Price Taking His Bulldog-Bow On Senior Day

Rick Ray recalls the moment during preseason practice when he was offering Baxter Price some specific instructions, same as any other Bulldog guard. "He kind of looked past me like, ‘You're coaching me?"!"

He was indeed. Because Baxter Price has achieved the ultimate goal of the college walk-on. Not only getting to wear the uniform, that happens with most every team. Nor getting in the games, though that would satisfy 99% of volunteers. Not even being put on athletic scholarship, as great as that achievement is.

Price is one of the guys. Whether that means having the ball in his hands during games, or having the coach direct—OK, yell at—him, he is on absolute equal terms with every other Bulldog.

"I'm really, really, really grateful I had the opportunity," Price said. "And I can't put into words how grateful I am for it."

Really. Though come Saturday the Brandon native can claim a special status on teammates. He is the lone upperclassman to be recognized on Senior Day 2013 at Mississippi State. True, fourth-year Dog Wendell Lewis could participate and would have if not for his December kneecap injury that has him tentatively returning for a fifth season.

This leaves Price as the only player stepping into the pre-game spotlight before State takes on Auburn in the regular season finale. He won't be alone though as family will join him on the Humphrey Coliseum court. In every other sense Price stands out as the first ‘alumnus' of the new coaching staff.

"I'm happy for Baxter," Ray said. Not least, "Because he made it through this season."

Yeah, there's that. The, no pun intended, price of being one of the guys is being held to identical expectations. Most walk-ons after all are fan favorites because the proverbial bar isn't set as high for them. They can throw up a forced shot—more on this in a moment—or lose the dribble and hey, that's OK, he's on the court. Not here. And not least because extraordinary first-season circumstances for Ray's program make everyone a regular.

The result is an average five minutes per senior year game, six in SEC play. And given varied suspensions of teammates, Price has been a pretty priceless body to have available. Such as at Florida when he went 16 minutes. "It was just surreal, it was an unbelievable experience. I can't put into words what it meant to me personally." All that would have made it better was a win, which didn't happen.

"But you know, I felt really blessed and just really grateful to have a chance to compete on that level, at an arena like that, in front of that many people. And it was really an unbelievable, unbelievable experience."

Believe this though: though regarded as a walk-on, Price isn't having to pay for his school this senior year. He's on scholarship. "It meant a great deal to me, that he had the respect and faith in me to do something like that. To award me a scholarship meant everything to me."

In the January 2013 issue of Dawgs' Bite Magazine (Vol. 9, #5) Price talked about his basketball background , missing most of his senior season at Northwest Rankin HS, growing up a Mississippi State fan—in Starkville at that, until seventh grade when the family moved to Flowood. Like the thousands of high school grads each year he wasn't ready to give up basketball despite lack of any college offers. Grants aren't often extended to under-six-footers averaging eight points after all.

Fortunately he was always planning on studying at State. And he'd met Rick Stansbury long before. "He asked me I wanted to walk on the team. Of course I said yeah. I didn't know anything about what would happen, I knew nothing about what it took to do this job, walk-on, anything else. I had no idea." Other than he'd get to see a wider world traveling with Bulldog basketball than playing at a juco or small college. And, as he said in the magazine interview, it wasn't only about the basketball. That is a fast track to disappointment for most walk-ons, Price warns.

"But it's one of those things you do and you learn so much from it. I look back now four years ago and man, it's been an experience. I don't know where I would be if I didn't go through this experience. So like I said, it's been very good to me."

As noted, Price has progressed way beyond the usual run of walk-on who only enters in waning minutes of wins or losses. The fascinating aspect though is Price hasn't taken advantage of the position to do what every fan would love to: take a shot.

"Honestly, it goes without saying when I get out there on the court I'm not there to score as much as some guys. I know it sounds cliché but I honestly just want to win. I'd like to set our guys up with the opportunity to score the basketball whichever way. Whoever scores it is fine with me. I really want our guys to have success regardless whose hands it comes from."

Well and good. But what about the inevitable ‘SHOOOOT!' from the home crowd, especially his fellow State students, every time he touches the ball? "It doesn't really bother me," Price said. "I'm just glad people support me!" At the same time team insiders say Price prefers not to take shots for that very reason, that he is ‘supposed to' according to fans. Probably because it is too much like calling attention to himself or something.

Now two weeks ago against Vanderbilt, he did take a couple of arc-attempts from the right wing. They missed, and on the second (admittedly rushed in the shot clock) try Ray said loud enough for all to hear ‘Priiiiiice!'. Well, almost everyone to hear.

