How to Walk On to a Division 1 Basketball Team with John Willkom, Author of Walk-On Warrior: Drive, Discipline, and the Will to Win
Tristan: All right, welcome in, everyone! We have with us, on the line, Mr. John Willkom. John -- he is an author, a coach, and a former player at Marquette University. He's the author of a recent book called Walk-On Warrior: Drive, Discipline, and the Will to Win. You can find it on Amazon and wherever your books are sold. This book has been top of the college basketball charts on Amazon for the last 33 weeks, so you've got to think he's got something to say to us here. John, how are you doing tonight?
John Willkom: I'm doing great, guys. Thanks so much for having me on. I look forward to talking with you.
Tristan: Absolutely. I really appreciate you taking the time as well. I mean, let’s get right into the book here. It's obviously a bestseller. It's going really well for you. It's self-published, as well, which is just a little notch in your hat right there. It shows a little bit about your drive, discipline, and will to win when it comes to book selling and basketball playing. What gave you the idea to write this book, and walk us through what we're going to read in there?
John Willkom: So, I actually started writing this book 14 years ago, and even while I was a college student-athlete, I was writing down stories here and there, and kind of journaling things as I went along, really just for the thoughts of, "I need to remember this stuff so I can tell it to my kids someday." And so, kind of as the years went on, these stories compiled on my computer, but I never really got around to organizing them into anything that would amount to a book, much less even just a story that I wanted to tell. And so anyway, really the last couple years, my wife's a medical resident and she works long hours -- was on call working 100-plus hour weeks -- and I thought, "You know, I could either watch 100 NBA games this year, or actually do something productive with my time." And so, I really buckled down and turned this into a real book, really not with the motivation to want to sell books, but I would go to bed at night and I just thought to myself, "There's probably a lot of kids out there -- a lot of teens especially -- that could benefit from my experiences, some of the things I went through growing up in a small town, but having that dream to play Division I college basketball; and so I decided to share it, and just going through the journey of obviously creating a book and a cover, and marketing it, has been a real learning experience for me, but certainly a fun one.
Tristan: We definitely know where you're coming from there; obviously at Hustle, we're all about teaching these kids and forwarding their games any way we can, through this podcast in an audio medium, through the app in a visual medium, and then through your book, we can certainly get the idea of what it's truly like to take your talents to the next level. Now, tell us a little bit about that walk-on experience. You started at a smaller college -- D2, if I'm not mistaken -- you made the transfer over to Marquette, where you thought you might just be the basketball manager, and all of a sudden, you find yourself there in the lineup for the Golden Eagles. Tell us a little about that story.
John Willkom: So, I was a good high school player. I was a three-time All-Conference player in central Wisconsin; got a Division II scholarship in Minnesota and played my freshman year there, and played quite a bit, had a good year, but just wasn't happy being in a rural environment. And so, I really wanted just to transfer to a bigger school that was closer to home. My dad had been a student at Marquette in the '70s, and was actually a student there during their one and only National Championship in 1977; so, growing up as a child, Marquette basketball was kind of a part of my upbringing. And when I thought about just who I would want to play for -- like, the John Willkom dream wasn't just to play college basketball, it was to play college basketball at Marquette. So, when I was looking at schools to transfer to, Marquette just made the most logical sense. And I don't think my parents were financially thrilled with that, because I basically went from a free education to having to fork out a ton of money to go to a private school, but I had the intention of simply being a team manager and helping out with summer camps. During those summer camps, I would play with the guys at night, and it got to the point where one day Director of Basketball Operations Brian Wardle came up to me and just said, "You've got two months and we'd like to have you try out to be a walk-on here, and we have no idea if you can cut it, but basically when you leave camp at the end of this week, and come back to school in a couple months, we're going to see if you have what it takes." And so, I certainly -- just having played with those guys the previous few weeks -- I knew I had the ability to play at that level, but the conditioning and the workouts and everything was so amplified from what I was used to; even though my work ethic had really gotten me to that point, so I wasn't shy of working hard. But it's a whole another level, it's a whole another experience, especially when it comes to strength and conditioning; so, I basically showed back up and -- I talk about this in the book, but -- that first strength and conditioning session was absolutely brutal. I think, for an hour straight, I just wanted to quit at every point. But it was the strength coach's job to essentially break me down and to show me what type of experience this was going to be, and you know, really over the course of that year, I think, as much as I developed physically -- and I went from, I think I was 159 pounds when I showed up; I was 177 pounds at the end of the season; my body fat had gone down to about five percent, so I was in tremendous physical shape -- but I was just so much tougher mentally, knowing that whatever they put in front of me, I feel like I had the ability to overcome it.
