A star is born: The story behind UConn walk-on Pat Lenehan
UConn’s junior walk-on Pat Lenehan attempts a 3-pointer during a game against USF earlier this season. Lenehan made the only field goal of his career with this shot.
Ask any basketball fan and they will tell you the most boring games to watch are blowouts. We yearn for the excitement of a close ballgame, sitting on the edge of our seat as the hair on the back of our necks stands, as if it too is trying to get a glimpse of the action.
However, on Feb. 2, in a game between UConn and USF, the most exciting play came when the teams were separated by 44 points. With three minutes remaining, a 6-foot-2-inch skinny player with a pale complexion and auburn hair launched a 3-pointer from the corner that swished through the hoop, much to the enjoyment of his teammates. Seniors Niels Giffey and Lasan Kromah stood with their arms raised up like an NFL referee after a field goal. Phil Nolan, Amida Brimah and DeAndre Daniels snapped towels through the air, holding each other back as if they were about to storm the court and hoist junior walk-on Pat Lenehan onto their broad shoulders. A team manager chopped the air with pretend tomahawks, as the announcer exclaimed, "A star is born!"
"It was nice to see that because it's usually my role on the team; to go crazy when other people hit big shots," Lenehan said. "Not to say that it was a big shot," he adds sheepishly, grinning as he remembered the moment.
The basket was the first of Lenehan's career at UConn and one more than anyone would have expected.
After graduating from Xavier High School in Middletown, Lenehan figured his basketball playing days were behind him, and shifted his focus to academics. He applied to every Ivy League school, and was accepted into Dartmouth and Columbia. He also applied to UConn, as a safety school. When he was offered a spot in the combined program in medicine, which guaranteed him admission into the UConn medical school as long as he kept up a good GPA, he decided to forgo Hanover in favor of Storrs.
At UConn, Lenehan was walking through a dining hall during his freshmen year when he saw a sign indicating that the men's basketball team was holding open tryouts. He was an "average" player in high school as he scored around eight points per game along with a "few" assists. Despite his underwhelming basketball skills, Lenehan decided to give it a try.
As a freshman, Lenehan made the practice squad, but was not on the actual roster. As a sophomore he began to travel a little bit with the team. Now a junior, Lenehan travels and dresses for every game, one of two walk-ons to do so.
As a walk-on, Lenehan has a different role on the team than the scholarship players. In two seasons with the Huskies, he has appeared in eight games, playing 21 minutes. His accumulated statistics: four points, three rebounds and one assist. His role is to prepare his teammates for games by playing hardnosed, relentless defense, usually trying to stop All-American point guard Shabazz Napier from scoring or dishing to his teammates. He also plays a specific role on the scout team each week, imitating players from UConn's next opponent.
"When we played [No. 1] Florida earlier in the year, I was [Michael] Frazier and they gave me a green pinny to show that I had the ultimate green light to shoot, so that was a great day at practice," Lenehan said. "I like when I get to do that."
While Lenehan hasn't been able to make a name for himself on the court, he has distinguished himself off it. A molecular and cell biology major, Lenehan has achieved a 4.0 GPA each semester at UConn. The hardest class he has ever taken? A tie between biochemistry and thyrology, a class that examines the thyroid and other soft neck structures. Yet, he still managed to get an A in each class. Maintaining a 4.0 does not come without working hard however, something Lenehan prides himself on.
"I'm not necessarily better at things than most people, but I pride myself on outworking others to get myself to the same level," Lenehan said. "I'm aware that I'm not as smart as the people I'm friends with, but I work really hard in school to do the same things as them. It's obviously very clear that I am not as good at basketball as the 12 guys I am with every day. But I work hard just to be able to compete with them."
During his sophomore year, Lenehan put in extra work every day to get a spot traveling with the team. The day he was told that he would not get that spot, he felt defeated. A few days later he received a long text message from his brother Kevin, 23, who played football at Columbia.
"He told me, 'Don't set goals that you think are within the range you can achieve. That leads to mediocrity,'" Lenehan said. "He told me to forget about getting a spot on the bench, work on getting a spot on the floor." While Lenehan said competing for playing time is "wild" to think about, having that mindset has helped him to calm down and just play. The advice from his brother helped Lenehan tremendously.
"I have a policy that I put in last year, that I just don't get nervous anymore, that's my mindset. I felt like I had to make that decision to help me play better," Lenehan said. His policy paid off for him when he sunk the three-point basket, a shot that had his brother howling in delight as he videotaped the game while at work.
After medical school, Lenehan's dream job is to be a cancer doctor. His grandfather was diagnosed with skin cancer two years ago and he says that it was a very hard time for him and his family.
"That was the first time I dealt with [cancer] on a family level. It was hard to see how my family reacted," Lenehan said. "For me, it's frustrating when I sit there and there's nothing I can do to help now. Ten years down the road there is something I can do."
Beyond family, Lenehan also finds something inherently interesting about cancer itself.
"One day when we were coming back from an away game at Washington, Shabazz made a joke that I was going to try and cure cancer," Lenehan said. "It was funny because that's actually what I want to do."
The odds of curing cancer may be heavily stacked against him, but it's not in Lenehan's nature to settle for anything less.
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