LOS ANGELES — When walk-on CJ Baird entered Michigan’s 99-72 victory over Texas A&M for the first time with 41 seconds to go, teammate Jaaron Simmons offered some last-second advice.
“I told him come get the ball and shoot it,” Simmons said.
Encouragement from a teammate was all the coaxing Baird needed to make the most of a rare moment on the floor. The freshman has only played in two previous games this season, four minutes against UC Riverside in late November and three against Alabama A&M four weeks later.
Having grabbed the ball at the top of the key, Baird dribbled down the shot clock, rose up and buried a 25-footer over the outstretched hands of Texas A&M’s 6-foot-10 forward Isiah Jasey. Baird was so excited that he flashed the 3-point sign running back down court as his teammates jumped up and down in celebration on the bench.
“I’ve watched the NCAA tournament for so many years, but I never thought I’d get to do this,” Baird said. “When I shot it, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, go in, go in.’ When it went in, I got shivers down my whole body. I couldn’t hold back my emotion. It was one of the best feelings of my life.”
Baird’s shot was a fitting ending to a night when Michigan couldn’t miss no matter who shot the ball. The third-seeded Wolverines buried seventh-seeded Texas A&M under an avalanche of threes, sinking 10 before halftime and shooting 14 of 24 from behind the arc for the game.
The most memorable of the 14 was Baird’s because it was so unlikely. Only six months ago, he had no intention of trying to play basketball at Michigan.
Baird played four seasons of varsity basketball at Detroit Catholic Central High School, but he was a better student than he was a prospect. Rather than play basketball at a nearby Division III school, Baird decided to enroll in Michigan’s business school in hopes of one day forging a career in corporate finance.
One of Baird’s high school coaches reached out to the Michigan staff about the possibility of him walking onto the team. There were no available roster spots, so Baird became a student manager instead.
“I was perfectly content with that for awhile,” Baird said. “I got to be part of the practices and see what happens. Finally, one of our players quit in mid-October for academic reasons. They had an open tryout for his spot, and I won the job. They welcomed me to the team in early November, and it’s been a great ride ever since.”
When Baird got back to the locker room after his 3-pointer, he was chosen to lead the team in singing Michigan’s fight song. Minutes later, he checked his phone and found a flood of calls, texts and tweets, several of them from his parents who are celebrating their 25th anniversary in Italy this week.
Nobody was happier for Baird than Simmons, the player whose encouragement paved the way for the walk-on’s moment in the spotlight.
“He never gets the opportunity to get into a game, especially an NCAA tournament game at that,” Simmons said. “I just wanted him to be able to get a shot up and for him to knock it down.”
– – – – – – –