Tristan: Yeah, so let's talk a little bit more about walk-ons. I know you touch on this in the book, but what kind of advice do you have out there for any potential listeners who are considering becoming a walk-on? Or, you know, we've got a lot of coaches that listen to the podcast, coaches who are mentoring and working with potential walk-on players; you know, what advice do you have for them?
John Willkom: The first thing I would say is I think the walk-on role has kind of gotten magnified almost in the wrong way, simply because you see games on TV and you see these guys waving towels and dancing crazy, and everyone's like, "Wow, that's a walk-on!" When I played, it certainly wasn't like that. I was treated the same as everyone else on the team. The only difference is I wasn't getting scholarship. But even when I started, Coach Tom Crean was the coach at that time at Marquette, and is now the head coach at University of Georgia. He brought me into his office, and he just sat me down and said, "I'm going to coach you like everybody else, and if you're not comfortable with that, tell me that; but I'm going to get on your case. I'm going to scrutinize every detail, just as I would with anyone else. We're going to break down film. We're going to work on every weakness of your game." So, I always appreciated just that mindset, because I was there not to be a cheerleader; I was there to compete and contribute, and so I always valued, I guess, playing for a guy whose mentality of the walk-on role was that.
Craig: So, with walk-ons, you know, we don't typically think of a path into professional basketball afterwards, but that happens sometimes. Can you tell us a little bit about the different opportunities that come up for walk-on players after college?
John Willkom: Sure, yeah, I would say that, again, for people listening to this that are players, coaches... At the end of the day, if you're a great player, the one thing that I didn't realize -- especially growing up in a smaller town -- is the amount of professional basketball opportunities available to people, outside of the United States. You know, I'm turning 35 years old this week, and I still have former college teammates that are playing professionally overseas, and get paid to play the game that they love. And so, I guess, growing up as a teen, you often think that it's the NBA or it's a regular job; and the reality is that there are so many good professional leagues all over the world that will pay you to play basketball, and I've had a lot of friends, and even kids that I've coached now, that are playing overseas. So, I would keep that in mind just as you think about, I guess, what you could be and what college basketball could be for you as you plan out your future. It could certainly cascade into a much longer journey if you're good enough and that's what you want to do. So, I think, that part of it's exciting; also say just that... You know, playing basketball is such a unique privilege, and I think sometimes -- you know, we forget this as we get older -- but when you're a teen, you just want the opportunity to play. It doesn't matter whether you're on scholarship or you're a walk-on, or Division I, II, III, NAIA; you want to be out there, and I think we've seen this with even a team like Murray State and Ja Morant, where people have talked about, "Go where you're appreciated, go where you're wanted, and go where it's a good fit for you and your skillset." I think that's a big part of just the college decision today that kids often overlook; it's not about the hype and it's not about looking good on social media, but really find that good fit and find a system that's best for you.
Tristan: Let's get a little bit post-college. You did get into a little bit of coaching afterwards. Who were some of your mentors, and can you tell us a little bit about what you learned from each of them as you made that transition from playing to coaching?
John Willkom: So, my first coaching job was a varsity assistant job in Milwaukee, ironically at a high school called Milwaukee-Marquette High School. It's an all-boys school, and the head coach there was a former graduate assistant at Duke, ironically, in the early '90s that had actually been there during their back-to-back National Championships, so he had been there at an unbelievable team to be a student at Duke; you know, he knows Christian Laettner.
Tristan: Laettner, Hurley, all those guys... Grant Hill.
John Willkom: Hill, all of them. So, to be around that, and then to eventually come back to Milwaukee... He coached at his alma mater high school... It's pretty cool. But what made this guy unique is that he was actually paralyzed at the age of 16, and not from some freak accident; but he woke up one day and he couldn't get out of bed, and eventually his mom took him to the doctor and ran some tests, and they found out that he had a spiral aneurysm when he was sleeping; so, essentially, part of his spine exploded, and he's been unable since the age of 16 and is now in his 50s. And to be around a guy like that every day, just really puts so much of life in perspective. But I'm not saying anything like this to patronize him, certainly; he has an unbelievable basketball mind. He taught me so many things from being around Coach K; kind of that quiet intensity -- you know, even just watching film at the high school level -- that was just different than what I had experienced as a player at Marquette, and he's certainly been a big influence on me even years later as a professional.
