Byron Mulkey cuts through the University at Buffalo North Campus, stopping suddenly in front of Alumni Arena. Staring at the building he has called home for five years, he lets his imagination wander.
If they could have sneaked in, he said. If his basketball team could have gotten into the Big Dance, maybe the Bulls would have made some noise. Like everyone else, Mulkey saw that eyesore of a national title game three days earlier.
"I know," Mulkey said, taking a deep breath. "We could have "
His words dribble off. Excuse Mulkey for dreaming big. His collegiate career began with a sliver of hope, a chance. Of course he leaves UB with a pinch of regret. The Bulls' season ended in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Instead of March Madness, it was March Frustration.
But after no Division I schools offered the former Niagara Wheatfield star a scholarship, Mulkey got the last laugh. The not necessarily fast, not necessarily agile 6-footer averaged 13.1 points, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game this past season. His 88 steals rank fourth all time in the Mid-American Conference. He was the definition of leading by example.
And now, he has options. He's one semester away from earning his master's degree and said he hopes to play overseas.
Not bad for a recruiting leftover.
"He's mentally and physically tough," UB head coach Reggie Witherspoon said. "His perseverance and whole approach to life, he's tough."
Nobody wanted Mulkey out of high school. Nobody at the D-I level, anyway.
Although he averaged nearly 26 points per game as a senior to finish 26th all time on the Western New York scoring list, he was considered too small and too slow, and he had played too many sports in high school to be a legitimate prospect. The only offer Mulkey received was from a Division II school, Hamilton College.
"I wanted to play D-I basketball, and no one was interested," Mulkey said. "At the same time, I wasn't going to take 'no' for an answer."
So he contacted schools himself. He reached out to all Big 4 schools. All he got was a mixed bag of vague, polite variations of "not interested."
Canisius was set at the guard position. Mulkey said St. Bonaventure wasn't "keen on my size." And Niagara, Mulkey's backyard team? "I guess [NU coach Joe Mihalich] felt he was strong enough with his team," Mulkey said. "My only lifeline was UB."
Witherspoon guaranteed nothing but did give Mulkey a chance to walk on.
"We thought that he could come in and contribute to the program," Witherspoon said. "We thought there was a good chance of that but didn't know to what extent. Would he ever be in the rotation? Would he ever be a scholarship guy?"
Yes, and then some. Mulkey was a regular his first two years. As a freshman, his 14 assists in one game were one shy of a Bulls record. As a sophomore, he was one of three captains. Then, that unwanted feeling returned. As a junior, Mulkey was pushed back in the rotation. He played sparingly.
The following off-season, Witherspoon brought Mulkey in to his office and told him he was redshirting him as a senior. With so many senior guards, he'd stash Mulkey in the bullpen for a year.
Immediately, Mulkey called his mother. Dolores Mulkey never heard such hurt in her son's voice. His entire life -- since infancy, she said -- her son was the life of the party.
"He was very down, very down," she said. "It was a very sad, low tone."
Mulkey was devastated. The next practice, his mother said, he uncharacteristically copped an attitude. Why wouldn't he? Seniors are never slapped with the redshirt. This was his class, the group he came in with.
Still, Mulkey never considered transferring. UB was the only team that gave him a chance. After another talk with Witherspoon, he snapped out of it.
"He wanted to play," Witherspoon said. "He didn't want to sit out a year. He asked, 'Why?' But very quickly, he said, 'If that's what you want me to do, then that's what I'm going to do.' "
Mulkey practiced hard and studied film harder. He scouted UB's opponents, relaying reports to teammates. In the process, he adopted aspects of other players' games. While watching Purdue's games, he admired Robbie Hummel's patience. The game seemed to slow down for Hummel.
By the time Mulkey's "senior" season arrived, he was ready.
"He was very, very focused," his mother said. "I hardly even talked to Byron. He was very, very, very excited. I was so pleased with how everything turned out because it could have been a disaster."
With Mulkey in the cockpit, the Bulls (20-14, 8-8) took another step forward as a program. The kick-start was a trio of games against those Big 4 schools that overlooked him.
"It's a lot easier to get up for those games," he said.
In an 81-64 win at Canisius, he scored 23 points. In a two-point loss at St. Bonaventure, he had 21 points and seven rebounds. Then, in an 82-64 triumph over Niagara, he stuffed the box score with 19 points, five rebounds, four assists and five steals. At one point, Mulkey led the nation in steals -- the result of "extremely strong hands and fingers," Witherspoon says.
Along the way, UB became a reasonable threat to masquerade as the Butler Bulldogs. In fact, the Bulls crushed Butler's Horizon League foe Milwaukee, which beat the Bulldogs.
And in one beatdown of MAC power Kent State, Mulkey poured in a career-high 27 points.
The year off paid off, after all. Mulkey was the face of the program. He starred in television commercials and signed autographs after games for fans. The school even doled out bobbleheads in his honor.
Years from now, Witherspoon said, he will tell players Mulkey's story.
"Nothing was given to him," he said. "He led by example and was vocal when he needed to be. His teammates had total trust in him."
Now, he's the wanted one. Already, Mulkey has been contacted by multiple agencies. Soon, he will have an agent, and playing pro basketball will become a reality. No need to sell himself anymore.
Witherspoon, for one, is a believer. In some league, somewhere, the coach believes, Mulkey will find a niche.
"Playing overseas requires a lot of the attributes that he has," Witherspoon said. "It isn't always how well you play. You have to adapt to a completely different culture. Certainly he's adaptable."
On the surface, this fairy tale seems to have stumbled to an anticlimactic end. UB lost in the quarterfinals of a tournament that only a fraction of the public has even heard of. For Mulkey, though, it was more than enough. Typecast as a cute, hometown subplot five years ago, Mulkey built his own legacy.
Rubbing his hands together, Mulkey finally gathers perspective. Did he accomplish enough here?
"Without a doubt," he said. "Wouldn't change a thing."