"I didn't hear it, I didn't know about that!" Price admitted. "But I guess I'm kind of glad I didn't." Seriously, though, "I guess it's better to have support than to have somebody getting all over your case. But no, it really doesn't bother me. It's something that like I said earlier is kind of surreal." What would make it more so is getting his first points of the season on Senior Day. Price is 0-of-5 for the year, 0-of-2 at the arc.

He also is the last active member of the ‘Gold Team'. The famed practice squad of 2010-11 that featured Price, fellow walk-ons Taylor Luczak and Charles ‘Tex' Parker, and then-sitting-out guys like Arnett Moultrie and Dee Bost or Renardo Sidney. There were times the Gold Team could beat the active varsity. Of course it is the walk-on trio best remembered still.

"Taylor and Tex, those guys had a really good personality and they kind of liked to bring a little joking personality to the team. It was nice. It was interesting! I enjoyed it. It was something that everybody could kind of laugh at. Just kind of putting a play on the whole thing, not everything has to be so serious."

More seriously though, Price's long-standing status has given him a longer perspective on the Bulldog program. As well as ‘rank' on a roster loaded with youth. Talking about the team this week, Price used ‘kids' a couple of times talking about the team.

"Well, I'm 22 and some of them are 17, 18 years old! So I'm calling them kids I guess to put some emphasis on how young they are. But they're doing a great job. And even though they're young they've come in and to me they've set an example for me. And I'm about to graduate and I've learned so much from them."

Take Fred Thomas, one of those rookies and in many respects the polar-opposite to Price. A highly-recruited prospect and prep state champion, with offers from everyone and remarkable athletic skills. Oh, and no hesitation at all about throwing up a shot any time, any where…even when he shouldn't.

"Fred, I've grown close to him. He's a good kid. He's young and he's got time to mold into someone I think is going to be a major, major contributor to this program. And I'm grateful have a chance to know him and play with him. I feel Coach Ray and his staff is going to use him in a positive way, I think he's going to become a big-time contributor to this team."

Yes, what about the future for State hoops? None of Price's previous teams made it to the NCAAs, though he did twice enjoy NIT experience. Still this season has been a grind for everyone involved as, for all sorts of reasons within or more often beyond Ray's control the rebuilding has become total. Price saw better times and can compare and contrast.

His expert opinion on where Ray is taking Mississippi State? "In a very positive direction," Price said.

"I encourage everybody to really get behind everything that is going on. Because they need the support. A lot of young guys, and I think when you have young guys you have an opportunity to kind of mold them the way that you feel necessary to build a program. And I really feel like these guys are taking the right step. We have a bunch of tough young guys and they want to do the right thing. And that's the key, when you want to do the right things stuff just comes naturally and comes easy. I think we're off to a great start, and I just encourage everybody to get behind this program."

That ‘great start' will give pause to fans used to at least thinking of post-season potential. And as the old Dog Price would have the right to criticize. He won't. He sees from a perspective worth weighing. Take just the transition in how State now works at the game. Price even sees practices under Ray as tougher than games, and that is the right approach in the player's mind.

"That's the way it is supposed to be, that's the way you truly learn. When it comes to the games it's not very bad at all. The defense isn't in your face as much, it's easier to do everything. But again you have to be able to take coaching, and I think that is one of the most valuable things that has been taught."

It's another cliché but from Price's perspective Ray really is giving these players a heads-up on reality beyond the court. If guys are willing to buy-in, they'll be the better for it he believes.

"Because one day, for each and every one of these kids, the basketball is going to stop bouncing. You're going to have to take responsibilities in life. And lessons that we're learning here playing basketball, having fun playing a game in college, are two-part lessons that are going to benefit you down the road. And whether it is taking coaching the right way or whether it is learning from consequences, he's really brought just a different dynamic."

What Price does not expect to change is Mississippi State's image as a program that has a place for willing walk-on workers. In fact, he sees such peers everywhere these days. "You look around the conference and a lot of teams, it's becoming something a lot of coaches do.

"I think it's more commonly used now as opposed to probably five, ten years ago. You have guys who normally played just on scholarship; now you see a lot more walk-ons playing. And you know, when you're playing I don't know if they care. I think they're there to win the basketball game just like we're there to win the basketball game. So I don't think it really matters much."

A business major, Price would prefer not leaving campus just yet. He interned last summer in Washington D.C. with Roger Wicker for one experience. And of course he got to travel to Europe with the Bulldogs a year ago. So he has had a few glimpses of the world beyond the Hump. He'd just rather not rush into anything.

"Hopefully I'll go to grad school, I guess with the way everything is now it's never too late to just keep learning. But I don't know, I'll see where it takes me. I'm just the kind of person that I'm going to try to keep my options open and just see. And hopefully do some graduate school and see where that takes me."


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