Tristan: Wow, that's certainly some story there! Definitely somebody you want taking you under your wing, when they have such a sharp basketball mind, no matter what the physical limitations. Now, what was maybe the biggest lesson you learned in transitioning from the playing to the coaching side of basketball? You mentioned the quiet intensity; was there a specific lesson that maybe you started to impart on your players as you got more into it?
John Willkom: I think one of the biggest things that is often forgotten is that when these kids are in high school, I mean, they're kids. And as much as we, as coaches, want to treat them like men and we say that stuff verbally to these guys, their personalities are childish in a lot of ways. So, I think that the ability to kind of meet them as people, find out who they are, get to know them on a personal level... Goes a long way, whether you're coaching high school kids, college kids, even pros; so, I think that's a big thing. The other thing that I took from Marquette, and I think probably the biggest thing that I can translate to my life, and anybody can translate... Was just that, Tom Crean used to always talk about fear. And he used to always say that, "Fear either motivates you or it paralyzes you." And he was so right; I mean, we would literally have drills set up where we would play up to a certain many number of points, or there would be a dedicated end to a drill, and there would always be a winner; so, every drill we did had a winner. And the losers would do pretty brutal conditioning; so, you kind of had that choice mentally... If you were, let's say, playing up to seven in a game of full court one-on-one, and you were down six to two, do you kind of just let a guy drive in and score, and save up a little energy, so that you could go run your sprints? Or do you continue to battle, knowing that you're going to expend a lot of energy, and then have to do the conditioning and maybe not make it, so you have to do it again? Those are just interesting, kind of mental games, that you play with yourself; and the more that you go through stuff like that, the more that you just don't even think about anymore. You compete as hard as you can until you eventually win or lose, and then you just run the sprints. And so, I think that, you know, to say that... At the beginning, I probably would have said, "Yep, go ahead and score and beat me seven to one." But as I got older and just went through the program, the more that I might lose six to four but just keep playing hard the whole time.
Tristan: I've got a question about how you coach across different skill levels. You coach youth players, you've coached in the pros, you've coached college. How do you adjust your strategy based on the skill level of the players that you're coaching?
John WIllkom: I think a lot of it is just figuring out what the fundamentals necessary to succeed at that level are. Then, obviously, as you get players that are more skilled and older, there's just a lot more polish that goes into it. Again, coaching players in high school, college, professional level, you're looking at very minute details in terms of how do we improve small aspects of the game? Whether it's around their footwork, or their pivoting, or how you catch the ball when you're preparing to shoot, it's much more detail oriented versus ... I actually almost enjoy coaching younger kids better because they're so hungry to learn. In a lot of cases, they haven't been taught a lot of bad habits, so it's kind of like you're painting with a fresh canvas, and you can teach things the right way from the ground up.
Tristan: When working with youth players within Hustle, we find a lot of coaches that are working with youth players, we have a lot of youth players that download the app. What are some of your favorite drills for youth players that really make an impact?
John WIllkom: I would say, one thing that I was really pushed as a youth was around being able to handle a basketball. I think that whether you're a guard or a post player, being able to handle the ball at a young age is really what separates the good players from the bad ones. You have to be able to dribble the ball. Even growing up in Wisconsin where, six months out of the year there's snow on the ground and it's hard to maybe find a job, I spent most of my evenings downstairs in a cement basement, just doing dribbling drills. Whether it's around cones, or chairs, or various chains of direction work, but just getting really comfortable with both hands, being able to start, stop, change direction, change speeds. All those things, I think are ... THere's so many drills out there that teach those skills, but I would just encourage people to mix it up. Just like lifting weights as an adult, your body adjusts quickly, so the more that you can challenge yourself with different things so it's not always the same, probably, the better.
Tristan: Yeah. Tell us about Playmakers Basketball? I know that's a group that you're involved in, and started up. Tell us a bit about that?
John WIllkom: So, when I was a senior in high school, I had that entrepreneurial gene. I'd been to so many great camps as a player, and I thought, wouldn't it be cool to take the best of all these camps and bring it to my hometown? I recruit a couple other players from the area, and also a local coach that I knew well and we started our own basketball camp. That first year, we maybe had 100 kids show up and it was great. We actually had a friend come and DJ the camp, so it was high energy, kinda fun. At third year, we had probably 700 kids so we had to break this up into multiple gyms and sessions. It was unbelievable.
