Basketball: Rivers, Brizzi embrace role as walk-ons

By Lauren Kirschman

Nick Rivers never hit a game-winning shot and was never named an All-American.

He never heard… Nick Rivers never hit a game-winning shot and was never named an All-American.

He never heard his name when the announcer called out the starting lineup for the Pitt men’s basketball team. But when Pitt fans see him on campus, they know his name. And they ask him to dance.

Rivers and freshman women’s basketball player Brianna Brizzi are walk-ons — athletes who contribute to the team without being actively recruited or given athletic scholarship money.

For walk-ons, the college athletics experience isn’t about moving on to the professional level. In most cases, coaches didn’t recruit them. Brizzi was drawn to Pitt’s nursing program. Rivers, an Arizona native, wanted a new experience.

Breaking It Down

Rivers started his time with the Panthers as a student manager for two years before approaching head coach Jamie Dixon about a spot as a walk-on before the 2009-2010 season. This year marked Rivers’ last year with the team, but his favorite memory comes from before he received a Pitt uniform.

Before Pitt’s home game against Connecticut during the 2008-2009 season, Rivers and the team were joking around in the locker room before the game. Pitt’s players were playing a beat on the wall, Rivers said, and they told him to dance. He danced, everyone laughed and former guard Levance Fields told him to go out and pump up the team before the start of the game.

Rivers’ dance — a blend of hip-hop and breakdancing — has been a tradition in Pitt’s pregame huddle ever since.

“I remember going out there and making the fans go wild and feeling that energy, and feeling like I was really part of something,” he said. “It was on ESPN the next day, and all my friends from home and everyone saw it.”

He said more people recognize him for his dancing than his playing, but he doesn’t mind. He appreciates the support.

“It’s humbling to know that they know I’m just trying to bring energy to the team,” he said. “I’m glad I can bring energy to them, which also brings energy to the team.”

Rivers said he’s been a leader for the team.

“I may not get the opportunity out there physically, but vocally,” Rivers said. “I know what Coach Dixon wants, and I can kind of relay that to them from a player perspective.”

From his time as a student-manager to finishing his career with Pitt basketball as a walk-on this season, Rivers said he never felt like an outsider. He’s been “one of the guys.”

He might have had the opportunity to play basketball at a lower level, but he said he didn’t play in the AAU circuit and wasn’t recruited. When looking for a university, he applied to Pitt and Arizona State.

He wanted a new experience, so he moved to Pennsylvania.

Rivers — who received some academic scholarship money from Pitt — said he’s “blessed” to have the experience to walk-on with the Panthers, so he had no complaints about balancing basketball, a graduate school workload and an internship at technology services company ProTech Compliance in Downtown Pittsburgh without the benefit of an athletic scholarship.

He said his parents taught him the importance of time management.

“Just try to be on time for everything,” he said. “’Cause if you’re late, it can throw off your whole day. Just making sure you’re very punctual in what you do. Stay up late, sacrifice some sleep. You can’t have the luxury of sleep.”

In his last day with the Panthers, Rivers played four minutes and saw time in the first half as Pitt defeated Washington State to win the College Basketball Invitational Championship. Former Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs said that Rivers earned every minute of his playing time.

“He works hard every day in practice. He’s one of those guys who never complains about anything,” Gibbs said after the game. “He goes out with the rest of the guys just like if he was one of the starters … It’s definitely great to have a guy like that out there to keep pushing us and when his number was called, he was ready to go.”

A Lucky Break

Brizzi got a chance at a spot on Pitt’s roster through a babysitting job.

Brizzi babysat for a friend of Pitt men’s basketball head coach Jamie Dixon, who contacted Dixon about the 5-foot-6 guard. By the time Brizzi emailed and met women’s basketball head coach Agnus Berenato, the staff already knew who she was. Brizzi went through open gym tryouts and in October, Berenato offered her a spot on the team.

Brizzi’s father, a high school basketball coach, seemed just as excited as Brizzi to hear the news.

“They actually got my dad on speaker, and I think he was shocked,” Brizzi said. “He comes to games … Even though I don’t play, he’ll call me after games. He’ll say we didn’t do this well, and we did this well.”

Brizzi, who averaged 17 points as a senior at Fauquier High School in Virginia, could’ve played Division III or low-Division II basketball, but she decided her nursing career came first. If a spot on a basketball roster came along with her school choice, that was just a plus.

The first time she met the team, she was nervous and intimidated by meeting a room full of Division I athletes. Looking back, she shouldn’t have worried.

“I didn’t know what they would be like, if they would be like, ‘Who’s this girl? Why are you here?’” she said. “But they were perfect.”

She thought that she might get treated differently since she was a walk-on, and she didn’t expect her teammates to instantly start inviting her over for dinner. But Brizzi didn’t just end up being a spot on a roster — she also found teammates who she now refers to as family.

The transition to college and Division I basketball wasn’t seamless. Brizzi had to adjust to the Division I game and was shocked at the speed of practices. She said the chance to play with Division I athletes has improved her game immensely.

Since she wasn’t recruited, Brizzi didn’t come to Pitt with a pre-built relationship with the coaching staff. There was a long list of people for Brizzi to meet, but she said the coaching staff really made an effort to reach out to her. She’s met with Berenato to discuss subjects beyond basketball.

“[The meeting] was about if I was happy, how I was feeling, how my classes were going, how many family was,” she said. “They really made an effort to make it about me more than basketball, and that was awesome.”

As she works toward her goal of becoming a physician’s assistant, much of Brizzi’s college career isn’t about basketball. She joined the team late, so her schedule last semester wasn’t arranged around practices. In order to keep a spot on the roster, she gave up a lot of her free time, study time and, she added with a laugh, nap time.

“I just had to really work on everything, like practice, going to class and getting my studying in,” Brizzi said. “The coaching staff and my teammates have all been supportive. Sometimes I have to be late or miss because my class schedule is inflexible.”

Most of Brizzi’s classes now take place in the morning, and, like the other athletes on the team, she has 12 hours of study time per week that she checks in for. All of the balance between academics and athletics comes without the athletic scholarship money given to her teammates, but Brizzi said she’s just happy to have the opportunity to keep playing basketball.

“If my skills were as good as my teammates, [the coaches] wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, she’s just as good, but she’s a walk-on so we’re not going to play her,’” Brizzi said. “I’m just not as good as everyone else, so that’s why I’m not playing.”