If you ever get a chance to play, you can’t be timid.
You can’t show fear.
You only have one option: Just go.
These thoughts run through sophomore walk-on Xavier Hallinan’s head during every basketball game. He’s been itching to play— to get real minutes— all season.
It’s Feb. 11 and the University of Portland men’s basketball team is in Los Angeles playing Loyola Marymount. The team’s losing streak is at 11 games and the early signs of a 12th straight loss are coming into focus just 10 minutes into the game. The Lions’ full court press is rattling Portland’s backcourt, and an eight-point lead turns to a seven-point deficit in less than eight minutes. Head coach Terry Porter is running out of options.
“Be ready,” says assistant coach Bob Cantu, turning to Hallinan.
“I am,” Hallinan says.
Four minutes before halftime, the walk-on checks in and backs his words. His nerves settle after breaking the pressure defense. He plays well enough that Porter starts him the second half. And two late-game lay ups nearly help the Pilots claim the comeback victory.
“I really, really, really wanted to come back to Portland to show everybody that (that game) wasn’t a fluke,” Hallinan said.
The first 25 games this season, and all of last year, Hallinan did what most walk-ons do come game time: Ride the bench. His role was restricted to cheering and hollering from the sidelines after a made basket and was the first guy to greet teammates with a high-five after a timeout call. In essence, he was the team’s top cheerleader in uniform.
But a drastic turn of events— Alec Wintering tore his ACL last month, ending his career, and Porter has scrambled for answers with a season gone awry— has given Hallinan the chance he’s craved since he stepped foot on The Bluff. He has started the last four games and played 137 minutes total the last five games. He had only played 32 minutes prior to Feb. 11 this season and last year combined.
“I’d been mentally-prepared for (my) moment for so long,” Hallinan said.
Before LMU earlier this month, practices were his games and being on the scout team in scrimmages was his fourth quarter. After an elbow to the head from teammate Philipp Hartwich gave him a concussion in practice earlier this year, which forced him to sit out for over a week, he was frustrated. He vented to Director of Basketball Operations Whitney Robison, telling her that practices weren’t running as smoothly because he wasn’t able to play.
“I can genuinely say I like practice,” Hallinan said.
He had the same competitive spirit as a kid. Hallinan scraped his hands badly during recess in middle school one day. His mother, Mary Virnig, told him to skip his AAU basketball tournament that coming weekend, but he played anyway. He was a two-sport star at Portland’s Central Catholic High school. On the hardwood, a three-year starter on varsity. He was a two-time state champion on the football field, winning back-to-back titles his junior and senior year as a kick holder and wide receiver.
“He wanted to win at every game he played (growing up),” Virnig said.
But college offers didn’t come knocking on his door.
With a slender six-foot, 150 pound frame coming out of high school, college football wasn’t a realistic option for Hallinan. His basketball prospects, too, weren’t great. He had no offers, just interest from small Division II schools. Chapman University— a Division III school in California— came into the picture, but that was also a dead-end when he learned that they don’t give scholarships to basketball players. Because of his family’s financial situation, that wasn’t going to work.
So he had given up and was set on attending UP as a regular student— a school that he grew up two blocks away from— when former Pilots head coach Eric Reveno called to offer him a walk-on spot.
He’d been familiar with Reveno’s coaching staff since he was a child. Virnig, who’s worked in UP’s Athletics Department for the last decade, often brought her son to work when he was growing up. So he was the little boy running around the Chiles Center after school. He had relationships with Pilot basketball players throughout the years. And now he would be suiting up for the school in his backyard.
Virning’s status as an Athletics employee has also allowed Hallinan to play basketball at UP with free tuition.
“Everybody (in athletics) was very excited about it,” Virnig said. “He’s been playing in (Chiles Center) at night since he was a little kid.”
But Hallinan knew what his role on the team would be. Reveno made it clear. He’d be the backup to the backup point guard. In other words, the opportunities to play in games wouldn’t be there in the same way it was for the scholarship players. His hard work in practice wouldn’t always show in his minutes.
But that didn’t shrink Hallinan’s enthusiasm. He stayed positive. He was a leader in the locker room and on the practice floor. One of the starters is playing sluggish? Hallinan would ramp up that man’s intensity with his play on scout team, hounding him whenever he touched the ball on offense and made them work on defense. These are moments “to go ball out,” Hallinan says.
“He just came to practice everyday and did his job (on scout team),” teammate Jarrel Marshall said. “He went 100 percent in every drill and never complained.”
And that is why the opportunity to play in games is that much sweeter.
Less than two weeks ago, he was the handshake guy during the Pilots’ starter introductions -- the Cameron Payne to Wintering’s Russell Westbook. The last three games, he’s been one of the five starters hearing his name announced over the loud speakers before the tip.
It remains to be seen how Porter will use Hallinan next season, when a four-player recruiting class dubbed 17th in country by Hoop Scoop after the fall period, join the program next season. But for now, with one regular season game left in 2016-17, Hallinan’s main focus is on helping his team finish strong.
He helped the Pilots to snap their 14-game losing streak with a blowout win over Walla Walla on Feb. 20, tied for most minutes (22) on the team and was one of four Pilot players scoring in double figures (12). And even before the skid was snapped, he gave Portland fans an unexpected surprise in his first career start against Pacific at home on Feb. 16, scoring eight of the team’s first 12 points. He's averaging 12.3 points in the last four contests.
“Everyone gives (Xavier) the label, ‘he’s a walk-on player,’ well he’s never seen himself as a walk-on player,” assistant coach Ben Johnson said after the the Feb. 18 loss to San Francisco.
Hallinan has gotten what he’s always wanted: Minutes. And he’s translated all that mental preparation from the end of the bench into productivity on the court. He’ll play with confidence and no fear as long as he’s on the floor.
So all those body aches from running up and down all of the sudden? He can handle it.
“I’m not complaining about being sore over playing time,” Hallinan said. “It’s a good trade-off.”