There are times when Brice Crook feels like the latest top prize winner on a television reality show.
"I'm this team's biggest fan," said Crook of his Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball teammates. "I grew up watching all those great teams go to the NCAA tournament (2004-07)."
As far as Crook is concerned right now he's the American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, The Apprentice and America's Got Talent champion all rolled into one.
"I loved those (Wolf Pack) teams," Crook said. "I never thought I'd ever play for this school. I just love being a part of it and helping this team."
Brice Crook's improbable journey to Lawlor Events Center this winter is not typical television reality programming. That's because reality would have told him he had a better shot at becoming America's Next Top Model.
"I didn't know if I could do it," said Crook of his plans on joining the Wolf Pack this season.
He wasn't the only one.
Reality would have told Crook that a hockey player just doesn't decide one day to play Division I basketball. Nobody, after all, goes from left wing to shooting guard in one magical summer. Reality Also would have also told him that a guy who hadn't played competitive basketball in four years had no right to even dream about one day slipping on a Division I basketball uniform.
"When I first started to think about doing it, I didn't tell anyone," he said. "I didn't even tell my family or my friends at first. I just wanted to see if I could do it for myself."
Attempting to play Division I basketball, though, was merely Crook's latest improbable dream. Rewind to a decade ago when Crook was in elementary school and playing roller hockey.
That's right. Roller hockey. No ice. No blades on his skates. No puck. It's hockey on wheels with a ball.
"I had never ice skated in my life," Crook said.
That didn't stop him from dreaming about becoming an ice hockey player.
"I played against some national competition in roller hockey and there were a lot of guys there that played ice hockey," Crook said. "I was killing them all out there."
That's when Crook decided to go across the country to play ice hockey for Triton High in Massachusetts as a high school freshman.
"I always knew I had the potential in hockey because of my size," said Crook, who now stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 205 pounds. "I was big for a hockey player and they (hockey scouts) like that. I really wanted to give it a try."
He did more than that, leading Triton in goals and points and helping his team reach the state tournament.
"I had to live with a family I didn't know," Crook said. "That's what you do in junior hockey. I just got a little homesick. It was a tough year for me, being away from home. I was just a freshman and away from home for the first time. I decided to come back."
Crook was back playing basketball for the Carson High Senators as a sophomore in 2004-05.
"No hockey at all," he said. "I kind of gave up the sport for the rest of my high school years and just wanted to focus on basketball."
Crook played his sophomore year at Carson High and his junior and senior years at Galena High.
"My dad got a new job in Reno and moved the family," said Crook, explaining his transfer to Galena. "It worked out well for me because I got a chance to play for a state championship at Galena."
Crook was an instrumental player on the Galena Grizzlies 2007 state championship team.
The Grizzlies, led by future Wolf Pack star Luke Babbitt as well as starters Crook, Tristan Hill, J.D. Peters and Eric Maupin, won the Class 4A state title in Las Vegas, still the only northern Nevada school to win state down south in over four decades.
"Luke was such a great player so the four of us (Crook, Peters, Maupin and Hill) all agreed to take a secondary role to help us win a championship," said Crook, who averaged 10.5 points for the Grizzlies as a senior. "It worked out great for us. We won state. And Luke was great to play with. He appreciated everything we did to help him. Luke (a junior in 2006-07) really did respect our senior class that year and we had respect for him."
Crook's basketball career, though, seemed to come to an end the second the Grizzlies put the finishing touches on their 54-51 victory over Mojave at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
"I didn't get any Division I offers," he said. "A few Division II teams were interested in me but that was it."
It was back to hockey for Crook after three years away from the game.
From 2007-08 through 2010-11, Crook played ice hockey for four teams: the Waterloo Siskins in Ontario, Canada and the Capital Thunder in Roseville, Calif., in junior hockey and in college for the Elmira (New York) Soaring Eagles and the Worcester (Mass.) State Lancers.
A year ago this month, Crook was playing college hockey for Worcester State, scoring a goal, picking up four assists and being called for eight minutes in penalties in seven games.
The year before at Elmira College, he had an assist and six minutes of penalties in six games.
"My last year in ice hockey, I was finally feeling comfortable on my edges," Crook said. "I could always skate fast straight ahead. That was never a problem. But it took me a while to be able to do all of the little things on my skates.
"It was tough because I was still leaning things that those guys started learning when they were 3-years-old, playing hockey growing up. I was always behind those guys. That was a big disadvantage for me. But I was getting more and more comfortable. But then I blew out my shoulder and that was it."
He came back home last spring with another improbable dream. He wanted to see if he could join the Wolf Pack as a non-scholarship player.
"He called me last spring," Pack coach David Carter said. "I remembered him from Galena a little bit (the Pack recruited Babbitt that year). And I wasn't looking to add any walk-ons at that time. But I told him it would be OK for him to come play with the guys in our open gyms in the summer."
