The Cusp

How a D2 Walk-On With a Trombone Scholarship Became a Pro Baller

VICE Sports talks to Tanner McGrew about his unexpected and unique path to becoming a G League star.

by Created with G League
Oct 8 2019, 2:00pm

The tiny town of Buckhannon, West Virginia is “the farthest thing from the center of the NBA as possible,“ says Tanner McGrew. “The closest NBA team is four hours away. So I didn’t grow up with any expectations of playing college basketball or expectations of success at the professional level.”

Expectations or not, success at the professional level is what McGrew has achieved: A professional basketball player who charted a truly unique path to get there.

He entered his freshman year at West Virginia Wesleyan College with more prospects in becoming a professional musician than basketball player. In fact, he’d begun playing with WVWC’s jazz band as a junior in high school, after associate professor of music at the college, Dr. James Moore, caught an early glimpse of his talent for the trombone, and thought to himself, “I need this kid to play in our big band at the college.”

“He was already playing at a real high level,” says Dr. Moore.

McGrew’s play on the court wasn’t as sought after. “Whenever I was in high school, with basketball, I realized I wasn’t as gifted athletically. I wasn’t up jumping touching the top of the square.” He went unrecruited. “I wasn’t looked at, I wasn’t asked to walk on anywhere,” he says.

But then he started seeing the parallels between music and sports—that both require its participants to play certain roles, to hit certain notes. He honed his game, and began to improve. The guy who wasn’t looked at his freshman year was averaging 23 points and 13 rebounds as a senior. That stellar stat sheet led to a couple years playing pro ball internationally, and then to the NBA G League, which came as something of a surprise to the trombonist from a town of 5,000 people. “I never saw the NBA G League as something I was going to achieve or participate in,” he says. “So when it came about that I got that opportunity, that was big,” he says. “My journey has been way different than what most people experience. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Created with The NBA G League.

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Tanner McGrew