A University of Illinois student was tossing verbal jabs at Gonzaga’s Mike Hart inside Assembly Hall last season.
“He was saying, ‘You’re so and so,’ giving me a hard time (about being a walk-on),” Hart said. “So I went to sit down and they announced our starting lineup and I hear the same guy in the corner say, ‘Like, you start?’ He thought I was the last guy on the bench.”
It was another satisfying moment in Hart’s remarkable rise from walk-on to key figure in Gonzaga’s rotation.
Other snapshots illustrate just how arduous that journey has been for the 6-foot-6 senior forward from Portland.
After making the team, Hart redshirted as a freshman. He spent hours at practice as a spectator or helping out on scout-team offense or defense. His seat at home games wasn’t actually a seat.
“I was supposed to sit in a seat behind the bench in the pie-shaped (section), three rows up,” he said. “I sat on a stair, behind the managers.”
Backtrack some more and Hart, reticent about lifting weights prior to the making the squad, was taking part in one of his first conditioning sessions, alongside Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, Josh Heytvelt and others on the 2009 team.
“We were lifting and getting timed doing stuff like push-ups and I actually lost to a couple of our grad assistants,” Hart recalled. “And Brian Michaelson (a former walk-on and current assistant director of basketball operations) beat me by like four minutes. To this day, I’ll come into the weight room and afterward Brian will always say, ‘I remember the first time you worked out, you couldn’t even do a push-up. I beat you.’ ”
Not anymore. Hart is 207 pounds and one of the team’s strongest players. Several walk-ons have made impacts at Gonzaga, but none of their stories are quite like Hart’s. Mike Nilson, Ryan Floyd, Kyle Bankhead and David Stockton were invited walk-ons, recruits Gonzaga knew about and targeted, but didn’t have scholarships immediately available.
Hart has carved his own path. He averaged eight points and three rebounds while earning second-team All-Metro League honors as a senior at Jesuit High. He received some interest from Division III Pacific, but decided on Gonzaga, with the notion of walking on in the back of his mind. He started showing up at the rec center for pick-up games. On occasion, then-Zags Andy Poling, Grant Gibbs and Demetri Goodson would stop by and Hart’s play made an impression on Poling – who is also from Portland, but the two weren’t close friends prior to Gonzaga.
Poling mentioned Hart to assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. Hart soon was scrimmaging with the team. He was invited to a two-day tryout for walk-ons.
“What you saw was a great practice player that could help us,” Lloyd said.
Hart made the team. In roughly one week, he went from sitting in the Kennel Club for midnight madness to practicing against Austin Daye and Steven Gray. Making the team would satisfy most, but it wasn’t the end goal for Hart, fully aware that it would take an excruciating amount of time, dedication to the weight room and unyielding effort on the court.
Hart said it’s been a slow, step-by-step process to go from playing 37 minutes in blowouts in 2010 to becoming trusted by the coaching staff. He’s earned a reputation as a defensive specialist and relentless rebounder.
When Manny Arop struggled during the 2011 WCC season, Hart provided quality minutes in several games, including a season-high 13 against San Francisco in a WCC tournament semifinal victory. When the NCAA ruled Guy Landry Edi ineligible for eight games at the outset of last season, Hart moved into the starting lineup. Edi eventually became the starter, with Hart assuming a role as a valued reserve.
Hart is averaging 2.8 rebounds per game this season. He’s made 5 of 7 3-pointers and recently committed his first turnover in 124 minutes of playing time. He earned a scholarship for second semester of his sophomore season and he’s also on scholarship this season.
“We were just noticing how hard he played and we finally figured out he could really make a difference in games,” coach Mark Few said. “He’d come in and make a difference in mop-up time so we said, ‘Let’s put him out in real time.’ He’s literally won games for us.
“Nobody plays harder than Mike Hart. He’s intuitively brilliant on the defensive end, not only with what the other team is trying to do but he has great anticipation. Some of our issues (in Saturday’s loss to Illinois), we’re in zone and you had to go from the paint all the way out on a 3-point shooter. Mike makes it look easy whereas some of our other guys make it look impossible.”
Hart is the consummate teammate, Few added, “to the point where sometimes he doesn’t want to start when it might be better mentally for others to start.”
Typical Hart, who takes pride in his progression through the years.
“That’s probably the coolest thing for me,” he said. “It’s been building on the little things and it didn’t happen overnight or in one day. I had to really earn everything I got.”
And that makes for an impressive, lasting snapshot.