Last September, early in the school year at St. Peter's College, Tim Spitler was summoned to the office of the new basketball coach, John Dunne. Spitler didn't know what to expect. He had played two years as a walk-on and felt he was in good standing. At the very least, he was confident he would get a chance to try out again.
So you can imagine how Spitler felt when Dunne sat him down and told him he was putting him on scholarship.
"I was shocked," said Spitler. "It was great for me, and even better, it saved a few bucks for my folks. When I called my dad, he said, 'The money is great, but just think. You're on scholarship!' "
For Kevin Spitler, who was a scholarship player at Canisius in the late 1960s, it was the culmination of a grand Buffalo tradition, a family dynasty of hoop walk-ons. Tim is the fourth of Kevin's sons -- all former high school stars at St. Joe's -- to walk on at Division I schools.
Chris, who played at Holy Cross, was a central figure in "The Last Amateurs," John Feinstein's book on the Patriot League. Pat was a captain and part-time starter at Stony Brook for Nick Macarchuk. Andrew played at Canisius, where he's now in graduate school.
The tradition goes back to Kevin's brother, Mark, who walked on at Canisius in 1975 and earned a scholarship.
Tim, who led St. Joe's to the state final in '04, is the first one to walk on, earn a scholarship and become a regular starter. He has started all 12 games for St. Peter's, which plays tonight at Niagara and at Canisius on Friday.
"It'll be fun to play in front of people who know me," Spitler said Monday from Jersey City. "I'm real excited. I've surprised myself. A lot of coaches have given me an opportunity, and I appreciate that. It's nice to be given a chance."
Tim is a 6-3 point guard by trade. But Dunne uses him at off guard to take advantage of his rebounding and defense. Spitler is fourth in the MAAC in offensive rebounds, ninth in steals. He averages 5.2 points on 35.6 percent shooting.
As a freshman, Spitler was one of eight walk-ons in tryouts. The rest of the team got to pick which walk-on made the team. Spitler was the clear choice.
"I would have stayed if they didn't pick me," he said. "Then I would have tried out the next year, and tried out the year after that and the year after that."
Kevin Spitler isn't surprised by what his boys have done. "I guess gratified is the word," said Spitler, a long-time grammar school coach at St. Mark's in North Buffalo. "I'm gratified that they work hard, they've been blessed with enough skill, and they've had coaches who gave them an opportunity."
Tim wasn't recruited by many D-Is. He could have been a D-III star. He was tempted. But he wanted to continue the family's D-I tradition. Like all the brothers, he felt he was the best player in the family. Tim says there's a common thread in their success: Their parents, Kevin and Mary Elaine.
"They always taught us to work hard and do things the right way," Tim said.
Kevin and Mary Elaine have traveled to most of the boys' road games, even when their sons didn't play. Last week, they saw St. Peter's lose at Florida State.
"They're nuts, those two," Tim said. "They're crazy. They're running out of games to go to now. I'm the last one."
Last week, they went to New York to see Tim play and to visit Chris and Pat. Both of them live in New York. Chris is a lawyer, like his dad. Pat is a carpenter. Tim said one of the benefits of playing at St. Peter's was being a 10-minute train ride from his brothers. Tim is an urban studies major. He's interested in waterfront development -- "kind of like what Buffalo needs," he said.
Let's hope he sticks with it. Saving our waterfront is a daunting task, but if there's one thing we've learned, it's never to underestimate a Spitler.