“Who the [expletive] is gonna stop this basketball player?” three-time Super Bowl champion and current Houston Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel shouted.
As I was preparing to call a Penn State basketball game earlier this year for ESPN, I came across the bio of a former Penn State basketball player that caught my eye. Ross Travis, who stands 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, was the starting forward for Penn State the previous season, averaging five points and six boards per game. After not touching a football since the ninth grade, Travis found himself on the same playing field with Vrabel.
After playing four years of basketball as a forward in the Big Ten, Travis declared for the NFL draft after many curious observers, including myself, saw Travis move on the court and were in awe of his physical size and agility. Travis, like many other power forwards of past and present in Big Ten, was very big and athletic and had the body type to take the constant pounding below the basket.
Draymond Green, now with the Golden State Warriors who played for Michigan State, also stands 6-foot-7, 230 pounds (almost identical measurements as Travis) is equally as athletic and physical. Although Travis was undrafted by NFL, Former Penn State coach and current Houston Texans head man Bill O’Brien gave him a shot to show that he was more than just a basketball player during summer workouts.
I have always been fascinated how a star NBA player and elite athlete like LeBron James would perform in the NFL (with the proper coaching and training) as a tight end or receiver. I am sure NFL defenders will say, “There is no way a basketball player turned NFL receiver is scoring on me without getting lit up.”
I still remember my first time seeing a young Shaquille O’Neal in person while traveling to Los Angeles as a member of the Miami Heat and being in awe at how small he made our center, 7-footer Alonzo Mourning, look, and how easy he moved up and down the court with such a huge frame. At the time I was thinking, “Good luck trying to keep him out of the paint.”
Now, after hearing Ross Travis’ story, and those of others like Julius Peppers (who excelled at North Carolina in football while also playing basketball), I cannot help but imagine how a young O’Neal would be on the defensive line as a pass rusher at 7-foot-1, 300 pounds with some coaching. At a minimum I think he deflects one pass per game and perhaps with some coaching and technique (think Michael Oher) he becomes downright scary for opposing quarterbacks.
Now, before you get the idea that I am suggesting all college power forwards or freak athletes who excel at college hoops (like Big Baby Davis or Blake Griffin) should show up at an NFL combine when their hoop dreams don’t come true, I will stop you right there. I am talking about those rare cases of exceptional athletes, freaks of nature with a mix of muscular size, agility and footwork that make everyone wonder, “What if?”
I recently read a tweet that stated less than 2 percent of college football and basketball players turn pro, and the odds to stay in the pros over just signing a pro contract (I fit in that category of signing a pro contract and lasting one year) are even lower. So the odds are stacked against all college athletes coming out of school with hopes of playing for a check no matter what sport you choose or how good you are in college.
But still I am intrigued by the likes of Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham (one season of football, four of basketball at Miami), or former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb (two seasons of hoop at Syracuse). Most people don’t remember Terrell Owens played basketball at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and in the USBL.
Speaking of the USBL I go back to my days of playing in the USBL in the mid-’90s in Atlantic City after coming back from overseas during the summer while trying to catch on with a NBA team. The league was filled with nontraditional college basketball lifers.
Recently I called a Nevada game and coach Eric Musselman (a former USBL coach who went on to become a head coach in the NBA with the Kings and Warriors) and I reminisced about USBL rosters. I had R. Kelly (yes, the hit music maker) on my team with the Atlantic City Seagulls. Trying to boost attendance, the league had a rule that permitted a roster spot for a celebrity that didn’t count against the team’s 12-man limit. The Jacksonville Barracudas had boxer Roy Jones Jr. My coach, Kevin Mackey, said when going over the scouting report, “That guy is quick with his hands, so don’t get too close.” The Philadelphia Power had Arizona Cardinals defensive end Simeon Rice.
Most of us in the USBL at the time had dedicated four years to playing college ball, went overseas to tighten up our game and were thinking like Vrabel: No way I am letting R. Kelly (although we all brought his music), Roy Jones (although we all paid to watch him fight) or any other non-traditional, full-time basketball player — including football guys — score on us or stop us from scoring. None of us wanted to hear a coach yelling, “Who the [expletive] is gonna stop this football player” — or rapper or boxer?
I asked Tom McManus, who was a classmate of mine at Boston College in the early ’90s and went on to play five seasons in the NFL, what he thought of the chances of a basketball player making the transition.
“I think athletically absolutely it’s possible,” McManus said. “They have great ability to make quick change-of-direction moves on offense and defense.”
As we got deeper into the conversation he talked about the one thing they would have to adjust to: getting hit. That is my initial thought. LeBron, at 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, would without a doubt be the best athlete on the field in Sunday’s Super Bowl, including over one of the best athletes in NFL at any position in Cam Newton. But would LeBron be able to take a bone-crunching hit like Julian Edelman does and pop back up? That would be, in my opinion and the opinion of other former NFL players I spoke with, the million dollar question.
Travis, the former Penn state basketball player, re-signed with the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad after being let go earlier in the year. The story is still incomplete as to whether he will become a Sunday regular. But certainly his story is intriguing.
I am sure many other college or pro basketball fans have wondered the same as I now find myself doing. Which current college or pro basketball player do you think could make the transition to the NFL with some coaching and training? My NBA pick is Blake Griffin, and I would have loved to see Shaq rushing the passer anywhere on the defensive line.
Malcolm Huckaby is an ESPN college basketball analyst.