Walk-On Jayhawk : Ransom Beats Odds to Make the Team at Kansas After Stint at Irvine Valley

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Ransom stands on the precipice again.

He may be the last man on the Kansas bench. He may spend games squatting, jumping and clapping while the others work up a sweat. He may be the guy fans chant for when the rout is on.

But when the crowd is rocking and the top-ranked Jayhawks are rolling, Ransom is standing on that cliff.

"We used to cliff dive at this spot in Dana Point," said Ransom, a Capistrano Valley High graduate. "I would stand there and hesitate. It was pretty high up, but I had to do it. When I jumped, the rush of adrenaline was the greatest."

He sprints into Allen Fieldhouse these days and he's free falling again.

Ransom beat out 40 others during a two-week tryout to be the team's walk-on player this season. The team carries at least one every season, a tribute to the rabid Jayhawk students, who number 7,500 at home games. The idea is to make one a team member.

In some ways, this is the most daring thrill Ransom has ever sought. He had a decent high school career, then another two years at Irvine Valley College. There was some interest from Division II schools. But this was Kansas.

It doesn't take a wizard to figure out the talent level. Ransom, a 6-foot-5 post player, doesn't seem to measure up. Yet, he is No. 44 on the Jayhawks' roster.

He is traveling the country, and even out of it (Kansas, which lost Friday to Temple, plays two exhibition games in France this month). Even Ransom has to pinch himself at times. Every time he does, it hurts.

"I missed the date to buy my [student] tickets for the basketball games this fall," Ransom said. "I didn't think I would get to see one game. Now, not only did I save $85, but I have the best seat in the house."

Even better, there are days when Coach Roy Williams tells Ransom to get out of that seat.

With less than a minute left against UCLA, Williams began clearing the bench. Until that moment, Ransom's highlight had been ducking as Bruin guard Brandon Loyd flew over him and out of bounds. Not exactly something to tell the grandchildren about, but it was on national television.

Then Williams stopped next to Ransom and said, "get in for [Raef] LeFrentz."

"At first, I didn't know if he was talking to me," Ransom said. "Then he grabbed me. I just ran to the scorer's table, threw off my [warmups] and was in the game."

A moment later the ball was in his hands and he was fouled. Ransom made one of two free throws, his first point of the season. He scored a "career-high" four points against Pittsburg State on Dec. 18.

Ransom has played 10 minutes this season. So, if you're counting, Ransom is owed another five minutes in the spotlight.

"Sometimes I don't believe this is really happening," Ransom said. "I idolized these guys last year. I thought they were gods."

Ransom got a taste of deity from the other side recently.

He was jogging across campus, late for a test and passed a tour group. The guide was in the middle of a sentence, " . . . on your right is Fraser Hall, which houses the sociology and psychology departments. On your left, ladies and gentlemen, is Steve Ransom of the Kansas basketball team."

A stunned Ransom stopped in his tracks.

"I told Coach Williams that I wanted to be a coach some day," said Ransom, a history major. "He told me being on this team would help me more than 100 letters of recommendation. I feel like a kid in a candy shop."

It is a sweet situation, but one Ransom did not crave when he enrolled. All he wanted was to go to college outside of California.

He had no intention of playing basketball, beyond recreation leagues. He had undergone surgery to repair a chronic ankle problem from years of running up and down the court.

Ransom was content to be a student. His friends called him "Surfer" because of his long hair and unusual activities.

"He lists cliff diving and spear fishing as his hobbies," Sports Information Director Dean Buchan said. "There's not a lot of that in Kansas."

What they do have is basketball. And Ransom got caught up in it.

He attended every home game last season and even waited in line four days to get tickets to the Florida game. He also knew last season's walk-on, Joel Branstrom, who gave him the inside dope on the team.

"I realized I really missed basketball," Ransom said. "All the tradition and spirit here made me want to be a part of it. I had to try."

Ransom had basic skills already.

His career at Capistrano Valley was not spectacular, but respectable. He went to Irvine Valley College and was the team's most valuable player his sophomore season.

"We really, really wanted him," said former UC Davis Coach John Wheeler, now an assistant at Pepperdine. "We didn't think he would come in and set the world on fire. But his work ethic alone was going to help us."

Ransom reactivated that work ethic this fall.

He made the cut from 40 to 10 players the first week. The players were told the decision would be posted in the locker room at 5 p.m. Friday. Ransom got there at 5:01, saw his name, blinked, then took a second look. Still unsure, he chased down the team manager.

"I asked him, 'Does this mean I'm on the team?' " Ransom said. "I was in a daze. Every emotion ran through my body at once."

Fear remained, at least for a while. He was, after all, going up against inside players who towered over him, such as LeFrentz (6-11) and Scott Pollard (6-10).

"He was a nervous wreck for about a week," assistant coach Joe Holladay said. "He was going 100 miles per hour and, sometimes, his shoes didn't go with him.

"But Steve is perfect for us. He does everything we ask and has no expectations. He's not going to get his feelings hurt if he doesn't get into a game."

And when he does, it's a treat.

Hours after the UCLA game, Ransom was still receiving telephone calls from friends and relatives. They had all seen him on television and, in their eyes, he was famous.

"I remember the first time the crowd started calling for me," Ransom said. "I looked over and didn't recognize anybody in the section. I thought, 'How do they know me? I don't have my name on the back of my shirt yet.' But that's how big basketball is here.

"I never thought I would find anything more exciting than cliff diving. But when I run into the arena with the team, and that crowd goes crazy, it's the greatest feeling in the world."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°