John WIllkom: By the fourth year, I was a senior in college and we actually set up a full summer camp circuit in the Midwest, where we would go to a different city each week and run these camps. We probably served more than 3000 kids during that summer, but it was just such an awesome way to share everything that we had learned, the talents that we had with all these kids that were hungry and had been ... That was us, 10 years before that. Basically, it grew from there. So, Playmakers Basketball Camp was the start, and then as we developed a name for ourselves, it naturally grew into an AAU program, first and foremost, for kids in central and northern Wisconsin that just didn't have maybe as many opportunities as kids in urban areas. It's since branched out. We have teams from grades six through 12, in both the boys and girls sides, and they play in tournaments regionally and occasionally travel nationally. It's been an awesome way to bring a mentality of fundamentals to practices, so it's not just like a roll the ball out and let's play type of organization, but also giving these kids exposure that the highest level.
Tristan: We are talking to John Willkom, author of Walk-On Warrior: Drive, Discipline, and the Will to Win. Obviously, he's got the coaching background, he's got the playing background being on a walk-on there at Marquette. Tell us about your favorite memory as a walk-on? Was it the first game, walking out onto the court hearing all those fans? Was it a certain practice where Kareem really got under your skin? Tell us a bit about that.
John WIllkom: I don't know if it was my favorite memory, but the memory that sticks with me the most is, we were losing at half time of a game. This was a game that I had not appeared in, so I was just sitting in the locker room. Typically, we'd go in there, we'd talk as players. Coaching staff would go into a different room, and a few minutes later they would come into the room and basically address what we need to change in the second half. Coach Kareem stormed into the locker room, and the first thing he says is, "John Willkom, stand up." I'm sitting there thinking, like, why in the world would he tell me to stand up? I haven't played a minute. So, I stand up and he just chewed me out for about five straight minutes about how I'd been screwing around all week, how that type of mentality doesn't help the team. I didn't prepare the guys well enough by scouting reports, and the things that I had been doing practice. I just got an absolute earful, storming out of the room. The funniest part is that I was backing up an All American point guard, his name is Travis Deaner, who'd actually go on to play in the NBA for six seasons. Travis looks at me and we just started laughing. He just said, "This is great because every future game that I'm playing terrible, he's just going to blame you." So, we laughed about it. The funny thing is, we actually won the game. When I went home and thought about it that night, I was actually angry but I also thought it's pretty cool that he, number one, cares enough about my contribution that he would even say that. It kind of goes back to what I said earlier, which is just that he certainly valued my contribution, he certainly valued me being part of the team. He was making a point that everything that every one of us did, whether it was in the games, or in practice, mattered to the outcome. It was a good life lesson, and something I even try to pass on to players that may not get a lot of playing time. Their contributions do matter, and bringing your best to practice sometimes is the way you contribute best to the team.
Tristan: I'll bet. Yeah, it's like you said, he treated you like a regular player and that's what mattered in the end. For sure, that's what got you to the forefront of his mind as he was making that speech at haLftime, I'm sure. Let me ask you something. Here at Hustle, we are all about the technology and advancing the game through that method. In your coaching experience, what kind of technology have you implemented for your kids, and where do you see the future of that technology and training going?
John WIllkom: Yeah, unfortunately I worked at a lot of almost low income schools, so I haven't had a lot of access to that. Even as early as probably 2006, we were creating digital videos and things like that, digital manuals to share with players, and I certainly think that's a huge deal. There's so many cool technologies out there, whether it's from a scouting standpoint, NBA statistical software that just informs decision making. I think that the key thing is that I think you have to strike a balance between finding something that's relatable to kids while at the same time saying, you've still got to put in the work. Whether you're watching a demonstration live, or you're watching it through a live stream somewhere, at the end of the day, you've got to go out and execute that stuff on your own. I certainly think there're tons of opportunities there. I love what you guys are doing. I think that the more people that can get things as they want to consume it at the right times is certainly a value.
Tristan: We appreciate that, always. Let me ask you, before we get into our rapid fire round, here, we do have the book Walk-On Warrior available on Amazon for you folks. If there's one thing you want your readers to walk away with after reading this book, what would that be?
John WIllkom: You know, the thing with this book is that I didn't necessarily want to write a book. That's being 100% honest. I had written down things that were 100% real and authentic. There was really a fine line there between you don't want to reveal the inner workings of a locker room, but at the same time, you want to tell an authentic story. I would say that for people who are looking for a recap of games, I would say go back and check the box scores. This book is not that. If you want a deep look into what it's actually like, number one, to have the opportunity to play divisional basketball, to what it's like going through a season, in terms of what your daily schedule looks like, that's what this is. So, I think it's really a no holds barred, real life experience that I hope other people can read it and walk away inspired, and just think, you know, if John can do that, there's no reason that I can't. Also, if you're 13 or 14, and you're struggling with, what should I actually be doing if I've got two hours a night to practice? Hopefully you can take some drills and ideas from that, because there's a lot of stuff in there just in terms of how I maximized my time and how I became a better athlete. I think that people could benefit from that.
