticism and not exactly knowing what you are doing.”
Fahey was an above-average player for St. Ignatius College Prep, earning All-Chicago Catholic League recognition after averaging 12 points, six rebounds and six assists per game as a senior captain, but he wasn’t Division I scholarship material, and he knew it.
“I was looking at St. Norbert’s, Washington University, Amherst, just academic schools,” said Fahey. “I didn’t take basketball seriously until my sophomore year [in high school] when I started seeing varsity minutes. I got more involved with AAU and gave up other sports.”
Former Wisconsin assistant coach Howard Moore saw that, too, as his frequent trips to Fahey’s school were for Nnanna Egwu, a teammate of Fahey’s who is now a sophomore at the University of Illinois. But the more Moore watched Fahey, the more he saw the things Wisconsin looked for in walk-on players: toughness and intensity.
“He couldn’t play a lick,” Close said jokingly. “His ability to scrap and compete from the start stood out. When you are on the scout team, you are just getting pounded day-in and day-out, so you have to have some toughness, ability to persevere and compete.”
Moore offered Fahey a chance to walk-on at Wisconsin, a dream scenario for a scrappy player who had been going to UW’s summer camps since he was little. Not only did he have an opportunity to follow in his family’s footsteps (his grandfather graduated from Madison in 1949, his dad played baseball at UW from 1970-72 and both of his sisters are Wisconsin alums), nobody sold the moon to him or made empty promises.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to be on scholarship and that nothing was promised; all I knew was that I had to work hard for what I wanted to get,” said Fahey. “Coach Ryan said nothing was guaranteed and that I had to earn things. I didn’t fully understand how hard it is, but I got a better understanding as I went along, and learning from the other walk-ons.”
Like Fahey, sophomore guard and walk-on Jordan Smith didn’t know what to expect when he started his Wisconsin career on the scout team in 2011. Absorbing information from those around him, Smith initially latched on and learned from All-American guard Jordan Taylor. But as Taylor was about to graduate and Smith became more accustomed to his role, he wisely gravitated toward Fahey.
“Dan has been the guy to show me, especially being a fellow walk-on, what to expect, talk about what we go through and how we relate to each other,” said Smith. “From a scout standpoint, we have to run a different thing every week, so Dan tries to slow everybody down and get everybody moving. In Big Ten play, Dan has run everybody’s offense, so he can get everybody in line.
“Taylor could teach me things about basketball, but from a mental standpoint, you learn a lot from a guy like Dan. He’s big on getting through adversity. Taylor did not have to go through a lot of the stuff we have to go through. It’s difficult, but it’s a lot of fun at the same time.”
When Fahey was in high school, he competed against De La Salle’s Mike Shaw (a sophomore at Illinois), Mount Carmel’s Tracy Abrams (also an Illini sophomore) and countless other Division I athletes in the Chicago area.
“You had good competition night-in and night-out,” said Fahey. “You would play Division I kids almost every night. That attracted me to a school like this.”
Fahey’s career hasn’t led to the level of success of other one-time scout team players Ben Brust or George Marshall (Fahey played in only 17 games during his first three years, and scored only four points during that stretch), but he doesn’t regret his decision. His ball handling has improved, his basketball I.Q. is one of the best on the squad and his game has evolved from being a slasher to becoming a confident jump-shooter.
“Athletically I am at a level I never would have imagined my freshman year,” said Fahey. “I feel much more confident on the court. I feel like I can go out there each day and can compete with these guys.”
That’s shown during his senior year. Having his number called in five of the first 10 games this season, Fahey played 18 minutes, scored five points and registered four rebounds, two assists and a steal. As he enters his final home game Sunday against Purdue, Fahey is on the hottest streak of his career, having scored in each of Wisconsin’s last three games.
“I loved every minute of it,” said Fahey. “I love being with these guys. I may not play a ton of minutes, but I didn’t have high expectations coming in. It’s definitely been a great experience.”
He admits he made a mistake in not giving redshirting his first year more consideration, a mistake that would give him another season for competing and improving his craft. He also admits that he doesn’t get excited when Wisconsin is up big late and his number might be called, as he is so focused on simply watching the pace and flow of the game.
That doesn’t mean that others aren’t anxious to see those out-of-the-spotlight players get rewarded.
“It’s nice for them to get a chance to see what they can do, and in a lot of cases they have improved,” said Close. “It’s a good chance to see where they are at. Very rarely have we had a game where our scout team was really bad and we felt like we were [not] really prepared.”
Fahey knew when he came to Wisconsin that he was coming to a great academic institution with the opportunity to see the floor. He also knew that he would have no regrets no matter the outcome, a fact that still holds true years later.
Fahey admits that Sunday will be both exciting and terrifying for Fahey. He’s excited because it’s another opportunity to prepare his team, but terrifying because of the senior video tribute that will be given to him and his four classmates after playing their final home game.
“It’s going to be emotional,” said Fahey. “I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I haven’t played many minutes, but it’s been a grueling experience with a lot of sweat, blood and popped shoulders on the court. I know I have put a lot into it.”
And Fahey will be the first to say it’s been worth every minute of it.
Parts of this story appeared in BadgerNation Magazine. The magazine is included free in all three month and annual subscriptions. It also can be ordered separately on an annual basis.