Patience pays off for Byron Mulkey
Buffalo's Byron Mulkey possesses such quickness and anticipation that at one point this season he led the entire nation in steals. He also ranks third in the Mid-American Conference in assists (5.0 apg), revealing his vision and great feel for the game.
But shortly before last season, when Mulkey was called into coach Reggie Witherspoon's office and asked to sit out his senior year, the request to redshirt was something that completely blindsided him.
Because Mulkey made the difficult decision to go along with it, the Bulls' point guard now finds himself having exactly the kind of season he spent his entire career dreaming of. Due to his willingness to wait, he's now leading a team that has hopes of winning a MAC title.
"You can learn a lot by watching," Mulkey said of his year away from the court.
To understand how Mulkey developed the maturity and patience it took to sit on the bench in street clothes as a senior, consider that his mother, Dolores Mulkey, spent last season attending every home game, as well. She did so despite knowing full well that her son wouldn't be playing.
"If he can sit there on that bench and endure all that, I can also come in there and endure it," Dolores explained. "I wanted him to know I was there for support."
Dolores had raised Byron and his older brothers, Maurice and Tommy Welch, to be more than athletes. She set an example for the children by attending Buffalo herself, taking about five years of night classes to earn her bachelor's degree in health administration. In the house, she preached academics and made sure her kids acted like adults.
So when 6-foot-0 Byron graduated from Niagara-Wheatfield High School in Sanborn, N.Y., without a single Division I scholarship offer, there was something to fall back on. Byron in fact got into Buffalo on an academic scholarship and still wanted to play Division I basketball, deciding to walk on to the team as a freshman.
Byron was supposed to redshirt that first season, but he was pressed into action once a job came open and ended up starting 10 games, averaging 9.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists. As a sophomore, he earned a scholarship and played in all 30 games, starting 12 and averaging 6.8 points.
But as a junior, Byron was buried on the depth chart and played only nine games. Witherspoon had an idea to make his senior year more memorable and called him in to discuss the plan in October.
To Witherspoon, redshirting as a senior would benefit both the program and the player. Rather than compete for playing time on a senior-laden team, Byron could instead become one of only two senior leaders this season when the team would be much younger, providing him with more of an opportunity to play.
"I was shocked," Dolores said. "I could hear in his voice he was just as shocked, and he wasn't very happy. He had that down tone."
Said Byron: "It kind of caught me off guard."
Dolores told him to stay patient and have faith that things would work out for the best. "You can get mad, get angry, it's not going to do you any good," she said.
Even though she disagreed that he couldn't have earned playing time and didn't care much for the option presented to her son, she saw that this was the way to go -- considering Witherspoon felt so strongly. She would respect the decision and follow the plan.
Byron also received some much-needed advice from Tommy Welch, his older brother by nine years. Welch had played football at Buffalo and told Byron to embrace redshirting as an opportunity rather than treating it as a burden.
"Here's an opportunity to improve your craft and sharpen your skills," Welch said. "Go after it, and realize how great you're going to be. He had never really had a time to become a student of the game."
Said Byron: "He continued to stay on me as far as seeing the big picture. Good things come to those who wait."
Byron spent the year watching games closely. He had always played at his one speed, which was fast-paced. Now he could slow the game down and watch things develop. In practice, he improved his shot and his ball-handling ability.
"I looked at practices as my game days," Byron said. "I looked at it as, 'I have more games than you guys have.' It wasn't hard to work hard."
Said Witherspoon: "I tell people when a kid redshirts his freshman year, all he knows is he's not playing, not what to look for. He doesn't know how to listen. He doesn't learn to listen.
"With Byron sitting out his fourth year, he knew what to look for. He knew how to listen. He learned. He was just great. His understanding of the game improved tremendously. He now can sense and see the game better because he slows down. He sees things as they're going to happen as opposed to always trying to make things happen."
Off the court, the time was beneficial, as well. Byron graduated cum laude with a degree in business administration, and he is now getting his first year of graduate school paid for while enrolled in the School of Education. His goal? Becoming an athletic director.
But first, Byron has a MAC championship to try to capture. He was selected as a team captain during the season in which he redshirted and has now taken on a vocal leadership role on a team that lost six seniors and its top five leading scorers. The Bulls are now 14-7, while Mulkey averages a career-high 14.1 points per game.
"This team is his leadership," Witherspoon said. "He's been able to convey his intensity, enthusiasm, maturity with this team. He's just a great kid, a very serious kid, a very mature kid."
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.