Tristan: Yeah, I'd say so. I'd say John is certainly a good example of that, for sure. Let's get into our rapid fire round, here, before we let you go. John, real quick, we're just going to throw some questions at you, and whatever first thing that comes to your mind, you let us know what that is. We'll just get right into it. Let's just segue right out of there, right out of talking about your book. What's the toughest part of writing a book?
John WIllkom: Probably the editing. You have ideas in your head, but after you reread them several times, especially after long nights of writing, you're like, wow. I can't actually put that in front of somebody, I need to clean it up. It's the least amount of fun, and probably the hardest.
Craig: I've got a question. What's your favorite basketball shoe of all time?
John WIllkom: You may not know what this is, but it was called the Nike MZ3. You should look these up. They had this little shiny plate on the side. I was probably 13 years old, and I had a pair of these. I always thought they were the most comfortable, actual game shoe that I ever wore.
Tristan: Oh, yeah. I'm looking at them right now. Those are shiny. I love it. That's bringing the attention to yourself, that's how you really got spotted by Kareem, I'll bet. Let me ask you, what's your favorite sports movie of all time?
John WIllkom: This is a super easy one. It's Field of Dreams. I get emotional every time I watch that movie.
Craig: If you build it, they will come.
John WIllkom: Absolutely.
Craig: So, at Hustle we're all about those sports drills and finding out the great places and great resources for that. Are there any YouTube channels that you like to check out for coaching tips?
John WIllkom: I don't spend a lot of time on YouTube, but I spend a ton of time on Twitter. I think there's always different group chats. There's so many coaches on there that share drills and experiences, and clinics, that I would definitely check out.
Tristan: This isn't really a rapid fire question, but I'm just curious. What was the most unexpected thing, becoming a walk-on at Marquette?
John WIllkom: We got free Gatorade every day.
John WIllkom: That was great.
John WIllkom: You know, you get a ton of free gear. We got visited by Nike reps, just super cool. I still think I'm bitter about ... They promised us a custom blue and gold shoe that never came.
Craig: The MG3, was it?
John WIllkom: It was not MG3. So, there was that. The other thing was that, and this was probably the most unexpected of the whole experience was that, after I left Marquette, I actually ended up working for Rick Majerus, who was one of the most unique individuals probably ever to coach basketball. He spent I think 15 years at Utah, and was at St. Louis, and has now passed away. He was an amazing guy, and there are some quirky stories in the book about my time with him that I think a lot of people will really get a kick out of.
Tristan: There you go. We'll certainly have to give it a read, here.
John WIllkom: He's always a character.
Tristan: I'd say so. He was a journeyman, himself. He certainly made the rounds and devoted his whole life to coaching. He was, I'm sure, a great mentor, like we said earlier, to have. Seemed to be a trend, here, as we continue these interviews. Appreciate your time here again, John. I heard you say, real quick before, that you're all over Twitter a bunch. Let's hear the handle, and let's hear one more time the brief description of your Walk-On Warrior: Drive, Discipline, and the Will to Win?
John WIllkom: So, the book is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and several other online channels. My Twitter handle is @JohnWillkom. I look forward to interacting with people. Like I said, the book is raw, it's authentic, there's a lot of stories in there, not only about basketball but just about meeting people. I think that action leads to action, and so when you're out doing things ... I would go on to live in several places, and one was Salt Lake City, Utah. Met folks like Aaron Rogers randomly. Some really interesting stuff in there, but I think that it's certainly inspiring to people that you just got to get of your couch sometimes and go do something with the talent that you have. So many people tell me that they're not good enough yet to do something. I would say, today's the day. You have enough ability, we're always getting better. Go out and do what you can with what you have.
Tristan: Dedication. I'd say you retain that, and that's what we're trying to impart on all our athletes here, is that try to get to the next level, as well. John, appreciate the time, again. The Twitter handle is @JohnWillkom, with two Ls. Everyone, make sure you go ahead and give him a follow. Head over to Amazon, check out Walk-On Warrior: Drive, Discipline, and the Will to Win. John, I'm sure we'll check in with you down the line here, but appreciate you coming on again tonight, and take care.
John WIllkom: Thanks so much guys. Go Bucks!
Tristan: Go Bucks! Let's go!
Craig: Have a good one.
John WIllkom: Have a good one. See you later.