Florida walk-on relishes moment years in making

Florida's Chris Sutherland waited nearly five years to finally play college basketball. He worked his way onto Florida’s bench in January after serving as an arena worker, a practice player for the women’s team and a team manager for the men’s program. Gaining NCAA eligibility was a daunting task that required him to repay a $5,000 scholarship and remove his name and likeness off a website he created last year to sell streetwear he designed. (Courtney Culbreath/UAA Communications via AP)

By Mark Long, Associated Press

Chris Sutherland was sitting near the end of Florida’s bench, sandwiched between teammates, when he heard the chants. They were faint at first, growing louder and clearer by the second.

“We want Chris! We want Chris!”

Sutherland had waited years for this moment, a chance to finally play college basketball and complete a journey that started as a kid in Queens, New York, and continued through high school in Fort Myers and well into college.

He should have been ready. After all, he was no stranger to game, the O’Connell Center or even the program. But what should have been Sutherland’s career achievement ended up feeling more like “One Stumbling Moment.”

His warm-up jacket got caught on his arm as he hustled to the scorer’s table. An official had to tell him to tuck in his No. 34 jersey, which was the only one without a name on the back. He stood in the wrong spot on the free-throw line, drawing a dirty look from an opponent. If that wasn’t bad enough, his wrist band snapped into pieces all over the court and delayed the game.

“Why in the world was I so nervous?” Sutherland recalled last week. “There was just so much going on.”

More than most outsiders knew.

Sutherland was a graduate student who worked his way onto Florida’s bench in January after serving as an arena worker, a practice player for the women’s team and a team manager for the men’s program. Gaining NCAA eligibility was an equally daunting task that required him to pay back scholarship money and remove his name and likeness from a website he created last year to sell streetwear he designed.

“What a unique story,” coach Mike White said. “What a great story. He brings as much positive energy as any player or manager I’ve ever been around. It is unbelievable. As soon as you walk into the gym, you hear him. It’s crazy.

“You want guys like that in your program.”

Sutherland was hoping for a few more weeks with the Gators. But his college career was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. He lost out on what was his first — and likely only shot — at playing in the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s good to understand that there’s more important things than basketball,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland seemed to have that figured out long before COVID-19 wiped out college athletics for the spring and summer.

He turned down several scholarship offers to play college basketball, including one to Division II Belmont Abbey near Charlotte, North Carolina. He instead chose to stay closer to his mom, a diabetic in Fort Myers.

He had hoped to get a walk-on spot with Florida’s track and field team after finishing fifth in the 2015 Class 2A state high jump finals. But there was nothing available, so he settled into life as a regular student.

He became a Rowdy Reptile, a member of the raucous student section at men’s basketball games. Little did he know the group would one day be cheering for him.

Still, being in the stands quickly made him realize he wanted more to do with hoops. He became a recreation sports referee as a freshman, but eventually moved on because he couldn’t get enough hours. He then landed a job working events at the on-campus O’Connell Center in the spring and was promoted to supervisor the following year.

That proved to be a turning point. Working a late-night security shift, Sutherland met a fellow student who happened to be a graduate assistant for the women’s basketball team.

They chatted about hoops, of course, and she told him the team was always looking for practice players — regular students good enough to get on the court and pose a challenge for the women. Sutherland showed up a few days later and had a side gig.

That got him in the door, but it took adding something else on his plate to get him to the men’s side of the facility.

The 6-foot-3 Sutherland joined a fraternity as a junior, and one of his frat brothers was a team manager for the men’s team.

“He gave me the blueprint for how you get in, which was to work summer camps,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland volunteered to work camps in 2017, but didn’t get one of the manager spots. No surprise since there were dozens of applicants and only a few opportunities. He tried again the following year and got the call.

“It was surreal,” he said.

He was around the team 24-7, becoming close friends with freshmen Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson and Noah Locke, and creating lasting memories on the road with a team that made the NCAA Tournament. He quickly developed a reputation as a hype guy, someone who always brings energy in practice and before games. His post-victory dances were legendary.

He also became a regular in “noon ball,” a pickup game involving coaches, managers and staff.

“The first time I met him, he was blocking my shots with his elbows, talking my basketball and talking trash to me,” White said. “I quickly learned I didn’t want him guarding me. He’s a good player.”

Good enough that fellow coaches approached White about possibly getting Sutherland to transfer. But Sutherland was content in his role, especially since he was getting ready to graduate with a sports management degree.

He got accepted to graduate school and signed on for another year as a team manager. Little did he know his bench role would change dramatically.

Once freshman walk-on Alex Klatsky decided to focus on academics and big man Gorjok Gak decided to transfer, the Gators were in need of an extra body.

White and his staff turned to Sutherland. It was an easy decision and a complicated process.

His parents had to pay back $5,000 he had received from a student-manager scholarship because walk-ons can’t get any funding from the sports program. His father had a good enough job in New York that he stayed there, even after the family moved to Florida. Still, scraping together five stacks isn’t trouble-free for most working-class families.

Sutherland had a pile of NCAA compliance paperwork to do, as well as various physicals. He also had to remove his name and image from his apparel website, WavyTings.com, which he launched last year.

“He had to jump through a bunch of hoops for him to become cleared by the NCAA,” White said. “He had to backtrack and make a lot of personal sacrifice just to be able to wear the jersey.”

The process took several weeks, and Sutherland was finally cleared to play in mid-January, just a few days before the Gators hosted then-No. 4 Auburn. He was in uniform and on the bench for a nationally televised game that took place inside a packed O’Dome.

Sutherland never expected to play. After all, the Tigers were good and he didn’t even have his name on the back of his jersey. But the game turned into a rout, a 22-point beatdown that was Auburn’s worst loss of the virus-shortened season.

With 25 seconds remaining and the student section clamoring for one of their own, White turned and called on the last guy on his bench. Even though Sutherland blundered his way through his collegiate debut, he won’t forget that feeling.

“Having the announcer call my name and being able to talk to my family and send them the video, that was something,” he said. “The amount of support I received from the campus was just unbelievable. Seeing that there are so many people are just happy for you to success in the world we live in, where it’s not common, I appreciated that. That really stuck with me.”

Sutherland waited a month to get off the bench again. This time, it was a much smoother outing.

With the Gators leading Vanderbilt by 20 on the night they officially unveiled “Billy Donovan Court,” Sutherland got the call with 1:40 to play. This time, his name was on the jersey.

He missed his first opportunity to score, but he got a rebound at the other end and got fouled. He stepped to the line amid more chants and missed the first free throw.

“I was like, ‘This is crazy. I might not get the opportunity to score again,’” he said. “I took my time, breathed and knocked down the next one.”

One point in two games over five years. It might not seem like much to everyone else, but it’s everything to him.

“The lifelong dream was just to play college basketball,” he said. “I find joy in that.”

After the season ended abruptly, Sutherland quarantined himself for a few weeks in hopes of making sure he didn’t spread COVID-19 to his mother. He got back into the kitchen and started cooking again — something he hadn’t had the time to do in years — and spent countless hours working on new designs for his website.

“When you’re passionate about something, you just have to try and see what happens,” he said.

Nothing sums up his college basketball career better.