- Tom Archdeacon columnist
His head coach brought it up on his radio show earlier this week and then I mentioned it again a few days later and he didn’t like it.
I asked Tye Wilburn about being a preferred walk-on with the Wright State basketball team and instantly his voice flattened.
“I don’t really talk about being a walk-on,” he said. “I don’t like people knowing because sometimes they might look at me differently when they know.”
Never mind that WSU coach Scott Nagy calls on him often. Never mind there’s been a litany of accomplished college walk-ons:
Six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen, Jeff Hornacek, who had over 14,000 career points and 5,000 assists in the NBA and now coaches the New York Knicks, and J.J. Watt, considered the best defensive player in the NFL, all were walk-ons
So were baseball slugger Ryan Howard, former NBA defensive force Ben Wallace and NFL stars Jimmy Graham, Clay Mathews III and Jordy Nelson.
And while Wilburn is part of an impressive family tree of athletes, he insinuated some people would only see him in the shade of those branches and might think less of him.
While they couldn’t be more wrong, his concern was understandable because he’s not your typical college basketball player. He’s not just making his mark on the court and in the classroom, he’s especially involved in the community.
This year he’s been speaking to area high school basketball teams about what it’s like to be a college athlete and the importance education plays in that pursuit.
High school athletes can be a tough audience — especially when you mix their modicum of success with a typical dose of teen attitude — but Wilburn takes on that challenge like the others he’s conquered while forging a career that’s taken him from Ball State to Kilgore Community College and now to Wright State.
“Like normal high school students, they might think they’re too cool to ask questions, so at first the coach does it,” Wilburn said. “But when they hear what we’re saying (teammate Everett Winchester speaks with him), they can relate and you see their faces change.
“They just need to hear something they’re passionate about and can relate to. They need something that interests them.”
And when it comes to college basketball around here, the Raiders redshirt junior point guard is one of the most interesting guys in the game.
Athletic family tree
Let’s start with that family tree.
His grandfather, Zeke Moore, was a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Houston Oilers in the 1970s.
His uncle Reggie Moore starred at UCLA, then played for the New York Jets and Los Angeles Rams before becoming a college coach. Another uncle, Trey Moore, played basketball for Mississippi State and the Harlem Globetrotters before forging a hoops career overseas.
His cousin Jarvis Jones, a two-time All American linebacker at Georgia, was a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers and another cousin, Mike Tolbert, was a three-time Pro Bowl fullback with the Carolina Panthers and now plays with the Buffalo Bills.
Tye’s dad, Terrence, played college baseball and basketball, his brother played college hoops and now he’s a college player, as well.
“So sports are the big thing in your family?” Wilburn was asked.
He shook his head: “I’d say education is bigger.”
This wasn’t just some polished line from one of his speeches, it’s the roll-up-your-sleeves lesson he now follows in earnest.
“Both my parents hammered home education all the time,” he said. “I don’t think my older brother was allowed to bring home a C. “
He’s now following suit.
“He’s a very good student,” Nagy said. “He does a great job in the classroom and he’s close to graduating.”
Wilburn, who carries a 3.3 grade-point average, was honored with teammates Parker Ernsthausen last season by the National Association of Basketball Coaches for his academic accomplishments.
After a serious knee injury forced him to sit out all but three games as a high school freshman, he came to a realization:
“That’s the first time I realized what my parents were saying. Basketball can be taken away from you at any moment and you need something to fall back on. Without an education you really have nothing.”
He’s made that a centerpiece of his talks with basketball teams from Xenia High, Thurgood Marshall and, just the other day, Wayne.
“They need to know the NCAA Clearinghouse has gotten tougher and if you don’t do you work right from the start of high school, you get behind the curve and can’t always catch up,” he said. “And then they won’t let you play college basketball.”
Not ‘too short’
Wilburn grew up in Gary, Indiana, was a standout player at Lake Central High School and also was part of the talent-laden, Chicago-based AAU team — Meanstreets — whose roster included Tyler Ulis, now with the Phoenix Suns, Paul White who plays at Oregon, Butler’s Tyler Wideman, Northwestern’s Vic Law and a half dozen other players now in college.
Yet all those resume stuffers didn’t get him a lot of college offers. He believes two concerns were his early knee problems and his height.
Now listed as 5-foot-11, he said IPFW told him he was “too short.”
Other schools showed some interest until they were able to sign “bigger guards,” he said.
He believes some of those coaches missed the true measure of the man:
“I know a coach’s job is to win and that’s why some of them just say, ‘Oh that guy can take the ball through his legs and dunk it!’
“But they don’t look at everything: His family. How he is off the court, in the classroom and how he is in the community. Whether his teammates like him. And that’s why you see some of these kids getting into trouble in college. They need mentoring as men.
He ended up walking on at Ball State but suffered a torn plantar fascia and was redshirted his freshman season. Realizing he needed to mature and develop more, he decided to go to junior college and was contacted by Kilgore Community College, a juco powerhouse in Texas.
After a solid season there he said he drew interest from Sharif Chambliss, who had just joined the WSU staff and remembered him from AAU ball.
Last season, his first with the Raiders, Wilburn played in 18 games.
Going into today’s game at Western Kentucky, he’s played in all six games this season and started against Murray State in place of Justin Mitchell.
Early in that game he collided with a Racers player and hurt his back. He immediately went to the training room, played little after that and has battled back spasms since.
“His whole body is beaten down to be honest with you,” Nagy said.
To play now Wilburn said he goes through a variety of daily treatments.
“I do cupping, that’s where they use these cups (for suction) to draw blood to an area. I’m getting acupuncture needles, too, and I do stretching every day. I get heat before practice and ice afterwards. I do what I have to to play.”
This season he’s averaged 4.7 points and 3.2 rebounds a game.
“His role is the toughest one on the team,” Nagy said. “He doesn’t know when his name is going to be called so he’s got to be ready. And he has done a really good of that.”
Wilburn’s mindset makes that possible.
“Nothing has been given to me,” he said. “Along the way I’ve had to earn everything. So now I take advantage of every opportunity I get.
“When I get in, I play hard. When I’m not in, I’m cheering. It’s not about me. It’s about the team.”
When you hear that, when you find out who Tye Wilburn really is, you realize people should look differently at him.
He’s the kind of guy every team would want to have.