That was all Crook needed to hear. He started working out with a personal trainer in the summer.
"Both of us were realistic about his chances of making the team as a long shot. But that drives guys like us,"
said former Galena High star Mike Atkinson, a personal trainer who works for Sierra Strength and Speed and Elite Pro Performance in northern Nevada.
"He whipped me into shape," said Crook of Atkinson. "I never worked so hard in my life. But I knew if I wanted to do this the right way I had to get into basketball shape."
Still, at first, he didn't tell anyone about his goal to play for the Wolf Pack.
"We agreed to keep his aspirations and training private," Atkinson said. "It was because we wanted to see how far he would progress during the summer. It was more of a personal challenge for Brice and not an ego-driven Division I chase. And I respected that."
Atkinson was immediately impressed with Crook's commitment.
"He's the type of athlete that never takes a day off," Atkinson said. "It's just not in his DNA to not compete when given an opportunity."
Carter gave Crook that opportunity at the end of the Pack's open gyms late in the summer, telling Crook he could report for the first day of practice on Oct. 14.
"I remember asking the guys, 'What do you think about that kid Crook?'" Carter said. "They told me right away, 'Oh, coach, he can play. He can really shoot the ball. He competes with us.'
"So I was impressed right away. To me, that was the most important thing, how he fit in with everybody. And, believe me, if they didn't like him, they would have told me. But I didn't hear any negative things about him."
Crook knew that, as a walk-on player sitting at the end of the Pack bench, his most important responsibility was to be a great teammate.
"I think I'm here now because everyone on the team kind of liked me and they liked having me around," Crook said. "I fit in with them. I think that's what Coach Carter based his decision on."
Crook, in addition to being a very underrated athlete, has always been a great teammate, whether it was hockey in Canada and the northeast or basketball in northern Nevada.
"I've always been like that on all the teams I've played on," he said. "My teammates have liked me and I've liked being around them. I think I've fit in real well on all my teams."
His role with the Pack, though, is more than just being everyone's buddy. He still had to prove that he could play. The left wing, after all, still had to transform back into a shooting guard in one magical summer.
"When we started his strongest skill was his conditioning, his toughness and his shooting ability," Atkinson said.
Atkinson remembered Crook's toughness and competitiveness from 2007.
"He had a full-court sprint and a dive for the basketball to save a loose ball in the (regional title game) against Douglas," Atkinson said. "Ever since that play, when I ran into him around town, even before we started training together, I reminded him that he was a state champion because of his willingness to give himself up for the team. I knew he would bring that willingness to compete and that desire to Nevada."
Crook comes by his toughness and competitiveness, as well as his athletic ability and never-say-die desire to pursue his dreams, honestly. His father Ray and grandfather Rusty are legendary northern Nevada prep athletes.
Rusty Crook was an outstanding skier and track athlete for Reno High, the University of Denver and Nevada and was a long-time coach in northern Nevada. Ray Crook was one of the greatest high school track athletes in Nevada prep history at Wooster High in the 1970s.
He was the first Nevada high school athlete to ever clear 16 feet in the pole vault, doing it in March 1977 at the Washoe Relays.
"He's not just a young kid doing it without work," Wooster High track coach Phil Person told the Reno Gazette-Journal in 1977. "He's the last to leave practice every night, night after night."
Person was talking about Ray Crook. He could just as easily have been talking about Ray Crook's son Brice 35 years later.
Carter sees that legendary Crook toughness and competitiveness almost everyday in practice.
"We tease him a lot about his hockey days," Carter said. "We'll run a play and Brice is out there banging into guys like he's still playing hockey. We tell him, 'Hey, this isn't hockey. You can't just run and knock guys down.' But he's out there practicing hard everyday and he helps make everyone better."
In an earlier interview with the Gazette-Journal in 1975, Person said one other revealing thing about Ray Crook.
"You don't tell Ray he can't do anything," Person said.
Again, he could have said the same about Brice. He is, don't forget, playing for the Wolf Pack basketball team after four years of playing hockey.
Crook has played in five of the Pack's 19 games this year for a total of nine minutes. He has made one 3-pointer (out of two attempts) and has two rebounds and three total points.
Now, nine minutes over 19 games might not sound like much. But those nine minutes are why Crook worked so hard this summer trying to do the impossible.
"My job is to just be a role player and I thoroughly enjoy my role," Crook said. "My job is to encourage my teammates and give them support."
"And he can play," Carter said. "I know when I do put him out there he's not going to hurt the team."
Crook's improbable and unlikely journey the past eight years has him right where he wanted to be all along.
"This is the only team I would try to walk-on with," he said. "I wouldn't walk-on anywhere else. It means a lot for me to be able to play with this team. It's special to me."